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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.

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