Apropos of Otto Warmbier — B.R. Myers (Updated 23 July 2017)

Local conservatives (under parasol to the left) set up a tent and flags on June 29, 2017 in front of Busan Station, in memory of Otto Warmbier. Photo (by B.R. Myers) taken on July 13, 2017.

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-Minutes 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.

UPDATE (23 July 2017):

The Trump administration is reportedly getting ready to impose a ban on tourism to North Korea. The organizations that sell trips to the country are naturally opposed to any such measure.

Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours defends North Korea tourism in the Korea Herald with the usual “subversive engagement” logic:

Washington’s move, he said, was self-defeating. As well as the potential ramifications for North Koreans who earn their living from tourism, he said, it would “completely eliminate any human interaction between United States citizens and North Korean citizens”.

Pyongyang’s state propaganda about the US was “100 percent negative”, he said, but contacts between tourists and locals “work against the idea that foreigners are some kind of monolithic evil force out to undermine the North Koreans”.

That this is nonsense should be apparent even to someone who knows nothing of North Korean propaganda. As Otto Warmbier found out, the Kim Jong Un regime doesn’t mess around. If it really were intent on persuading its subjects to hate and fear every single American, it would hardly allow Koryo Tours to subvert that message every week. Still less would Cockerell be foolhardy enough to draw outside media attention to that subversion.

It’s funny, because various little birdies have told me how strongly the operators of these tours reject my view of the country as a far-right, racist state. I can’t say I’m surprised. Working with a far-left dictatorship counts as engagement, while working with a far-right one is collaboration. Who wouldn’t rather be Elton in the USSR than Freddie Mercury at Sun City? Yet here Cockerell goes even further than I do, and claims that the regime is 100% monolithic in presenting all Americans as an evil threat.

In fact (as I indicated in my original post) the character of the penitent, tributary or bedazzled American visitor — the Yankee who knows his racial place — is a common figure in official narratives, much as propaganda in apartheid South Africa made sure to show good, scraping kaffirs every now and then.

If Cockerell hasn’t read any of the novels about recent history that the regime has put out (which feature quite a few exemplarily submissive US diplomats and military officers), he must still have spent more hours visiting official sites and listening to guides and minders than most other foreigners have. Am I to believe that in all that time, he didn’t hear Jimmy Carter and Billy Graham described benignly? Did he happen to miss the “Gifts from America” section in the Friendship Museum?

Please. It’s precisely because Cockerell knows that US tourists help bolster the propaganda — and knows that the regime knows it too — that he feels so free to tell the press otherwise.