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"North Korea is a not a state, it's a cult."
April 10, 2013 3:07 AM   Subscribe

A former top female North Korean spy gives an exclusive interview, saying Kim Jong-un is posturing on the world stage because he is too young and too inexperienced to gain control of the military.

She also reveals how she was groomed by the country's spy masters to plant a bomb on a South Korean passenger plane - an attack which killed 115 people in 1987.
posted by puffl (125 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
I found it amazing and inspiring that South Korea pardoned her, considering her brainwashed. Imagine if other countries that suffered devastating terrorist attacks at the hands of adherents of extremist personality cults behaved like that.
posted by Jimbob at 3:18 AM on April 10, 2013 [37 favorites]


She does have 6 bodyguards all around her. Part of me suspects that's to keep track of her as much as to protect her.
posted by jaduncan at 3:20 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I found it amazing and inspiring that South Korea pardoned her, considering her brainwashed. Imagine if other countries that suffered devastating terrorist attacks at the hands of adherents of extremist personality cults behaved like that.

They did it because she had valuable information to give to them. They didn't do it out of mercy. See also the huge numbers of Nazis put into service by the US and USSR post-WWII.
posted by empath at 3:23 AM on April 10, 2013 [18 favorites]


"I knew when an operation failed, an agent had to kill themselves. So I bit down on the cyanide ampoule. "

Christ, I didn't realise that was actually a thing.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:24 AM on April 10, 2013


She had valuable information and could also play a valuable role giving interviews like this, I think, long after her information was stale.

Not to say that she isn't a sincere defector, but I agree that there is more than mercy behind her pardon...
posted by OnceUponATime at 3:26 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd like to see the whole interview, but only the preview is available on the site, it seems.

What a strange, strange life she has led. Things like being taken on a drive through Seoul and realising that everything she's been told is a lie.
posted by Harald74 at 3:34 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wish she knew Kim Jong Un better, rather than just having informed opinions about N. Korea in general, but she was arrested when he was 4 years old.
posted by Houstonian at 3:56 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Does Kim Jong Un actually have any power? I always assumed that the Army was fully in control and he was just there to wave at crowds and look interested during factory tours.
posted by PenDevil at 4:07 AM on April 10, 2013


Interesting short book excerpt here, with a splash of Bondesque spy attitude:
In one violent outburst in Bahrain, enraged by a line of questioning about her sexual past, she felled a female interpreter with a palm-heel strike to the nose, delivered a hammer-fist punch to the groin of Henderson, and then grabbed for his pistol. She was about to shoot herself with the pistol when she was jolted by an electric stun gun. Her rage prompted Henderson to send her to Seoul. "Get her out of here. She belongs to the South Koreans now," Henderson said.
I have no idea if it's exaggerated, but this is from a memoir by a former CIA agent and diplomat, who was once ambassador to South Korea, among other offices. The story sort of explains the quasi-Silence-of-the-Lambs treatment in this image.
posted by taz at 4:16 AM on April 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


Harald74: Looks like the full interview is available to watch now.
posted by puffl at 4:20 AM on April 10, 2013


This is obviously a very serious issue. On the other hand, "hammer-fist punch to the groin of Henderson" is totally my next user name.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:24 AM on April 10, 2013 [18 favorites]


(Assuming there no perishing in a bargain-basement North Korean nuclear attack.)
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:25 AM on April 10, 2013


I'm starting to wonder if Lil' Kim seriously thinks he can win, if he's bought the propaganda.

Another thought that occurs is maybe he's about 13 years old, emotionally, and he's just raging. Problem is, most 13-year-old tantrums don't involve nukes. Even if they are crappy ones, they're still nukes.
posted by Malor at 4:37 AM on April 10, 2013


After a little more thinking, I'll amplify what I said last time. I think Kim will be out of power within two years. He's gone too far, and he can't back down without losing a great deal of face, and the only way forward from here is actually launching an attack.

If he tries that, attacking South Korea, Japan, or the US, I believe his generals will take him out, because they know that's suicide, even if he doesn't.
posted by Malor at 4:39 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Get her out of here. She belongs to the South Koreans now," Henderson said.

In a gasping, squeaky voice. Lying on the floor in the fetal position next to the unconscious female interpreter.

Damn.
posted by pracowity at 4:42 AM on April 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


Henderson is always getting the worst of it. Remember that time we sent him out for coffee and the KGB grabbed him?
posted by surplus at 5:00 AM on April 10, 2013 [13 favorites]


If he tries that, attacking South Korea, Japan, or the US, I believe his generals will take him out, because they know that's suicide, even if he doesn't.

Most of the rhetoric has come from KCNA and Rodong Sinmun, not just Kim Jong Un (even if directly from him at all). So the generals presumably already signed off on the escalating tensions.
posted by crapmatic at 5:02 AM on April 10, 2013


Not THE Ian Henderson?
posted by de at 5:04 AM on April 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm starting to wonder if Lil' Kim seriously thinks he can win, if he's bought the propaganda.

It's worth asking oneself who is telling you how serious or unserious the North Korea threat is or what we need to do about it.
posted by DU at 5:15 AM on April 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


This is not surprising. Kim Jong-un was hanging out with an Dennis Rodman a month or two ago. They were all smiles and buds.

Not doubt the NK military was looking for something a bit stronger in a leader. No wonder certain leaders are trying to play tough now.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:15 AM on April 10, 2013


They did it because she had valuable information to give to them. They didn't do it out of mercy. See also the huge numbers of Nazis put into service by the US and USSR post-WWII.

Like the ones in Operation Gladio?
posted by rough ashlar at 5:24 AM on April 10, 2013


It's worth asking oneself who is telling you how serious or unserious the North Korea threat is or what we need to do about it.

If the world is busy fretting about a nuke war (or a few nukes have went off) I'm guessing people will have higher priorities then looking at what the bankers are doing or how Cyprus is going with the hairstyling of savers.

And if more economies were to deflate and crumble - the war could be blamed VS the stupid that got the world to the point of the economies going poof!
posted by rough ashlar at 5:30 AM on April 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


Not THE Ian Henderson?

I think so. The time and place are right. Which means he well deserved the punch to the balls, regardless of anything she did.
posted by pracowity at 5:33 AM on April 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


NK isn't the only country with a propaganda machine. Remember Iraq.
posted by DU at 5:34 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not doubt the NK military was looking for something a bit stronger in a leader.

If part of your image is as a God-King and have unicorn lairs near your palace - how much 'stronger' you gotta be?

What would be the 'strength' being sought here? Do you have to put bullets in the heads of people like Stalin in the Ukraine to be seen as 'strong'? Bench press 300? If your word is already law and what you've got is what the past leader built - how much 'stronger' are you 'sposed to be?
posted by rough ashlar at 5:35 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


If part of your image is as a God-King and have unicorn lairs near your palace - how much 'stronger' you gotta be?

Strong enough to impress the generals who don't believe the bs.

Making friends with a strange looking American athlete isn't impressive.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:40 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Does Kim Jong Un actually have any power? I always assumed that the Army was fully in control and he was just there to wave at crowds and look interested during factory tours.

Thanks to the last North Korea thread, I read an interesting book on NK called Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick. It was about ordinary North Koreans, not the leadership. But it gave an interesting flavour of the intensity of the personality cult around the Kims. From the sounds of it, it was well beyond Lenin-level and closer "Ramses II, the living avatar of the sun god Ra." I think it would be very difficult for the military to get him out of the way --- the whole ideology of the state revolves around the benevolent paternalism of the Kim family itself. With the Soviets, there was at least the nod to the idea of this being a people's revolution, of their being a council of wise men at the Kremlin, some sort of parliament, for an usurper to point to and claim legitimacy from. I don't think there's such a thing in NK.

Not to say that I think the generals around him believe that Kim Jong Un is anything more than an inexperienced young man. But they may be stuck btw arock and a hard place where they cannot openly oppose him and fear the consequences of overthrowing him. Given enough time and clever back room manuvering you can work your way out of a situation like that to where other people are able to establish independent power bases and Kim Jong Un is reduced to a figurehead, but in the meantime, if he's clever, Kim Jong Un can also create a crisis which allows him to consolidate power, which we may be witnessing now.
posted by Diablevert at 5:41 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I still kinda feel that KJU is taking the Roman approach to military power struggles -- "Hey, Powerful General, you're my best pal! Awesome dude! Um, guess what? You need to go over there, yeah, way over there, and do some things that'll get you killed! What a bummer...."

I'd heard that at least one of the generals involved in shelling the island was disappeared into "retirement". Dunno if that's true, but it would make a certain amount of sense in the current set of events.
posted by aramaic at 5:53 AM on April 10, 2013


In an interview published in the Sunday Herald on 21 November 1999, a Bahraini claiming to have been tortured by Henderson described the encounter:

"My first experience of Henderson took place in 1982 when I was hanged like a chicken at the office of Adel Flaifel, one of Henderson's henchmen.

"I was hanged by my arms and legs when Henderson entered the room and said: 'Do you want to confess?'. He immediately assaulted me in an immoral way and after a while he left the room."

Hassan said he was naked at the time and Henderson beat him over the buttocks. He went on: "The encounter lasted about 10 minutes during which I was in severe pain. The three torturers - Flaifel, Abdulla Al Tanak and Abdulla Al Dowsari - stopped when he entered the room awaiting further instructions from him, but upon receiving satisfactory approval from him, they resumed their beating.
So, now again, imagine the scene where Kim knocks out the female interrogator and groin punches Henderson after questioning about her sexuality.

(the mau mau were put down with torture, mass killings and concentration camps. Henderson is a stormtrooper with a brogue, but he's our stormtrooper.)
posted by ennui.bz at 5:57 AM on April 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


Henderson is of the developed countries. Now, about this isolated "cult" that packages us as villains ...
Sorry, we Westerners are not squeaky clean. I can't buy that propaganda.
posted by de at 6:05 AM on April 10, 2013


I'm glad I'm not a U.S. or South Korean diplomat or national security official. I'm not sure how they should be responding to North Korea's threats or provocations. I'm guessing the NK regime needs some way to claim victory, but can't see how that can be given to them without endangering South Korean and Japanese civilians.
posted by Area Man at 6:12 AM on April 10, 2013


They tell me an Olive Branch goes a long way.
posted by de at 6:34 AM on April 10, 2013


Yeah, ennui.bz, I thought about that, as well. On the other hand, she was among the most visible of prisoners at that point, and not someone he could just disappear or hide away. He didn't have a free hand there, I think.

She tells the same story, it seems. I found it on this page of what is apparently the text of her book "The Tears of my Soul" (search the phrase "I was nervous about the trip in general" to get to that exact point in the story.)
posted by taz at 6:41 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not doubt the NK military was looking for something a bit stronger in a leader. No wonder certain leaders are trying to play tough now.

NK Military: Yo, Kim, where is the money? We have no gasoline for our cars. And we have no money to buy our kids the G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip!

*Places both hands on on hips*

What are you going to do about it? Asshole.

When Daddy Un was in power he flexed a bit and made a nice cash deal with Clinton: the Agreed Framework with North Korea, which provided for a nuclear-free peninsula in exchange for massive amounts of energy assistance from the United States. Hillary Clinton brokered a similar agreement in 2012 when NK made "modest first step" by agreeing to not do everything it went on to do. In fairness to the former Secretary, her failed attempt only cost the taxpayers 240.000 tons of "nutritional aid", but it gave the clear sign that Democrats will always cut a check.

And that's what the NK military wants. They want Kim to flex enough so Obama comes round with the check book and makes a decent offer for settlement.

With Mrs. Clinton out of the picture, and the square-jawed commander in chief not entirely unhappy to see some attention away from the miserable economy he can't seem to do anything about and perhaps gleeful at the prospects for a brief Falklands type of conflict that would save his legacy.... it's a tough sales job this time.
posted by three blind mice at 6:44 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


"hammer-fist punch to the groin of Henderson"

That's a famous hockey play, isn't it?
posted by msalt at 6:56 AM on April 10, 2013


The real question is, has Kim Jong-un put himself in a position where he'll be unable to back down?
posted by samsara at 7:01 AM on April 10, 2013


It's rather simple to establish personality cults because most people tend to believe they are superior for following the leader under conditions of threat and reward for blind obedience. This fake superiority is perhaps the only way for most people to deny to themselves that they are in fact dishonest and cowardly, and in most cases, intellectually bankrupt. Just look at the true believers in Ronald Reagan for a glimpse of it in a relatively resistant milieu for personality cults.
posted by Brian B. at 7:03 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


"hammer-fist punch to the groin of Henderson"

That's a famous hockey play, isn't it?


Probably. Apparently, when they first met she near bit his finger off as he grabbed at her cyanide-ciggie. In that last scene — from taz — it was probably honour among terrorists. I can't help wondering how on earth Kim Hyun-hee is alive today.
posted by de at 7:06 AM on April 10, 2013


I can't help wondering how Ian Henderson is alive today.
posted by de at 7:07 AM on April 10, 2013


As a mileu, American presidential politics seems to be designed around personality cults and false superiority.
posted by forgetful snow at 7:10 AM on April 10, 2013


sorry, the whole exchange plays like she is the hero of an action movie:
"You stayed in the same room while traveling. I suppose nothing happened between you?" Okuba asked.

"Of course not," I snapped. "He was like a father to me." "Did you stay in rooms with a double bed or twin beds?" "Twin."

"Where did you change your clothes?"

"In the bathroom."

"When you took a bath, did you lock the door?"

"Yes, dammit!"

"Have you seen Shinichi naked?"

My jaw dropped. "What?"

"For example," Okubo continued, without batting an eyelash, "did you ever notice the surgical scar on Shinichi's abdomen?"

"No, but I knew that he had had a stomach operation."

"Tell me," said Okubo, her eyes boring into me as Henderson watched, "have you had sex with other men besides Shinichi?"

I was so flabbergasted that I couldn't say anything. She took this as an admission of guilt and proceeded. "How many men have you had sex with?"

No response.

"Did you ever have an orgasm?"

No response.

"Did you ever seduce men as part of your job as a spy?" No response.

"Was Shinichi the best lay you ever had?"

"Fuck you!" I shouted at her, in English, determined to beat her at her own game. "He was an old man, for God's sake!"

"Ah!" Henderson piped in. "So you're saying that he tried but was unable to?"

I stared at him, my blood boiling. I groped for a response, but I was so enraged that I could only, between deep breaths, sputter something incoherent.

"Too bad," said Okubo. "I understand from the autopsy that he was rather well endowed."

That did it. I jumped across the table before anyone could react and dealt her a classic martial arts blow—a palm-heel strike to the nose. I heard the cartilage crack, and blood spattered everywhere. Okubo screamed, falling back onto the floor. Henderson gave a shout and tried to subdue me, pinning my arms behind my back. I stamped on his toe with my heel, which loosened his grip, and delivered a hammer-fist punch to his groin followed by an elbow-strike to the side of his head. He was momentarily staggered. At once I frisked him, determined to shoot myself then and there. But the guards were already rushing at me from the doorway. I had just closed my hand around Henderson's pistol when I was pulled away from Henderson and seized in a headlock.

"Don't shoot her!" Henderson gasped. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, sagging against the wall, bent double. "That's what she wants! We need her alive!"

I knew my way out of a headlock. I chopped at my captor's groin, and simultaneously, as he released me, I used my other hand to reach up and grip his hair, pulling his head back viciously for a lethal blow to the neck. I drew my hand back for a knife-hand chop and at that moment was jolted as if by a stroke of lightning. I crumpled to the floor immediately, my whole body numb. I landed on my side, and looked up to see a second guard looming over me holding an electric stun gun. Before I could move, the third guard had cuffed my hands behind my back. I was helpless.'

Henderson pushed himself to his feet. His face was flushed, his breathing heavy. He stared down at me with an expression of dazed loathing. "That's it, Mayumi," he rasped. "You've had your chance." He turned away, speaking to someone whom I couldn't see. "Get her out of here. She belongs to the South Koreans now."
posted by ennui.bz at 7:14 AM on April 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


I've heard the comparison of NK to a cult from NK refugees, and from everything I've read, it seems exactly right. A lot of the attempts to talk about NK in terms of game theory, or what's in its interests, seem very disconnected from the reality of the country, which is small enough that it can operate with the methods and emotional tenor of the Branch Davidians.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:23 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


The existing North Korean thread has some great articles that were just posted earlier today that provide some good context and analysis of the crisis.

I'm not sure why we need an extra thread, when the other one was so good.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:25 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


rough ashlar: "Like the ones in Operation Gladio?"

Thanks, Holly Hindsight.
posted by boo_radley at 8:17 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't now be the time to employ The Bush Doctrine?
posted by Flashman at 8:27 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Things I gathered from the Common Sense podcast on this the other day*:

1. The North Korean military is extraordinarily weak. It is probably most comparable to Iraq's military in the first Gulf War, but worse. Their tanks and aircraft are from the '50s. They have no fuel for them. Crucially, nobody has any combat experience, like, at all. They've barely been able to run maneuvers. And they are starving.

2. The South Korean military is very strong. In the previous thread somebody said something about how NK gets all the attention with stuff like this, stealing the spotlight away from what absolutely incredible strides SK has made in the past 75 years. The U.S. has given SK a ton of military aid, and their forces are well-fed, well-practiced, well-fueled, and have state-of-the-art equipment. If SK were to launch an offensive into NK, they would still probably have the advantage.

3. South Korea went through its growing pains recently enough to remember them. This might seem besides the point, but if there is any happy ending here at all, DPRK is going to have to go through some major changes. There are still immediate family members separated by the DMZ, and South Korea still remembers the tough times in living memory, and also that they were very worthwhile in the long run. As unlikely as reunification is, this is what could make it possible and successful.

4. North Korea does this all the time. Pretty obvious, really, but this shakedown is how they survive in even their super-meager fashion. They have to step it up every time or people stop paying attention, and KJU hasn't proven himself able to do the shakedown yet. Thus, this is likely a move, by KJU, broadcast more for internal purposes than external. He's trying to do the shakedown, get the aid, but mostly so that he can prove to the top brass that he is capable of it, and stop the coups that are almost certainly in the works right now.

5. Lest we forget, people are starving. We're worried about nukes, and that makes sense, but there's no one unstable person with his hand on the button there most likely, and all of the top brass have to understand that a nuke would be the one punch they got in a fight before being utterly obliterated if they were to use it. On the other hand, a similar level of tragic devastation is currently happening there to a citizenry who doesn't deserve it, and our thoughts on this issue should include concern for their well-being.


*Protip - skip the annoying intro clip
posted by Navelgazer at 8:53 AM on April 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


Thanks to a previous MeFi discussion I just started reading The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, an analysis of modern North Korean propaganda. This part from the preface seems particularly relevant now:
For example, where the DPRK presents itself to the outside world as a misunderstood country seeking integration into the international community, it presents itself to its own citizens as a rogue state that breaks agreements with impunity, dictates conditions to groveling U.N. officials, and keeps its enemies in constant fear of ballistic retribution.
posted by Nelson at 8:59 AM on April 10, 2013


I'm depressed to read a weird sort of leftist absolutism here on MeFi. There's an argument because the Bush Administration lied its way into a war with Iraq, all this negative news about North Korea is clearly some sort of lie to create a false war. But that argument is the most simple sort of fallacy. North Korea really is a nuclear state, really is a totalitarian government, and really has starved its citizens through incompetence and malice. And it really is threatening to nuke the US and South Korea, right now. Fortunately the Obama administration seems to be doing everything it can to ignore this latest provocation, to not use it as an excuse for military action.
posted by Nelson at 9:00 AM on April 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


"hammer-fist punch to the groin of Henderson"

That's a famous hockey play, isn't it?


My vote's on lost Butthole Surfers album
posted by pullayup at 9:29 AM on April 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


It seems to me like a totally false dichotomy and pretty myopic to speak as though a nation is either a state or a cult... I mean, up until fairly recently just about every state in the world was at least nominally ruled by a monarch or an equivalent figure who was supposed to possess some divine mandate if not a claim to divinity itself.

And in some respects the more modern Western polities are somewhat more like cults in some respects than the autocratic nations of the present and past. Can't find the source at the moment but I remember a quote from some Soviet or ex-Soviet citizen that said something like, "In the U.S.S.R at least we know that our leaders are lying to us all the time." For example the cheerleading and apparently blind devotion to the Bush administration's objectives from both public and private sources in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq do not exactly dissuade me from likening the U.S. to a cult: is it more cult-like for people who should know better to march in line with the leader's whims in North Korea out of fear, or to enthusiastically support the goals of the rulers of a democracy of their own accord?

(On preview, I might be a leftist absolutist for voicing the above opinion ;^) But I'm not saying that North Korea isn't really bad in all sorts of ways, just that rule by force and even things like widespread ignorance of the broader world aren't what typifies or defines a cult to me... some of the Scientologists I've met, for example, seemed quite well-educated and articulate.)
posted by XMLicious at 9:36 AM on April 10, 2013


The US is not a cult in a very important way: we don't venerate our leaders. And despite the insane rush to war against Iraq in 2003 there really was public dissidence, quite widely spread, it was just shouted down by the right wing. We failed as a nation then but it was a failure of democracy, not totalitarianism.
posted by Nelson at 9:50 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Nelson: "The US is not a cult in a very important way: we don't venerate our leaders"

Really? Because it sure seems that none of the electorate understands the role of the Presidency that's outlined in the constitution. The guy can barely tie his own shoes without first asking Congress for permission. The head of one third of the federal government gets about 95% of the attention.
posted by schmod at 9:56 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


de: Henderson is of the developed countries. Now, about this isolated "cult" that packages us as villains ...
Sorry, we Westerners are not squeaky clean. I can't buy that propaganda.
I'm not clear on who the "us" are that are being "packaged as villains", but no one in this entire thread has suggested Westerners are squeaky clean.

That windmill way over there looks pretty ominous; why don't you suit up and take it on?
posted by IAmBroom at 10:09 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well congress can't tie their own shoes at all, so it's not so much a wonder that nobody really cares for the legislature.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:12 AM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I find the situation in North Korea interesting, but I also wonder about how much extra insight someone is really bringing to this who's been out of there since 1987. I mean, she's clearly got a lot of insight on the country as a whole, I just wonder if she really knows anything more about Kim Jong-un's motivations than the analysts who're already talking about it. This seems like an interesting story, but also a little opportunistic.

I dislike how often Kim Jong-un is painted as a child: I keep hearing the word "boy" used for him, and he's nearly thirty by even the younger estimates. He's a grown man. Failure to be an elder statesman does not make you an infant. But that said, he wasn't even on the radar when she left the country--he was, what, five, at the oldest estimate?

This seems nearly the equivalent to if the DPRK used James Dresnok as an analyst of goings-on in the United States. Yeah, he's from here, but he hasn't lived in the US since the 1960s. A few things have changed, in the meantime. 1987 is more recent than that, but still--quite a while.
posted by Sequence at 10:15 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am not claiming that the US is a totalitarian state - just that Reagan is not the only case of a Presidential personality cult, and that most presidents rely on or attempt to manufacture that dynamic, either in campaign or in office. Anyway, sorry, derail.
posted by forgetful snow at 10:19 AM on April 10, 2013


XMLicious: It seems to me like a totally false dichotomy and pretty myopic to speak as though a nation is either a state or a cult...
No one is making this argument. Straw man.
And in some respects the more modern Western polities are somewhat more like cults in some respects than the autocratic nations of the present and past. ... is it more cult-like for people who should know better to march in line with the leader's whims in North Korea out of fear, or to enthusiastically support the goals of the rulers of a democracy of their own accord?
Western politics openly embrace nonviolent exchange of ideas, and open refutation of the government's claims. Name one cult ever in the history of Ever that allowed critics like Limbaugh and Maddow to thrive, gave airtime to "2nd gunman" theorists, and fostered public debates between people vying for the top power roles.

No, the West in no way resembles a cult. Look up the word; it doesn't mean what you think.
But I'm not saying that North Korea isn't really bad in all sorts of ways, just that rule by force and even things like widespread ignorance of the broader world aren't what typifies or defines a cult to me... some of the Scientologists I've met, for example, seemed quite well-educated and articulate.)
Again, no one made those claims you're rebutting.

OTOH, it's fairly well established that Scientology has used violence and intimidation to control their followers; "some" members being fairly nonviolent proves nothing.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:29 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


We failed as a nation then but it was a failure of democracy, not totalitarianism.

This is what I'm saying, though: to me, "democracy, just a failing democracy" does not equal "in no way cult-like" and totalitarianism isn't the same thing as a cult. For another example - a large percentage of citizens in a democracy enthusiastically and freely acceeding to their government having the ability to torture people (often while accomplishing the doublethink of regarding themselves as totally anti-government and against the expansion and encroachment of government power) seems more cult-like to me than all of the citizens of a totalitarian state putting on rictus grins and worshipfully venerating the leader because you'll be executed and three generations of your family will be imprisoned perpetually if you don't demonstrate sufficient ardor.

I don't think that either of those situations is really directly equivalent to the Branch Davidians or Scientologists who witness their leaders beating people and convince themselves it's a good and rational thing, but I think that each of them resembles different parts of cultism. I think that if we want to convince ourselves that no aspect of our Western polities can in any way resemble a cult, we're deceiving ourselves. (Which we do alot and is actually closer to what distinguishes a cult than being deceived by someone else, I think.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:29 AM on April 10, 2013


NK isn't the only country with a propaganda machine. Remember Iraq.

Exactly what was going through my mind the other night, watching the local news compare two satellite photographs of a NK nuclear installation. Oh, memories...
posted by pleurodirous at 10:30 AM on April 10, 2013


For example the cheerleading and apparently blind devotion to the Bush administration's objectives from both public and private sources in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq do not exactly dissuade me from likening the U.S. to a cult: is it more cult-like for people who should know better to march in line with the leader's whims in North Korea out of fear, or to enthusiastically support the goals of the rulers of a democracy of their own accord?

When the Iraq war went badly, Bush lost the next election.

In North Korea, the only two public holidays circa the 1990s were the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Kong Il. On that day, children were given candy. The were encouraged to stand facing the picture of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging on the walls of every citizen's home, bow, and recite a small phrase making their devotion and gratitude. After they were done, their mothers would wipe clean the pictures with a special white cloth given to each citizen to be used solely for that purpose and kept in a special wooden box beneath the photos.

Not to be all crocodile dundee or nothin', but that's a fucking cult. That is the exact form and ceremony of religious devotion.

Americans venerate their leaders to a degree. We have big statues of them, we hang their pictures on our walls sometimes. We are as susceptible to majesty as any other human creature. But there is a big, big, big gap between admiring Lincoln for what he did for your country and prostrating yourself before him as the font of all that is good in the world. In the book I alluded to above, there was a guy, a smart guy, managed to pass tough exams to get into one of the best universities in the capital, not an easy feat. It took him until he was in his mid-20s not only to lose his faith in the Kim regime but to realise that it was possible to lose one's faith, that there might --- might! --- be others who felt as he did.

This was in the 90s; he defected seven or eight years ago now. Thinks have changed a lot in NK, though we don't know much about how they have. Maybe nobody believes anymore. But it's so hard to imagine what it like to know nothing of the outside world that I wouldn't care to bet on it.
posted by Diablevert at 10:41 AM on April 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


No one is making this argument. Straw man.

The title of this thread is "North Korea is a not a state, it's a cult." If that does not seem like "[speaking] as though a nation is either a state or a cult" to you, then fine, but I think you're the one who is unfamiliar with the usage of the word "cult" if you think that the existence of schisms or disagreement makes something so categorically unlike any cult that has ever existed that no comparison can be drawn.

If it's the use of violence and intimidation that defines what a cult is to you, fine - I am not engaging in some sort of Machiavellian rhetorical puppetry to undermine you, I just disagree.
posted by XMLicious at 10:43 AM on April 10, 2013


The US is not a cult in a very important way: we don't venerate our leaders.

The Thatcher and Reagan cults are enormous and growing constantly.
posted by colie at 10:45 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Most of the rhetoric has come from KCNA and Rodong Sinmun, not just Kim Jong Un (even if directly from him at all). So the generals presumably already signed off on the escalating tensions.

Or they could be setting him up for a coup d'état. He goes through with an attack, the generals agree to remove him from power and normalize relations with the rest of the world.

I am not claiming that the US is a totalitarian state - just that Reagan is not the only case of a Presidential personality cult, and that most presidents rely on or attempt to manufacture that dynamic, either in campaign or in office.

The nearest iconic imagery of Reagan is the mock movie poster Ronbo, with the face of Stallone's Rambo replaced with Ronnie's smug grin. But you can bike through Seattle and see murals with the Obama HOPE design painted on them. Cult of personality goes beyond ideological lines—needs to, really, since the symbol of the Leader needs to be above such petty divisions, in order to present itself as a pure embodiment of power.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:56 AM on April 10, 2013


Reagan might receive a bit of veneration in gop circles, but only because he's the only republican prez in half a century to be even worth talking about, let alone admiring. hardly a cult, and certainly not a movement that will have any sway in the next few election cycles. he gets paraded about at the conventions , but the failures of reaganomics are fresh enough vis a vis clinton's successes that it's a nonstarter.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:57 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The were encouraged to stand facing the picture of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging on the walls of every citizen's home, bow, and recite a small phrase making their devotion and gratitude.

So because American children are encouraged to venerate and pledge their allegiance to a flag, our rituals of devotion and gratitude just totally don't count? Because religious reverence and devotion, if those are definitive of what a cult is, can be attached to an idol or much more abstract things, and in fact most commonly are.

I don't think we're disagreeing about what actually goes on in North Korea or the U.S., I just don't think that people being oppressed and terrorized is what's definitive about a cult or that you can't be happy and contented within a cult. I mean, part of it is that you'll be so blissfully assured of your righteous rewards that you'll willfully drink the poisoned Kool-Aid, right? Even though everyone else will be dead and you could just walk away if you wanted to.

And we USians are often very righteously assured of the rewards of being USian. Plus, not only do we drink lots of Kool-Aid, we invented it.
posted by XMLicious at 11:06 AM on April 10, 2013


The most obvious example of a presidential personality cult is George Washington.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:12 AM on April 10, 2013


KokuRyu: "The most obvious example of a presidential personality cult is George Washington."

That's crazy talk. I mean it's not like there's a mural on the ceiling of the capitol building in DC where it shows him turning into a god or something.

Oh wait.
posted by mullingitover at 11:19 AM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


With Mrs. Clinton out of the picture, and the square-jawed commander in chief not entirely unhappy to see some attention away from the miserable economy he can't seem to do anything about and perhaps gleeful at the prospects for a brief Falklands type of conflict that would save his legacy.... it's a tough sales job this time.

Wait a minute -- George W. Bush is still president ? Man, I just had the weirdest dream then....
posted by y2karl at 11:23 AM on April 10, 2013


1. The North Korean military is extraordinarily weak. .... posted by Navelgazer at 8:53 AM

No offense, but that comparison to S. Korea seems irrelevant to me.

Regardless of how malnourished and poorly prepared they are, they have thousands of archaic artillery launchers within range of Seoul, that can lob megatons of shells. Unstoppable.

Also the comparison gives us no insight on the military's capacity or potential to depose Kim.

I wish I knew whether this Alistair Maclean action heroine's words have any foundation in fact.

PS watch out for that groin punch. She's a trained spy.
posted by surplus at 11:30 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The most obvious example of a presidential personality cult is George Washington

He casually resigned after two terms in office as though that was a normal thing for a Generalissimo to do.

Veneration of American Presidents is a metaphor. The Kims are literally worshiped as gods.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:36 AM on April 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


Veneration of American Presidents is a metaphor. The Kims are literally worshiped as gods.

This is just a cultural and semantic nuance. The social meaning is almost identical.

It's like people believing in UFOs now instead of fairies.
posted by colie at 11:45 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


surplus: Regardless of how malnourished and poorly prepared they are, they have thousands of archaic artillery launchers within range of Seoul, that can lob megatons of shells. Unstoppable.

How effective would those be without maintenance or training, though? Artillery isn't trivially easy to aim or operate. Perhaps more importantly, though, the idea of firing poorly maintained fifty-year-old artillery cannons that haven't been consistently fired with ammunition that is either nearly as old or has been poorly manufactured is absolutely terrifying. And of course, even the successful artillery squads that manage not to blow themselves up are going to get exploded by the US and SK counter-artillery squads and air forces very quickly once they reveal their position. And all of this assumes the communications network between the capital and the squads doesn't get severed and that half the squads don't immediately surrender for food.

I'm sure they could do some damage to Seoul, but I think the degree of damage is often overestimated.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:45 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


: "I'm sure they could do some damage to Seoul, but I think the degree of damage is often overestimated."

And of course, they can't make good on the ol' "We'll turn Seoul into a sea of fire" threat without inadvertently killing hundreds of Chinese nationals in the process. Which would be a very, very bad move, strategically.
posted by mullingitover at 11:50 AM on April 10, 2013


So because American children are encouraged to venerate and pledge their allegiance to a flag, our rituals of devotion and gratitude just totally don't count?

No, and that is, quite clearly, not what I argued, though I won't insult you by quoting myself. They do count.

In the Crocodile Dundee movie, both characters are holding up knives. The difference is the one's a lot bigger and more dangerous. The difference is not in kind, but in degree.

Usually that's an argument you hear backwards --- that things which differ only in degree and not in kind are functionally the same. I disagree, in this sphere. Differences in degree are very, very important. Americans are certainly susceptible to pageantry. We idolize our heros. We are tied to abstract notions like country and freedom and "my people" by highly irrational passions. We are human. But we also have a space in our society for dissent. For critique. Every four years we hold a ritual smashing in which we drag down one idol and replace them with another; we call it an election. And that is important.

Americans are not different from North Koreans because we are by nature immune to these social diseases. We're different because knowing how sick this shit can make you we keep a stock of anti-biotics on hand. We run a fever sometimes, in some eras. But so far the medicine has kept death at bay. We could get sick again --- we're riddled with latent carriers, Typhoid Marys, if you will. But North Korea is off in a corner frothing at the mouth, canary yellow with jaundice and beginning to drip things from various orifices. The rot got to the brain, in their case.

And now I'll stop mixing my metaphors.
posted by Diablevert at 11:50 AM on April 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


It would be really cool if when people do this they would also provide a link to the thread they are mentioning.

Like this!
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 12:09 PM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


inadvertently killing hundreds of Chinese nationals

This, presumably, is one reason why NK warned foreigners to prepare their evacuation plans for getting out of SK. Not to say that they will actually do anything, mind.
posted by aramaic at 12:17 PM on April 10, 2013


The Fate of Civil Religion

Relevant thoughts on the "cult" of the USA, or however you'd like to phrase it.
posted by pleurodirous at 12:28 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sequence: "I find the situation in North Korea interesting, but I also wonder about how much extra insight someone is really bringing to this who's been out of there since 1987. I mean, she's clearly got a lot of insight on the country as a whole, I just wonder if she really knows anything more about Kim Jong-un's motivations than the analysts who're already talking about it. This seems like an interesting story, but also a little opportunistic."

Absolutely opportunistic, but that's all she's got. I can't imagine how horrible it would be to murder a hundred and fifteen people and then spend the rest of my life telling everybody about it as penance. It's like Kim Hyun-hee's life stopped in 1987 (along with the lives of her victims), and nothing she's done since can ever have meaning.

But she's got a fairly unique perspective, because she was around when Kim Il-sung slowly gave up power to Kim Jong-il. It wasn't official until 1994, but Kim the second was already maneuvering behind the scenes to prove himself. That's why she blew up the plane in the first place: to show he was a master planner.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:47 PM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


mullingitover: And of course, they can't make good on the ol' "We'll turn Seoul into a sea of fire" threat without inadvertently killing hundreds of Chinese nationals in the process. Which would be a very, very bad move, strategically.

The SK and US response alone would make that a suicide move. Using the artillery ensures it will all be destroyed, and after that, there's no reason not to attack NK (and SK will be out for blood). It'll just be a matter of time until the US bombs everything military or industrial completely flat and the SK army walks in.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:50 PM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


And the Eighth United States Army is sitting in Seoul almost purely to ensure that any attack on the city is also an attack on the U.S., requiring retaliation.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:05 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Veneration of American Presidents is a metaphor. The Kims are literally worshiped as gods.

This is just a cultural and semantic nuance. The social meaning is almost identical.

It's like people believing in UFOs now instead of fairies.


According to the interview, you are imprisoned in North Korea for forgetting to say 'Thank you, Great Leader." This isn't just about what people believe in the US and North Korea and how strongly they believe. Its about how belief and the public profession of belief is enforced.

George Washington and the U.S. Constitution are revered in ways that are religious. Every President does take advantage of a non-rational respect for the office and its trappings. However, you are not sent to the gulag for life if you speak disrespectfully about the President or forget to praise him.
posted by Area Man at 1:13 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Saying "the U.S. is a cult" is way too broad of a statement to be true, but I think capitalism can probably be considered a global cult according to this "What is a cult?" checklist.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 1:14 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Don't want to derail this much further, but every country has cult-like tendencies. The desire to worship something larger than ourselves is probably a hardwired part of human nature. In the US the One-Percenters that lined up for Romney and worship Reagan could be said to be members of a Supply-Side austerity cult. Just give them another hundred years and they'll have paintings of Reagan in heaven like the George Washington one somebody referred to earlier.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:20 PM on April 10, 2013


According to the interview, you are imprisoned in North Korea for forgetting to say 'Thank you, Great Leader."

One more time: the USA doesn't have to imprison the people whose opinions and voices count for not saying 'Thank you, Great Leader'. They say it anyway. They love saying it.
posted by colie at 1:34 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the Crocodile Dundee movie, both characters are holding up knives. The difference is the one's a lot bigger and more dangerous. The difference is not in kind, but in degree.

We may just fundamentally disagree, then. When I say that the United States and North Korea are each similar to cults, I'm not trying to argue that they're similar to each other, which maybe is what some people are getting so intense about.

I think that the U.S. and North Korea are each exemplars of qualities at the level of the nation-state that resemble different aspects of cults. I think that the average North Korean is definitely way more analogous to the cultist who has to drink the poison because there's a gun to their head than are any Americans.

But whereas I would expect that the leaders and potentates of North Korea just about universally know that the public rhetoric of the state is bullshit and the things it advocates do not engender or promote the welfare of the people, I think a much larger percentage of the powerful and influential people in the U.S. genuinely believe that, say, unrestrained capitalism is a really wonderful boon to society, or really do think we're doing a favor to the countries we bomb the hell out of and invade every few years and introduce to the American Way so that they can drink all our poisons too because Kool-Aid is JUST. SO. GREAT.

And I think (mostly from having read fairly extensively about the Soviet Union, partly in a dissolving Russian Studies university program during the years shortly after the Cold War ended; though of course the Soviet Union and present-day North Korea differ in many significant ways and I no more than dabble) that if you were somehow able to have candid conversations with the populace of each place you would find a similar state of affairs among the common people - that the genuine, sincere, and willing belief in crazy and harmful ideologies and in the dissembling rationales and pretenses of society is more prevalent in the average American, myself included, while the average North Korean is actually much more skeptical of what their society tells them in the privacy of their own minds even if the way their persons and freedoms are restrained is more like the way that members of a compulsive cult would be handled.

Like, I think you would find many more Americans who believe that capitalism and market forces magically fix nearly every problem a society can have, or that buying products marketed as "green living" or "environmentally conscious" make a material difference on environmental issues, than you would find North Koreans who actually believe that Kim Jong Il was able to control the weather or than you would have found Soviet citizens who genuinely believed in the tenets of Communism.

(Not that the latter sorts of people don't exist but the Russian and other ex-Soviet Communist ideologues evaporated much more quickly than I think most popular American belief systems would if the American Empire fell.)

And I really don't agree that we drag down our idols every four years because our presidents are definitely not the Golden Calves of American society. (Indeed imagining that we're daring iconoclasts and that we disruptively upend the balance of power at the apex of society by choosing between one of two parties every four years, when in reality at our collective best we're like a kid standing at the edge of a pond huffing and puffing to get a toy boat to go in the direction we want by force of breath, is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about.) But in any case, I'm not arguing that the U.S. and North Korea are the same degree of the same thing.
posted by XMLicious at 1:47 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


It feels like you are widening the definition of cult-like behavior until the term becomes meaningless. Cults have a specific pattern of isolation, brainwashing, and control of the cult members, with deification of the leaders. It isn't just a term for any kind of idolation or groupthink.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:54 PM on April 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


Mmm and assisting with the isolation is to be just somewhat complicit. Now, where's my cossie? I have a windmill to practise on.
posted by de at 1:57 PM on April 10, 2013


One more time: the USA doesn't have to imprison the people whose opinions and voices count for not saying 'Thank you, Great Leader'. They say it anyway. They love saying it.

This is really pretty silly. Public protest and dissent are normal in the U.S. to a degree that is substantially different than in North Korea. There is an entire TV network devoted to defeating the current President and his party. I personally regularly hear people criticize U.S. leaders, laws, and political parties.

You may believe that the U.S. should be criticized even more by its citizenry and residents, but that desire for more dissent and disagreement shouldn't be allowed to obscure the differences between the U.S. and North Korean.
posted by Area Man at 2:12 PM on April 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


XMLicious: If it's the use of violence and intimidation that defines what a cult is to you, fine - I am not engaging in some sort of Machiavellian rhetorical puppetry to undermine you, I just disagree.
No, actually I use a dictionary to define words. You might find it more useful than just assigning your own personal meanings to words.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:14 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


It feels like you are widening the definition of cult-like behavior until the term becomes meaningless.

I haven't said that the U.S. is a cult and I don't think that; but the prevalence of people who are seething ideologues, whether they rise to power and assert authority, and whether people invest in common fictions of convenience to the point of others being harmed or killed don't seem meaningless to me and actually seem more essential to what is objectionable about cults than many of the aspects of North Korea which have been pointed out, some of which seem superficial and present in many places and times throughout history that aren't referred to as cults. I just don't think we should be patting ourselves on the back for how antithetical our society is to a cult's practices or mindset or claiming that in no way can resemblance be drawn with any cult in the history of ever.
posted by XMLicious at 2:25 PM on April 10, 2013


GREAT mix here, you guys. I've been rocking this at the gym. Especially great for long runs. Once you start dragging, you know, around mile 6, well that's when "All Servicepersons and People Will Become Human Bullets and Bombs" kicks in and it's like BOOM, let's DO THIS!
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:39 PM on April 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, actually I use a dictionary to define words. You might find it more useful than just assigning your own personal meanings to words.

I don't know if I'm getting different results from you but that search is returning definitions like "an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing" or the "body of adherents" of a "system of beliefs and rituals" or "A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false" or "an informal and transient belief system regarded by others as misguided, unorthodox, extremist." None of which appear to me to contradict the things about the U.S. I have said resemble cults, (except maybe the "informal and transient" bit, but that doesn't apply with comparisons to North Korea either) and like I said none of those dictionary definitions offer any great reason to congratulate ourselves on how Western societies are utterly incomparable to and incompatible with cultish behavior or practices.
posted by XMLicious at 2:41 PM on April 10, 2013


I think you would find many more Americans who believe that capitalism and market forces magically fix nearly every problem a society can have... than you would find North Koreans who actually believe that Kim Jong Il was able to control the weather

XMLicious makes a very good case. It's not silly to insist that the USA contains a majority of people who are devoted to the flag and the absurd destructive cult of capitalism - without at any time having to be tortured or imprisoned to do so.
posted by colie at 2:41 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Brilliant Graffiti of Kim-Jong Un, found in Smithfield
posted by homunculus at 4:25 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mitrovarr: "The SK and US response alone would make that a suicide move. "

Oh absolutely. However, if China were sympathetic to NK, there's a chance that SK and the US would handle it with kid gloves just to avoid a larger confrontation with China. A tit-for-tat exchange, maybe a few hundred military casualties, and the Kims hold onto power (or firmly cement it, which seems to be their goal here).

However, if China decides it's had enough and disowns NK completely, as they might do if their own civilians were killed in large numbers, that's when the knives come out.
posted by mullingitover at 5:17 PM on April 10, 2013


One more time: the USA doesn't have to imprison the people whose opinions and voices count for not saying 'Thank you, Great Leader'. They say it anyway. They love saying it.

you're absolutely right - millions love our leader so much, they even want copies of his birth certificate and college transcripts
posted by pyramid termite at 5:20 PM on April 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm depressed to read a weird sort of leftist absolutism here on MeFi.

In what sense is the attitude you describe leftist? It sounds like you actually mean "unwillingness to accept certain facts due to a fallacious appeal to recent experience that is actually unrelated". I don't see what that has to do with any meaningful, honest use of the term "left".
posted by kengraham at 5:26 PM on April 10, 2013


The thing about cult members is that they don't see that they're in a cult. 'Murica!
posted by five fresh fish at 5:46 PM on April 10, 2013


"...However, if China were sympathetic to NK, there's a chance that SK and the US would handle it with kid gloves just to avoid a larger confrontation with China. A tit-for-tat exchange, maybe a few hundred military casualties, and the Kims hold onto power (or firmly cement it, which seems to be their goal here)."

I really don't think that's possible anymore. After the bombardment of Yeonpyeong and the sinking of the Cheonan, South Korea just won't tolerate further military action. And if war is declared, long planned scenarios would come into play. The US and South Korea have had sixty years to wargame and plan the problem of breaching North Korea's defences, so they probably have very specific orders to follow upon the advent of war, almost like a computer program that moves around hundreds of thousands of men. It would be fast and brutal, and the only question mark (for us in the civilian world, though probably not for the various militaries) is how much of an offense NK can put up before being overwhelmed. How much damage can they do.
posted by Kevin Street at 6:39 PM on April 10, 2013


It would be fast and brutal, and the only question mark (for us in the civilian world, though probably not for the various militaries) is how much of an offense NK can put up before being overwhelmed. How much damage can they do.

If China was sympathetic to NK, then wouldn't China's response to a "fast and brutal" invasion of NK be a question mark?
posted by Golden Eternity at 7:18 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the Crocodile Dundee movie, both characters are holding up knives. The difference is the one's a lot bigger and more dangerous. The difference is not in kind, but in degree.

Usually that's an argument you hear backwards --- that things which differ only in degree and not in kind are functionally the same. I disagree, in this sphere.


That is an excellent beanplating of the "thets not a knoife" thesis.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 7:30 PM on April 10, 2013


Golden Eternity: If China was sympathetic to NK, then wouldn't China's response to a "fast and brutal" invasion of NK be a question mark?

Not really. If NK really opens up on SK and fires artillery on Seoul or something, not just little border skirmishes or whatever, we're going to flatten the place. Even if we stood off and refused to help, SK is more than capable of doing it by themselves and nobody could talk them out of doing it. China is not going to start WWIII over NK - I mean, think of how much more we're worth to them as trading partners - more than NK could ever be in any capacity. We might negotiate with China to find a final disposition that they can live with (maybe we don't use nukes and we set up an independent NK instead of reunification) but nothing will stop us from eliminating the threat once war is joined.

Well, actually, there is one thing, and I think it's a real possibility - China might invade NK itself. That would be an interesting situation; the US would probably be fine with it (have fun saving us the money and effort!) but SK would be extremely upset. I'm not sure what would happen in that situation.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:23 PM on April 10, 2013


"China is not going to start WWIII over NK"

China is not going to stand idly by if there's a chance of having South Korean forces on their border, which would mean US army and air bases.

"China might invade NK itself"

No, because that would mean having South Korean forces on their border, which would mean US army and air bases.

Look, the staus quo means millions of North Koreans starving to death and being brutalized and sadly the status quo is what China, South Korea, Japan, and the US want. As mentioned, it's very much an issue of border security for China, and for South Korea, Japan, and the US any form of regime change or unification would involve massive amounts of humanitarian spending, along with a flood of cheap NK labor who would be willing to work for pennies on the won.

Maybe there's something weird going on with KJU and his generals, but North Korea is here to stay for the 21st century. And this is why South Koreans themselves generally don't give a fuck when KJU or KJI before him rattles his saber.
posted by bardic at 8:44 PM on April 10, 2013


"Regardless of how malnourished and poorly prepared they are, they have thousands of archaic artillery launchers within range of Seoul, that can lob megatons of shells. "

And a nuke or two.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:50 PM on April 10, 2013


I just hope these are the things Jack Lew and John Kerry are discussing with China. It seems plausible that the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia could have a relatively agreed upon mutual response to any NK military action. If there were a "regime change," maybe it is best for China to play the largest role initially.

And a nuke or two.

Or eight is what I read from an unreliable source. Along with several hundred medium range missiles.

Young South Koreans fear unification with North would create economic burden
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:54 PM on April 10, 2013


willing to work for pennies on the won.

I'm just gonna be That Guy and point out that a penny is generally worth about 10 won
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:45 PM on April 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't believe DPRK is going to do anything. The ROK leadership has already issued orders to its local commanders that they can respond as they feel necessary to any DPRK attack. The previous policy was to check in with Seoul first. That fact alone is HUGE.

Yes, should TSHTF, Seoul would most probably be reduced to smouldering rubble, but I don't believe it would be all that difficult to effectively destroy the DPRK as a result. The DPRK leadership has to know that any attack they undertake would be suicide.

Would China come to their aid? I don't believe they would enter into combat against ROK and USA forces. My guess is that China, the USA and ROK, would secretly agree upon some disposition of the DPRK that would be beneficial to all three countries. Sure, China doesn't want US bases in DPRK territory, but the USA in no way needs bases there anyway. With the bases the USA has in the ROK and Japan, the USA is already based "on China's doorstep."

All of this commotion is entirely for domestic consumption in the DPRK.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 11:11 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Young South Koreans fear unification with North would create economic burden

Some perspectives on the reunification between the Koreas versus the reunification of Germany:

The German reunification took place 45 years after the post-WW2 partition. People in their last few years of work and early retirement were young enough to remember the countries as one; basically everybody in the countries would either have been around to remember the two countries, or had parents who knew the two countries; a small group of young adults and teens had to learn from great grandparents. In Korea, it's been 68 years since the partition; an entire generation more. Now the only people who still remember a united country (under Japanese rule, mind) are in their eighties and older. The people who would have learned about it from their parents are entering retirement age themselves; the youngest generation now entering the political sphere would have to learn from great-grandparents (or more likely, second hand). The life expectancies in the North make this even more severe.

East Germany was about 25% the size of West Germany in terms of population; North Korea has fully half as many people. East Germany had GDP per capita about 60% of West Germany; North Korea's GDP is miniscule and mostly theoretical. If everybody in Germany immediately had the same share of the combined GDP after reunification, West Germans would experience about a 7.7% drop in GDP per capita. If you do the same calculation in Korea, the South experiences about a 32.2% drop in GDP per capita. For reference, Greece has experienced about a 15% drop in GDP since the peak in 2008 (and pretty profound misery); that's double the German drop, and half the Korean drop.

Furthermore, East Germans were listening to West German radio and TV; they were anxious to share in the material wealth. North Koreans have no access to South Korean media; they have been taught all their lives that life in the South is worse off; they have no common frame of reference. When I had my South Korean coworker translate some propaganda posters I brought back from North Korea, he noted that the language was old fashioned; the two cultures have 70 years of divergence now.

For a comparison, in terms of relative population and GDP (and culture), the German reunification would roughly be the equivalent of uniting the United States with Spain, Portugal, Israel and New Zealand. The Korean reunification would be roughly the equivalent of uniting the United States with Pakistan.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:30 PM on April 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


"Using the artillery ensures it will all be destroyed," posted by Mitrovarr at 12:50 PM

Eventually. Here's a level-headed analysis that does concede N. Korea non-nukes can't turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" but still could inflict heavy casualties including 52,000 US military personnel.
posted by surplus at 2:58 AM on April 11, 2013


I would expect that the leaders and potentates of North Korea just about universally know that the public rhetoric of the state is bullshit

You haven't actually read any of the above-mentioned books and articles about like in North Korea, have you?

There's something truly (though grimly) hilarious about commenters saying "The U.S. isn't very different from North Korea," with no awareness that the very comments they're posting could not possibly exist in North Korea.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:43 AM on April 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


You haven't actually read any of the above-mentioned books and articles about like in North Korea, have you?

Are you asking a rhetorical question to make it sound as though everyone else has to go off and trudge through a reading list you dictate before they're allowed to disagree with you?

As someone who is so conscientious about careful reading, you appear to have missed my statement that most of my reading and university coursework has involved studying the Soviet Union. Do any of the above-mentioned books and articles actually claim that unlike in the Soviet Union and other states affiliated with the U.S.S.R., most leaders in North Korea are utterly credulous and taken in by their own regime's propaganda and adhere to it wholeheartedly both in private and in public?

I have done some reading about North Korea and Korean History in general during the last couple of decades apart from this thread, certainly, but I haven't come across assertions like that before.

There's something truly (though grimly) hilarious about commenters saying "The U.S. isn't very different from North Korea,"

To quote something I've actually said:
When I say that the United States and North Korea are each similar to cults, I'm not trying to argue that they're similar to each other, which maybe is what some people are getting so intense about.
If indeed you've actually read all of the material on North Korea you're trying to scold me for having not yet read, you'll have to pardon me for wanting to confirm any of your impressions myself if you're able to paraphrase even the words of someone you're having a conversation with and directly responding to into the exact opposite of what they've stated.
posted by XMLicious at 10:21 AM on April 11, 2013


Do any of the above-mentioned books and articles actually claim that unlike in the Soviet Union and other states affiliated with the U.S.S.R., most leaders in North Korea are utterly credulous and taken in by their own regime's propaganda and adhere to it wholeheartedly both in private and in public?

Yes, actually, that's exactly what they say. Most sources have said that unlike in the USSR, where people had various ways of accessing non-state information, the people of the hermit kingdom are totally cut off from outside information and ideas (not to mention chronically deprived of protein), and therefore believe state propaganda much more thoroughly than the people of Russia or Eastern Europe did. Refugees from North Korea all tell of being shocked– genuinely shocked– to discover that people in the West were not starving to death and lusting for Korean blood, as they had always believed. You are welcome to read some of the above-mentioned refugee accounts to confirm those impressions, or to visit North Korea, which is generally willing to issue tourist visas.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:47 AM on April 11, 2013


Now the only people who still remember a united country (under Japanese rule, mind) are in their eighties and older.

The Korean reunification would be roughly the equivalent of uniting the United States with Pakistan.

But there would still be some cultural and familial ties between the North and South that might make a close relationship more possible than US and Pakistan. Maybe something like a DPRK Glasnost/Perestroika could be hoped for one day, if not a reunification of some kind.

If you do the same calculation in Korea, the South experiences about a 32.2% drop in GDP per capita.

I'm not sure if this calculation is very useful. Maybe there could be a transition where the existing NK state apparatus would operate and provide work and government benefits based on cost of living with strict restrictions on relocation from North to South in place, while the standard of living in NK is slowly ramped up as the economy transitions to a form of capitalism with Korean characteristics helped along by Samsung, LG, Hyundai, etc and with a lot of international aid from the West and China. It seems to me the biggest problems would be the government and military of NK and how to "re-educate" the population after decades of isolation and propaganda.

"It is never the wrong time to do the right thing." --MLK jr.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:46 AM on April 11, 2013


"I'm just gonna be That Guy and point out that a penny is generally worth about 10 won"

I should probably visit South Korea and learn more about the country.
posted by bardic at 12:09 PM on April 11, 2013


Most sources have said that unlike in the USSR, where people had various ways of accessing non-state information, the people of the hermit kingdom are totally cut off from outside information and ideas (not to mention chronically deprived of protein), and therefore believe state propaganda much more thoroughly than the people of Russia or Eastern Europe did. Refugees from North Korea all tell of being shocked– genuinely shocked– to discover that people in the West were not starving to death and lusting for Korean blood, as they had always believed. You are welcome to read some of the above-mentioned refugee accounts to confirm those impressions, or to visit North Korea, which is generally willing to issue tourist visas.

Gorbachev himself was surprised during a visit to Canada when he insisted that his limo driver follow the road signs to a mall to make an unscheduled visit, because he didn't quite believe his own intelligence agencies and figured his scheduled stops were sham facades of prosperity; he had expected a mall he picked at random to be empty or poorly stocked with long queues like a Soviet retail shop. (Unfortunately I'm not finding a cite for this; it's not from something I read, but was an anecdote that a professor of Russian History told.)

But that sort of thing is not what I'm talking about. I'm saying that when a North Korean official organizes a mass execution or arranges for someone's children to be shipped off to concentration camp, I think that even if they publicly say that they're protecting chajusŏng, they privately know that what they're actually doing is brutally preserving the power and rule of the regime and their own power as a member of that regime, not to mentioning carrying out policies that they themselves would suffer sorely to violate.

However when the U.S. does its Manson Family thing every few years and goes off and stabs some other country into submission (or tries to) because it just vitally needs to happen, many of our leaders and power brokers and many average Americans really believe that we're being instrumental in making the world a better place because Communism Must Be Contained or The Terrorists Must Be Stopped or whatever version of Helter Skelter is in vogue at the moment.

Even with the calls to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan during the last four years you hear people who appear to think that the issue is "we've done enough for the rest of the world, now we need to take care of ourselves" rather than it's maybe actually not so helpful in these cases to decapitate the governments of other countries and plunge them into chaos and bomb their cities and shoot lots of their citizens and that's why we don't really seem to be accomplishing anything. Many people sincerely believe in the virtue of the Team America World Police act and sing its praises with gusto without needing to be tortured into it or having their families threatened as colie points out.

Don't you think there have been tons of Americans who would be genuinely shocked to find that the average Kraut or Communist or Muslim wasn't lusting for American blood and was mostly occupied with the same day-to-day concerns as the rest of us? Yes, there is a larger percentage of better-informed and better-educated people here compared to North Korea, but that does not put us as a nation on some distant higher plane of rationality beyond such petty unenlightened societies. I mean, 1930s Germany was probably one of the most informed and well-educated populaces in the world at the time and for a long period before that but in short order they became a totalitarian state committing a Holocaust. (Sorry to Godwin the thread but that bit of history does seem germane to the discussion at this point.)

And again, I may just not be as careful a reader as you, but I have clicked on a number of the links in this thread and did a Ctrl+F for "russia" "soviet" "u.s.s.r." and "ussr" and I have yet to come across the assertion which you say is exactly what's in most sources, that people in North Korea believe state propaganda much more thoroughly than the people of Russia or Eastern Europe did. (Though I don't quite get why the North Korean refugees' account you say make this claim would be particularly believable if the whole point is that North Koreans don't know anything about the outside world to compare with their own experiences.) That doesn't really address my point because I'm saying that I think in many cases American leaders and citizens believe their state's and society's propaganda, particularly the themes and narrative of that propaganda, more ardently than Soviet citizens did their own, but if you can specifically point out what you're citing I would be interested in reading it.
posted by XMLicious at 1:05 PM on April 11, 2013


You just gave an example of a Soviet leader believing his regime's own propaganda. The relative prosperity of the US and USSR weren't minor points, that was important to the legitimacy of the Soviet regime. If Soviet leaders were capable of believing their own bullshit why are you so convinced that North Korean leaders are not?
posted by Area Man at 2:02 PM on April 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


More importantly, setting aside the violent totalitarian nature of the DPROK and analyzing the extent to which people in a given country share a set of beliefs is to ignore what is really distinctive and terrible about North Korea.
posted by Area Man at 2:10 PM on April 11, 2013


I like Obama's measured response. he's like, "Oh YES, you are a super big scary military leader. Oh, no, look you've got nukes!! OK, enough of that Kim, wash up and come in for dinner."
posted by msalt at 4:13 PM on April 11, 2013


You just gave an example of a Soviet leader believing his regime's own propaganda. The relative prosperity of the US and USSR weren't minor points, that was important to the legitimacy of the Soviet regime. If Soviet leaders were capable of believing their own bullshit why are you so convinced that North Korean leaders are not?

I'm not saying that people in North Korea have some supernatural clairvoyant ability to fully discern demographic and economic statistics about the rest of the world no matter what the information they have access to says. I'm talking about how people internally rationalize their own motivations and actions and think about how their world works.

You know that Gorbachev was the final premier of the Soviet Union who dismantled Soviet Communism and the entire Soviet system, right? He did not think that Communism resulted in a worker's paradise. Even Lenin himself had started down a road to "state capitalism" with the New Economic Plan before he died. From Stalin onwards there was no illusion among the Soviet leaders that the primary utility of Communism and other state ideologies was anything other than control of society and reinforcing and extending their power.

More importantly, setting aside the violent totalitarian nature of the DPROK and analyzing the extent to which people in a given country share a set of beliefs is to ignore what is really distinctive and terrible about North Korea.

How have I set aside the violent totalitarian nature of North Korea? Why would analyzing the extent of fervent belief and justifications for large-scale violence and other craziness in the U.S., or the ritualistic quadrennial collective decision about whether to drink Coke or Pepsi, involve ignoring anything about North Korea?

I'll say again for the whatevereth time, I am not making observations about how these countries can be compared to cults for the purpose of proposing that North Korea and the United States are similar to each other. I'm saying that North Korea being really bad in just about every way is no reason to give ourselves a pass and say that despite getting all bug-eyed and stabby about The Other all the time or ritualistically sacrificing people and things to the Almighty Buck constantly and maintaining all sorts of other collective fictions and carrying on in other insane ways, we are simply beyond comparison to any cult in the history of ever no-way-no-sir-no-how, and behaving in violent zealot cult-like ways is something only those other non-prosperous restrictive societies do.
posted by XMLicious at 6:30 PM on April 11, 2013


Doh

"The time is always right to do what is right." --MLK jr.
posted by Golden Eternity at 7:19 PM on April 11, 2013


People unclear on the concept of the two Koreas or which Korea is which. I'm getting flashbacks to my childhood (in an unnamed Midwestern suburb). At some point in 2nd or 3rd grade I decided to torment a classmate by telling him I was a North Korean Communist spy. He ran to our teacher to tattle on me, who promptly gave me a "c'mon really, now?" look.
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:23 PM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


But seriously folks, on the substance of XMLicious' assertion that NK isn't a craaaaazy outlier in the state-to-cult spectrum, let me concur advisedly. I am going to wave my M.A. in Korean Studies and my semester volunteering for a NK refugee school as proof that I'm not pulling stuff out of my butt.

1) NK isn't completely cut off. People who live along the DMZ can receive some radio signals etc. The people who live along the border with China have even greater contact with the 'outside' world. Peddlers go back and forth over the Tumen River all the time. Obviously NK's isolation is still extreme, but there are economic and academic exchange programs with ex-Iron Curtain and nominally Communist/socialist nations (see North Korean naengmyeon restaurants in Siem Reap).

2) That Confucian veneration of your elders is a real thing. I think The Cleanest Race gets into that. Kim Jong Un is confusing because he is decidedly not an elder.*

3) I once confounded my classmates in a seminar run by Seoul National University's 통일평화연구원 (Institute for Peace and Unification Studies) by comparing NK's Mass Games with SK's World Cup Red Devils. The nationalism impulse just gets manifested in different ways in different countries.

4) To indulge in armchair characterization based on 5 years in Seoul, there is no such thing as trying too hard for South Koreans and no such thing as being too cool for school. Western observers may splutter at the lack of irony in North Korean society but this has been true for South Korea until very recently.

Also, for what it's worth, my parents, who live in Seoul, are completely blase about the whole thing. Granted my mom -- as a school kid in the decade immediately following the Korean War -- used to pray for air raid sirens on test days so she could stay home.

*Also also the troublesome third child of a family friend went to the same Swiss boarding school as Kim Jong Un so I have a hard time adjusting to him as Dear Leader. (or as the joke went in my Korean American peer circle, said in the hectoring tones of a Korean immigrant parents: "well I heard KJU's become leader for life of North Korea, why can't you do something to make us proud, hmmm?")
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:44 PM on April 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


In North Korea, Foreigners Have Superhuman Powers
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:39 AM on April 12, 2013


North Korea: The Family Business Is Failing - "But the best conjecture is that young Kim is simply trying his best to ply the bread-and-butter trade of the Kim family business: nuclear blackmail. It’s just that, like most third-generation heirs, he’s not very good at it."

The Internet Is Really Not Afraid Of Kim Jong Un, via So Kim Jong Un Walks Into A Bar

There's No North Korea Crisis
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:25 PM on April 12, 2013


North Korea Pirates Spy Tools and Porn on BitTorrent
posted by homunculus at 12:48 PM on April 14, 2013


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