Kim Jong Un’s reign must be a dark time for North Korea’s apologists on the far left. Those who elevate equality above all other values (or say they do) must be hard pressed to find solidarity with a regime that has imposed the world’s most obscene case of economic and social injustice. Under Kim Jong Il, North Korea was no paragon of socialist equality. Since his dynastic succession, Kim Jong Un has added the arch-heresies of gaudy consumerism and an adoration of the coarsest elements of pop culture.
Even Bruce Cumings – Bruce Cumings – recently called Kim Jong Un “a modern Caligula,” and for once, I can’t argue with him. Off-hand, I can’t think of a richer target for “critical studies” than this one:
Even so, U.C. Santa Cruz Assistant Professor Christine Hong, writing at something called “Critical Asian Studies,” lobs a verbose, meandering screed at advocates for the human rights of Kim Jong Un’s subjects, a growing number of whom are themselves North Korean, and whom Hong quite casually calls “typically ‘beneficiaries of past injustice’” and “future violence.”
“Typically,” she says, apparently unconcerned that such sweeping bigotry and assignment of original sin would draw any challenge. Or, more plausibly, notice.
This is horrid stuff, on many levels. Its hackneyed language reads as if it was taped together out of ribbons from Chomsky’s shredder bin. As “scholarship,” it offers no useful data or citations of factual evidence about North Korea. Its citations of “authority” are, with few exceptions, pre-owned arguments and epithets borrowed from the co-habitants of Hong’s own echo chamber. Its most distinctive qualities are the yawning sloppiness of its arguments, and a sentence structure that combines the verbal economy of a filibuster with the literary coherence of a cattle auction. I can’t recall when I’ve seen so many words yield so little light or joy.
Hong first attacks the definition of human rights itself (“a hegemonic interpretive lens”), in a transparent effort to strip this term of any useful meaning. If I understand her correctly, she’s complaining that “the privileged ideological frame” that disapproves of the mass imprisonment and murder of political prisoners — and their kids — has influenced more people than “other epistemic forms” that perpetrate it. But if “human rights” means anything, no advocate for that concept could abide how North Korea treats its people today.
Next, Hong tries to pound the words of human rights advocates into a Jell-O mold of Don Rumsfeld’s head, arguing that human rights advocacy must be a subterfuge for invading North Korea — a straw man argument against something no one of consequence supports. In her strained effort to make all human rights advocates sound like a caricature of … well, me, Hong omits any mention of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry or the powerful words of its avowedly liberal, openly gay Chair.
Hong mendaciously accuses the U.S. of “withholding” humanitarian aid; in fact, Pyongyang has impeded the delivery of aid by the U.S. and U.N., and diverted aid to its loyalists and military. Rather than allow monitoring and other safeguards against diversion, Pyongyang forced the World Food Program to slash its feeding program from 6.5 million recipients to just 1.9 million (later increased to 2.4 million), rejected 500,000 tons of U.S. food aid, and expelled U.S. aid workers. It agreed to, then quickly reneged on, a moratorium on missile launches for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid. When it received more food aid, it bought less food from abroad and spent the difference on other “priorities.” Some NGOs, such as Medicins Sans Frontieres, withdrew rather than help Pyongyang use food as a tool of control.
Then, Hong plods onward to a factually selective, ham-handed evasion of the Kim Dynasty’s responsibility for everything from the Korean War (“a civil and revolutionary war, a people’s war” frustrated by a “counterrevolutionary” U.N. intervention), its atrocities against own people, and the squalid life it imposes on them.
Hong blames this squalor on “the violence of sanctions” that “predictably stifle the economic growth of North Korea, in effect declaring it off-limits to potential investors and restricting the country’s access to capital, as well as exacerbating the suffering of the North Korean people.” Having found a scapegoat at a safe distance from Pyongyang, Hong calls the sanctions “formidable,” which is curious, because they are not formidable, and also because she fails to cite any of the authorities on which U.S. or U.N. sanctions rest, or explain what any of those authorities do. This, evidently, is what passes for scholarship in some quarters.
I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that Christine Hong really has no idea what U.S. or U.N. sanctions do (that’s the more charitable of the two alternatives that come to mind). Had Hong bothered to read the object of her criticism, she would know that those sanctions are not, as she would have her readers to imagine, a broad-based attack on North Korea’s economy, but a set of limited sanctions focused on North Korea’s trafficking in WMD components and technology, weapons, contraband like drugs and counterfeit currency, and luxury goods — and poorly enforced at that, as we’ll soon see. Hong doesn’t offer any analysis of what legitimate industry would, but for sanctions, lift North Korea’s economy with Chollima speed.
(To be fair, Hong would have her readers imagine that our North Korea sanctions are almost as tough and comprehensive as I wish they really were. Of course, I favor broad exceptions for food imports and humanitarian aid, I’d make the transparent delivery of humanitarian aid a specific objective of a sanctions program, and I’d forfeit Kim Jong Un’s ill-gotten wealth to pay for it.)
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Hong takes great care not to mention that a principal target of sanctions is Kim Jong Un’s appetite for luxury goods. After all, how in the world could she defend that? Still, I’d love to know, and each non-sequitur Hong offered only made me wonder how she would justify, say, a decision by the leader of a half-starved nation to spend millions of dollars on a ski resort.
Yonhap, quoting the South Korean National Intelligence Service, reports that Kim Jong Un spent $300 million building “leisure and sports facilities, including the ski resort,” at a time when 84% of North Korean households can’t find enough to eat. That expenditure is three times the amount that the World Food Program asked donor nations to contribute to feed hungy North Koreans last summer.
There’s nothing new about this pattern. I’ve already elaborated on some of the luxuries Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un bought that cost more than the amount needed to feed every hungry North Korean. I’ve explained why each of the MiG-29s in these satellite images killed as many North Koreans by starvation as one B-29 killed at Nagasaki. Lest any future prosecutor have difficulty proving his charges against the one responsible, KCNA helpfully offers that the ski resort was “built on the personal initiative of supreme leader Kim Jong Un and under his wise leadership.” (The unlinkable KCNA article is preserved below the jump.)
The U.N. Security Council first imposed sanctions on North Korea’s luxury goods imports in 2006, long after the famine ended, mostly humanitarian reasons. Historically, North Korean dictators have preferred European brands. Since at least 2007, EU regulations have prohibited persons and businesses under the jurisdiction of its member states from directly or indirectly selling or transferring “luxury items,” a term defined to specifically include “[a]rticles and equipment for skiing, golf, diving and water sports.”
Last summer, when Switzerland refused to sell North Korea ski lift equipment worth almost exactly as much as Switzerland’s annual humanitarian aid allocation for North Korea, North Korea called the refusal “a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans.” Today, as if for the express purpose of taunting the world, KCNA borrows the operative word of the U.N. sanctions in describing Masik Pass as a place “for the people to enable them enjoy luxury and comfort under socialism.”
Masik Pass has done the world two great services. First, it has helped make an even bigger fool of Christine Hong, and second, it has illustrated how poorly the world is enforcing those sanctions. After the Rodong Sinmun published these photos, a Swedish manufacturer expressed surprise at seeing his company’s snow canons there. Immediate suspicions fell upon a Chinese reseller. Writing for The Daily Telegraph, NK News’s Chad O’Carroll notes that plenty of other equipment at Masik Pass appears to have been imported in violation of U.N. sanctions, and even identifies the manufacturers, prices, and countries of origin:
A “Ski-Doo” Snowmobile manufactured by Canadian owned Bombardier Recreational Products & Vehicles was visible in pictures circulated by AFP, while at least seven snow blowers produced by Sweden’s Areco and at two snow ploughs produced by Italy’s Prinoth were visible in pictures released Thursday. A further snow plough produced by Germany’s Pisten Bully was also visible.
Johan Erling, the chief executive of Areco said that he had “no idea” how at least seven Areco snow cannons had turned up in North Korea, pointing out they could have been supplied through any number of intermediaries, formal or informal.
Mr Erling said that the seven snow blowers pictured by KCNA, known as the Areco Supersnow, cost anything between £13,900 to £22,400 each.
How North Korea could have acquired so many without his company’s knowledge was beyond him, Mr Erling said. Areco sells around 40 units per year to its Chinese reseller and the units pictured in North Korea are no more than 1.5 years old, he added.
The Italian produced snow ploughs visible in the picture published by KCNA are the Prinoth BR350 (yellow) and Prinoth Bison X (silver).
A previously owned BR350, first produced in 2006, is currently selling on a Canadian website for £48,400 while the Bison X, first produced in 2008, has a higher market value.
The red plough is a Pisten Bully unit, made in Germany. Units like the one pictured can be found online from £70,000.
Neither Prinorth, Bombardier Recreational Products & Vehicles or Pisten Bully could be reached for comment about the transfer of equipment to North Korea.
Bjørn-Erik Skjærvik, a Norwegian snowmobile reseller, said the unit pictured by AFP is the Skidoo GT550, produced in either 2011, 2012 or 2013. The GT series retail between £4500 to £7260 each.
Observers had already questioned just how many of “the people” will really enjoy Masik Pass. The fact that North Korea had to photoshop an image to manufacture a crowd of skiers suggests an answer.
In the top image, the man in the green-and-black jacket appears in triplicate, and the building in the foreground, if compared to the Rodong Sinmun slideshow and other images, appears to have been cropped and inserted, but turned 90 degrees in the process (study the eaves of the roof).
Kim Jong Un’s ostentatious, conspicuous consumption puts North Korea’s left-leaning apologists on ground they can’t defend, and that increasing numbers of them won’t even try to defend. Once, John Feffer offered an apologia for Kim Jong Il’s policy choice to sacrifice millions of people for North Korea’s “defense” against imperialist hegemons. Hong won’t offer a defense against Kim Jong Un’s obscene squandering on waterparks, amusement parks, 3D cinemas, and ski resorts. Instead, she chooses the obtuse alternative of ignoring their existence. But pretending that there is no elephant in the room is not an argument; it is a tacit admission that the argument is too ridiculous for even the regime’s most tendentious apologists to offer.