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The American Hegemony: An Examination of the North Korean Human Rights Issue

February 21, 2010

Dear leader, are those Americans we see across the border?

Last Thursday, I went for a talk by North Korean human rights activist, Suzanne Scholte, conducted in part by Cornell’s NKFocus. My Korean culture professor, J. Pak, was the moderator at the event and the auditorium was packed in part because Cornell has been trying to get her to speak to us for 3 semesters and she was finally available.

In anyway, a talk which I thought was going to be relatively boring  turned out to be extremely tension-filled and dramatic. It was morbidly fascinating, albeit a bit painful and muchos embarrassing to see a much-heralded speaker torn apart by students’ arguments and people walking out on her.

So essentially before the Q&A I thought that for a much-anticipated speaker, the argument she brought to the fore was too emotionally-charged. She opened up by comparing North Korea to Darfur and other major genocides throughout history and Hu Jintao with Kim Jong-Il, rounding up about how China does not care for human rights as evidenced by the Beijing Olympics. Well, I was a bit slighted because I was in the USA when the Beijing Olympics were being broadcast in 2008 and there was massive media coverage everyday in the American press, except it was obsessed about bringing out the bad, evil, in-humanitarian side of China (i.e. the singing girl who lip-synced to some other girl who wasn’t pretty enough). Puh-leaze, just because 50% of your people do not have passports (rly), does not mean that you can take liberties with the media by feeding anecdotes of Chinese “cruelty” to an under-travelled demographic who are concerned only with America. Or maybe you can.

I’m not saying this because I’m ethnically Chinese, or I’m an Asian Studies major or whatever. I’m saying it from a viewpoint of how American press can tweak media coverage on an event that comes every 4 years that is focussed primarily on sports to one that is heavily politicized and extremely biased on Chinese human rights issue. The frustrating thing is that America always takes the moral high ground in such instances – and anyone who isn’t with them, is against them – and the media only serves to abuse their authority by perpetuating this image and letting it eclipse the real issue of sportmanship.

Yes, I’m idealistic and naive. But the ideals are there for a reason, this “righteousness” is there because such reporting betrays the tenets of objective journalism. Any old cow can write a biased coverage of something – why do you have to go to journalism school for? What enables America to dictate what the world is allowed to do? This archaic argument of Democracy vs Communism – if this form of Capitalist Communism works for China, just let it be. But America cannot let it go, not because it is primarily interested in spreading the welfare of Democracy, but because having a Communist China potentially surpass them economically in just a huge thwack in the arse. And if they can’t badmouth China to the international community (just because it is not Politically Correct, you know, and that is very, very important [; ), then hey – why don’t we badmouth China domestically to 150 million people who do not have passports and have only been to Alaska/Hawaii/far-flung American state?

Anyway, back to my point on Scholte. I was sitting next to this old guy, overgrown white beard, straggly hair who looked exactly like any of those Math profs you see at Mallott. When Q&A came around, and Scholte was laboring on her point on Kim Jong-Il being the most evil, most cruel dictator on the face of this planet, this guy suddenly bellowed:

North Korean children hate you too.

OM: “George Bush! What about George Bush?” (hall starts giggling)
SS: “Excuse me? George Bush, what about him?”
OM:  “Well, George Bush is #24 on Dictator List for me.”
SS: “I’m sorry, Sir, but you cannot lump Bush and Kim together – that’s not right-”
OM: “-Yeah, well, I’m saying that you don’t have to be a dictator to ruin people’s lives -”
SS: “Well, but -”

(Prof Pak cuts Scholte off, seeming very embarrassed. Calls on my friend, Brian, whom she probably thought would be a “safer” question-giver, who is seated directly behind me.)

B: “I agree with alot of what you said and I think it’s right that human rights should be addressed… but I don’t think how you put your points across was right – I mean, you opened up comparing North Korea to Darfur, to Vietnam. It seemed as though you are acting on the precepts of instilling fear into us as part of your argument, I wasn’t very convinced. What makes America this adjudicator on what is right – I mean, the millions displaced from their homes, the thousands killed in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq. What makes us better than Kim Jong-Il? I’m dual-nationality, and I hold both American and Israeli passports and what America has done in Israel -”

It was insane! Scholte looked like she was a deer caught in headlights. Prof Pak looked distraught and horrified that this Scholte person whom she had tried to get down to Cornell for so long was being savagely ripped to shreds in the opening minutes of Q&A by American collegiate students. Prof Pak gripped onto Scholte’s arm, saying “Don’t worry, don’t worry. Brian’s just learning, he’s a student. Next question?” Scholte wanted to reply though and Brian was like, “What are you saying about China and North Korea? How can you group them together?” and I thought she gave a really weak response (I can’t even remember what she said, it didn’t make much sense) and both B and the old guy walked out.

The poor lady.

I think she really believes in what she is fighting for. But she must understand that even as an independent activist (she has been trying to persuade the Bush and Clinton, and currently, the Obama administration to focus on NK human rights rather than the “distracting” nuclear issue), she has no option but to be tainted by the hegemonic, imperialistic burden of American history. This is the burden you have to bear as an American activist. No matter how pure her agenda is, she is collectively lumped with American politics. There is no way not to politicize this issue.

I went to Korean class the next day and spoke about the talk with some American-born Koreans. The interesting thing is that we are learning about the term “Koreans residing in America” (재미교보) and none of the ABKs in my class (there are many) perceive themselves as such. They just see themselves as American. So when I started defending Brian’s persepective of why he feels such invasive action on the part of Americans are questionable due to the imposition of American colonialism, the first thing that was said to me was: “Well, you’re Singaporean right? And your friend is also-”

“-He’s American and Israeli. But he grew up in Jersey.”

I was a tad slighted that the first defense they had for Scholte’s argument was not one based on facts but rather drawing a differentiating line between nationalities such that what was implied was that only Americans could understand and accept what America was doing and (maybe) I had no right in saying what I felt was a justified defense of what Brian was trying to convey. That Americans cannot force their way into a country and say, it’s right for us to do so and to hell with all other laws.

On the march toward famine

If you watched Seoul Train, the UNHCR is doing absolutely nothing in helping the N Koreans. This lard-like American guy sits there and talks about how 4-5 years ago, they tried entering N Korea but were repelled so, I quote, “it’s not like we haven’t tried”. N Korea signed a pact with the UN, they are open for investigation. And for you to sit in your cushy swivel-chair in Switzerland, well-fed overfed and with multiple bank accounts while these North Koreans are starving in the greatest famine in Korean history – what can I say but Hypocrite?

It’s because of people like you, UN American Lard, that  American independent activists like Scholte cannot make a convincing argument. Not only is history her yoke, so is this 废 (wasted) establishment of UNHCR, if you don’t perform the duties that you are founded to do. When you see these people who are risking life and limb to get freedom, and dying because of your inaction in intervening because you are the only ones who have the capacity to, then how can you sleep at night and how can you live when you have people’s blood on your hands?

This is just a small blog entry, a rant of a college student, who doesn’t know how to best address the complexities of this issue. No matter how ineffective a persuader Scholte was, I think she stands for a good cause and we should help in whatever way we can. See here how you can help.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2010 1:04 am

    One of the problems is that the instinct is to shout that Americans (well at least the ones in DC) are ar$eholes. But that isn’t very helpful. I like the Chinese take on it; they’ve started issuing their own assessments on who’s doing what for human rights.

    American capitalists don’t do very well on those league tables, and neither do American fundies. And the world is beginning to figure it out.

  2. February 22, 2010 10:57 pm

    @sinisterdexterity: what is the chinese take on it from your pov? from the documentaries and the talks, it appears that the chinese government’s viewpoint is that n koreans fleeing into chinese should be repatriated back to n korea because the chinese deem them as “illegal immigrants” (watch seoul train where the int’l press interview a chinese official), despite the UN expressing it as a violation of the very contract they signed – that n koreans should be seen as refugees and not an illegal statistic. is that what is deemed as a moral assessment on China’s part, a righteous gauge of who’s doing what for human rights?

    if they are uncomfortable having n koreans in their midst, then they should allow for them to be passed onto more accepting countries in the vicinity such as s korea and mongolia who have publicly taken in n koreans from china. that’s my take.

    in any case, it’s not just any one’s fault. it’s the collective responsibility of the int’l community – but we’ve gotten so distracted by other “more pressing issues” that we neglect the 3 million dead and counting from the NK famine that is still ongoing. and the many, many more desperate Nkoreans who are trying to flee, succeeded, but sent back to meet with their deaths.

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