Tuesday 3 September 2013

Tiki tours and useful idiots

Back during the Cold War, Western intellectuals were given guided tours of the Soviet Block and sent home to heap praise on the wonders achieved by Stalin. They were collectively called "useful idiots": too dumb to see through the Potemkin villages raised, but useful for internal and external state propaganda.

Last week, Liberty Scott started posting and tweeting on Gareth Morgan's motorcycle tour of North and South Korea. He pointed to numerous instances of Morgan's appearance being used in North Korean state media helping to legitimise the regime.

When I visited the DMZ on a USO tour back in 2007, we were given really strict instructions by the American military. Do not smile at the other side. Do not point. Do not do anything that the North Korean agents on the other side could photograph and print in their newspapers as "Westerner points to the Glorious North, admiring the wonders of Juche." I'm not generally all that keen on "do as I say" regs, but these ones made a lot of sense. One of the world's most evil regimes was staring back - literally, guys with binoculars and big-lens cameras - and I was publicity-shy.

But maybe playing the regime-supporting shill while there was needed so that he could have some chance at seeing what was going on.

Matt Nolan at TVHE yesterday pointed to Gareth Morgan's comments on his tour. Morgan wrote:
Having passed successfully through the demilitarised zone Gareth explains to the world’s media why the West’s “beat-up” view of North Korea is completely wrong.
Gareth and Jo and their group were free to set their own route through North Korea, witnessing at first hand the lives of ordinary North Koreans.
What they found surprised them – a people who were poor, yes, but wonderfully engaged, well-dressed, fully employed and well informed. In Gareth’s view, what North Korea has achieved economically despite its lack of access to international money has been magnificent.
He and Jo support active steps towards providing greater opportunities for ordinary Koreans from North and South to interact together – a goal of leaders from both North and South Korea. Hopefully, with enormous interest from the world media, this trip will be the catalyst for such a change.
Unbelievable. I'd thought that he was going to come out claiming that starvation works wonders on reducing feral cat numbers; this is worse.

Maybe there was some case for the tour somehow facilitating better North-South talks. Unlikely, but not impossible. But that the West has a "beat-up" view of North Korea? They have freaking concentration camps! Morgan's next tour could perhaps hit a few of those off-piste highlights. Morgan found the North Koreans with whom he spoke wonderfully well-informed; it's problematic even asking what that means in a place where preference-falsification is a necessary survival characteristic. As Xavier Marquez wrote:
There is a terrific story in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (pp. 97-101), which illustrates both how such control mechanisms can work regardless of belief and the degradation they inflict on people. The story is about a relatively privileged student, “Jun-sang,” at the time of the death of Kim Il-sung (North Korea’s “eternal president”). The death is announced, and Jun-sang finds that he cannot cry; he feels nothing for Kim Il-Sung. Yet, surrounded by his sobbing classmates, he suddenly realizes that “his entire future depended on his ability to cry: not just his career and his membership in the Workers’ Party, his very survival was at stake. It was a matter of life and death” (p. 98). So he forces himself to cry. And it gets worse: “What had started as a spontaneous outpouring of grief became a patriotic obligation … The inmiban [a neighbourhood committee] kept track of how often people went to the statue to show their respect. Everybody was being watched. They not only scrutinized actions, but facial expressions and tone of voice, gauging them for sincerity” (p. 101). The point of the story is not that nobody experienced any genuine grief at the death of Kim Il-sung (we cannot tell if Jun-sang’s feelings were common, or unusual) but that the expression of genuine grief was beside the point; all must give credible signals of grief or be considered suspect, and differences in these signals could be used to gauge the level of support (especially important at a time of leadership transition; Kim Il-sung had just died, and other people could have tried to take advantage of the opportunity if they had perceived any signals of wavering support from the population; note then the mobilization of the inmiban to monitor these signals). Moreover, the cult of personality induces a large degree of self-monitoring; there is no need to expend too many resources if others can be counted to note insufficiently credible signals of support and bring them to the attention of the authorities.
Even if Morgan was away from his handlers, everyone is a handler. That's the point of a totalitarian regime. Any disclosure can get you and your family sent to a concentration camp because somebody else will have purchased an indulgence by dobbing you in. And the safest course is making yourself believe the things you have to say.

Compare Gareth Morgan's visit with a couple other recent Western visits. Here's Neil Woodburn's travelogue. Here's what Curtis Melvin did while visiting North Korea, and subsequently. Melvin's mapping project would let Gareth Morgan check to see which prison camps he missed along his tour. Liberty Scott's update has some useful recommended readings as well.

1 comment:

  1. Gareth Morgan certainly did his credibility no favours with that nonsence.