North Korea Reader’s Digest: Behind The Bastards

Hey all! Unexpected update to break us from our regularly scheduled North Korea analysis, but Behind The Bastards did an episode on Kim Jong-un in two parts last week. Now, I’ve never talked about BTB on the blog before, but if you’ve spent more than an hour in my company in the last year, I probably told you to listen to it. The host, Robert Evans, does some pretty heavy research into one of the world’s monsters and tells the story of that monster to a comedian coming in cold. It’s information heavy comedy for those with a strong stomach and I strongly recommend it.

So, how about that Kim episode? Well, there was definitely some stuff I learned, but there were also things where I thought dots weren’t connected or detail wasn’t really examined. Bastards focuses really on the bastard of the week, while North Korea Digest is interested in the day to day life of North Koreans more than anything else, so they look at different aspects of the same story. So, what I thought I’d do would be to talk about what I learned and what I can add from my own knowledge.

The foundation of knowledge in this is comforting – he takes the Kim family seriously throughout, not as the jokes they’re commonly seen as and knows details like SK’s history of dictators (maybe he’ll do the Park Chung-hee episode I’m fucking gagging for someday) and that, pre- Park I, it seemed more likely to a lot of observers that South Korea would choose to defect for a richer life in the North.

There’s only one moment in the podcast I found egregiously naive and mis-informed and I think I’m going to get it out of the way good ‘n’ early. Evans talks about how farmers now get to keep 30-60% of their harvests, because that’s in the government policy. Which is, of course, why you never encounter stories of people starving in the country’s food producing regions because their entire harvest was seized. Fucking hell. Evans and I both live in countries where discrimination based on race, gender and sexuality is illegal, which is why there is, in practice, also total equality. The lack of critical thought on that was astounding.

That’s the outright negative part done. I also picked up some nifty information, largely about the first two Kims. The story of Cho Man-sik, for instance, who was the first choice to rule NK instead of the first Kim, but wanted NK to be its own nation, not a Soviet puppet state. He died in a Russian gulag. That the KCNA, (NK State Media) would refer to Kim Jong-il as “the party centre” during his ascendancy to avoid calling him by name and that the East German envoy to Pyongyang reported party members secretly swearing fealty to the son in case something should happen to the father are the two star details here.

Interestingly, a lot of the time that I learned something new, I found myself wishing the dots had been connected with something I already knew. I didn’t know that the first Kim started the Korean War to solidify his (at the time) tenuous grip on power, but that fits a satisfying pattern when considered with the way both of his sons had to start their reigns with mass culling and displays of internal and external strength. With the sons, it’s a Confuscianism thing – the veneration of age and experience, which both sons lacked. It’s not the same reason with Original Flavour Kim, but the pattern fits, which I thought was … cool? What’s the right adjective for appreciating the symmetry in lots of death?

The needing to show strength also feeds into the execution of the uncle. Evans is right to dismiss the more vulgar methods rumoured, mentioning that they first came from the Chinese equivalent to The Onion and were reported as fact in the west, which was a neat little detail to learn. But, missing the detail that Kim had the theme park his uncle used to take him to as a child destroyed, the sense that the Uncle was killed just to prove to other higher ups that he was willing to do it is never evinced. There’s a story in the episode from a Vice editor who got drunk with KJU in which Kim comes across extremely lonely. Like I’ve said, I tend to be watchful of the situation for the people more than for the leader, but I think that an interesting possible narrative around Kim Jong-un is one of him being trapped in his position with no way out and it was disappointing to not hear this considered.

In terms of the stories that come out of North Korea, Evans finds a fascinating tale of mis-information. Coming from Pastor Foley and I was going to share my complicated feelings on Pastor Foley in a parenthetical sentence, but it ran on for ages so let’s just get some shit off my chest in a fucking paragraph:

So, Pastor Foley. Missionary working in South Korea who does some meaningful work with North Korean defectors who make it to the South. So, that’s good, as is the fact that he spreads meaningful information on his blog about North Korea. But that and his charitable organisation Voices Of The Martyrs make it seem like the issue is that North Korea persecutes and kills Christians. That’s his focus within North Korea and it kinda sidelines all the others killed and persecuted against. He also wrote this piece about Yemeni refugees where he calls for treating them with love, humanity and hospitality, even though they’re dangerous, maybe terrorists and definitely agents of Satan by virtue of being Muslim. Again, he’s calling to treat them well, but again, he’s calling them all dangerous agents of Satan. Kinda sums up my complicated feelings on Foley.

So, Foley has a story on there that Evans cites, which I’m hoping will be included in the footnotes on the episode, when that page goes up. In it, Foley speaks with another missionary who has worked directly inside NK with a human rights organisation. A North Korean woman who worked with the organisation was killed under suspicions of being turned into a spy/corrupted by the westerners. The missionary Foley’s speaking to says that “the American media want stories about people being killed for giving out Bibles, so that’s what I’ll say happened”. The guy wanted to hurt NK over the killing of a woman he knew and knew that the truth wouldn’t make the news, so he didn’t give the truth. Interesting story.

On the interesting news stories side, there’s different slants on the absurd news that came out of NK during the 90s and 2000s, the stuff that made for articles like Six Reasons North Korea is the World’s Funniest Evil Dictatorship, which were definitely my starting point for interest in North Korea, and which nows reads awful to me after a half-decade of general reading and a year of serious research on the country. Anyway, his take is that a lot of these are desperate acts, and they definitely are. But, before they had nukes as a deterrant, they made the rest of the world think they were a funny country, not a horrifying one. For the west, at least, they played on people’s inherent racism, their desire to laugh at the funny, stupid different people. Never any pressure from here to find a way to solve the problem because people thought of them as jokes, if they thought of them at all.

A nation sustained by racism. That’s how we’re leaving this week. More North Korea stuff next week, with our previously scheduled look at October 2017!

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