A Note on North Korea

How come the reaction to the above scenes in the west has been so poor? Like many of those jumping into the fray on this I have very little knowledge of Korean politics. But it seems to me that we are offered impoverished explanations that fit into a few simple camps. On the one hand, it is argued that the grieving shown here is somehow staged (this is a perfectly valid possibility), perhaps even at gunpoint, on the other, that a population is ‘brainwashed’ into feeling sincere sadness at the passing of someone we know to be amongst the last of the great dictators of the 20th century.

I think these responses say far more about those making them than they do about North Korea. For starters I’ve never had much time for the ‘brainwashing’ concept, as it generally tends to be used as a category to take agency away from groups who practice behaviours that don’t fit within the rational-actor model that labour demands of us- I’m not sure how it stands up in psychological studies or other forms of mental health practise, but its political use is often wide-reaching (I understand Alberto Toscano’s work on Fanaticism has covered some of this ground already). In particular its often used to demonize and alienate intentional communities and organizations that don’t conform to certain norms (to the benefit or detriment of their members). What Scientology gets accused of one week, the environmental movement gets accused of the next. The left is guilty of this as much as the right; a certain kind of naive empiricism abounds whereby the ‘mainstream media’ is to blame for obscuring the fundamental truth of exploitation. More broadly, its not like subjects in a liberal democracy are exactly immune from irrational outpourings of grief- in fact they seem to be far more common. Steve Jobs and Princess Diana are two examples mentioned by friends where the anglophone world has lost its shit over the death of a celebrity – while these two were clearly not as loathsome as Kim Jong Il, neither were they really any more intimately connected to our own lives; indeed there is a case to be made that the lives of both had largely negative consequences for those mourning them. The accusations of ‘brainwashing’ speak of a cold war arrogance and a western exceptionalism, more than the experience of North Koreans.

On the other hand, if we go with the ‘this is staged’ argument, its pretty much the same shit under a different banner. Yes, it may well be staged, but how many of us have gone into work or the classroom, shown enthusiasm for a project, then gone home thinking that everyone we worked with was a vile shit who we wished never to see again? In boardrooms up and down the country tomorrow a group of people will be referred to as “team” (yep, without the “the” in front of it) who might happily shank each other given the opportunity. How is this so different from a few crocodile tears for a distant leader, especially in a country where by all accounts there is so much to cry about? Emotional and affective labour is part and parcel of any economy these days- this conversation between ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Nina Power picks up on these themes. My point here is that it doesn’t take a gulag to cry for the camera. What is alien to us in this is not the fact that there is fake mourning but the degree and the scale to which it is performed.

I know very little about North Korea, and have little desire to involve myself in a debate about the internal workings of such a nation. But I could really do without the assumptions that a) people are powerless or idiotic drones unless they fit within certain parameters b) Liberal democratic citizens are somehow immune to manipulating our own emotions to what is demanded of us by a superior.

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One Response to A Note on North Korea

  1. Absolutely spot on, well said. My understanding is that ‘brainwashing’ doesn’t stand up at all in mental health practice (there’s a reason the CIA abandoned attempts at it in the sixties).

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