The sheer horror of the all pervasive denial of individual freedom and rejection of any objective consideration of reality, in favour of an “official view” is difficult to get across. It is dehumanising, debilitating and life is cheap there. It has all but scrubbed capitalism away, with private property rights virtually non-existent beyond a few personal chattels, with all employment defined and prescribed by the state. Where you live, what job you do and your spare time are all almost entirely determined by others, and is a mixture of chance, favour and whim. For those who insult the personality cult heads, or are deemed to be counter-revolutionary, the future is grim for them and their entire families. If a man is said to have said something illegal, or folded a newspaper the wrong way (creasing an image of one of the leaders), or the like, it is to the gulags that he goes, with his wife or girlfriend, his parents, siblings and children.
You see in the DPRK, children can be political prisoners. Forced to live in prisons high in the mountain valleys, from babies. They receive rations that are starvation level, those who survive do so by eating bugs, mice and other things they can forage or hunt for. Many are physically abused, some sexually abused, when old enough they are forced to work from dawn to late in the evening, every day. It is one step removed from Nazi concentration camps, in that it isn’t gassing used to eliminate them, simply hard work, cold and malnutrition.
That horror isn’t easy to visit in the DPRK, for obvious reasons. However, DPRK watchers have been adept at mapping, in great detail, where such camps are, with a brilliant Google Earth overlay. For actual visitors to the DPRK, the horror is more subtle. It isn’t in the power cuts, the propaganda, the relatively barren streets, crumbling infrastructure or the regimentation, it is what is not so obvious. For there is a surfeit of videos and pictures of the DPRK’s key spectacles, none of which is that new.
It is the lack of children playing spontaneously, for their before and after school and weekend time is all taken up by state organised clubs and associations, all designed to promotion loyalty to the leaders, the party and the state, including dobbing in their parents for not being sufficiently loyal. It is the orphanages where infants are shown off singing and dancing a song like “Kim Jong Il is our father”. It is the constant climate of fear among citizens about who sees them, who listens to them and what will be said. People who have had much history and information about the outside world kept from them, and what they do get is frequently heavily distorted. People who are anxious to know about the outside world, to understand and to be free of fear. Of course you never see those who are taken away, imprisoned, tortured or simply starving to death because of a regime that imprisons them and steals from them all to maintain a true 1% elite of privilege, gained by force, birth-right and fraud.
So what did Sun journalists Alex Peake and Simon Jones think was most important to focus on? The treatment of circus animals. The two of them lied their way into the country for a rather asinine story, probably wrecking future business of the tour company Lupine Tours, and quite possibly risking not only the end of the career, but also possible imprisonment of their tour guides. A bit of research with DPRK experts (and there are a number of noted academics) would have told them the real cost of their “story” lies with others.
Now I’m all for thwarting dictatorships and embarrassing them, I’m particularly keen on getting more information into them and engaging with people who live there. I’m also interested in raising the profile of the most serious atrocities of such regimes. For the DPRK it must be the use of Stalinist type Gulags to imprison and enslave the children of political prisoners (though one can count the banishing of the disabled, uncounted public executions of political prisoners and the mass starvation of millions whilst the leadership dined like oligarchs).
However, for the Sun, it no doubt figured its readers were more interested in finding a country where they don’t know Michael Jackson is dead (hardly surprising, since the moon landings were never ever reported, and the Holocaust isn’t commonly known to have happened either), and where circuses involve the undoubted cruel treatment of bears and baboons.
Sad though it is, the treatment of the bears and baboons is not unusual outside Western Europe, and would also be found in many former Soviet Republics and China. Quite simply the cultural norm of treating animals with compassion is alien to many cultures, and hardly a surprise for a state which retains structures and systems little changed from the ones the USSR transplanted onto it in the 1940s.
However, for the Sun to regard this to be the real tragic story of the DPRK is a travesty. Although I would not be surprised if the human hating fraternity called PETA thinks the treatment of bears is more of an issue than the treatment of humans in the country, and that compassion for animals in the UK tends to rank higher than that for people.
I don’t belong to the feeding frenzy of hate-mongers who think any media owned by Rupert Murdoch is somehow evil – far from it. However, this sort of “journalism” is not only rather facile, but at best is not useful, and at worst counterproductive.
For a start, if it means less people get to visit the place and expose it to foreign ideas and questions, because Lupine Tours is shut out of the market, then that is unfortunate. I expect Lupine Tours to sue for breach of contract (presuming it was clever enough to include a contract that restricted the journalists).
However, the likely reaction of the DPRK is going to be more simple. It will stop including the animal circus on tours visited by Westerners. It wont save the animals. However, it will give the impression that this is what matters the most – the treatment of circus animals. It shouldn't be.
You see the impression most people have of the place is ludicrous dictators and nuclear weapons, with big monuments, mass regimentation and all other sorts of spectacles. The unadulterated evil behind it all is largely ignored, particularly by the likes of Amnesty International and the leftwing protest movement - all too keen to damn the USA on its treatment of Islamist terrorist suspects, but never raising a protest against the torture of children by the DPRK.
A far more useful article would have sought out defectors, and discussed what they saw and experienced, and talked about the gulags with children in them. This is what must be raised, again and again – the gulags must be opened up, letting the ICRC in and get closed down. Children should not be political prisoners – ever (even though, in reality, virtually everyone in the DPRK is a political prisoner).
Better reporting on the DPRK is here in the Economist, about the horrors of the gulags, pointing out it is easier to lampoon the regime as freaky than to confront the true horror of the place.
This video of a starving orphan girl in the country is far more harrowing and disturbing than grotesque circus animals. Although, I doubt PETA really thinks so.