“Nuclear launch detected,” an ominous voice reverberated across a colossal stadium and dissipated into an uncomfortable silence. The announcement immediately sparked fear and induced the engrossed audience to gasp, stare and gasp again with dumbfounding excitement. “It’s over,” a trembling Korean boy muttered as his eyes begin to water. He sat in the front row in glum anticipation of the inevitable doom of his idol, MarineKing.
It was a live Starcraft match, featuring some of the best and brightest of Korea’s cyber-gaming talents. MarineKing is one of the top virtual athletes (Read: all-star gamer), and his opponent, who initiated the virtual nuclear launch, had just secured his victory. Suddenly, in a drastic mood reversal, there was light, cheers, and drops of manic tears.
Meanwhile, not too far across the border, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un issued a renewed threat against the United States. Blunt and fearless, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) press release on Jan. 24 trumpeted, “Setting accounts with the U.S. needs to be done with force, not with words as it regards jungle law as the rule of its survival.” It was a bold message from the Supreme Leader of DPRK. He sought nothing less than “an all-out action to foil the hostile policy toward the DPRK,” including a nuclear strike, the baneful legacy of Cold War. But for all his effort, his aggressive intimidation evoked less emotion abroad than a cyber-gaming match.
In the cover picture of a recent Economist article, “On the Naughty Step,” Kim Jung Un is caricatured as an unruly child in a baby carriage, indiscriminately hurling rockets. In a photograph on the Telegraph, the towering bronze statutes of two former North Korean dictators, Kim Song Il and Kim Jong Il, are redolent of Ozymandias, “king of kings” in a desolate desert. Whereas North Korea frames outsiders as encroaching enemies, outsiders rarely take North Korea’s threats seriously – something always seems to be lost in translation.
North and South
The bitter division along the 38th Parallel has been one of the most studied political topics of the past century. Much like the olden West Germany, South Korea has propelled at an incredible rate towards prosperity, first world living standards, and an enviable culture. Besides its membership in OECD and steady GDP growth, it took the world by surprise with the iconic K-Pop video, “Gangnam Style,” and raised eyebrows when Samsung ruffled Apple’s seemingly untouchable position in the smart phone industry. When Psy met Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of United Nations, on a televised conference in New York in October 2012, he jested, “So now you have first and second most famous Korean in the same building.” Not bad for a nation of 50 million technically still at war.
Its northern counterpart, on the other hand, has not fared so well. The hope for a more reformist leader has turned out to be a bust as the incumbent Kim Jong Un appears to be every bit as unpredictable, belligerent and uncompromising as his father. The nuclear test continues in full steam with North Korea warning an imminent third atomic test only two days after the UN Security Council Resolution issued a ban on nuclear tests. Furthermore, amidst this defiant gesture, its people suffer from famine, poverty and political oppression. Thousands have supposedly been killed in a North Korean grain-growing region in 2012, and Google Map’s stunning new cartography of North Korea also reveals an ever-growing expansion of the notorious prison camps in the North Korean mountain. Infamous North Korean gulags, such as the Kaechon internment camp, have isolated political dissidents from society and egregiously exploited them with hard labour. As Charles Dickens would lament, it was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.
Time for a change?
Here’s where it gets better. North Korea’s pariah state is unsustainable. Externally, China officially expressed concern for North Korea’s escalating rhetoric despite being North Korea’s foremost ally, and accepted the growing needs to restrain North Korea from destructive behaviours. China serves as North Korea’s sole remaining major diplomatic and economic benefactor, and its agreement with the US on the UNSC resolution against North Korea seems to mark an end to China’s unlimited support for North Korea.
Internally, North Korea is undergoing progressive change. The borders in North Korea have not been as tightly sealed as one may presume, and individuals have gained access to outside information and influence through foreign visitors, illegal trespassers and Western governments. American government-backed report by InterMedia has devoted significant effort into making digital media and old-style broadcasting available in North Korea. The North Korean bombast of propaganda may slowly lose its credibility, especially with an increasingly unsupportive China. Moreover, Kim Jong Un is more receptive to materialistic values, such as fashion and art. His political capriciousness may prove to be as dangerous as that of his father, but the progressive effect of generational shift in leadership may not deserve such a pessimistic outlook.
The contrast between North and South is certainly stark. Western media is skeptical of change, but history has shown that even the most politically stable regime is susceptible to reform and progress. North Korea simply cannot afford turn a blind eye to its deteriorating political, economic and social circumstances forever.
– Jimmy Lou
(Featured Photo: Joseph A Ferris III, Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 1: zennie62, Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 2: License EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 3: Joseph A Ferris III, Creative Commons, Flickr )