North Korea and South Africa: A Study in Hypocrisy

After less than three weeks, FIFA has closed its investigation into allegations that players and coaches of North Korea’s losing soccer team were subjected to criticism sessions when they returned home. But when you go to FIFA’s web site, it’s apparent that FIFA’s “investigation” consisted of opening and reading a letter from the North Koreans denying it. I have no inside knowledge of whether the allegations are true, but I know that FIFA has no more idea of the truth of this matter than it did when it cleared Uday Hussein of charges of torturing Iraqi athletes (an iron maiden was later found behind Iraqi Olympic Committee headquarters).

But rather than speculating about the unknowable, I ask why North Korea is invited to international sporting events at all, and why liberals who rightly pressed to sanction South Africa and opposed constructive engagement, now advocate that precise thing in the case of North Korea, whose human rights record is far worse than South Africa’s.

Update: Sadly, The New Ledger is no more, so I’m republishing the piece below the fold:

After less than three weeks, FIFA has closed its investigation into allegations that North Korea punished players and coaching staff of its spectacularly unsuccessful World Cup team, calling the allegations “baseless.”  Kay Seok, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, details the allegations in an article in the Asia Times:

Radio Free Asia quoted three independent sources saying that the football team had gone through a humiliating six-hour session of public criticism on July 2 at the Pyongyang People’s Cultural Palace. Sports Minister Pak Myong-chol, and a TV commentator, Ri Dong-kyu, who is also a professor with the Sports Science Institute, led the session, the report said, and 400 other athletes affiliated with other sports associations and government agencies took part.

While the players and coach reportedly stood in front of the audience, Ri was joined by Sports Ministry representatives in criticizing the weaknesses of each player. Next, some other participants followed suit. Toward the end of the meeting, it was the turn of the coach, Kim Jong-hun, and then each of his players was compelled to criticize him.

The allegations are generally sourced to Radio Free Asia, but like every other news organization in the free world, RFA has no Pyongyang correspondent, so any information not supplied by the state itself must come from anonymous North Korean sources.  These allegations gained additional credence from “unspecified evidence” supplied by Chung Mong-Joon, the powerful South Korean former chairman of Hyundai and president of the South Korean Football Association.  Chung and the Hyundai Group have traditionally supported more-or-less unrestricted aid to, and accommodation of, North Korea, making Chung an unlikely accuser.  So are the reports true?  I have no way of knowing for certain, and neither does FIFA, unless it has found some means heretofore lost on the World Food Program, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the U.N. Development Program for extracting transparency from Kim Jong Il’s regime.  Alas, it has not.  FIFA’s web site doesn’t include a report or even a description of its investigation, but it does explain how it knows that all is well in Pyongyang.  Because the North Koreans told them so, silly:

In the letter, the Korea DPR FA assures FIFA that Mr Kim Jong Hun, head coach of the national team, and all the other members of the national team are training as usual and that the members of the team will soon take part in the 16th Asian Games. The association also indicates that there were no sanctions to the coach and that the reports on this matter were baseless.

Furthermore, the Korea DPR FA clarified that the election of the president of the association held on 19 June was held in accordance with the statutes of the association and were not affected by any result of the team at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, recalling that at the time of the election the team had only played one match against Brazil and had shown a good level of play.

With all of the information at hand, and having checked all of its sources, FIFA has decided to close the matter.

I can only wonder if FIFA’s investigation of Uday Hussein was equally exhaustive.  But instead of speculating about what’s unknowable to you, me, and (most significantly) FIFA, I’ll ask a more fundamental question:  Why did FIFA invite North Korea to the World Cup at all?

Over the last decade, thousands of North Koreans who’ve managed to escape that wretched place have accused Kim Jong Il’s regime of atrocities as widespread and as depraved as anything witnessed on the face of Pangaea since the flight of the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh.  The stock answer to this question is that sports and politics should be kept separate, something I wish I had video of the FIFA management saying from Johannesburg just to illustrate the hackneyed stupidity of this argument.  That’s right, this year’s World Cup was held in a nation that was suspended from the World Cup and the Olympics for three decades because of, according to FIFA, “the racist polices of its previous government.”  In other words, FIFA suspended and later expelled South Africa for perfectly good and expressly political reasons.  FIFA’s ban was initially based on South Africa’s segregation of its soccer team, but FIFA’s site recounts with obvious pride how the ban evolved into the organization’s protest against the entire apartheid system:  “In Montreal in 1976, South Africa’s suspension was turned into an expulsion and it was only after the dismantling of the country’s divisive legislation and the start of negotiations towards a democratic society that the South Africa was restored to FIFA membership in July, 1992.”  South Africa’s apartheid regime also argued against any miscegenation between sports and politics, but the pressure from cultural and economic boycotts eventually forced South Africa to dismantle apartheid, a process I was later fortunate enough to witness first-hand.

The insistence on separating sports from politics has been self-serving nonsense, argued and applied selectively, since at least 1936 when, a year after the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws, Josef Goebbels teamed up with Leni Riefenstahl to dazzle film critics across the future Festung Europa with “Olympia.”  It was still nonsense when China tore a page from Goebbels’s playbook to turn the 2008 Olympics into a controlled and choreographed spectacle of historical and political nationalism.  China sought to route the “domestic” leg of the Olympic Torch route through Taipei, the capital of China’s only government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and which China insists that everyone call “Chinese Taipei,” before reverting to its ritualistic repetition that politics must be kept out of sports.  But repressive regimes have always used international sporting events to serve their own political ends.  To Goebbels, the purpose of sports was “to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.”  The Nazis toned down their public displays of anti-Semitism while foreign tourists were in Berlin, but shortly before the tourists arrived, they “cleansed” Berlin of about 800 Gypsies and sent them to a special camp outside Berlin.  In an eerie modern echo of this, Human Rights Watch alleged that “[a]head of and during the Beijing Olympic Games, China stepped up the arrest and repatriation of North Korean refugees and migrants.”  Of those repatriated, many undoubtedly died in camps like the one at Cheongo-Ri, satellite imagery of which I first confirmed with the help of recent defectors last year.  China also dispatched squads of thugs to escort the Olympic torch around the world.  When the torch passed through South Korea, the Chinese Embassy bused thousands of “students” to downtown Seoul, a city that briefly became for politically repressed Chinese youth what Tijuana is for sexually repressed American youth.  Photographs and video of the ensuing riot show the flag-brandishing Chinese throwing bottles, rocks, and at least one perfectly good pair of wire-cutters at peaceful protesters for human rights in North Korea and Tibet. Try telling these guys about the fastidious apartheid between sports and politics.

North Korea also upheld its long-standing tradition of making a propaganda spectacle out of absolutely everything, seizing on the 2010 World Cup for both domestic and international propaganda.  Until the reports of the criticism sessions emerged, North Korea might have claimed to have made some progress in moderating an image that has nowhere to go but up.  Some reports hold that the politicization was taken to bizarre extremes this year, even by North Korean standards:

North Korean manager Kim Jong-Hun reportedly gets coaching advice directly from the country’s diminutive dictator via an invisible cell phone.  According to the coach has claimed he gets “regular tactical advice during matches” from Jong Il “using mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye. . . .  Jong Il is said to have developed the technology himself,” coach told

And to think that some people wonder why I blog about North Korea.

Later, in a  match televised live in Pyongyang, North Koreans watched their team crushed 7-0 by Portugal and saw for themselves how their Dear Leader’s on-the-spot coaching did for North Korea’s soccer team what it did for North Korea’s agriculture, industry, and quality of life.  The lesson here is that unless the organizers of international sporting events are at least as determined as their more repressive participants, the regimes will exploit those events as vehicles for propaganda and excuses for repression.  In the case of South Africa, this determination really came from activists who pressured the sporting organizations.  And all of us who are at least 40 remember how intense that pressure had become by the mid-1980’s.  Few of us would have heard of “Sun City” before or after learning that it was a place that decent people wouldn’t think to go.  By 1990, when Willem DeKlerk released Nelson Mandela from his prison cell on Robben Island, South Africa was a global pariah.  Public outrage, most of it driven by liberal opinion and pop culture, forced disinvestment by multinational corporations and state and local governments, passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, and eventually, triggered capital flight that depressed the currency of a nation with some of the world’s greatest mineral reserves.

Contrast North Korea’s treatment to South Africa’s, and then try to put this contrast into an appropriate moral context.  When I lived in South Africa briefly in 1990, I traveled throughout the country and most of the countries surrounding it. I formed friendships with people of just about every classification into which the state still hewed people at that time, and I was invited into both black and “Asian” townships.  From this collection of observations, I bring a few relevant observations.  In the sunset of its bad old days — or, the twilight of its Reconstruction — South Africa was neither especially repressive by African standards nor an idyll of good government or social justice. Its ugly bigotry was dying hard in the Western Transvaal, where the “Net Blankes” signs were being painted over while the more subtle “Right of Admission Reserved” signs still persisted. Most whites were striving to change their ways of thinking about other races, but it still wasn’t uncommon to see whites in that verkrampte part of the country openly degrade non-whites. Granted, I was not burdened with carrying the dreaded passbook, but I did not sense the fear of the state that one felt constantly in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Kaunda’s Zambia. I certainly never saw the same horror among black South Africans that I saw in the eyes of the Mozambican refugees in camps in Swaziland (most parts of which really did, at least at that time, seem idyllic).  The greatest fears my white, black, and Indian friends all expressed were not of the state but of violent crime first, and then of South Africa’s dangerous roads. Social inequality was deep and wide, but a substantial percentage of enterprising black South Africans were becoming wealthy operating taxi buses, small stores, and unlicensed bars. There was widespread poverty, but almost everyone had enough to eat — even if too much of it was corn meal — and by that time, the government tolerated a proliferation of leftist township broadsheets. Some fled the repression of the state in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but political exiles were greatly outnumbered by economic immigrants from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and even relatively prosperous Botswana.  The overall impression of South Africa in 1990 was of a place that was changing for the better, even if change would be difficult and would take time.  Who can say this about North Korea, which is now in the process of engineering its third dynastic succession to another leader with no aptitude for anything save accruing total control, and least of all, for competent governance?

Aside from having strolled around the perimeter of one room that straddles the Military Demarcation Line at Panmunjom, I can’t say that I’ve acquired the same degree of first-hand understanding of how people live in North Korea, but then again, neither can anyone else. Plenty of liberal-minded westerners who’d have gasped at the idea of visiting South African in 1985 have paid exorbitant sums to slum their way through a fixed circuit of Potemkin Pyongyang flanked by minders, or even marveled at the strange beauty of walking in a city plunged into darkness most nights.  They aren’t coming back from this with any greater understanding of North Korea unless they grasp how far the state is willing to go to deceive them. As one BBC correspondent recently put it, “I think that what surprised me most here was that they could believe that we would believe that what they showed us was for real.”  Given the extent of that society’s internal control and the mutual suspicion and snitching it encourages, I wouldn’t say that there are many North Korean exceptions to this generalization, either.  Former residents of Pyongyang I’ve met don’t claim to know much about how their fellow citizens live in Hamhung, Sinuiju, or Chongjin, and the converse is also usually true.  North Korea may be the only place on earth where there is an inversely proportional relationship between the time one spends in the country and the useful knowledge that one brings back from there, and where one can learn more by talking to defectors or studying the place on Google Earth than by going there.  North Korea is a mystery to everyone, but this always inures to North Korea’s advantage when some pesky international organization meekly asks it to comply with the same standards by which the rest of human civilization lives.

North Korea’s participation in international sporting events isn’t the only evidence of the double standard that works to Kim Jong Il’s advantage.  Last week, the news media seized on the campaign of a 13 year-old boy, who I will assume was prodded by his well-meaning liberal parents, to go to Pyongyang, meet with Kim Jong Il, and convince him to establish a “peace forest” along the Korean DMZ.  Kim Jong Il, who was packing his bags for a trip to China, snubbed the little media darling, no doubt to the immense relief of Jimmy Carter.  Maybe I just hate peace, or maybe I just know an asinine idea when I see one, but I think it would be far better to put that peace forest here, at the site currently occupied by Camp 16, which borders North Korea’s nuclear test site (for good measure, I’d include the test site, too).  The obvious response to an obviously ridiculous idea went unsaid among a liberal commentariat that advocates in the case of North Korea the precise thing it despised when Ronald Reagan wanted to offer it to South Africa — “constructive engagement.”  The liberal commentariat now supports business investment in North Korea as a means to gradually transform North Korea, a fool’s errand if ever there was one.  This policy, pursued in turns by American and South Korean governments for decades, has been a proven failure at doing anything but consolidating North Korea’s hold on power and its possession of a nuclear arsenal, even as it weakened the civilized world’s leverage to demand an end to its atrocities against its people.  To simultaneously support a boycott in the case of South Africa and  constructive engagement in the case of North Korea is the height of hypocrisy, a double standard that can’t be defended by any principled distinction.  South Africa’s ugly racism is well known, but it never extended to racial infanticide. South Africa segregated neighborhoods, hospitals, and public accommodations; North Korea simultaneously starved perhaps 2.5 million expendable citizens while spending obscenely on arms and luxuries for its ruling oligarchy.  South Africa murdered seven people and tortured hundreds more in John Vorster Square; North Korea has killed 400,000 people in a system of political prison camps with a collective area rivaling some U.S. states and a population of 200,000 men, women, and children (these statistics are necessarily rough estimates).

I have said nothing here that acquits apartheid-era South Africa of dehumanizing injustice toward the majority of its citizens, or to diminish the righteousness of the world’s outrage against that, or to criticize the commendable leadership of liberal opinion-makers in galvanizing that outrage. But the question left unanswered is this:  Why not North Korea, too?