Monday, 31 May 2010

North Wind in the West

I sometimes think it’d make a great board game, a sort of extended Scrabble for politicos. Everyone gets a tray of words, say:

Enigmatic, isolated, madman, mystery, nuclear threat, provocation, pygmy, reclusive dictator, reclusive, regime, state terror, unprovoked

The first player to produce an accurate copy of a recent news article on the Korean peninsula would then be announced winner. This game – as well as testing your wits with combinations – would save you the bother of having to read whatever article is was you’d managed to copy that round.

Either way, you’d be unlikely to come out any more ignorant of the situation than you were when you went in. Recent events remind us yet again how uninformed most commentary on Korea is, how warped and distorted by the needs and viewpoint of the US, hardly a neutral player in the region, and by its interests.

That’s an old gripe, though, and one for which there’s no easy remedy. Amidst all the tough talk from Clinton, Obama and Hatoyama, it’s easy for small facts to get missed: the sinking of the Cheonan led to more pointless and tragic loss of life as a result of the division of the peninsula. This isn’t mysterious loss, though; it’s connected to the history of that division, and the US and its imperial interests’ role in that division. History is a submerged and denied zone in almost all commentary on Korea. As Bruce Cummings comments:

And this particular incident is just ripped out of context, the context of a continuing war that has never ended. Just an armistice holds the peace. But in the case of this particular incident, which happened very close to the North Korean border, we’ve had incidents like this, somewhat different ones, but with large loss of life, going back more than ten years. In 1999, a North Korean ship went down with thirty sailors lost and maybe seventy wounded. That’s a larger total of casualties than this one. And last November, a North Korean ship went down in flames.

I often hear journalists refer to the two Koreas as ‘technically’ still at war, as if this were a mere detail standing in the way of real life’s realities. But it’s hard to see technicalities in divided families, lost lives, and occupying forces.

So far, so familiar, though, yes? The mainstream media occludes history and narratives of power; one can always look elsewhere. What this latest episode in Korea’s long unhappiness illuminates, though, are more widespread blockages to thought. Reports from the surface and analyses of the depths throw certainties back and forth between each other, and these certainties stop more difficult questions getting asked.

Heart of Darkness on the Taedong…

Mention the term imperialism in some well-educated quarters and – even given the events of the last decade and the revival of anti-imperialist scholarship provoked by them – you’re likely to encounter rolled eyes and polite silences. What the term names, for all that, is an attempt at understanding the dynamics of this current system, its needs, where they came from, what their trajectory might be. Attending to that reality involves grappling with complexity, and real historical difficulty; substitutes for that difficulty are alternate reductionisms in the search for a regime’s ‘essence’ or the political theology of totalitarianism.

Guy Delisle’s acclaimed graphic novel Pyongyang sets itself the task of studying “one of the most secretive and mysterious nations in the world today.” Delisle spent some time in Pyongyang working for a French animation company and Pyongyang is a memoir of that time. The personal narrative is illuminating in its way, but Delisle provides his study of “the surreal showcase city” with an interpretive frame that offers pre-prepared answers to his questions:

He arrives with a copy of Orwell’s 1984 – excerpts from which provide commentary through the novel – and, in doing so, inserts his own work into that longer story of Cold War readings and (mis)uses of Orwell’s text for political purposes quite foreign to its author’s own anti-imperialist vision. Pyongyang’s North Korea, then, isn’t investigation but illustration: the ‘totalitarian’ thesis provides a ready-made vessel in which to contain the text’s narrative. The wider question – whether the story of one personal and atypical experience can take the strain of the peninsula’s historical and political complexity – is never asked, so confident is the text in its assumption (signaled by Orwell’s arrival on only the second page) that the white, Western subject’s putatively non-ideological ‘experience’ will convey the truth with which it arrived pre-prepared.

Mads Brügger’s Red Chapel, a documentary in the tradition of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, uses a similar ‘totalitarian’ frame. For Brügger the DPRK was one example among many of the species dictatorship, and his film would demonstrate its typicality. “I knew that I had to offer them comedy, because dictatorships are really bad at handling comedy,” he told an interviewer. “All dictators are basically laughable, especially Kim-Jong Il.” Not only is its leader “laughable”, its people aren’t fully human: “it’s very difficult for them to handle human emotions.” Perry Anderson’s comment that “self-satisfaction is scarcely unfamiliar in Europe” has rarely felt more pertinent.
Brügger laces his film with inanities and commonplaces (this is “the most evil regime on earth”, the “heart of darkness”) and strange historical assertion: the heart of the regime’s lie, he informs at one point, is that it claims the US started the Korean war when in fact it was itself responsible.

The audience I saw The Red Chapel with during Wellington’s International Film Festival loved it. They laughed uproariously at all the moments of absurdity, and film and audience matched each other in a perfect fit of call and response. Look for a laughable country and you’re bound to find one.

It was that laughter that’s stuck in my mind in the months since seeing Brügger’s film, and a sense that it is the connection between Delisle and Brügger’s work and the superficial mainstream media accounts they claim to go beyond. What’s remarkable about both works is that, for all their claims to unique and privileged access to Truth (“one of the few Westerners to witness…”), they both show us what is already on display. The Red Chapel’s ‘exposure’ of the Juche idea recounts what anyone who reads the North Korean press or other publications can find for themselves. And are these sights – mass rallies, eerily empty streets, propaganda posters and pollution – really able to stand in as revelations of the place’s essence? Rather, it seems to me, these are the stock images of the North, produced as much by mainstream media as, from time to time, by the DPRK itself. Without some attempt to consider how the area got into the situation it is in now – without, in other words, a project to make sense of his material – Brügger’s ‘answer’ that things are laughable can offer no more than empty gestures and shrill moralism. Besides, if that surreality is so often on display, it might be worth pondering something that never occurs to Brügger, whether there’s a logic to the material before us, reasons which might demand reflection. Against Brügger’s claim to have found the ‘laughable’ heart of the regime, consider Slavoj Zizek’s comments on the Marx Brothers’ masterpiece Duck Soup. Against readings of Duck Soup that inscribe it as ridiculing totalitarian state rituals, exposing their fear of laughter, Zizek contends:

The powerful effect of Duck Soup does not reside in its mockery of the totalitarian state’s machinery and parephenalia, but in openly displaying the madness, the ‘fun’, the cruel irony, which are already present in the totalitarian state. The Marx brothers’ ‘carnival’ is the carnival of totalitarianism itself.

The ‘secret’ or hidden story of the DPRK The Red Chapel brings back, in this logic, is the state’s very self-presentation, images anyone can find if they turn their attention that way.

History is what hurts…

None of this is to meant to lead to my own substitute single- or simple answer (there’s not one; it isn’t). Nor am I engaging in apologetics for Pyongyang. Why Brügger and Delisle’s works are missed opportunities – and, I suggest, representative missed opportunities – is because they refuse history, the historical development and context that has led to the situation of today. Hidden truths found through so-called ‘direct’ experience are a false promise, because we’re all always already interpreting that experience through our own ideological perspectives, backgrounds and political frames.

Some urgent realities are being missed, both by mainstream journalism and by artists and thinkers looking in on this world. This latest ‘incident’ did not occur outside of a context. The Korean War has not ended. US troops, bases, and machinery of occupation and militarization still structure the lived reality of the Korean peninsula. Regional interests, power struggles and rivalries still, as so often before, shape the conflicts of the area.

Colonialism, occupation, war, division, Cold War: these are ‘live’ terms. What seems bizarre or surreal from the outside is certainly unusual – often awful, often tragic – but it is never without reasons, without causes.

Learning to talk about Korea means learning to ask hard questions, and to expect harder answers. Pre-prepared answers and imagery of totalitarianism and laughable evil without context don’t help us there.


The Zizek quote is from In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008), p. 342.


  1. Really interesting post.

    It reminded me of a very smug bit in Hitchens' *Orwell's Victory*. He predicts that it will be revealed, at some point after the collapse of the current N. Korean regime, that samizdat editions of *1984* helped to sustain a band of fearless dissidents through their darkest hours, etc etc. Another metanarrative; except this one doesn't even need any historical facts to authenticate or instantiate it. We can just dust down the Iron Curtain templates. (Another function of the riddle/enigma stuff: everything's unfalsifiable, since 'the truth about North Korea' is unspeakable and we'd never believe it anyway... which Hitchens has also written about recently, come to think of it.)

    On the other hand... does knowing the full 'context' really change the political complexion of this regime?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Scott. On Hitchens being smug, I like Eagleton's line about the Oxford version of him making Uriah Heep look like Little Nell.

    As for context changing complexion, by way of dodging a full account of that particular question I'd say it's more about how it changes *our* complexion: understanding that things happen for a reason doesn't make them any better, but it does make them explicable in a way the 'totalitarian' thesis can't.

  3. Just got around to reading this Dougal and enjoyed it a lot. I've been thinking about some of this myself recently, spurred by yet another BBC report from North Korea which followed the usual script. These reports have now become utterly repetitive to a quite infuriating degree. And yet they always claim to be trying to find out what is 'really going on' in North Korea. The North Korean authorities and Euro-American media seem to be locked into this endlessly repeating, mutually reinforcing cycle.

    There have been some attempts at doing something different though. VeryMuchSo have done a decent job, I think, of trying to humanise (and to some extent historicise) North Korea with their trilogy of films, while still making something entertaining to watch (although I must admit I've only seen 1.5 of the 3). I believe they are doing a new film now, but they are always very secretive about their ongoing projects.

    On the question of whether history/context change the political complexion of the regime I would say emphatically yes. Understanding the historical origins of the DPRK, its formative years and the lineage of its ideology all help us to destroy the widely-believed myth that North Korea has something to do with socialism/communism.

    Your piece also made me think a bit about a sort of reverse question: is North Korea interested in historicising itself? To a large extent North Korea has reduced history (perhaps understandably) to a single idea: US imperialism and resistance to it. Everything else is structured (and often fantastically constructed) around this and very little is left that really gives context or explains much about Korea today, other than that one brutal fact of US imperialism and the destruction it wrought in the Korean War. Needless to say, this alone cannot explain North Korea.