14 July 2004

On Boots, Flip-Flops and North Korean Thinking

Sometimes one must accept that propaganda may be based on reality… or at least the perception of reality.

One of the biggest shortcomings of anyone who studies other cultures and nations is to put themselves in the other people’s shoes. This is simply half the answer. Putting yourself in the shoes of another still leaves you with your own perceptions and feelings toward those shoes. If you normally wear flip-flops, you will feel uncomfortable in combat boots, and your impression will be that the wearer of said boots will always wish to remove them and have toes as free as yours.

While this may be the case, it is a rather shallow way of looking at things. The normal wearer of the boots may enjoy the support and sturdiness of the footwear, feel comfortable and confidant in being embraced by the stiff, shiny leather. They would feel rather uncomfortable in your flip-flops, and probably think that you are someone striving to get out of the weak and flimsy footwear and get into something stronger and more rugged. But they would be wrong.

The point is, that the reality of the situation is in the eye of the beholder. So if you truly want to understand the thoughts, motives and actions of another, you must not only wear their shoes, but become the wearer. Understand why they wear boots, why their climate or activities require such rugged footwear. Learn their history - maybe their dad always wore boots and they want to emulate their dad, or don't really know anything else. In short, to truly understand another culture or nation, one must try to become that nation.

Now, why a discussion of shoes, you may ask? Well, before I forget myself and rush out to trade in my flip-flops for a sturdy pair of surplus combat boots, let me say that the thought came to me as I was scanning the National Democratic Front of South Korea's website. The NDFSK is a South Korean association of pro-North Koreans, supporters of Juche and all that.

There is an interesting article they recently posted, entitled "Kim Jong Il's Juche-based view on arms: Arms are just power of a country and national sovereignty."

The article notes:

It has been a general view that in evaluating a country's power more importance is given to the economic power than the military power. The Juche-based view on arms is quite different from the general view. In a word, it gives more importance to the military power than the economic power and evaluates the power of a country with the military power as a key factor. Of course, the military power is not merely the physical power of arms. It is the power that has ideological and spiritual power of the arms and its physical capacity.

In essence, it notes that while the world may judge the power of a nation by its economy, under the Juche philosophy, ascribed to and promoted by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, military power is the primary concern. Without military power, there can be no economic power.

Pyongyang has a healthy respect for the United States, less because of its economic power (though North Korean leaders wish their economy was even one tenth as strong) but because of its military might. And Pyongyang, in order to remain sovereign and strong, pumps a massive amount of money into its military - despite the admonitions of international financial and human rights interests. While these organizations may argue that the money spent on the military would be better spent on feeding the citizens, Pyongyang argues that

History gives lesson that a country's power is degenerated and the course of social progress is stagnated, if politicians weaken and neglect the arms. And if they fail to check aggression, plunder and domination moves of the imperialism, they will face defeat and ruin.

In other words, without a strong military, economic growth of an independent nature cannot be achieved. This is why North Korea is constantly pressing for a security guarantee from the United States in return for giving up (sort of) its nuclear weapons program. Economic reforms and growth ca only be ensured by national security. (Interestingly, this is a similar view held by Washington, which ensures its national economic interests abroad are not interfered with by any other power through the deployment of military force -- or the threat of force.)

This view, held strongly in North Korea, explains the insistence on retaining what many outside see as a disproportionately large military in spite of reports of famine and ever-growing numbers of defectors and "economic migrants," as the Chinese like to refer to them as. From a Western point of view, this is totally illogical. From a North Korean point of view, any significant reduction in arms, any total abandonment of nuclear, chemical, biological and other unconventional weapons is entirely illogical and indeed suicidal.

While it may seem crazy from abroad, one must admit that it has gained North Korea a place at the table with the big boys (the United States, China, Russia…) when, by all accounts, North Korea should rank somewhere around Haiti as a foreign policy interest to the United States.

So remember, just because it sounds like propaganda and seems wacky doesn't mean it isn't taken largely at face value from the deliverer of such messages. So next time you are tempted to assume what a combat boot wearer really wants to feel on his toes, remember, who's toes are going to be sorer if you two start stepping on one another's feet?

No comments: