Monday, January 19, 2004

The Great North Korean Famine, by Andrew Natsios (Part II)

Last time around, we just started to cover Chapter 3, "The Hidden Famine." Quick recap:

Chapter 3, "The Hidden Famine," begins this way (pp. 37-38):

Two North Koreas exist side by side. The first is the North Korea of Pyongyang-- of gay parades with colorful marxist banners, and of bright, well-fed, and smiling children of the political elite, dressed in clean uniforms and attending well-appointed cadre schools. It is the North Korea of grand boulevards, massive palaces, and mausoleums-- glistening monuments to Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader. It is the North Korea of model collective farms, model hospitals, and model schools. This country does exist-- for the party elites, the cadres, and the military leadership, most of whom live in Pyongyang.

The illusory North Korea of Pyongyang is maintained at high cost: it is purged annually of sick, deformed, and handicapped people as well as of those who have misbehaved. Pyongyang receives a much higher grain ration, and residency is regarded as a great reward for good behavior and faithfulness. ...[A] 1988 human rights report by Asian Watch reported that the capital's dwarfs and other visibly disabled people were periodically rounded up and exiled to a remote city in the Northeast. [...]

The other North Korea is where all these people live in exile, to protect Pyongyang's glistening facade of marxist paradise. It is a North Korea of abandoned factories gutted of machinery to be sold in China for food, of detention camps for displaced people, of deserted schools, and of cannibalized apartment complexes. It is a North Korea with gangs of filthy, malnourished orphans abandoned on city streets, wandering beggars stealing food from the burgeoning farmers markets, and train stations clogged with dying people desperately trying to force themselves on decrepit, overcrowded trains in hopes of escaping to China. It is the hidden face of the famine: tragically real but well hidden from outsiders.

Kim Jong Il gave a speech in 1996 that Natsios takes to be an admission about the extent of the famine. The speech expresses a grave security concern and provides clues as to why NK would want to cover up the problem: a show of weakness might tempt the US or SK to attack.

[...and continuing now...]

This chapter also examines NK's juchae (self-reliance) ideology and points out where it dovetails and diverges from marxist ideology. Marxism, contends Natsios, is antinationalist at heart, whereas juchae springs from ultranationalist sentiment. And where marxism is atheistic, juchae subscribes to a "Kimist" cosmology (my term, not Natsios's). Natsios looks at juchae ideology's radical hierarchicalism and concludes (pp. 41-42),

Juchae reflects the deep Confucian roots of Korean culture more than Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

I'll stop the summary here to comment a bit on this, because others have talked about it as well-- this idea that the two Koreas really aren't that culturally different, even now. I disagree, and I think I have Confucianistic grounds on which to do so, speaking not only as a beginning student of Korean culture and religion, but as someone who's grown up in a (half-)Korean household. My disagreement revolves around the issue of family.

First, a nod to Kevin at IA's remark in his recent post:

Right, because we all know that Korean parents love their children sooooo much more than whitey does. That's been scientifically proven numerous times.

Point taken: when Koreans (or Asians in general) talk about "family values" as a huge subset of "Asian values," it can be offensive to the extent it seems to be implying that those cold, monstrous Westerners routinely eat their own children.

I'd nevertheless submit that, at least in terms of outward expression, Asians do tend to think more in terms of family than in terms of individuality. But consider how I mean this, because it's not necessarily complimentary: an Asian's self-understanding is a function of relationships-first-- i.e., it's not an individual-first way of viewing the world. Whereas an American would have, on the whole, an easier time saying, "Well, Mom, I'm leaving med school to try my hand at acting," the potential for freakery in a Korean family is ten times higher because a child's achievement is viewed as an integral part of what the family is. Ignoring parental expectations-- or hearing parents who say, "Do whatever you want in life"-- is not nearly as common in Asian families as in Western ones. This is what I think is meant by family-orientation in Asian society. Again, this isn't good or bad: it's just the way things are.

If you're a Westerner, you'll probably find Korean familial relationships suffocating: very little privacy, constant nagging, not nearly as much say in your own destiny. Korean children (in Korea, not the US) don't usually have that Grand Teenage Moment where they stand up to their parents and loudly declare, "It's my life!" I've done this, you see, and know firsthand how deeply it wounds a Korean mother's heart.

Koreans sometimes view American families as almost inhumanly businesslike: for example, it's unthinkable that children should have to earn their own money for college. The thought horrified my mother, who never understood how American parents could possibly throw their children out into the cold, cruel world without any tangible sign of parental care (and as a result, I was spoiled during my undergrad career).

Obviously, I'm speaking in gross generalities; there are plenty of Koreans who think more like Americans do, and plenty of Americans who'd disown their children (or at least stop funding them) if they dropped med school to become actors. My point, though, is that there remains overall a more acute family-orientation in Confucian societies, determining not only one's sense of who one is, but very likely one's future.

This has direct bearing, I think, on the question of Confucianism in North Korean society. Natsios makes an effort throughout his book to highlight examples of NK Confucianism, from the way parents will sacrifice their food rations for children, to the question of where and how burials should occur-- a lot of which was painful reading for me.

But I think what Natsios is missing is that North Korea's Kimist ideology-- no, religion-- is best viewed as an ugly perversion of Confucianism, and quite likely a destruction of it: a cosmology that turns so absolutely around the Kim dynasty, encourages paranoia, and almost completely submerges the significance of nuclear family-- the heart of the Confucian ethos-- cannot, to my mind, be considered truly Confucian. I tend to think that North Korean society, far more than South Korean, has radically departed from the more wholesome aspects of Confucianism.

I also think the role of communist ideology in North Korean society can't be ignored. My friend Thomas St. John, who visited North Korea as part of a tour group in the summer of 2002, wrote a series of articles (the links to them now appear to be dead; I just tried them) about his experience in Pyongyang. The articles appeared in the Korea Times (where Tom continues to be a contributing writer, by the way); one in the series was titled "You're the Man!," which details an incident in which a North Korean (guide?) did something helpful for Tom. Tom, by way of thanks, told this person, "You're the man!" Honestly curious, the North Korean wanted to know exactly what that expression meant, and it was explained that "You're the man!" meant something like, "You're the best!" The North Korean became angry and retorted (if I remember correctly), "I am nothing! I am no one!" As Tom and his group puzzled over this, they concluded the man was showing his communist conditioning: to be raised above others, to be made an object of attention or special praise, was not desirable. No one is better than anyone else. Everyone is equal, and no one strays from that equality.

Assuming Tom's experience can be extrapolated to the larger society, I think it's safe to say that communism has done an effective job of squelching, in many respects, the Confucian notion of hierarchy.

Together, these two ideas-- that Confucianism in NK has been horribly (maybe even irreparably) perverted by Kimist cosmology, and that communism has effectively steamrollered Confucian hierarchicalism-- lead me to conclude that NK society probably isn't Confucian in anything but the remotest sense. This is one reason why I remain deeply suspicious of South (and North) Korean "one people" rhetoric. South and North may have been "one people" once, but I don't feel they are any longer. Perhaps, one day, they will be again. Who knows.

Back to Natsios...

On p.42, Natsios notes

[The] food aid program was an ideological scandal for the North Koreans...

Obviously, it made a mockery of the juchae (self-reliance) ideology, and thus constituted a loss of face.

Page 42:

Asians instinctively abhor "losing face" in front of other people or other countries. Five decades of totalitarian rule had not changed North Koreans' abhorrence of public embarrassment; in fact, it had exacerbated it. The photographs of their starving children and emaciated elderly people on television screens across the world made the North Korean elite cower with social embarrassment or become infuriated that their enemies, the donor governments, were holding them up to international ridicule. When I have spoken publicly about the severity of the famine, even without the use of photographs or videotapes, North Korean diplomats have asked me to stop talking so negatively about their country. They say I ought to find something complimentary to tell the world. Though some have reacted with anger or resentment, many have asked more in an embarrassed or hurt tone of voice that I be more sympathetic to their country's hurt pride.

Chapter 3 continues with an explanation of the historical context of NK isolationism, seen as a function of longstanding Korean isolationism, and public control, seen as a product of two major factors: (1) a holdover from the Japanese occupation, in which the Korean police inherited their techniques from the Japanese police, and (2) the Soviet ethos of the KGB.

We'll move on to Chapter 4 in a bit. Time for a rest. By the way, the book has eleven chapters, so this might take a while.


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