There’s a wealth of critical histories of the lives of British subjects during the colonial era. But if any of those histories presents a narrative that suggests the colonial system was primarily an abuse of power, an agent for rapacious politics and economics — or that the empire might have imposed itself upon its subjects at their exclusive cost, for the exclusive benefit of the imperial haute monde — it quickly becomes the subject of controversy. Niall Ferguson fumbles for his mobile to answer a Radio 4 producer, and gets ready for an early morning huff on the Today Programme, applauded by terraces of readers, fans, or otherwise indignant, besmirched listeners.
At the root of their rancour is, essentially, the assumption that the end justifies the means — be that proverbial end either: (a) railways; (b) a globalised economy; (c) political institutions; or (d) some other bequest sufficiently dignified or sexy to warrant trans-generational gratitude.
My principal contention with their contention is not ideological but, rather, the enduring lack of consistency. We see it each time the same constituency unites in a chorus of antipathy towards our political enemies. Reflecting on their own totalitarian past, they celebrate it, boast about it, eulogise and dramatise its most violent proponents, recreate and reminisce in endless lavish dramas for stage and screen, and neutralise its political toxicity by presenting it as an essential part of a process.
A process that, it’s claimed, led via Magna Carta, the Provisions of Oxford, and the Bill of Rights, to parliamentary democracy and, ultimately, to universal suffrage.
Faced with the Edwards of their political enemies, however, they pity their system, malign its beneficiaries, and advocate for its victims: first in sententious rhetoric, and later by bombing them.
Contrast, for example, mainstream opinion over the Kim family’s culpability for the North Korean famine with the same constituency’s opinion over the British Government’s culpability for the Bengal famine or, closer to home, the Irish famine. Most interesting is when you garner that opinion from those who openly confess to knowing very little about either. Try it at home! We’re peculiarly, and reliably, more tolerant of our own totalitarianism than others’.
Whilst making sense of whether we’re in the throws of a 21st Century Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s easy for amnesia to set in, in regard to how little we know about life in North Korea. The most interesting insights have been those that have challenged the western public’s received wisdom — with photos of normal people going about their lives in Pyongyang, candid photos of families playing at seaside resorts, or accounts of restaurant and market life on the Vladivostok border. As the growing montage of images of Pyongyang increasingly dispels visions of the dilapidated, Soviet-era basket-case city imagined by the western public, so the story grows of a city reserved for the privileged elite. Yet, housing 2.5m souls, or 10% of the national population, how relatively different is the exclusivity of Pyongyang from that of the affluent residential centres of London, New York, and Hong Kong?
The mainstream media consensus is doing little to enrich or inform public discourse, preferring instead to merely reaffirm poorly informed preconceptions, allowing the readership to nod through the analysis without pausing for thought.
North Korea is now, unambiguously, a nuclear state — so any ambitions, strategies, and actions based around preventing that outcome have failed, and western foreign policy must now be reframed. If there was ever a state for which ‘nuclear deterrent’ wasn’t simply a euphemism, it’s North Korea. Now with three children, Kim’s primary concern will be the continuation of his dynasty, which he well knows will end the day he invades his neighbours. So he will not. If a future smoking gun that triggered World War III on the Korean peninsula has North Korean fingerprints on it, they were put there by the PR agents of Kim’s enemies.
Left alone, the sociopolitical environment in North Korea will evolve, like it will everywhere else — and probably more swiftly in the absence of a foreign invasion force thirty miles across the border. Commentators and policymakers in the west still committed to their unique brand of sententious schizophrenia, which holds that we mustn’t sit idle while North Korean citizens suffer — but must instead send our children to kill theirs — are still living in Kissinger’s Cold War reality distortion field.
When the informational landscape is so sparse, as it is with North Korea, we should be suspicious when the public discourse is filled with more answers than questions. To some, North Korea may be intolerable; to some, it may simply be home; to others, it may be a source of pride. We could say the same of our contemporaries from Edwardian England. And perhaps Song China might have looked on in pity for England’s 13th Century peasants, and mused intervention with their greater social, political, and technological sophistication. How kindly do readers think imperialist Chinese warrior-philanthropists might have been received by England’s Plantagenet subjects?
Through the western cultural lens, the dress, style, language, and tone of North Korea is one-dimensional, tyrannical, eccentric, absurd. North Korea continues to fulfil the stereotype of the Cold War Bond villain. Trump says, in opposition to the new South Korean president’s nascent policy of appeasement, that there’s only one thing that the North Koreans understand — one of the few Trumpian claims considered uncontroversial by the wider public. But, in its anxiety to survive, North Korean policy has exposed the bitter irony of that premise. In the superpower’s unwillingness to relinquish its monopoly on power in the Pacific, there’s only one language that US foreign policy understands. And, with a nuclear deterrent, Kim’s speaking it fluently.