The myth of “non-political” contact with North Korea

Steven Borowiec
Steven Borowiec

In late April, a group of academics traveled to North Korea on a trip they described as non-political. Nobel laureates from the fields of economics, medicine and chemistry went to Pyongyang with plans to meet scientists from universities and discuss questions related to science and education.

Such trips, and the “engagement” they entail are sometimes presented as an alternative to the international community’s sanctions on North Korea. Further cutting the already isolated country off from the outside world will only make it poorer and more dangerous, this line of thinking goes, and by building non-governmental links in fields such as education or sports or culture, North Koreans can have contact with outsiders, and come to understand that not all foreigners wish their country harm.

Aaron Ciechanover, who won the 2004 Nobel Prize for chemistry, told reporters, "We didn't come to criticize them, we didn't come to ask about the meaning of democracy in their eyes. We really came to converse and to exchange dialogue with students."

That’s all well and good, but the question is, how do outside actors, like the Nobel laureates, or Dennis Rodman or whomever, get access to a country whose leaders wish to control every person or idea their people have access to?

North Korean leaders presumably ask themselves, what’s in this for us? And it isn’t too cynical to figure that building links with the outside world is probably not motivation enough, that outsiders need to come presenting some kind of benefit, or promising to solve some problem in North Korea.

Calling projects with North Korea “non-political” is also a convenient way of avoiding questions about the ethics of cooperating with a government that denies its more than 20 million people basic civil and political rights, and maintains an archipelago of prison camps for anyone who steps out of line. Bodies such as the United Nations have documented horrific human rights abuses in those camps.

Winning Pyongyang’s permission therefore involves moral compromise, an unspoken pledge to not speak out on the repression one might witness in North Korea.

When reporting on companies that organize trips to North Korea for foreign tourists, I’ve had them tell me they couldn’t discuss anything politica, out of fear of upsetting their partners in North Koreal. When North Korea cut off all foreign tourism to the country in 2014, officially due to concerns over the Ebola virus, one tour operator refused my request for comment on Pyongyang’s decision because my question was “political.” As if his organization receiving permission from the North Korean government to operate in the country was somehow not political.

In his book “A Capitalist In North Korea”, a memoir of several years doing business in the country, Felix Abt deflects questions of human rights by claiming that he is neither a human rights expert nor a politician. That may be true, but Abt must be aware that one need not be either of those things to spot something that is morally objectionable.

It is also questionable whether cooperative ventures with North Korea are truly not political. The academics on the recent trip would probably point out that the important thing is that their dialogue with North Koreans stayed off the topic of politics.

Though they presumably didn’t compare their systems of government, there is only a little bit of hyperbole in George Orwell’s assertion that “all issues are political issues.” Surely when scientists from different institutions talk about their work, they must touch on the institutional frameworks they function in, where their funding comes from, what type of work their bosses encourage. All of these questions involve political considerations in that they are matters of policy. Such discussions are, strictly speaking, political. I don’t think any working academic would argue that there are no “politics” in their field.

On that very trip, North Korea’s government showed the world just how touchy they can be when they expelled a BBC reporter for a report they considered disrespectful. Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was traveling with the academics, documenting their activities. He openly doubted whether the group was being shown real medical facilities or a potemkin ruse. “Everywhere we go is oddly devoid of any ‘real’ looking people,” he wrote.

As if writing that weren’t risky enough, Wingfield-Hayes might have gotten himself booted for describing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “corpulent.” If that is indeed what got him kicked out, Wingfield-Hayes proved that outsiders can’t tell the truth about what they see on visits to North Korea.

Perhaps because North Korea wanted to display their (temporary) power over him, before Wingfield-Hayes was permitted to fly back to Beijing, he was interrogated for hours and made to sign an apology, on threat of not being allowed out of North Korea.

In a recent first-person narrative on Vox, an international development worker expressed his frustrations with the aid industry that exists, in spirit, to assist people in poor and underdeveloped countries, under the incisive headline, “I went to Afghanistan to save the world. The world had other plans.”

Among the many shortcoming the author identifies in his powerful narrative, he dismantles naive claims that countries can be changed without considering the mechanisms of politics. He writes, “Politics might be dirty, but ignoring politics in the countries where we work means ignoring reality.” That pretty much sums up claims of “non-political” incursions into North Korea.  

*Steven Borowiec covers Korea for the Los Angeles Times