The Center of the Earth, North Korea, and Different Cultures

December 22nd, 2011

By Dan Miller

Kim Jong-ilKim Jong-unReality is often not as we think or wish it were.

I spent the past couple of days writing this article about the impacts of Korean culture and history on its future as well as ours now that Kim Jong-il is dead and his young son, Kim Jong-un, is nominally in charge.  My principal thesis, beyond that we don’t really know much about what’s happening there, is that Kim Junior will be controlled by a regency of close Kim relatives and senior members of the military.

Comfortingly, the White House assured us that

it has “no new concerns” about North Korea’s leadership after the death of dictator Kim Jong-il, but a spokesman for President Obama said he is “closely monitoring events.”

“I don’t think we have any additional concerns,” said presidential spokesman Jay Carney. “The issue here isn’t about personalities, it’s about the actions of the government. President Obama has been regularly briefed on the situation.” (Emphasis added)

Alfred E. NewmanYeah, right. Except that in North Korea it is mainly about personalities, their interactions and the ways in which those within and outside the Kim Jong-un regency will seek to maintain and augment their own personal powers and statures. That’s what government is for in North Korea and that’s the way the government there operates; to ignore that reality is to proceed instead on the basis of unrealistic assumptions.

When I go to bed, I generally read novels until I doze off.  Recently, I have been reading Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth — a very strange place for which our experiences on the surface of the Earth would ill prepare us. In Verne’s fantasy world the Earth is hollow, with an inland sea and pleasant temperatures, is lit by electro-luminescence, has yummy stuff to eat and the remains as well as living examples of prehistoric critters can be found (or might find the traveler). As I dozed off, it occurred to me that we in the West are no more familiar with Korea, and particularly with North Korea, than we would be were we trying to understand and analyze goings on at Verne’s center of the Earth. We have never been to the center of the Earth, know very little about it and what we would encounter there would be very different from what we have experienced at home.

We probably recognize this. Yet we try to analyze what happens and is likely to happen in North Korea as though we knew as much as there is to know about it. We seem to look upon it as a small state in a mid-western part of the United States.  It is not.  Korea has a far longer history than does the United States and is extraordinarily different culturally, historically and in just about every other important respect. It is said that FDR tried to deal with Joseph Stalin before and during WWII as though Stalin were a Senator from the Georgia in the United States.  He obviously knew that Stalin was not, but nevertheless treated him in many respects as though he were. Give him the equivalent of a bridge, a road and other such goodies; then he will like us and do as we demand because that’s the way politics works in the United States.

Until we learn that people around the world are not necessarily the same as we are, don’t necessarily think in the same way and don’t necessarily appreciate the same things, we will continue to muck up foreign policy terribly. Our troops and those of our allies and enemies will continue to die unnecessarily, we will continue spend money that we don’t have and continue to be impoverished in the process.  Are we stupid, or just mistakenly well-meaning?

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)


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2 Responses to “The Center of the Earth, North Korea, and Different Cultures”



  1. larry |

    DAN
    MERRY CHRISTMAS


  2. Dan Miller |

    Larry, and a Merry Christmas to you as well!


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