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24 Nov 2010

System of control – I originally wrote this entry last night while watching South Korea fumble their way to a last-minute loss against the UAE in the football semifinals of the Asian Games. I had been thinking about writing something for a few days, something related to football, but after the events of yesterday afternoon, I wondered if it wasn’t too trivial. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that the underlying idea is indeed relevant to what is going on right now with North Korea.

“I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries.”

Before I begin, though, I feel a few disclaimers are in order. Firstly, as regular readers will know, I rarely write about politics here, especially Korean politics. I do have opinions, I just don’t voice them often. But there are times when even I find it difficult to remain silent. Although I am not Korean, I am a permanent resident here (this is my legal status, not a comment on my future plans) and consider Korea my home. So I do have an interest in what happens on the peninsula.

Secondly, my views on and feelings about North Korea are not going to be those of your average Korean. Even though I live here, I am still looking at the situation from an outsider’s perspective in terms of culture, nationality, and ethnicity. So some of the things I say in the following paragraphs may seem somewhat cold. I am a human being, though, and I care for my fellow human beings.

I’ll start off with my original idea and then continue on from there. It all begins with something rather innocuous: football. (In case it isn’t obvious by now, I’m referring to the kind of football that is actually played with feet and a ball, as opposed to the type of football played by heavily-padded men who carry and throw around a pigskin.) I’ve been watching Korea’s progress in the Asian Games football tournaments, both the men’s and the women’s teams. As I mentioned above, the men’s team lost last night to the UAE. The women’s journey ended at the same level, when they lost 3-1 to North Korea on Saturday.

I was watching coverage of the games a couple of days ago, and the anchors were talking about the latest results. When it came time to cover football, one of the anchors said, “Unfortunately, our women’s team lost in the quarterfinals. But our opponent was North Korea, so it was not that unfortunate.” It wasn’t the first time I had heard this sort of thing, but it still frustrated me to no end.

If Korea and Japan are playing, it is a matter of national pride that Korea win. I’ve seen footage of the Korean national team returning to Korea after a loss against Japan, and it’s like watching disgraced politicians fleeing from the media. But when the opponent is North Korea, well, it’s a different story. When the South loses against the North—in addition to the recent women’s team loss, the men’s team also lost against North Korea in group play—you always hear the same thing: it’s North Korea, so it’s not so bad.

It’s frustrating to see South Korea, a far better team, struggle against the North, but these things happen. The attitude of the Korean media to losses against the North, though is mind-boggling. I do understand the rationale behind it—for however much a threat the North Korean regime may be to peace and stability on the peninsula, the North Korean people are more than worthy of our compassion. Not being Korean myself, my empathy necessarily has its limits, but Koreans commonly refer to their northern neighbors as their “brethren.” This is sometimes literally true—families are still separated to this day, and I don’t think I’ve seen a more heart-wrenching sight than footage of separated family reunions—but it is at least true on an ethnic level. Koreans think of themselves as one people. They may be divided by ideology, but they see themselves as one in blood.

Attempting a full explanation here of the feelings South Koreans have toward North Korea would be doomed to failure, but it should suffice to say that the feelings are very strong. So I suppose it is not surprising that announcers would say, “Well, at least our poor brethren in the North have a victory.” Such statements could also be seen as trying to find the silver lining—trying to put a positive spin on a disappointing result. What bothers me about such statements, though, is not the sentiments of empathy and compassion that inform them, it is the idea that a victory by the North Korean team will have a certain effect on the North Korean people.

To get straight to the point, football in North Korea is not what football is in South Korea (and most of the rest of the world). For most countries it’s a chance to compete on the world stage and bring glory to the nation, but ultimately we hope that it will bring players and nations together in the spirit of sportsmanship. OK, that’s probably a bit idealistic, but in it’s finest moments I believe that international sport does approach this goal. In North Korea, though, football is yet another tool in the arsenal employed in the ongoing ideological struggle against the forces of imperialism and capitalism. So a victory in North Korea is not about beating their Southern brethren in a good-natured competition, it’s about triumphing over the capitalist puppets in the South and proving the superiority of the Juche ideology under the benevolent guidance of the Dear Leader. (If you think I’m joking or exaggerating, you’ve obviously never seen any media coming out of North Korea.)

This is why I root for whomever is playing against North Korea, whether it be South Korea or any other nation. I don’t just want the DPRK to lose, I want them to lose badly. I was ecstatic when Portugal defeated North Korea 7-0 in the last World Cup. This may seem like a rather petty and vindictive thing to say, but the way I see it, the fewer opportunities the North Korean regime has to spin propaganda, the better. This does not mean I am not without sympathy for the poor North Korean players who have to go back home after a defeat. A South Korean loss at the hands of Japan is nothing compared to how defeated North Korean athletes were treated in the past or even how they are treated today (the loss against Portugal, which was broadcast live in the North, for example, had fairly dramatic repercussions by Western standards).

I suppose this is about where I would normally have thought about wrapping up this entry, but North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island yesterday made me start thinking about the topic a little more deeply. At the time of the shelling, my Political & Legal Translation students were translating a text on improving relations with North Korea (ironically enough), and it wasn’t until I got home later that I heard about the incident. The sinking of the Cheonan in March was bad enough, but the latest news reports I’ve heard say that two civilians have died as a result of this attack. Things are obviously getting worse. So what does football have to do with any of this?

To answer that question, I want to shift gears for a moment here—bear with me, we’ll return to the matter at hand soon enough. I was a big fan of The Matrix, but one of the things that always bothered me about the sequels was how other humans in the matrix were treated. At the very end of the first film, Neo says (to the machines, presumably) that he is going to “show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible.” But in the second and third films, humans still bound to the matrix are treated like targets in a shooting gallery, especially after Agent Smith starts infecting everyone and their grandmother.

This was, of course, presaged in the first film when Morpheus runs the “woman in the red dress” program with Neo. The goal of that program was to show Neo one thing: “If you are not one of us, you are one of them.” He goes on to explain that “anyone we haven’t unplugged is potentially an agent.” Still, even after the promise Neo makes at the end of the first film, we never see him or any of the freed humans attempt to free the minds of anyone else. Once they’ve found the One, that’s it. After that, mostly they just seem concerned with having rave parties in Zion. I guess I was disappointed that Neo never really tried to live up to his promise.

So why am I talking about The Matrix? Well, there are some similarities between the matrix and North Korea. Like humans still plugged into the matrix, the people of North Korea are subject to a “system of control” (Neo uses this phrase near the end of the second film) that is the North Korean regime and its massive propaganda machine. As long as they are plugged into that system, they will see and hear what the rulers of that system want them to see and hear. There are those who manage to break free from the system, and they form a small group of defectors that works from outside the system in an attempt to defeat it. The metaphor is not a perfect fit, of course (for example, the freed humans in the matrix are capable of hacking back into the system with relative ease), but it’s pretty close.

Just as I sympathized with the people still plugged into the matrix and hoped to see them freed from their system of control, I sympathize with the people of North Korea and hope to see them freed from their totalitarian regime. But I’ve thought about the films again in this light, and I wonder if Neo and his compatriots weren’t on to something after all. Maybe they realized something that I didn’t when I first watched the Matrix sequels—that a human freed from the matrix was a drop in the ocean, and there would be no true freedom until the system itself was destroyed. For as great as it is to see defectors successfully fleeing North Korea and making lives for themselves elsewhere, as long as the North Korean regime is in place there will be no freedom for the North Korean people, and there will be no true peace on the Korean peninsula.

And this is the dilemma that faces South Korea: how to help a people who are trapped in a system of absolute control, a system that distorts all messages from the outside to serve its own ends. To return for a moment to my trivial example of football, I was on the one hand happy to see North Korea beaten by Portugal, but on the other hand I knew the players would have hell to pay when they got back home. Just like the machines in The Matrix, the North Korean regime does not care about its people. It cares about one thing, and one thing only: its own survival. If it has to sacrifice innocent citizens along the way, so be it.

The Matrix is a film, so it’s easy to ignore the fact that every time an instance of Agent Smith is killed, a human dies. But this is real life, and we cannot play by the same inhumane rules that the North Korean regime plays by. So in that regard I do indeed feel sympathy for the North Korean people and want to do everything possible to help them. But as long as they are still subject to that system of control, the best thing we can do is to do everything in our power to bring that system down. Military action is not going to be as effective against the North as DPRK strikes against the South are precisely because of this lack of concern for its civilians. When South Korea fired 80 rounds at North Korea after yesterday’s attack, this was a symbolic “reply in kind,” but the actual effect was probably non-existent at best, and yet another opportunity for system-tightening propaganda at worst. (The catch-22, of course, is that if you don’t reply in kind, you are weak.)

I wish I had the answer to this conundrum: how do you bring down a system without harming the people trapped within that system, especially when the system doesn’t care about those people? The only things I know for sure is that the North Korean government has proven time and again that it cannot be bargained with in the conventional way, and that everything they do is ultimately aimed at one purpose: the survival and perpetuation of the regime. The only threats they will take seriously are those that directly target the regime—anything that might threaten to loosen the control they have over their people. If we could make Neo’s promise and actually keep it, well, that might be something.

There will be no neat conclusion to this entry. I could ramble on for a while longer, but I would simply be groping about in the twilight, chasing vague shadows and will-o-wisps. I suspect if there was an easy answer to these questions, we would have solved them already—what hope do I, an outsider and far from an expert on the subject, have of coming to a satisfactory conclusion? I just needed to say something this time. It started out small and, through a strange juxtaposition of events, grew into something bigger. But now it’s gotten too big and unwieldy, and as has so often happened in the past here when I have tackled weighty questions, I find myself at the end but no nearer an answer.

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