I would tell you where exactly in Seoul I was, but one can never be exactly sure where in Seoul one is. The buildings and streets, save a few dongs (boroughs), all look the same. Stale, uninspired buildings tower above street-level coffee shops and GS-25 convenience stores. McDonald’s here, bbq there. I climb out of a subway exit and try to get my bearings. Fail. After 3 phone calls, I finally arrive. A western bar with tables on the sidewalk so we can drink Cass outside on a warm summer night.
The conversation turned, as it occasionally does in Korea, to North Korea (NK). My friend had recently visited (NK occasionally opens for guided tours, even for Americans). The propaganda videos were the most interesting part of his trip. He found the hyperbole hilarious. Capitalism was always portrayed as a “monster, with an insatiable appetite. It consumes everything it sets its sights on.” As we sat at that sidewalk table, I looked up at the prison like wall of skyscrapers encircling us for miles in every direction and quipped, “not sure how far off the mark they are with that.” He gave a wry smile, more bewilderment than amusement. His sights were set on a US diplomatic post of some sort and he likely hadn’t heard many people defend the hermit kingdom before.
It’s one of the ironies of western fascination with propaganda that western people rarely give it its due when it comes from their media, their leaders. South Korea is every bit the master of disinformation. Koreans themselves seem more or less indifferent to it, but the ex-pats here eat it up. Stories likely originating from the NIS (Korea’s CIA which when originally conceived, was actually called the K-CIA), pour forth on a regular basis. Some nefarious, most bizarre. Pretty SOP for disinformation campaigns, Hitler has syphilis type intrigue. Did you hear that Kim Jong Un fed his uncle to the dogs? Or that all males must have the same haircut? Or that state TV claimed North Korea won the World Cup? Or that his girlfriend was executed for making a porn? Or that Olympic athletes are punished for poor performance? Or that Kim Jong Un himself was killed in a coup? Or that they hacked a number of South Korean banks? That these are proven untrue time and again, doesn’t dissuade people in the least from believing the next story.
Now NK may not, or may not, have hacked some corporate emails of Sony. Whether you believe this to be true probably hews pretty close to whether you believe a country that uses farm tractors to pull fake Buk missiles in a military parade is actually capable of making a nuke:
Myself? I have doubts. Nuclear weapons are incredibly resource intensive to produce and maintain. You can’t just store them on the shelf next to your AK-47s and barely-functional taepodong missiles. There are only 8 countries with nuclear weapons. Pakistan is the second poorest country on the list with a nuke, and their economy is 20x larger than North Korea’s. To give you an idea of how impoverished NK is, Apple grosses more money in a single quarter selling iPads alone than the entire yearly output of NK. Slave labor does have its advantages for both Apple and NK, but only if you can “bring it to market” as they say.
Now you may be saying, what kind of logic is that? Whether or not NK has nukes has little to do with whether they hacked Sony. Well, yes. And, no. The point is is that everything you hear about NK is bullshit. It’s so bad that in 2011 Vice sent a team to do a story on the vast forced labor camps in Siberia, but couldn’t actually find them anywhere. Most of the story is them just drinking Vodka on the train. They do find a couple poor North Korean guys cutting timber (which all ends up in England btw) who tell them over a beer, that, “well yeah, conditions in NK are bad. But it’s because of a 50 year economic blockade on our country.” Who are the real propaganda victims here, fellas? The sadist administrators in charge of the camp eventually make an appearance to shoo the cameras away and actually come across as reasonable and almost pleasant, more embarrassed than fearful of a camera seeing how they live.
To be sure, I’m not saying NK isn’t an evil country, they’re a modern state–of course they are evil. But they are far from uniquely evil as always portrayed. It’s also worth remembering that NK is only a “threat” today because G.W.Bush needed a third leg for his “tripod of evil.” In 2000, Kim Jong Il actually visited Seoul and the two countries were beginning to normalize relations. Economic trade between the two steadily increased until 2008. It stalled, perhaps coincidentally, after the passage and gradual implementation of the 2007 US-Korean FTA. Yes, the Kims have and do operate awful prison camps but I’ve yet to see evidence that they’ve constructed an entire scheme of imprisonment and torture that caters more to their leaders particular sexual peccadillos than any utilitarian purpose.