Tuesday, March 20, 2018

North Korea: Who Am I To Look At You?

Many people in the US are looking at North Korea, thinking, "We don't really know enough . . . I want more information."

That's important.

. . . but/and . . .

I'm beginning to realize it's even more important that we ask, "Who am I? How is that I get to do the observing? Do I imagine North Korea is obliged to prove something to me?"

These questions go to the head of what I have described as A Checklist for Critically Reading (and Writing) About North Korea.


I attended a screening of a film at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) two days ago: The Thoughts That Once We Had by Thom Andersen.

Thoughts is a film about film. I'm guessing most people who see it think of it as being about the art of film (" . . . directors from Griffith to Godard"). But it's really about philosophy and phenomenology. Which means it's also about politics.

There's a substantial section of the film that is about war: the siege of Stalingrad, Hiroshima, Vietnam -- and North Korea.

I was so startled by the appearance of this extremely topical North Korea section that I barely had time to grab my pen and scribble down the narration as best I could: " . . . North Korea 1950-1953 . . . The US Air Force destroyed every town and city in North Korea . . . 600,000 tons of bombs . . . 2 million civilians . . . no repentance . . . not even acknowledgement . . . . "

I thought: "Serendipitous. Important context for what's happening right now. What if we routinely got reminders of this information? What if it just popped up at random times, as it seemed to do for me in this film?"

This snippet of film gives important context for our standing as observers of North Korea.

Do we need to know where we stand?

Pictures and Words

I have set out to look at a recent article about North Korea ("Letter from Pyongyang: On the Brink," by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker, September 18, 2017; online: "The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea") and try to understand how it impacts understanding about North Korea, and about the US-North Korea situation.

One of the first things that occurred to me is that the impact of a few images is likely to swamp the impact of thousands of words. There are several photographs by Max Pinckers accompanying "Letter from Pyongyang: On the Brink," and I think it's worth considering them even before the article's text.

(Perhaps I'm just starting here for convenience. And yet . . . . Consider the way generations of people have read The New Yorker: first flipping through the entire issue looking at the cartoons (and, now, other images), and then putting the magazine out on the coffee table (yes, or . . . ), and only later (possibly) reading an article or two.)

Among Pinckers' photographs, I found the one below particularly full of information:

North Korean schoolchildren photographed by Max Pinckers for The New Yorker

The image was displayed as a 2-page spread in the print edition. I wondered: what happens when someone looks at this image? How might it impact their understanding about North Korea, and about the US-North Korea situation?

The overall effect of the image seemed to me to be scary.

I tried to break it down. Some of the things I noticed in myself as I looked at the photograph:

Lighting/mood: glare, garish ... weird pink partition glass ... amber color

Composition: regimented ... is it a language lab?

Costume: uniforms ... red kerchiefs covering shoulders

Faces: overall feeling is troubling

I realized that the ephemeral aspects of the image had as much impact on me as the actual content. In other words, the feeling of the picture as much as the substance.

I went back and looked at each of the faces in turn: what do I see there? Looking left to right, front to back, at the six children's faces, I sensed: leery/looking askance; sheepish/guilty; imploring; dull/affectless; content/unconcerned; trying to be alert.

People would be justified in thinking they can tell something from the expressions on these children's faces: faces communicate -- across cultures, pretty consistently. And yet: do these six expressions really signify something? Beyond, that is, what these six individuals were feeling on that particular day, in that particular situation? (How different is this than any other group of schoolkids of this age?)

The caption in the print edition reads, "Students at the Pyongyang Orphans' Secondary School, which is housed in a new brick-and-steel complex. In a class of ten-and-eleven-year-olds, one boy asked, 'Why is America trying to provoke a war with us?'" [More on that question in a separate blog post.])

You can read the photographer's own take on this image here: "A Photographer’s Search for Cracks in North Korea’s Propaganda Machine."

When I got done with these observations, I wondered: does a photograph such as this get us closer to the truth?

Of course, this is just one picture.

Still, considering the stakes -- not to mention the history -- what obligation do we have to give everyone concerned the best possible shot at approaching the truth?

The Power to Look

We aren't going to stop looking at North Korea, nor should we. But will we slow down, even for a moment, and do our looking with a level of intentionality and self-awareness appropriate to the subject?

I have recently been watching a series of programs filmed by Louis Malle, Phantom India. From the very outset, Malle says that he and his team realized they were in an inequitable position vis-a-vis the people they were filming: they came to India, looked at people, took their images, and went do what they wished with them. It was as if, he says, they were thieves.

We are in a moment when many images and many words will be taken from North Korea and consumed by people in the US. Much of this will happen in the context of inequities from the past that will not be immediately reversed (if, indeed, they ever are), and we need to take in more, not less, information.  However, at a minimum, let us to commit to a process wherein we slow down and think as we are doing it.


Can You Judge a Nuclear Confrontation by Its Cover?

When Writing About North Korea Is a "Downer"

The US and North Korea: Suspense, Discomfort, Regret

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