Apropos of Otto Warmbier
When I give presentations on North Korean ideology it’s always the softliners or apologists who chuckle at my slides of wall posters, as if to say: How foolish to pay attention to that stuff! Come Q & A time, one of them can be counted on to pipe up with something like, “That’s just propaganda, the higher-ups don’t believe it themselves,” or “I meet with top officials in Pyongyang all the time, and believe me, they want to work with us.”
Many of the most egregious apologists make a point of mocking the excesses of the North’s official culture. I have encountered two so far — one in print, one in the flesh — who have talked of the uncontrollable laughing fit they suffered while touring a site sacred to the personality cult. They seem to think this proves that their critical faculty is as developed as anyone else’s.
It does not. On the contrary: To be an apologist for North Korea, you have to treat its ideology as a bit of a joke. If you take the personality cult seriously, you cannot fail to see the impossibility of the North’s ever reconciling itself to a South that ignores it. And if you take the bellicose, racist and sexist propaganda seriously, you cannot at the same time reassure yourself that this is a communist or “reactive” or “survivalist” state; or that it is arming out of mere fear of the US; or that it will behave if we only appease it enough.
Least of all can you take its ideology seriously and still believe that by traveling to the country, you are helping to subvert the locals’ worldview. To grasp the official culture is to understand how perfectly the humble, wreath-laying foreigner fits into it.
All agencies operating tours in North Korea preach an extremely apologetic line in regard to the country, both on their websites and during the tours themselves. Whether they really believe it or only pretend to do so is beside the point.
Naturally they want their charges to show proper respect for the personality cult, if only in public. What they laugh off is what Jacques Ellul called agitation propaganda: the kind that vilifies Americans as a degenerate, vicious race, say, or that promises “final victory” (unification) in the near future. One tour operator tried to tell me — on a visit to Seoul — that anti-Americanism is not much of a force in North Korean culture!
Now, it is certainly not as relentless as the we-love-our-state integration propaganda, but it does not need to be, human nature being what it is. The brevity of the “Two-Minute Hate” shows how well Orwell understood man’s need for an enemy. In any case, the most bloodthirsty North Korean propaganda is kept out of sight and earshot of tourists, for obvious reasons.
An operator of another tour agency, as I know from his former charges, likes to dismiss my talk of North Korea’s racism on the grounds that one or two of the American soldiers who fled there have locally born wives. Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that these really are ethnic Korean women of respectable sŏngbun. The Third Reich refrained from breaking up or interning hundreds of “inter-racial” couples, the diarist Victor Klemperer and his wife — he a Jew, she an “Aryan” — being only the most famous example. I could adduce comparable trivia from apartheid South Africa; for example, Taiwanese enjoyed honorary Caucasian status. None of this even lends nuance to the racist big picture, let alone contradicts it. Far-right states tend to be less thorough or systematic than far-left ones, although even the latter have their vagaries.
I cannot in good conscience call for a ban on American travel to North Korea, having gone there three times myself. But tour operators should tell young people the truth up front, before they have paid for anything, that this is a far-right regime, the race-based ideology of which is to be taken very seriously indeed; and that it cuts Americans a little slack only if they behave like tributaries. Tourists must always remember that an American caught breaking the law in North Korea is punished for something greater than the infraction itself. He is punished for having entered the country on false pretenses, in the guise of a racially anomalous pilgrim, only to reveal himself as an all too typical Yankee, another “two-legged jackal” intent on harming the race.