Anti-North Korea? No, we're pro
By Aidan Foster-Carter
"You work on North Korea? How do you get your information?" It's a frequent question, and a fair one. The answer has changed a lot over the years.
With difficulty, used to be the answer. Or more literally: By descending a narrow winding staircase into the basement - or was it the mezzanine floor, inserted so as to use every inch of space? - at the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds, where I taught for many years.
That was where they kept great piles of the BBC Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB). The Beeb, besides being a broadcaster itself, also has an arm called BBC Monitoring. Its remit, as the
name implies, is to listen to other broadcasters and publish highlights of what they say. Before the Internet, this meant about half a dozen different multi-page paper bulletins, each covering a different region of the world and all of them published daily. Great piles indeed.
Back in the day, this was how you found out what North Korea was saying - or what others, such as the Chinese, were saying about them. Some lucky folks in Caversham near Reading, west of London, where BBC Monitoring is based, were employed to listen to North Korean radio and watch their TV, decide which bits were important, translate it, and publish the transcripts.
Not many, though. The Americans were doing the same thing, so the Brits and Yanks took in each others' laundry. In Cold War days, Caversham's antennae were mostly tuned to a nearer east: the then USSR and eastern Europe. Whereas most monitoring of DPRK media was done where you'd expect, near the source: in Seoul, by the US military. (South Korea of course did and does the same. Not being privy to secrets, I don't know the precise division of labor.)
Data collected by the US went into their Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS, now called the Open Source Center). Leeds didn't get FBIS - too expensive - so I only rarely saw it. Much longer than SWB, this contained some fascinating stuff: articles from North Korea's economic journal Kyongje Yongu, obscure provincial reports and so on. It also translated the South Korean vernacular press, which SWB rarely if ever did. (Note that the B for broadcast was becoming extended to include print journalism, so this was all-round media coverage.)
That was then. So last century. Today, all this and far more is available to anyone anywhere - except in North Korea, of course - at the click of a mouse, without getting out of your chair.
A totally different world? Not quite. The DPRK still tries to keep almost everything secret, so finding out what goes on there remains a challenge. But for the regime this is a losing battle. I mean, Google Earth at NKEconwatch offers a bird's eye view of everything. From the Kims' opulent palaces to the grim gulags where the innocent languish and perish, it's all there to see.
Yet pictures can only tell you so much. We still need words, not least for parsing the pictures. Here too there is now a wealth of resources. Websites such as NKNews, NKLeadershipwatch and NKEconwatch make it their business to keep track of everything. They do a great job.
So does a different kind of site. There are several now, mostly in Seoul, which get their data from the horse's mouth. With great difficulty and risk, they contact ordinary North Koreans - by phone using Chinese mobile networks, or just over the border, or by other, secret means - to get behind the official propaganda and find out what is actually going on at the grass roots.
In an article a couple of years ago at Asia Times Online (Doves who'd shoot the messenger", April 19, 2011), I listed several such outfits. Also, as my title implies, I weighed into a polemic. Not to repeat this here (please read or reread it) but critics had suggested these people had an agenda and shouldn't be trusted. I begged to differ, finding their main aim laudable: to seek out North Korea's truths, and make them known.
That certainly applies in spades to the one I find most useful. Reading DailyNK, as I do pretty much every day, I wonder how did I ever manage without it. There is just so much there: not only about immediate issues, but background as well. Just to give a few examples of many.
Is North Korea reforming its economy? Hard to say, but DailyNK's sidebar on the so-called June 28 economic policy offers the best collection of articles I know, regularly updated, on the murky territory of what is or isn't actually happening on the ground in field and factory.
Whatever is going on, it helps to have some history. Another sidebar, "16 Years in North Korea", leads to a series chronicling the adventures (or misadventures) of Kim Chan-ku. A US-Korean businessman fired more by patriotism than profit, Kim wanted to help the North prosper and Korea reunify. He invested in the DPRK, which relentlessly messed him about. After 16 years he eventually gave up. It's a sorry tale; some could do with better editing. But the insights based on Kim's personal experience into how the system works - or doesn't - are very valuable. An article title such as "A Year in Waiting for Steel Plates" tells its own story.
In a different vein, the late party secretary Hwang Jang-yop remains the most senior defector ever from North Korea. Another sidebar leads to no fewer than 46 installments of his memoirs. Even that only goes up to 1973, and Hwang didn't do his famous runner to the South Korean embassy in Beijing until 1997; so maybe there is more as yet untranslated (he died in 2010). Hwang, whom I met once, did have axes to grind, but he also had a unique vantage point.
Anyone working on North Korea can only be grateful that we have this resource. Until now, I hadn't thought too much about how they make ends meet. Currently they have a campaign to raise funds; details are at the site. I made a modest donation; it seems the least one can do.
Sadly, though, the polemics won't go away. Even people who may not mean to can put their foot in it. On July 30, the Korea Times in Seoul ran a feature on DailyNK and its fund-raising efforts, but under a peculiar headline that brought me up short: "Anti-NK portal reaches out to foreigners".
Anti? Who is anti? Anti whom or what exactly? The piece itself calls DailyNK "an online news outlet specializing in North Korean issues". That's more like it, so what's with the anti?
This annoying trope is all too common. It happens to me too, so it touches a nerve. That Aidan FC, he's just anti-North Korea, isn't he? Absolutely not. Three points. First, I have no a priori views or prejudices. Any view I have of the DPRK is only reached after carefully examining all the evidence I can find. If and when the facts change, then I shall gladly change my mind.
Granted, study of the facts leads me to criticize the DPRK's current rulers. But it is they, not I nor the DailyNK, who should be tagged as anti-North Korea. Who is it that impoverishes and oppresses North Korea's long suffering citizens? I have many sins, but this is not one of them. I am for North Korea, for its people, and for their right to a better life. So is the DailyNK.
There's a word for this error: reification. It means making a thing out of someone/something, or freezing it in a rigid way. As a figure of speech, I think this is also a case of synecdoche - or do I mean metonymy? Always get those two muddled up. Enough long words. Either way, what is going on is that North Korea or NK are being used as shorthand for the DPRK regime.
This happens all the time, but it's so wrong. If someone were against the late Lady Thatcher - me, for instance - does that make them anti-British? Of course not. Ditto with North Korea.
But back to the DailyNK, and one last sidebar. Click on NK People Speak 2011, and you'll find a dozen interviews with an assortment of North Koreans who were visiting China. Most are not defectors; at least one is firmly pro-regime. Each describes his or her life, the sector where each works, and current trends in the economy, politics, and society. Though not a large or random sample, the composite picture painted is convincing and vivid. Just ordinary folk, doing their best to get by in an impossible situation.
The world needs to know them. To stick the label "anti-NK" on those care so much for North Korea, and who shed such light on it, is simply wrong. Wrong word, wrong overtones. We are not anti. It is we who are truly pro-NK.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has followed North Korean affairs for 45 years.
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