Rodman, Rights and the Rule of Law in North Korea

Shirley Lee
Jan 11th, 2014

Sensational and superficial reports on North Korea drown out far more important voices.

There are those who condemn Dennis Rodman for "ignoring North Korea's human rights crisis"; and there are those who condemn those condemnations by invoking "the hypocrisy of the US", arguing that ‘politics must be kept separate from sports and cultural exchanges’, or proposing that ‘this is the kind of engagement we need more of, because our demonization of North Korea is getting us nowhere.’

I want to say that both kinds of condemnation are equally harmful as far as the truth is concerned. Attempts to articulate the reality of North Korea can only be buried by a discourse that is obsessed either with upholding certain external projections of the country, or debunking them only to replace them with other projections that sit at polarised ends of a spectrum of moral mirror-images. Neither approach helps in understanding the reality of the North Korean system.

January 8th is the birthday of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. On January 8th 2014, Dennis Rodman's basketball exhibition in Pyongyang and his "Happy Birthday" serenade for Kim Jong Un made headlines across mainstream media outlets in the West, and were featured prominently in North Korea's own state media.

On that day, I was chatting to a friend called Jihyun. She is a North Korean refugee living in the UK who managed to evade the human trafficking networks in China after escaping over the border from North Korea. She posted a moving piece in Korean on Facebook, and here is my translation:

Dennis Rodman says he loves Kim Jong Un. But love is not a word that can be thrown about like that, for a dictator with so much blood on his hands ... the millions of ghosts of North Korea's dead will not forget your inhumanity, Rodman. If you are a human being, spare one minute of your life to think of the children of North Korea whose fingers are falling off with frostbite right now ... I'm sorry, I don't like to say bad things in public ... but seeing Rodman featured in every newspaper today, with everyone providing their comment on his trip, I couldn't stop myself from speaking directly ...

After reading Jihyun's post, I told her that when we find we are unable to stop ourselves from speaking out, perhaps this is a sign that the truth has been suppressed for too long. She replied, ‘Yes, everyone says that the truth always wins. But it is taking far too long, and I have been waiting all my life.’

Not only for the sake of Jihyun's plea, but also for the sake of many more millions of North Korean voices, I want to say that the true nature of the North Korean system will remain hidden and unscrutinised for as long as we speak in terms of outsiders’ projections.

In North Korea, the invocation of the "Great Leader" is a de facto replacement of the constitution; and it sits above every law, institutional prerogative and individual right. To describe what makes North Korea what it is, we need neither to compare it with the West, nor to excuse or demonise it. All we need to do is to look at its totalitarian reality.

The enforcer of this unchallengeable invocation is the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD) of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party. The OGD lies hidden amidst a web of administrative departments; and if you look only at the official presentation of North Korean governance you will not recognise its influence. The origins of the current shape of the OGD – with its unlimited jurisdiction and unconstrained powers of veto and interference – lie in Kim Jong Il’s need to build an entity that concentrated all executive, appointment and enforcement powers in the OGD Party Secretary – himself. Its first purpose was to oust the long-designated successor to the throne, his stepbrother Kim Pyong Il, without publicly dismantling existing structures and positions.

The secret of this fundamental duality was fiercely guarded through compartmentalisation, atomisation and the use of honorary rankings and public proxies. These prevented the real power structure from being understood – and therefore manipulated – by any individual North Korean or by the outside world. We were able to see pieces moving on the chessboard, and even to recognise that the “queen” or “knight” were powerful pieces, but did not realise that the moves were being decided by directives that came from somewhere beyond the pieces and the board.

The fundamental duality is not limited to North Korea's power structure, but is also at the heart of what the outside world perceives as its “diplomacy”. This is a state which maintains a department of “Track II diplomacy” (non-official diplomacy) operatives in spheres as varied as religion, academia and the arts, in order to encourage outside individuals to maintain “informal” relations with the North and advocate a misleading picture of its totalitarian reality. For as long as we look only at projections, the reality will remain hidden and the Kim cult's unchallengeable monopoly on power and wealth and expression will remain secure.

Still on January 8th 2014, an online comment caught my eye. It was posted in response to an article about how the above synthesis of North Korea's totalitarian system by Jang Jin-sung – a former poet laureate, state historian and psychological warfare advisor for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il – was referenced by over three hundred Chinese media outlets. Following his escape from the DPRK, Jang Jin-sung was once pursued by Chinese and North Korean agents for 35 days on Chinese soil. He continues to receive death threats for his work in explaining the nature of North Korea's totalitarian system, which brings together both the first-hand experiences and knowledge of those who were once part of the system, and that of those who still remain within it.

The comment was a quotation from William Blake, and it was this that caught my eye:

When I tell any truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those who do.


Shirley Lee
Last blog date: Jan 11th, 2014


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