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Why do U.S. Conservatives and Progressives Share a Hatred of North Korea?
[Analysis] In U.S. society the 'North Korean threat' has become 'common sense'
Kang In Kyu (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-09-26 15:18 (KST)   
Korea, above all, demonstrates the danger of moralizing foreign policy. Once you have declared a regime "evil" -- as Bush famously did in his condemnation of North Korea, Iraq and Iran as an "Axis of Evil" -- how then do you negotiate with it? -- David Ignatius, Washington Post, July 3, 2001

How the United States Sees North Korea

A screenshot of the CIA information page on North Korea. U.S. understanding of North Korea is based more on biased and emotional judgments than objective information.
©2004 CIA
Despite various good points we cannot ignore, the United States is a society in need of enlightenment in several ways. The rashness of first thinking that people in turbans and beards are terrorists, the simple mindedness of conceptualizing the world into a Christian "civilization" and non-Christian "anti-civilization," and the dichotomy of regarding nations that are ideologically different from the United States as "evil," are examples of this.

The Bush administration's "clear" system of thought that regards terrorism against the United States as a "provocation brought about by the forces of violence and hate in response to the spread of freedom and democracy" or the spread of anti-Americanism around the globe as "jealousy of American prosperity" is well known. The fortunate thing though, is that not all political forces and members of the public agree with this judgment.

Still, it goes without saying that there is one common target of bias and hostility shared by both conservatives and progressives in the United States. That's North Korea. From "evil" all the way to "crazy bastards," they're called by several names, but most Americans share the opinion that North Korea is an "abnormal group that cannot be trusted."

There are several reasons for this. More distantly, North Korea is a nation that started off from a different ideological point, and it's a nation with which the United States directly fought with weapons of war. More recently, it is a nation that has been challenging U.S. prestige at every occasion. The thing that makes North Korea the most hated nation by the United States, however, is not ideological differences or the unfortunate past, but the fact that North Korea is challenging current U.S. interests.

"Blowback," a bestseller by Chalmers Johnson
©2004 Henry Holt
We can easily see this with nations that once enjoyed close relations with the United States like Cuba, Iran and Iraq, who went on to be "evil empires" once they started challenging the U.S. line. The shared opinion among experts is that U.S. hostility toward North Korea is not simply on an emotional dimension. East Asia specialist Chalmers Johnson, who was once the head of the University of California at Berkley's political science department, said:

"The Americans are behaving in a truly surly manner... What they desperately dislike is that peace has broken out in East Asia."

The United States isn't "evil" of course and it's hard to believe it enjoys war more than peace. If this is the case, why is it afraid of peace in East Asia? The U.S. progressive journal "The Progressive" suggests that it's because peace on the Korean Peninsula would negate the need for missile defense (MD) and result in sweeping cuts in the budget of the U.S. Department of Defense. It's precisely this point that perplexes the United States:

The problem is that peace in Korea upsets the Pentagon's applecart. For years, North Korea has been the Pentagon's dream come true, a perfect bogeyman to drum up support for obscene defense spending. Tiny, impoverished, technologically backward North Korea was built up into a threat so insidious it could be used to justify the additional $60 billion the Pentagon plans to spend on a National Missile Defense (NMD) shield over the next fifteen years. -- Bill Mesler, "Why the Pentagon Hates Peace in Korea," The Progressive, Sept. 2000

This is a photo of the U.S. edition of Time Magazine when the 2000 inter-Korean summit was held. As the cover story on "Reality TV" revealed, U.S. society was uniquely uninterested in the summit.
©2004 Time
According to Mesler, the U.S. administration at the time of the 2000 inter-Korean summit did not approve of Kim Dae Jung's visit to North Korea, nor did it welcome it, as it was afraid that the summit would damage the image of North Korea it had systematically built up as a "devil." Even though the United States sent a formal congratulatory message, when the entire world welcomed that marvelous event, the U.S. administration was upset, said Mesler, depicting the situation at the time.

If Mesler's claims are correct, the role of North Korea as an "Axis of Evil" is one desired by the U.S. Department of Defense, while at the same time the product of a strategy in which the United States has systematically built up North Korea's image. This project of "making devils" has been very successful, and most Americans have come to understand that North Korea is a threat that could directly harm them. The result is that it's not difficult to hear even progressives say, "North Korea should have been hit before Iraq."

Conservatives, progressives all hate North Korea

Early this year, I got the opportunity by chance to participate in a workshop for U.S. progressive intellectuals. It was a substantive and edifying event that covered everything from international politics to cultural analysis. And I had quite a surprising experience participating in one of the events.

We were dealing with the problems of advertising images as conveyed by the media, and the presenter showed superior analytical skills in various ways. He said that while fixed ideas concerning race have all but disappeared from U.S. advertising, the conservatism of making women objects of ridicule hadn't changed much. The male scholar, who sharply pointed out how behind the smiles of "humor advertising" was adroitly placed violence against women, raised his voice and said:

"Ladies and gentlemen, in which age are we living? Is this North Korea?"

I took a look around me. With the exception of myself, everyone was smiling. At that point, I realized that presenter had made a joke. Borrowing the presenter's insight, behind the laughter, one could dimly make out Americans' understanding of North Korea.


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Laughter is always based on common sense. I don't think the presenter or participants had a systemic knowledge of the human rights problems in North Korea. Perhaps all they knew was the starvation and defector issues that are always in the papers, or the missile tests or uranium enrichment suspicions they saw on television, or what they saw in some James Bond film.

That everyone in the room responded with laughter to a joke-out-of-nowhere like "Is this North Korea?" means that that among them, there was an extreme amount of rational and subconscious agreement. I was quite disappointed. Weren't these progressive intellectuals who were not supposed to close their eyes to the flaws of their own government simply because it was their "fatherland?"

Unfortunately, there aren't many Americans with a progressivism that moves past the established understanding of the North Korea issue. Even scholars who know quite a lot about Korean issues are no different. Of the words that Americans often use when they mention North Korea, one is "psycho." When they use that word, they sometimes smile in an attempt to earn my agreement.

Even if they do not designate North Korea as "evil" like conservative U.S. politicians, it seems Americans generally agree with the understanding that North Korea is not a rational partner for dialogue. When you see the other side as a "mental patient" with whom dialogue and compromise is impossible, and you consider that "patient" to be dangerous, there is only one solution, which is to drop bombs on his head. This is the danger in the "common sense" attitude with which Americans look at North Korea.

North Korea, the globally understood villain

The popular U.S. film "007: Die Another Day" depicted the "realistic" North Korean threat.
©2004 MGM
A few years ago, when the action movie "007: Die Another Day," which made North Korea the enemy, was released, the response from Korean filmgoers was mixed. By making the Korean Peninsula a theater of war, some viewers could feel a sense of crisis, while others complained that it described South Korea like it was some "developing country in Southeast Asia." (There were many who criticized both those who ignore the dignity of each nation's culture and the "developed nation mentality" that divides the world into "developed" and "developing" nations based on coarse economic logic).

American viewers hardly made the movie an object of debate at all. The only object of their concern was whether the film was a "good movie" that was sufficiently entertaining. They didn't find the film's premise that North Korea was threatening U.S. security unreasonable at all.

The common judgment by Americans was that the introduction of the film, too, in which the hero is mercilessly tortured, might have been quite probable when you think about the "cruelty of the North Korean system." Speaking about the North Korean government's torture scene, film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times said on November 22, 2002:

"The film opens with an unusual touch: The villains are not fantastical fictions, but real. The North Koreans have joined the Nazis as reliable villains."

This is not to claim that there's a causal relationship in which a film inevitably leads to war, or that Hollywood has conspired with the U.S. Department of Defense and the military-industrial complex in constructing a war scenario. All I wish to say here is that in U.S. society, the "North Korean threat" has taken the position of "common sense."

When we consider how a popular movie conveys its message based on a particular society's common sense, the appearance of North Korea in Hollywood suggests quite a few things. There might be those who say that a "movie is just a movie," but believability is one of the most important factors in a film, regardless of genre. Could one imagine a movie that featured Fiji or Bhutan as the "enemy of the United States?"

A new movie is opening in October. Entitled, "Team America: World Police," it's a stop-motion animated film created by Trey Parker's team, the same one that brought us "South Park." As you well know, "South Park" lampooned and ridiculed the general contradictions of U.S. society, from racism to its obsessions with sex.

"South Park," which enraged U.S. conservatives, could be seen as a "progressive" movie in several respects. Still, there was at least one element in the film that could bring the most radical of progressives and most extreme of conservatives together. That was way Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was depicted.

A scene from the U.S. animated film "Team America: World Police," which opens in October. The film depicts North Korea as the "main enemy."
©2004 Paramount
"Team America," which lampoons how the United States has assumed for itself the role of policing the world, might bring complaints from U.S. conservatives, but not on all accounts. That's because of Bush's "Axis of Evil," and how the film depicts North Korea in particular as the main enemy.

The film might give U.S. viewers the opportunity to rethink the U.S. role in international society, but as the film doesn't stimulate a new understanding of North Korea, it is not entirely "progressive." To the contrary, in this regard, it could be seen as a conservative movie that strengthens set ideas about North Korea.

South Korea's hatred of North Korea

So what are we supposed to do? Like the "realists" claim, must we simply accept our fate as given to us by the United States, a superpower that we cannot boldly disobey? And is there but one end in that unchangeable "fate" given us by the dangerous U.S. understanding of North Korea?

At this point, we should know that the "fate" in question was to a large extent cultivated with Koreans' own hands. South Koreans have a tendency to excessively trust the U.S. intelligence system. They often look toward the U.S. government and media and say, "They already know everything."

As we can see from distorted U.S. information about North Korea and frequent U.S. media misreports, the Americans don't know everything; on the contrary, much of their understanding of North Korea is dependent on South Korean intelligence. The clearest example of this is the North Korean human rights issue, which has recently become the sharpest issue. The following is one example of a U.S. media report on North Korea's abuse of its citizens.

"Amid all the talk of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, it is worth remembering the conventional means by which the North Korean communist regime brutalizes its own population. Two hundred thousand political prisoners languish in North Korean camps, where they labor from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m., when they break for ideological indoctrination sessions." -- Editorial, New York Sun, January 3, 2003

This could be nothing other than horrible news. The New York Sun editorial minutely described the inhumane outrages of the North Korean regime, and concluded that they revealed the "cruelty of the North Korean regime" and called for the U.S. government to take a more hard-line approach to North Korea. Where did the newspaper get its information about North Korea's abuse of its citizens? The editorial very explicitly revealed the sources of its information:

"So reports Chosun Ilbo, the South Korean newspaper that maintains an excellent English-language Web site. In 1987 at Concentration Camp No. 12 at Onsong, North Hamgyong Province, more than 5,000 prisoners were killed in a 1987 massacre. The camp has since been closed. Two North Koreans who escaped to the South, Ahn Myong-cho and Mun Hyon-il, told Chosun Ilbo of the atrocity last month. The massacre occurred, the defectors said, when a political prisoner working as a coal miner turned on a State Security guard in protest against excessive torture. Hundreds of camp inmates joined a rebellion. Then, as Chosun Ilbo tells it, the guards of Concentration Camp No. 12, "reinforced by the guards and equipment of a nearby concentration camp and armed with machine guns, encircled the camp, fired at rioters at random, and eradicated all the 5,000 rioters, according to the sources. With the riot suppressed, rioters' bodies were either burned, or buried in groups in the nearby hills."

This might be true. But as the "rusty water torture" piece and others show, defector testimony can have its veracity doubted by other defectors. The U.S. media, not understanding the reporters' inclination or the reports' contexts, simply quote them because these Korean media reports reinforce the image of North Korea that is already stuck in the minds of the U.S. public and U.S. politicians.

Even more frightening is that, as Mesler pointed out, the U.S. administration is prepared to take these "foreign press reports" supplied from South Korea and use them for particular purposes. And it's not hard to find instances when the U.S. media has been totally dependent on certain South Korean media for its reporting of North Korea.

I'm not claiming that South Korea should be silent about North Korea's wrongdoings. I'm saying we should let flow as much objective and diverse information about North Korea as possible. If we do not discard the viewpoint that North Korea is the "crystallization of evil," then it will not be possible to understand it objectively. If something itself is evil, how could we discover in it anything but evil?

It is also worth taking into account South Korea's emotional baggage concerning North Korea. This is because with the tragic scars and tears still flowing in the living victims, it's hard to extend the leniency of objectivity. The thing that's clear is that hatred doesn't help solve problems. Only by opening eyes blinded with fury can we avoid more scars and tears.

I am not saying this will be easy. Moreover, if you consider the reality in which we live together with people who have an interest in amplifying that hatred, getting a chance to view the "object of that hatred" anew would be even more difficult. We must no longer leave our fate, however, to another country's government and certain media companies that run "outstanding English language sites."

In a democratic society, anyone can enjoy the "freedom to hate." One should rethink, however, whether or not that hatred is aimed at one's own throat.
Do you think the "North Korea Human Rights Act" will harm stability in the region?  (2004-10-02 ~ 2004-12-24)
Yes, the U.S. is attempting to overthrow a sovereign nation's government.
No, alleviating the suffering of millions is the primary objective.
Inkyu Kang is a Ph.D. candidate in Media Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
©2004 OhmyNews

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