Sunday, March 27, 2016

I Am Curious Juche

In the West, particularly for people with means,  adulthood often seems like a transition from guileless revolutionary, wanting to change the world, to feckless collaborator, who learns to live with it. Young people are encouraged to learn about and change the world, and part of that impulse is expressed in travel. But some don’t get the whole message.

The classic Swedish film, I Am Curious Yellow, comes to mind. The film’s protagonist, the young and earnest Lena, wants to change the world. She wants to finish the abortive legacy of her father, who went to Spain to fight fascism. She’s appalled that so many people see Franco’s Spain not as a manifest injustice, but as a cheap and pleasant vacation destination.

Last week, yet another American tourist was made into a public spectacle by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old college student from Ohio, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, apparently for stealing a poster from a hotel.

The first natural reaction to this outrage is to view Warmbier as an undeserving victim. One might wonder how he might be seen, however, had he bumbled his way into the DPRK as a Japanese citizen. At least one writer has portrayed his plight as a turnabout lesson in American racial privilege. That may well be; what is more clear is that the rise of the DPRK as a Dark Tourism destination should not necessarily have been allowed to happen, and that individuals who deign to visit the country as tourists are in fact contributing to a much larger problem.

Thousands of Western tourists visit North Korea every year. A handful of private tour operators provide access, with curated (and heavily controlled) experiences in the country. Chinese and other Asians also visit, often with more freedom, but with less media impact. Visits by high profile tourists like the basketball player Dennis Rodman, and portrayals of the DPRK in alternative media like VICE as a frozen-in-time Cold War Disneyland, may actually play more into the base interests of the Kim Regime than promote understanding.

It’s become increasingly clear that the modern DPRK is not so much an ideological redoubt, struggling to preserve its own sovereignty, but is instead a Mafia State, a kleptocracy ruled by an elite dedicated to its own preservation and enrichment at the expense of its own subjects, and with little or no regard for peaceful relations with their neighbors. In this pursuit, Hostage Diplomacy has become a common tool in the pursuit of aid dollars which are routinely misappropriated for personal profit.

The end result is that Western tourists in North Korea only serve to perpetuate an appalling lie, as they not only amplify Kim Regime propaganda, but also, if particularly unlucky, can end up serving as potential income sources for the regime. It’s a stark contrast to more positive outcomes associated with Asian traffic via the Chinese border, where DPRK citizens can leverage economic opportunity to break free of the system.

As such, given that Western tourists in North Korea seem to become assets to the Kim regime by definition, it may be best to take a lesson from the Japanese in terms of how people like Warmbier should be regarded when they get themselves in trouble. They may not be worth all that trouble.

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