Block Out the Noise by Visiting the Front Line: Baekryeong Island Reportage

By | March 29, 2013 | No Comments

It's peaceful here. Baekryeong Island farmer and his paddy fields | image via Hankyoreh

It’s peaceful here. Baekryeong Island farmer and his paddy fields | image via Hankyoreh

Bring back Sunshine. Revive Mt. Geumgang and Kaesong City tourism. Extend the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Launch Haeju SEZ. These are the North Korea policy goals of Hankyoreh, the daily newspaper of choice for the discerning South Korean progressive.

But, because Sunshine has been rendered devoid of all persuasive power by, among other things, that map with the war plan on it, Hankyoreh pursues these goals indirectly, with a question: when the politicking starts, does life stop? The answer comes in stories about people whose livelihoods suffer even when there is not a war on the Korean peninsula.

On March 26, the 3rd anniversary of the Cheonan sinking, the truth was known only to the few living on Baekryeong Island:

“We called over two workers because of the ginseng farming, but they wouldn’t come because they said there was a war on. For us it’s all very peaceful, but outside they’re making such a fuss.”

It continues:

“Responding to a question about ‘that day three years ago’ at the Jang Village dock on March 23, 38-year old resident Jang Se-gwang said, “If you look it up on the Internet, it’s all there. Don’t ask idiotic questions.”

“The fishermen are suffering because they can’t go out to sea while the military is doing its firing exercises,” he explained. “Plus, too many reporters come here.”

These stories should be read, though they fall well short of providing a rationale for doing what Hankyoreh suggests. Rather, they should be read because they speak of genuine suffering, but moreover they should be read because they offer an antidote to the excitable embrace of North Korean rhetorical flourishes that is sometimes found elsewhere.

As B.R. Myers put it in a timely Q&A this morning, “I think the international press is distorting the reality somewhat by simply publishing the second half of all these conditional sentences.” In other words, “We’ll destroy you, if,” but reported without the “if,” at a time when the “if” itself is highly implausible.

It isn’t just playing fast and loose with the text that is the problem. Even a brief review of the special statement carried by KCNA [“조선정부,정당,단체 정의의 조국통일대전에 일떠선 조선군대와 인민,온 민족의 의지와 힘을 막을자 이 세상에 없다고 천명”] this morning reveals other details that should give pause.

Not least, that the statement is actually caught in a pincer movement on the KCNA website between one story about a committee being formed in Denmark to prepare for Kim Il-sung’s birthday, and another about events going on in Bangladesh in honour of the same. Hardly the stuff of imminent conflagration.

However, read the piece and things get weirder still: “The Korean Peninsula has entered a state of neither peace nor war,” it breathlessly proclaims. Something which, perhaps contrary to Pyongyang’s intention, sounds an awful lot like the condition the peninsula has been in for the last 60 years.

It’s no wonder the ginseng farmers are so sanguine. Coupled with the Danish and Bangladeshi Juche enthusiasts, they provide a welcome dose of perpsective.

Blog by: Christopher Green

Further Readings:

Steven Denney, “A Party-Centered Defense of Park Geun-hye’s Election and a Primer on Government-Media Relations,” SinoNK, December 20, 2012.

Steven Denney and Christopher Green,” A Nuclear Hangover: South Korean Editorial Roundup,” SinoNK, February 13, 2013.

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