July 22nd, 2008


We don't like how they make their great kids great

The Vice Guide to North Korea is a 14-episode account -- made at some risk to the journalists -- of a heavily-guarded journey through North Korea. I found it fascinating, but I did notice some dubious ideology creeping in, especially in Episode 12, A Schoolchildren's Palace, billed as "meeting the country's creepily over-talented future generation".

Here Shane Smith edged towards that journalistic-political cliché I call the "we don't like how they treat their women / children" school. Basically, the idea behind this move is that in any given culture, men are responsible for the ideology, and women and children are helpless victims and hostages. The implication is that, although the men are a lost cause, the women and children could be captured and brought to some other culture, where they'd be much happier.

This "much happier", in Smith's account of North Korean children, involves being a lot less motivated and talented. "One of the most fun-slash-sad times," Smith says in Episode 12, "was to see the best-of-the-best school in Pyongyang." After showing some child prodigies playing musical instruments larger than themselves, Smith decides that "it's so sad because these great kids are learning and learning for the state". But what's wrong with learning -- to exceptionally high standards -- for the state, and at the expense of the state? Are these children really to be pitied? Mightn't they be -- as well as "great kids" -- fervently ideological admirers of Kim Jong Il, believers in North Korea's superiority over South Korea, and convinced that their "creepy talents" could only have been advanced so far in the particular system they were born into?

And mightn't the show they're preparing for -- a show in a land of shows, some of the most spectacular in the world -- be the intense focus of their lives, and a source of enormous pride for them?

I'm certainly not claiming the North Korean system isn't deeply problematical, but I wonder why we insist on the universal innocence of women and children when we look at cultures which are very different from our own? And I wonder whether the implied transferability of these women and children to our own system (where they'd be "healthy and free", of course) isn't a relic of the unpleasant imperial practices of rape, pillage and plunder: the strategy of killing all the men in a conquered zone and capturing all the women and children.