The Free Press In Pyongyang And Other Fairy Tales

UK_taxpayers_funding_Korean_tyrant_s_spin_doctors_UK_News_Daily_Express_-_2014-12-14_14.40.30You know it’s that kind of Sunday when this is what you get to read early in the morning: “UK Funding Korean Tyrant! Kim Jong’s Spin Doctors Trained at OUR Expense.” Coffee-deprived as I was, for a fleeting moment I wondered whether I hadn’t been paying attention lately and missed a fourth-generation Kim scion taking the helm in Pyongyang. That wasn’t the case of course. It was just a case of a missing Un (endless pun possibilities here: UN?).

The Sunday Express, a UK newspaper that survived and probably benefitted from the News Of The World’s downfall (which should tell you enough), had taken the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to task (for all of my fellow non-Brits: that’s UK speak for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Commonwealth being a nice word for “former colonies no longer under our control”) for spending 70,000 GBP on training 46 North Korean journalists in the principles of “international reporting practices and the development of technical skills to build websites, using a variety of international sources.” Is that a bad idea? Normally, I would disregard any and each article that starts with a high-pitched “taxpayers” argument. More often than not, the angry invocation of anonymous taxpayers masks the absence of any proper argument. Not here, however.

Lord Alton, who is the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, had this to say vis-a-vis the FCO: it was “investing in people who are official mouthpieces of the regime” by spending so much money on 46 North Korean journalists. Is this a fair accusation? Isn’t this going against the notions of cultural diplomacy? Of Track Two diplomacy (click here for my thoughts on that)? Well, given the undisputed (even in North Korea) fact that NK journalists are not supposed to show any kind of criticism towards their regime and state on pain of some pretty stiff punishment, this is not so much an accusation as a statement of fact. NK journalists are official mouthpieces of the regime and they would be the last to deny this. Why sponsor them then? To patronizingly condescend and tell how journalism is supposed to work? My feeling is that most of these 46 journo’s will know. But then what? Risk everything to espouse an attitude towards the Fourth Estate that has no support in a totalitarian state such as North Korea? I don’t think so. And I don’t think these people should be brought in a potentially difficult sitation by confronting them with the (more or less) free press in Europe.

What then? Teach them ways how to better build websites? How to spread propaganda more effectively? How to diversity indoctrination-through-media technologies? How to tweet North Korean citizens into mindless disobedience? How to turn Facebook into a tool of mass oppression? God knows we’ve got enough of that know-how. Call me silly, but I am just not sure that it’s such a good idea to help North Korean propagandists acquire these skills.

And why not? Because I am certain that it’s not these people that are going to make a difference in North Korea. Even if they want to (which I sincerely doubt BTW), they probably can’t. There is a reason why they have been chosen to take this lavishly sponsored course: the regime doesn’t doubt its ability to keep these people in check, one way or the other. No European (or any other) government should be complicit in that. And you don’t need to be a NK expert to reach that conclusion. The Sunday Express article cites a Mr Andy Silvester of the TaxPayers’ Alliance (somehow, I have these associations with the Iron Bank in Games of Thrones: can’t help it, maybe it’s the word ‘damascene’ that does it):  “Even if these journalists receive a damascene conversion to the merits of a free and fair press, they’re unlikely to have many chances to practise their new skills when they get home.”

I support the notion of training North Korean journalists (or other occupations) in ” “international reporting practices and the development of technical skills to build websites, using a variety of international sources.” I actually think that is a very, very good idea that may potentially have far-reaching consequences. But not if the journalists in question are Pyongyang propagandists. Instead, I think Lord Alton was spot on in remarking that this money (and the entire training) better be spent on those North Koreans who have demonstrated without a doubt to be independent, critical-minded, brave, intrepid and possessed of an enterprising spirit (the ideal journalist-type in other words): the North Korean exiles in the UK for example.

Oh, but stupid me, didn’t the UK government want to send them “back” to South Korea? Is that the reason why the FCO choose to train the official mouthpieces (whether they are willingly so or not) of one of the most horrific regimes in the world instead of spending it on the NK exiles right under their stiff upper lip? It amazes me to think of it, but where is the state that is actually brave enough to invest in these people instead of investing in ineffective, ethically compromising and ultimately useless projects with the butchers in Pyongyang? Who dares to invest a whopping 70.000 GBP in young NK exiles who want to contribute to making their country a better place and who actually have the credentials to be taken seriously? To be invested in? Who have taken unimaginable risks and suffered unspeakable things to be in a position from which they can start to make a difference? In the end, it’s up to North Koreans themselves to make North Korea a better country and not to Foreign Ministries of other countries, not even the Foreign & Former Colonies That No Longer Listen To London Office. Let’s invest in these North Koreans in exile then, instead of finding ever new ways to prolonge a status quo that bleeds lives for every minute we spend on talking about it.

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