North Korea and Cultural Theory

This week I watched astonishedly how astonished journalists and politicians groaned and moaned and couldn’t believe their goggling eyes. Gefundenes Fressen for the cultural anthropologist.

Our thinking framework clearly doesn’t apply in North Korea. I’ve seen decent and usually objective journalists unable to control their scorn — or their risorius muscles, for that matter. The authenticity of the feelings of the North Koreans is continuously being questioned. Can these people be “happy“?, concerned reporters wonder unisono. Too ridiculous to even contemplate, says the Daily Mail.

Hallucinant images, ungraspable by western eyes, journalists and politicians yelp. “Il sont completement des robots!” gasps a hysterical-indignant Belgia politician on mission, holding a protective arm around the shoulders of a child.
At least 4.000 asylum seekers, men, women and children, are living and sleeping at this very moment in the freezing cold of the streets of Brussels. A democratically elected, free western government is unable to find them a warm sleeping place for the winter.

Hysterics, another favourite. Is this display of emotions forced at gunpoint? Or is it the result of 50 years of brainwashing?
What we see is public mourning and it is, I suspect, not so very different to the emotions shown by the British after Princess Diana’s death. Diana, too, was the centre of a huge personality cult, carefully cultivated by the mass media industry.

I’ve heard the regime called, sloppily, fascist — I rather thought it was communist. Kim Il-Sung’s own personalised brand of Marxism-Leninism, in fact, as differentiated from Chinese and Soviet varieties.

The regime’s Propaganda Department demonises the USA, politicians teeth-gnash. Truly epic times we live in, then – a mythical struggle between the “Axis of Evil” and the United Demon Capitalist States.
Not to mention that some of the beefs North Koreans have with the USA are far from mythical.

I’ve heard it said that we, in the free West, live in post-ideological times. Media reports about North Korea shows us the limitations of our freedom of thinking, the restrictions of our neo-liberal ideology.

And exhibit a clear case of not being able to see the beam in your own eye.

The dehumanisation of North Koreans is well-nigh perfect – they are the absolut Others. Aliens, brainwashed robots, ruthlessly suppressed and indoctrinated by the propaganda machine. Their feelings are bogus – their art is kitsch pur. Kathleen Taylor discusses the use of the term “brainwashing” in this context in a very interesting article. And, literarily speaking: I find the poetic myths surrounding North Korean leaders disarming and gracious, with their crane birds and new-born stars gathering around the Dear Leader’s birth (now what was this other miraculous-birth-story featuring a star?!?). And the streets without cars, the carefully staged but empty hotels, the theatralicity of the enormous buildings and colourful mass spectacles remind me of the assiduous, devoted and almost compulsive movie-going of Americans during the Great Depression.


Peter Tetteroo, a Dutch journalist who made a documentary on the country, remarked:
“Everything that is to us normal, pleasing and comfortable, everything that constitues a logical and right society, doesn’t apply in North-Korea. I was absolutely desorientated by my own feelings. It is fascinating to be in a place where your frame of reference is absolutely inapplicable.
I couldn’t trust my own feelings.”

That is exactly the point. Feelings are not a very helpful guide to understanding another culture.

“Culture is a system of meaningful symbols,” as Clifford Geertz had it. Before getting hysterical about North Korean hysterics, the ethnographer must try to give a “thick description” of social discourse and cultural actions. And she must include her own role and methods in the ethnographic description and interpretation.

“Understanding a people’s culture exposes their normalness without reducing their particularity.” Peter Tetteroo was forced to show reality as the officials of the North Korean regime want to represent it. In filming, he adhered strictly to these rules, thus creating an exemplary basis for a “thick description”: : interesting, because it is a first order interpretation of the North Korean culture-web. For the same reason “Gone with the Wind” is, besides being a smashing good read, an extremely interesting document. As are the Edgar Wallace’s “chinks” novels, with their unabashed sinophobia. Of which we have clearly not yet rid ourselves by a long chalk – see also this excellent article by Anna Chen.

The voice-over commentary in the documentary – and its music – warrants a study in western bias.


Are the North Koreans winking, twitching – or parodying winks? Is what we see esthetically pleasing – or kitsch? How are we in any position to decide? “Kitsch is the absence of shit” wrote Kundera, preeminent writer on communist unhappiness. He certainly has a point, but that is not the point. Or is it? The CIA calls North-Korea the “black hole of diplomacy”, but there seems to be no doubt that North Korea is a dictature of the worst kind. Concentration camps for political dissidents, hundreds of thousands of people dying of hunger and disease, people in the countryside eating treebark and clay are being reported on.

Very few first order interpretations of North Korea are available. “We received permission to travel across the country under strict supervision, and the only conclusion that we were able to draw at the end of this week was that we now understood even less of what goes on in this country” says Tetteroo. Unfortunately it is at this moment impossible to let North Koreans speak for themselves. Untill they can, we must be extremely cautious in how we describe this other culture.


Clifford Geertz: Cultural Anthropology. The Interpretation of Cultures.


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