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Archive for the month “June, 2012”

North Korea is Best Korea

Today the Guardian published an article on Comment is Free from a football journalist. Mr Watson, author of the hilariously titled “Up Pohnpei” (yes, I know) wrote an article about the nasty media representation of the DPRK.

Mr Watson’s article begins with the tale of Ro Su Hui:-

Earlier this month a shocking scene played out at Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.

Ro Su-hui, the South Korean vice-chairman of the Reunification of the Fatherland Union, was returning from North Korea where he had paid his respects at ceremonies to mark the 100th day since the death of leader Kim Jong-Il. Before re-crossing the border to the South, he declared “Hurrah for the unification of the two Koreas!” to a cheering crowd and was presented with flowers by his hosts.

But as the grinning 69-year-old crossed the border, he received very different treatment by the South Korean border security. The watching North Koreans howled in horror as Ro Su-hui was thrown to the ground and carried off in a headlock.

The arrest made a very small splash in the western media, which comes as little surprise because a story with a warm North and a cold South is doesn’t square easily with the message that has been delivered by media outlets in Europe and the US for the last two decades.

Of course, the truth of the situation is a little more complex than that. Firstly, North Korea and the South are still, technically, at war. A ceasefire has been in place since the Korean War ended, but this is not an armistice, and it is not peace. Secondly, Mr Su Hui crossed the border to the North illegally, and spent his time there calling for the reunification of the two countries under North Korean leadership. Thirdly, it is illegal to advocate communism in the South (not something I defend, but Mr Su Hui was not unaware of this law, and would have been aware a previous activist suffered the same fate three years ago).

So, we’ve already got several elidings of the truth here, at the start of a piece that purports to tell the truth. A cursory examination of YouTube videos of the event uploaded by DRPK supporters show that – far from being thrown to the ground, and then carried away in a headlock – Mr Sui Hui resisted arrest, which lead to him falling to the floor, and was then carried away because he continued to struggle. Whilst the police action was no doubt excessive, the picture painted is slightly different.

So two countries are technically at war, and a citizen of the South enters the North illegally, publically supports the the regime of the North, and then, when re-entering the country, resists arrest. Meanwhile, a stage managed crowd back in the totalitarian North which has previously been lustily cheering as though – ahem – their life depended on it, now howl in dismay.

Doesn’t read quite so “warm” versus “cold”, does it?

Of course, the point of the opening paragraph was a rhetorical trick. I’ve done it, we all have. I recall during the Jubilee frenzy comically turning around comparisons of North Korea and the UK. That joke became tired very quickly, as everyone jumped on it, but the point remains – to make a point, first you revert the “normal” narrative (Most web based satires tend to stick to that idea – Al Quaida warning that Students at British Universities “Could end up radical tories” was one highlight of the recent past), to show how biased you are.

Of course, it helps if you aren’t using the worst examples in the world.

The article continues:-

Reunification and conciliation are usually portrayed as South Korean concepts, while North Korea is seen as a closed state, hostile to such talk on “idealistic grounds” – a view perpetuated by media outlets’ lack of interest in all recent North Korean initiatives. In fact it is almost impossible to find any piece of positive European journalism relating to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The days of cold war pantomime journalism and great ideological battles might be over, but North Korea remains an area in which journalists have free licence for sensationalism and partiality.

This isn’t actually true. The North has been pushing reunification for many years but – as the welcome given to Mr Su Hui illustrates – reunification under their terms. Meanwhile, there have been many articles with opinion polls in the South asking what they would think of reunification. Now, can you – perhaps – suggest a reason why opinion polls on reunification are more likely to be undertaken in the liberal, democratic South, rather than the totalitarian North? Anyone? Anyone?

Mr Watson continues:-

The lack of western sources in North Korea has allowed the media to conjure up fantastic stories that enthrall readers but aren’t grounded in hard fact. No attempt is made to see both sides of the Korean conflict: it is much easier and more palatable to a western audience to pigeonhole the DPRK as a dangerous maverick state ruled by a capricious dictator and South Korea as its long-suffering, patient neighbour.

To quote the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in rejoinder to these “fantastic” stories, the DPRK is guilty of:- “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, public executions, extra judicial and arbitrary detention, the absence of due process and the rule of law, imposition of the death penalty for political reasons, the existence of a large number of prison camps and the extensive use of forced labour;

Sanctions on citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who have been repatriated from abroad, such as treating their departure as treason leading to punishments of internment, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or the death penalty;

All-pervasive and severe restrictions on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association and on access of everyone to information, and limitations imposed on every person who wishes to move freely within the country and travel abroad;

Continued violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women, in particular the trafficking of women for prostitution or forced marriage, ethnically motivated forced abortions, including by labour inducing injection or natural delivery, as well as infanticide of children of repatriated mothers, including in police detention centres and labour training camps.

In fact, just go to the Wikipedia article on “Human Rights in North Korea”, which – despite being on Wikipedia, has 104 source documents. Whereas Mr Watson’s article in the Guardian has a link to a previous article in the Guardian. That article is on the sinking of the Cheonan, which Mr Watson brings up next:-

These roles are dusted off whenever there are flare-ups, such as the Yeonpyeong Island incident of 2010 when North Korea was condemned for firing shots at South Korean military and civilians in an “unprovoked attack”. It was not widely reported that South Korea had been test firing artillery in a patch of ocean that North Korea claims ownership of or that North Korea’s repeated demands for an explanation were ignored. While military intervention may not have been wise, it was far from the random act of hostility it was made out to be.

When the South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan, sank on March 26, 2010, the South Koreans accused their neighbours of having fired a torpedo. A detailed rebuttal by North Korea’s military was disregarded by the wider world, as was the offer to aid an open investigation.

One of the South Korean investigators, Shin Sang-cheol, sacrificed his career to express his belief that the Cheonan had run aground in a tragic accident and with reports of evidence tampering circulating, even the South Korean public wasn’t widely convinced of North Korean involvement: a survey conducted in Seoul found less than 33% blamed the DPRK. Nonetheless North Korean guilt was stated as fact in the British press.

In order:-
The Yeonpyeong Island incident involved South Korean vessels in waters they too claim (and which the North Koreans only started claiming in the 1970s), firing at water. It was part of an annual exercise that had not led to trouble before. Several days beforehand, the North Koreans had revealed they had uranium enriching materials. The North Koreans retaliated by shelling villages. Four people died and 19 were injured by the North Korean actions (as opposed to…possibly some fish dying due to the South Korean exercise).

Secondly, on the Cheonan. A cursory search of articles on the incident shows they all carried the denial of the North Koreans. A cursory search of Reuters articles showed they carried the North Korean report. What Mr Watson doesn’t set out in this article is that the “South Korean” report was a 300 page Joint Civilian and Military report featuring members from the United Kingdom, Australia, America, Canada, Sweden. The expert who resigned, Shin Sang-Cheol, stated as his main reason the fact that he thought the bodies retrieved did not resemble those killed in an explosion (rather than, say, a ship sinking?). Again, his killer sceptical stat is based on opinion polls from the South. Lucky southerners, eh? Able to put their opinions across…

Mr Watson finishes with a flurry of rhetoric:-

Since the bloody coup of 1979, South Korea seems to have had journalistic carte blanche as the “lesser of two evils”. While North Korean actions are condemned and derided, very few column inches are devoted to scrutiny of South Korea’s president Lee Myung-bak and his oppressive policies.

The National Security Act, of which Ro So-hui fell foul, gives the South Korean government the right to prosecute anyone speaking in favour of North Korea or communism in general. There are frequent reports of detention without trial, human rights abuses and clampdowns on freedom of speech. Both Koreas are quite justifiably scared of the other but when South Korea flexes its military muscles, the North is expected to watch passively with any attempt to do the same reported as an act of despicable brinkmanship.

Whatever your view on the actions of North and South Korea’s governments, the hypocrisy of using one-sided journalism to label North Korea a rogue, propaganda-led state is surely self-evident and fans the fire of intolerance and animosity. The Korean divide is a complex, multi-faceted political situation. Nobody benefits from turning it into a moral melodrama and we should demand more from our supposedly impartial media.

What’s very clever here (well, mildly clever. Partially clever. Lazy rhetorical trick clever) is the way Mr Watson opens his segment with “Since the Bloody Coup”…cleverly ignoring the fact that that was 33 years ago, and South Korea has had democratic government since 1987. And whilst one can rightly point that human rights in the South need improving, one only has to compare the web record for “Human rights in South Korea” with “Human rights in North Korea” to get the point (ironically, much of the repression in South Korea appears to be around…arrests or suppression of people criticising North Korea). And whilst nobody would argue that Lee Myung-Bak is a poster boy for freedom of speech, the number of arbitrary arrests in South Korea appear to be in the region of around 100 a year. As opposed to North Korea which has an estimated 150-200,000 political prisoners…

And President Lee Myung-Bak is limited to one 5 year term which expires…this year. Unlike, say, the Supreme Leaders for life in the North.

So, yes, some more critical reporting on South Korea would be welcomed. Less of the “warm North” though, eh? Little bit…disingenous? Barking mad? Apologia for tyranny? Delete where applicable.
*Edit – I forgot to mention – “Both Koreas are justifiably scared of the other”. Because, of course, South Korea launched an unprovoked attack on the North in 1948 and poured millions of men North in an attempt to convert them to capitalism.
Only, err, they didn’t. That was the North attacking the South. SEE, WATSON? We can both do the inversion for rhetorical effect trick. Only, I did it better.


First World Problems

Donata Huggins writes a Telegraph Blog about “Life in the Westminster Village”. Whatever that means. You can find it over here :- if you are really interested. She seems a nice enough stick. So I’ll try not to be too harsh.

Anyway, this week, Donata has decided to share with us her opinions upon the rumbling ongoing scandal of Jubilee Slave Labour. In Donata’s world, we are all making a slight fuss about nothing. Here’s what she has to say on the subject:-

“In the case of the Jubilee workers, it was good experience. Sure, the “bridge incident” that left the workers sleeping outside tarnishes this claim, but in principle it offered them the chance to learn new skills at no personal cost. They were bussed to London, clothed and given training that resulted in an NVQ in crowd safety. Not to mention that many of them had a good time.

Making sure people get work experience is important. Business groups have been complaining that young people are ill-equipped for working life for years. The CBI has even launched a campaign “Making young people ready for work”  to combat this. This is particularly true for graduates: from my university cohort, those who spent their summers interning were hired after graduation; those who didn’t floundered.”

Donata, actually, may have a germ of a point somewhere in there. It’s mainly a germ of a point, though. When I graduated from University I floundered for a while, and didn’t find work. And, I admit, I hadn’t spent my summers interning. I’d spent every term working evenings, mind you, and worked before Uni. The main reason I floundered would be the main reason most people floundered – because I graduated in the teeth of a recession. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme choose, as I believe those French fellows put it.

What young Donata is doing here is, of course, buying into the myth of meritocracy. In this world, the failure to get a job in the teeth of an enormous recession was, well, my failing. But, let’s be fair to Donata – she’s a band-aid kind of Tory, rather than your open wound kind, because she accepts that this isn’t my failing entirely, but a wider social issue. The only problem is that, yet again, the wider social issue is about education and training and preparation. She’s of the school that thinks every child can succeed in life given certain tools.

There are two problems with this approach, beloved of the soft right, and the pastel pink left. The first is that it ignores the real Macro issue – the real macro issue being, there aren’t enough jobs to go around because the economy is in a recession. Every young person in the country could go out and get the best education known to man, and the most complete and rounded work experience ever seen and there would still not be enough jobs to go around. And the nature of the economy means that the work that is there to go around is transient, unskilled and badly paid. Like a few months stewarding at the Olympics, for instance, which was the gorgeous carrot being dangled for the above peons (the stick was losing benefits, as always. Plus ca…oh, I’ve said that already).

The second problem is, of course, this slightly Panglossian view of the jobs market – where if we all get the right skills, everything works out for the best, in this best of all possible worlds – is that it ignores privilege. You see, for instance, Donata and I are already using a common language about Uni. That is one level of privilege, right there. It appears not to cross Donata’s mind in the slightest that the kind of people who get dragged out of bed to sleep under a bridge before spending a day doing unskilled labour so they don’t lose their benefits and get rewarded by a – gasp – NVQ in crowd safety are generally not the sort of people who have been to, or have the opportunity to go to University. To these unfortunate proles, it isn’t a case of not getting the proper job training, but a case of there are no bloody jobs, there will be no bloody jobs, and the jobs that will finally appear for them will be as transient and unsatisfying as the British summer time.

All that said, I wouldn’t have got irate with Donata on this issue, if she hadn’t moved on to the meat of her piece. Which is a tremendous piece of Privilege Woe, or what we may dub “First World Problems”:-

“a lot of unpaid work experience harms social mobility. You only have to look at the political internships listed on the w4mp website to see this. Just ask yourself if a full-time, 12-month, unpaid, unexpensed job with John Leech MPdoes anything for social mobility? For someone to do this job, someone else – usually the intern’s parents – needs to pay for their food, rent, travel and clothes for a year. The travel alone is too expensive for a low-income family: a Tube ticket for the year costs £2,136 at the moment.

The costs of interning were far too high for a friend of mine and her family. She had to spend two years working in a shop after graduation, saving before she could afford to commute to London to work for free. As a result, she got a graduate job three years later than my middle-class friends. It took her grit and determination to do it. Queues of people told her she was setting her sights too high. I admire her for sticking with it. Especially given that many other friends gave up trying.

Two weeks ago, all three political parties were clambering over each other to talk about social mobility. Perhaps they could start by offering a fair deal to their interns.”

Again, contained within this is a germ of a fair point. The fair point being, that the political classes of the country shouldn’t be able to use graduates as slave labour. You know, I agree with you Donata. They truly shouldn’t. But the point Donata is making is that *this* is the scandal, and it harms social mobility. The fact that perhaps 600 or so posts in the country(which allow the holders to build a network of contacts and experience par excellence)  will go to applicants from backgrounds wealthy enough to subsidise them for a year after University, rather than, say, to honest, cloth capped applicants from backgrounds errr wealthy enough to go to university in the first place.

Perhaps someone should explain to Donata that social mobility doesn’t describe movements within the middle class. Maybe a start. And maybe while they are at it, they could explain to her that being used for unskilled slave labour that will lead you to a short term, lowly paid post in a service industry is perhaps slightly more demeaning than spending your time hanging around with the legislators and wonks of the world, building up a lifetime’s worth of contacts that will sustain you in a *career*, rather than in a succession of low skill, near slave labour posts. Just a suggestion.

Maybe they could change her blog description as from “inside the Westminster Bubble”, while we are at it.


Drive, and the seduction of the smooth

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” of late, at least in part because the various pieces of music from the soundtrack have insinuated into my head, to the degree that not just I have them as earworms, but anything with that slightly retro early 80s electro feel to it I hear immediately garners the response “Is that on the Drive soundtrack? it should be”.

The problem is, the more I think of the film, the more it troubles me. It isn’t merely the sudden and explosive violence that gives me problems. I’m tending to find that in the post-Tarantino universe, that’s more than par for the course. Or the quite alarmingly borderline portrayal of Jewish gangsters (suffice to say, I think Ron Perlman’s almost alien looking villain belongs in a completely different cinematic universe). It isn’t even the slightly retrograde plot of damsel in distress, needs a violent man to save her (albeit, a violent man who can smoulder in a sensitive light). Actually, what bugs me most is how seductive it is, considering both the plot and the characters are wafer thin (with the caveat that, of course, the actors generally do the best they can with such limited material). Thoughts of the film tug at my consciousness, and I feel a tremendous urge to watch it again, even though I know I mainly disliked it, or felt it a narrative failure.

The reason this disturbs is, I know entirely why I do want to watch it again. It’s down to the visual skill and the melding of image with sound. It’s down to that, and that alone. And the narrative could be as objectionable, risible or laudable as it wanted – could push nasty horrible ideals or nice, pleasant ones, and that part of my brain, the part that appreciates that visual skill, would want to see it again.

Two words: Leni Reifenstahl.

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