Early Saturday morning I observed a twitter exchange between several journalists and an academic on the matter of North Korea. In the midst of Britain’s Brexit turmoil, BBC journalist Laura Bicker had tweeted that a colleague had met with a North Korean economist in Pyongyang who reportedly said “so sorry about what’s happening in your country”. The fact that a North Korean had offered so candid remarks on Britain’s situation came as a shock and surprise to the analytical community, which resulted in the exchange above.
As noted, the two parties seem to seize upon the implicit assumption that because the man in question was a North Korean, seemingly is unable to offer a legitimate or sincere perspective on Britain, simply because by default North Korea’s political and economic situation is not as good as the UK’s. In essence, nothing the North Korean man says on the matter should be taken seriously, because how we “understand” the country ultimately concludes that he has no place to do so.
The exchange marks a common trend in North Korean analysis which concerns a de-facto “dehumanizing” of the people’s perspectives themselves, simply because they may offer views, opinions or insights which challenge with our “truthful” view of the world. Those not familiar with sociology and anthropology, and thus the nature of how humans, perceive and construct their world, are most liable to making this mistake.
Ultimately, the problem lies with liberal universalist ontology. The legacy of such political thought, evolving from Christianity, assumes that there is one undisputable, unchallengeable and universal way to interpret all things and through “rationalism” each human being will inevitably arrive at the same conclusion. Thus, in analysis of North Korea, these assumptions are applied. We assume that all North Koreans must naturally and logically see North Korea “how we see it”, they must know North Korea how “we know it” and thus forth.
Whilst I appreciate there are realities about North Korea’s political and economic life which of course give us valid reasons to understand that it is of course, undesirable in many ways. Nevertheless, this kind of ideological thinking continues to neglect the human element. We are often as to how socio-economic circumstances, human identity and relationships, feelings and other contextual phenomena have a profound influence on how humans think and act in relation to their environment.
On that note, many people have a hard time ultimately recognizing that North Koreans may perceive their country in ways which do not always coincide with our views, and seemingly we are intolerant to it too. From my own experiences with North Korean people I find that whilst they are quite aware of the poor socio-economic reality their country experiences and the lack of opportunities owing to political restrictions, they nevertheless understand it and treat it in a benign and sometimes even positive way which we would find incomprehensible.
Why so? We interpret North Korea through the shock and horror stories in the media, notions such as human rights abuses, totalitarianism, missiles and bombs dominate our perceptions, for us it is different, terrifying, disturbing, but for the North Koreans themselves? Not so. Because it is home, it is life, it is their country, the mindset is different. They grow up with it, they identify it, they understand it and seemingly, are confined to tolerating it. The experiences for many are not always simplified to starvation or oppression, but simply a “banal” life as how we feel about it every day. As a North Korean, despite the broad penetration of the state into every realm, your life is more than just worrying about politics- you are nor a robot but nor are you obsessed with overthrowing Kim Jong un- because you are ultimately human.
Given this, I have seen how the banality of every day life in North Korea plays out. I have seen North Koreans enjoying sports, such as football, skateboarding, volleyball. I have seen North Koreans chatting on the streets like any country in the world, eating in restaurants, children playing together, men sitting having a drink and laughing amongst each other, people getting married. All of these things will preoccupy the minds and thinking of the locals beyond politics, even if it is drummed into them.
In summary, there is a “normal” side to the country and to the thinking of its people, which is so readily overlooked and so readily dismissed, even to the point we assume a benign opinion about something like Brexit is to be treat with suspicion or contempt. Never forget that the study of North Korea is a complex initiative and is not reducible to miniature cliques about the country’s politics based on a specified, political focused view.