Of Vitriol, Mud And Misquotes In North Korea Land

This has been quite a week, I must say. I have been subjected to everything ranging from intense media attention (just google OGD or Organisation and Guidance Department; Organization of course if you’re a cousin from across the pond), vilification, accusations of mystification (my personal favorite) to patronizing passive-aggressive advice/inquiries on what it is real academics do (as opposed to what I am doing, I hazard a guess) and made the New York Times

(if only by quotation, bummer!), who have me disagreeing with Jang Jin-sung, but only because his point of view has been so seriously misrepresented in the media that it started to lead its own life. If you want to know what Jang is writing/saying, learn Korean. If you can’t be bothered to do that (or if you have a legitimate excuse), do the next best thing and read New Focus International.

Being misunderstood by the New York Times (which in itself is something I’d happily see happen more often, there’s no bad publicity, he said cynically), this is nothing compared to what Jang Jin-sung has had to stomach owing to a perfect storm-like combination of North Korea news, views that go against the establishment, a (un-)healthy dose of Orientalism and a perceived failure to pay proper obeissance to the powers-that-be, whether in academia or the media. This article managed to (let’s hope temporarily) drag down the venerable New Yorker to the level you’d normally expect of the glossy, articial-boobs-obsessed rags one usually finds on the table in the dentist’ waiting room. Not only is this article factually incorrect, it nastily implies that Jang’s motivation for furnishing North Korea-related news is his bank account through the sales of Dear Leader (now, why don’t I do the promoting: buy the book here!). If this criticism had come from someone who had also risked his/her life to leave behind the most repressive system in the world, to start anew in a different country, to leave what little protection he/she had to speak out in public and do so at considerable risk for his/her own life and livelihood, I might have shown some understanding. But it didn’t. Which makes the article just another opprobrium-emitting instrument or to put it more bluntly, which makes the article yet another piece of crappy research journalism written with the express goal of pooring more vitriol and shit over Jang Jin-sung. There is by the way something inherently cowardly in doing this in another language than his own (also something culturally imperialist, but since I’m writing this in English myself, I should probably shut up about that).

Why are the reactions towards Jang’s analysis (and no, if you still think he actually said that a coup has robbed Kim III from his power, learn to read or find a way to deal with your frustrations other than making other people’s life miserable just because you have a keyboard, internet connection and you can) so vehement? There is of course real disagreement with Jang’s analysis. Which of course (do I need to say this?) is fine. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that there has also been ‘proper’ disagreement, based on content and not on personal background. If this leads to a proper debate and better understanding of North Korea, I’m a happy man.

However, the majority of reactions has been distorting the original message (yup, it’s Strawman and his by now numerous offspring again) and was aimed below the belt. What are the improper arguments against Jang Jin-sung? There is rather a lot out there. Let me sum up some of the most prevalent (and while I’m doing this, I must make a note to myself that I can use these examples in my Orientalism class next semester).

  • He is an exile, so he is not to be trusted. Anything he says is tainted by his personal experiences.
  • He is an exile, so he is not to be trusted. Anything he says is motivated by his political agenda.
  • He is an exile, so he is not to be trusted. Anything he says comes from a person who has left Pyongyang ten years ago. What does he know?
  • He is an exile, so he is not to be trusted. He will say anything to make a buck. He only speaks out because he wants you (yes, you there!) to buy his book.

I must admit that when this kind of criticism comes from fellow academics (and it does), I find this troubling. Where is the engagement with the argument Jang puts forward? If you find yourself in rebutting mode, rebut the arguments, not the man. That is what I was looking forward to, a proper, critically informed discussion of the OGD’s role in North Korean power structures. That was the original goal of the conference (see here): to make voices heard, not to forcefeed a particular point of view. Instead, we’re being invited to witness an obscene spectacle of people vying with each other to see who can come up with the most Orientalist dismissal of Jang and his analyses. This affects me, to quote a well-known British comedian.

Is criticism on Jang necessarily Orientalist? No, it isn’t. It only is when it focuses on his personal background as reason to dismiss his views instead of engaging with the contents of what he argues. It is the nineteenth century all over again. Scary, isn’t it, when the natives talk back (and when they turn out to be eloquent and informed)? In Jang, North Korean elite exiles have found a powerful voice who speaks from experience but also from intellectual acumen. His voice is not an ordinary voice, no matter where it sounds. And I can imagine that after decades of talking about North Korea, it takes some adjustment to listen to authentic North Korean voices and take them seriously (this is not the state speaking after all). By focusing on Jang’s personal background (One cannot trust an exile/Was he really that elite?/Is he really a North Korean exile?/How come I don’t know about these elite exiles?/If I don’t know, they can’t be that elite and so on, and so forth) a dual purpose is served. It feeds into an unarticulated sense of entitlement of being part of those Admitted who may speak for and about North Korea. And it denies Jang equal treatment by insisting he lacks the same qualifications. Why don’t you sit and ponder this last sentence for a while. Go have a cup of coffee while you do and then tell me whether you also don’t think that if that is the case, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Rotten? I can smell it all the way over here in Leiden.

By disqualifying Jang on his personal background, one may disguise the fact that almost no one who can speak out has credible first-hand access to North Koreans and even that second-hand access to North Koreans isn’t something you can buy at the shop around the corner. The emergence of elite North Korean exiles changes the discourse: they may very well have first-hand access to North Koreans, they very well may have info we don’t. They very well may spell the end to the NK punditry monopoly of some.

Is Jang biased? I’m sure he is. But then again, I am. So are you. I am not going into that discussion here, but this is an old, very old discussion in academia. The short-cut solution says that one needs to be transparant about one’s background etc. That Jang is.

Is Jang politically motivated? I sure hope so! This is North Korea we’re talking about after all. Again, transparency is the real issue here. Is he transparent about what he wishes to see happen? Yes.

Did he leave Pyongyang and his elite life there ten years ago? Yes, he did. When did you? If this is truly a serious academic argument, get your PhD re-examined. There’s so much wrong with this as an academic argument, I cannot begin to exhaustively deal with it. Suffice it to say that this is not merely about who has got the latest intel (although also in that case I’d put my money on New Focus‘s network), but about experience, knowing how the system works, understanding propaganda from within and not merely from without. And so forth, and so on. And of course, if this is a serious argument, no North Korea Studies scholar shall remain standing. Discounting touristy visits, who spent a considerable time inside the highest echelons of the system? And no, doing a stint as an exchange student is not the same.

And finally, is he doing this for the money? Well, what do you think? Does it help him financially antagonizing so many people, the same people who should be inviting and fêting him to boost up sales of his books? To get a shot at the lecture circuit? I don’t think so. Then there is the questionable accusation of North Korean exiles only being interested in money. Do I need to go into this? Or can you figure our for yourself that asking this question in this way says something about your position as a well-fed, overly indulged, biased and facile thinking non-North Korean exile and not something about people who had to leave friends and family behind at the risk of their life to start again in a different country without anything to their name? And then there is the question of course whether it is at all wrong to do this for the money. I’m being paid as a professor of Korean Studies. I bet my colleagues are. So are journalists. He who is without sin etc.

I must admit I did expect some of the vitriol and some of the mud. I also counted on some colleagues to restrict their arguments to the content. It seems I was right on both accounts, although I seriously underestimated the vitriol and mud.  While covered in mud and what else, I am hoping that out of all the shit hitting fans et cetera, a nice, fresh-smelling lotus flower will emerge. As Winston Churchill rightly remarked, “I’ve always been an optimist. I don’t see much use in being anything else.”

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