Now it’s a Japanese government minister suggesting that Japan shouldn’t grant visas to North Korean athletes.
I fear an important distinction is being lost here. On the one hand, I strongly agree with the need to isolate the North Korean regime financially — to do no harm, to refuse to sustain or legitimize an evil system of government. On the other hand, I recognize that maintaining the isolation of the North Korean people actually helps sustain that system. Because the North Korean regime usually demands financial and propaganda concessions as precondition to engagement, and because the harmful effects of those preconditions tends to outweigh the modest benefits of any engagement, I oppose most of those engagement projects in practice (see any of my arguments with my friend Andrei Lankov on this point). But this is not to deny Andrei’s major premise — that isolation supports the North Korean system, and that breaking that isolation corrodes it.
Kim Jong Il allows very limited contact between ostensibly loyal citizens and the outside world for propaganda purposes. He believes that he is creating a positive image for his regime, and that the citizens he exposes to the outside world have no lasting and subversive impressions based on what they see. He is wrong on both counts. This sort of engagement cannot fail to have a subversive effect on people who have never seen traffic jams, or forests of gleaming skyscrapers, some with massive TV screens mounted on them. Unfortunately, it’s often outweighed by some financial benefit the regime recoups, and in some cases, by the stupidity and ignorance of the morally retarded.
The North Korean government ought to pay its own expenses and should not be allowed to profit financially from the visit. But we should not believe that we hurt Kim Jong Il — as opposed to helping him keep his people isolated — by excluding North Koreans from contact with the outside world.
If the goal is to damage Kim Jong Il’s regime, I can think of any number of more constructive approaches, including giving the team members and coaches assurances that they’d be received if they defect. And given the history of North Korean athletes failing drug tests recently, I’d get plenty of urine samples. Finally, there is no reason why North Korean visitors need to be shielded from demonstrators protesting against the regime’s abuses of its own people, or its abductions of Japanese citizens. Let them experience how people in free societies really view His Withering Majesty. And make sure the tour bus passes through Shibuya both to and from the airport — at night.