Monday, December 14, 2015

Reading around the world: North Korea

In the great amount of spare time Fulbright grants me I've decided to embark on a project I've wanted to do for a long time: reading a book every week about a country I know nothing about. Despite a life and education that could easily be described as 'global' much of the world remains a blank for me. Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan. Mauritania. Uruguay. Gabon. Lithuania. Aside from perhaps vaguely gesturing the right direction on a map, I can tell you nothing about these countries. I don't know what language they speak, what food they eat, what form of government they have, what name they use for God. And yet they have histories and cultures as rich and deep as the places I know about intimately – though once upon a time Rwanda meant as little to me as Suriname. This part of learning – the growth of the rich multiplicity of meanings that Rwanda now holds for me – is my favorite. So in these months I am filling in my map. Shedding a little light on the places in the world yet dark to me. 

I won't just read – I will attempt to engage a little more fully by listening to music, catching up on recent news, and sometimes even cooking food from each country as I go. I will share my armchair journey around the world, as well as my physical one through Sri Lanka, on this blog, for anyone interested. If you know of any good books about obscure countries please tell me!

First Stop: North Korea
Book: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

This country is a little more in the news than I would ordinarily like for this project, but my understanding of it falls so woefully short I thought it would be a good place to start. The need for deeper understanding really hit home as I searched for pictures and videos to include in this blog. Most media available on the internet really focuses on the freak show aspect of North Korea – surreal photos of Kim Jung Un with celebrities or babies, or inanely smiling soldiers in impossibly tight formations. What I loved about 'Nothing to Envy' was Demick's commitment to portraying the agency of the North Korean people. She began her book with a vignette about how young couples take advantage of the lack of electricity to sneak into the night together unseen – how technological deprivation can become a gift. And ultimately that is what the book is about: people who triumph against insurmountable odds, not a country of sheeple obediently starving and working themselves to death.

This aspect of North Korea does still baffle me. I am a scholar of evil. I have lived in the wake of war and genocide in 3 countries now, and I have begun to understand the forces and power that may shape a good human into a murderer – how hatred can be sown and reaped for the gain of the powerful. But the powerful in North Korean do not primarily keep their place through hate – they have built a dictatorship on love. Even after 2 million died of starvation in the 1990s. Even when there was no medicine at the hospitals. Even now, when a zipper seems like a magical object. Even the radicals of their society, the free thinkers who later defected cried themselves sick at the death of Kim Il-Sung. People comfort themselves with the belief that they are better off than any other country while they starve to death. Truly the banality of evil – a mother watching her child fade away and yet unable to question the system that is killing him.

Some North Korean Pop music - yes it does exist. 

I marveled at this, and then I considered my participation in the system that I was born in. I too, am part of a system of death. There is horror that generates my comfort. Child slave labor to keep my clothes and baubles cheep. The end of local industry and dignity in the global south as their livelihoods are taken by multinationals. The endemic rape and murder of the Democratic Republic of the Congo over minerals so that I can have a smartphone. In almost anything I purchase I am a tacit participant in evil. While ours keeps our bellies full, we too, are sacrificing ourselves to ideology. Ours is not the quick death of starvation or illness but an apocalypse of our making. Not just ourselves but our whole world may be sacrificed before our greatest God – consumption. Our greed is heating the planet to inhabitability - but we can't stop. Even after the Paris accords we have no plan to keep our world from heating beyond our capacity to withstand. 

I see the system I am in, and I can name it and critique it unlike so many North Koreans. But this an immense privilege – I see this because not only have I had the chance to go outside the world I was raised in, but I have been taught again and again to be constantly wary of the little acts of careless evil around me. Were I raised by MTV and sustained by flipping burgers I have no illusions that I would be challenging the system that kept me that way. In this light, the few hundred North Koreans that risk everything they have, and everyone they love, to slip across the border each year seem far more incredible than their compatriots, starving for the love of their leader.

For more on North Korea: