Lessons from North Korea

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and the author of “While Europe Slept” and “Surrender.” His book "The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind" is just out from Broadside / Harper Collins.


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Although, according to Dagbladet, ME/WE was an artistic success, Traavik was not entirely satisfied.  “We tried for over two months to recruit between 250-300 volunteers, but got only a handful to take part who accepted the premise.”  Fortunately, the Norwegian military came to the rescue, apparently compelling soldiers to take part in this homage to totalitarianism.

Traavik hopes that his “art project” will help people in the West to recognize that their images of North Korea “are, at best, incomplete.”  During his collaboration with the North Koreans, he’s made many friends among North Korean officials.  He hosted a dinner in Kirkenes, Norway, for a North Korean delegation, at which his six-month-old son, Tage, was “dressed in a tailor-made dark green Kim Jong-Il uniform that he had had made for his son in Pyongyang.”

In May, Traavik will return to Pyongyang with a group of Norwegian artists who will hold a Norwegian cultural festival there.  Traavik hopes that this will be the first of many cultural exchanges.   As the project website enthuses, The Promised Land “opens our minds for a possibility of dialogue, overcoming mutual suspicion. Traavik is yet again challenging established truths [sic] and prejudices we have about our selves and each other.”

A reader who posted a comment on the Dagbladet article about The Promised Land said that Traavik is one of those very few fortunate Norwegian artists who don’t have to worry about making a living because he receives an annual stipend from the Norwegian government.  A quick search shows that Traavik did indeed receive 190,000 kroner ($33,350) in Norwegian taxpayer money in 2011.

I will close by quoting another comment from Dagbladet in which a reader defends Traavik’s “art project” on these grounds: “If we did not have such art projects…we would be a flat, cultureless society.  We don’t want to be the U.S., do we?”

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  • Advocatus

    Sounds like our Norwegian "progressive" friends have lost the plot there a bit. I expect Mr. Traavik will soon be telling us that all those North Koreans reported to be starving to death are in fact on a diet and that they resort to making soup of of tree bark only because they've decided to return to a pure old form of traditional health cuisine untainted by all that nasty junk food from the West. But hey, he is an "artist" so what's the death and suffering of a few million people to him so long as he can score a point against western capitalism/imperialism/bigotry/what have you.

  • Alvaro

    This in in reality just another Marxist attempt at tearing down western values brick by brick. Marxism can only succeed once you have reached ground zero, and that is what he wants. Let North Korea have him. That should make everyone happy.

  • UCSPanther

    I have seen a few malcontents openly admiring North Korea and my thoughts have always been that if they think it's so great, then they should move there.

    North Korea is an open-air prison where the only surefire way to be released is through death.

  • David M

    Norway can be a good study case for a nation suffering from mental disorder. Norway has a dark and old history of Nazism (do you remember Vidkun Quisling and Knut Hansun?) and antisemitism. Norway is the only Western country openly supporting Hamas and Palestinians terror ( do you remember Norwegian ambassador to Israel?) against Israel. Norway is a small and insignificant country with oil. It is ruled by Stalinists and Maoists (politicians, journalists, academia, artists and ”human rights activist”).who have found Islam as their new religion. The similarity between Islam and Communism has made it possible to ally themselves with Arabs (who appreciate it by raping Norwegian women on a daily basis), Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

    I appreciate Bruce Bawer for revealing the sickness of Norway and I am afraid to say that the Finnish and Swedish Left (Socialists, Communists, Greens, labor unions and the the Lutheran church) are as sick as their counterparts in Norway.

  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ JasonPappas

    Protecting dogma requires repeated evasions of reality.

  • g_jochnowitz

    North Korea starves its people and is a murderous dictatorship. But all this has to be forgiven since North Korea is anti-Israel, No other issue matters.
    North Korea has sold weapons to Iran. “Egypt’s military relationship with North Korea goes back to the early 70s, when Pyongyang sent an air battalion to Egypt as a sign of solidarity in its war with Israel,” according to an article by Eli J. Lake and Richard Sale in the June 22, 2001, issue of the Middle East Times entitled “U.S. Worries over Egypt-North Korea Missile Program.”

  • Brujo Blanco

    It does not surprise me that artists on the left lend support to North Korea, Cuba, and other such countries. To them any entity that is anti American must be good.

  • W. C. Taqiyya

    The incredibly dull witted, spoiled and lazy Norwegians should be encouraged to travel to North Korea. While in North Korea, they should engage in the same collective activities they say they admire and that Koreans enjoy so much. Activities like 'farming' with picks and shovels but no tractors or fertilizer or seed or going to work hungry for lack of food or going to bed in the dark and in the cold for lack of electricity and heating fuel. Yes, I'm sure the Norwegians would enjoy the collective lifestyle in North Korea. They would enjoy it for about five minutes. Then, the air heads would be collectively begging their American commie friends Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Bill Clinton to bribe them out of the peoples paradise.

  • EdwinS

    There is something about evil societies that Norwegians find charming. Norway was Nazi Germany's little brother – many Norwegians volunteered for the German army (ca. 100m?)
    during WWII and today they are the Islamic Jihadis best friends in the west
    .
    What's up with them? Is there such a thing as a gene for fascism?

    • UCSPanther

      Not just that, the Norwegian leftist elite today is an insult to the real Norwegians who resisted Nazi occupation and even participated in British Commando operations against the German garrisons and assets.

  • Amazing.

    I have a question for all of you. In fifty years of publicly bashing the DPRK, how has that helped the starving persecuted masses of that country? How much has that gotten the orphan refugees and mothers who are persecuted in front of their children? How much more grain does that get to those who need it?

    Answer: ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE.

    This very brand of right-wing frothing at the mouth about how bad everything is in comparison to the States has done nothing but MADE THE SITUATION WORSE AND WORSE for the people of North Korea. Why? Because in the midst of all your jingoistic billowing, you forgot to actually discern that NK requires a careful, long-term, and determined diplomatic strategy that MUST encompass cultural exchanges like the Norwegians are trying.

    And I just love how you bash them for doing it, as if that makes you a better American for doing so. I'm sure your right-wing audience will love it. You make yourselves look like card-carrying tea-partiers that are swept away by "policy" and "solutions" that are all about emotional right-wing bluster and smoke and mirrors rather than reasoned logic that will actually help save some of the most persecuted people in the world. What is your solution, then? Kill 'em all and let God sort it out, huh? Nuke them? Keep blasting the regime publicly until Kim Jung-un finally gives in? "I read this article on Front Page Mag.com and, well, I finally see the light. We are now beginning the process of becoming a democracy. Thank you great nation of America!" Uhu.

    The fact is, NK will always put up an arrogant front, they will always push the envelope diplomatically; they will also try to test us militarily (IE: youngpyung island, etc)… But anyone who has any experience at all dealing with NK knows that there are some in PYongyang that DO want change, and they are prepared to risk greatly for that change. When people like you come online and recycle the regular antipathies, that does not help the people in PY who are working for change.

    And we don't need you to go over all the atrocities on the inside. We know the persecution. Believe it or not, some of us have worked directly with North Koreans — both the elite in PY, and the refugees in China and South Korea. We know what will work. We know how NK thinks, and what they will respond to, and how.

    You? You not only have absolutely no clue about what that means, but it is also clear that you are playing to a jingoistic right-wing audience, that, with one side of its mouth is appalled at the human rights abuses (justifiably so), but then with the other side you blurt things publicly that simply perpetuate those atrocities because NK *never*—in fifty years and counting— responds to public humiliation with any substantive change that has brought more freedom to the suffering in that place.

    Congratulations. The destitute, poor, persecuted children of the DPRK thank you for your profound lack of sensitivity and supreme absence of ability to think intelligently, carefully, and strategically about a horrible human rights tragedy.

    The other tragedy here is that you vilify the Norwegian attempt to connect with North Korea in ways that actually WILL help to slowly open up this closed nation. Absolutely stunning in its lack of foresight and prescience, and betrays a deep ignorance about how that nation thinks at the highest levels.

    • Gary Hagland

      Are you serious? The plight of the miserable masses of North Korea is our fault? We are responsible for the atrocities the odious North Korean regime inflicts on it own population? We are wrong to oppose a regime has never given up on its dream of invading its wildly more successful southern neighbor if only its leaders calculated they could get away with it? And what has the regime done with much of the aid it does get? It goes to its favored constituencies, especially the military so it can perpetuate its evil rule over some of the most wretched people on earth. "Amazing" is a good way to describe your thought process.

      • Guest

        Did you actually read the post you replied to? Nowhere does it say or imply that the human rights abuses in North Korea are our fault. Rather, it argues that the approach advocated by the author of this article has never worked. You are able to discern the difference, aren't you?

    • truebearing

      Nice self-righteous jeremiad, but in all of your ranting about the right you forget to acknowledge the obvious: it is the ideology of the Left that caused North Korea to be in the dire straits that you admit they are in. That is like an alcoholic berating bystanders for not stopping a fatal car accident caused by a drunk driver. Mighty dumb.
      Naturally, you think the solution is more of the same collective idiocy that has failed without exception throughout history. You posture furiously about the poor children and how no one but you Marxist fools care about them when it was your Marxist predescessors who are the authors of the disaster you pretend to care about. If it wasn't so serious, your pretentious, self-righteous, pompous, and terminally ironic pontificating would be funny. Instead it is predictably pathetic.

      • Amused

        lol…the left is it truebearing ? You are proof of Frank Zappa's axiom : "Stupid rather than Hydrogen ,is the building block of the Universe " .

        • truebearing

          Bemused, you still aren't in restraints? You must be an illegal alien.

          You would confuse Frank Zappa with wisdom….yet you love to eat yellow snow.

    • Advocatus

      The more fool me, Amazing. All this time I've thought that it was North Korea's two leaders (the Great Leader and the Dear Leader; the heart melts at the mere thought of their peerless genius) who with the help of their military enablers turned their country into an impoverished basket case even as they basked in a ridiculous pseudo-religious personality cult — yes, I wrongly thought that these two pudgy little men were behind the suffering of hapless citizens. I've also thought — so erroneously, heaven spare me — that the regime of said leaders actively sought to isolate their country from all outside influences, as per their policy of Juche (self-sufficiency), the better to retain their oppressive stanglehold on all areas of life in North Korea.

  • Ghostwriter

    I doubt that the North Koreans who live in America will take kindly to your silly message,Amazing. The people who manage to escape from North Korea tell the most horrific stories about life in that country. Apparently,the North Koreans want to spread the misery to South Korea as well. As for Norway,they can discount what Cuban-Americans have to say about life in that country but they shouldn't. In time,we may have a flood of Norwegians fleeing to the United States just to get away from the bad art that's being copied by this idiot.

  • jewdog

    And I bet you thought Norway was just a country of educated and enlightened Scandinavians, but it's much more. It also boasts some of the stupidest and most gullible people on the planet.

  • Amazing.

    Gary: Why is this such a shock and offense to your personal dignity? Diplomatic organs of all nations make mistakes all the time. The US is no different. Are you implying that US policy does not negatively effect people on the ground sometimes? Why do you have to make this an exercise in taking personal offense? Don't reduce such a delicate and fragile diplomatic situation into an exercise in accusing me of blaming you, or any American, for the plight of North Koreans. That is not the goal.

    Of course the regime in North Korea is ultimately at fault for the situation. What sane human being would not blame the ultimate plight of North Koreans on any government but the North korea government itself? That is a great example of silly US right-wing bluster that very cleverly distracts from the urgent issue at hand: helping people on the ground. It also cleverly extracts oneself from the responsibility to admit when a policy is bad (a big difference from saying that the whole damn situation is our fault).

    But who is at fault for not aggressively pursuing policies and exchange that would actually begin to allow those inside to begin to engage the world, and bring change themselves? Does an incessant public rant against the regime help normal north Koreans when we know for a fact that the regime reacts to such public language by clamping down even more severely on the people? Or do you just not care about that? I have already said that that strategy of vilifying and isolating them has been an utter failure for 50 years. The fact is, blog posts like the one above do not contribute anything to the task of helping north korea when it blithely and aggressively excoriates the very kinds of cultural exchange that are probably the most effective way to help common North Koreans.

    And before you go labeling me a commie, I love my country. I love the fact that I can use the freedom that I have to pursue activities that will aid in the opening of a country that has traditionally so resisted that opening. I also appreciate that we have folks in the State Department that struggle over DPRK policy. They are in a very tough position. And I surely do not judge them at all. I have no doubt they are working hard day and night to find solutions that will balance requirements for US and regional security with policies that will help the folks on the ground. And I'm sure they long for the day when Americans (in concert with other nations like Norway) can begin to crack the door ever slowly but consistently. It's called "soft-diplomacy" — diplomacy that will help in organic ways. And that means cultural exchanges just like the Norwegian example. To accuse them of pandering to rogue regimes and being a bunch of Che-loving commies for doing so is ridiculous and irresponsible. And to cite whatever pro-Cuban movement there is in Norway has no bearing on starving kids in North Korea anyway.

    But I am curious. What are your solutions for the problem in North Korea — regardless of who is at fault? How will you truly bring a dawn of hope to those inside who cannot speak for themselves? Have you thought about this? Or will you just continue to be horribly and deeply offended that someone might actually question policies that have not been effective at ameliorating the egregious daily existence that common north koreans live in on a daily basis? Or is it just easier to go off on right-wing rants of offense about how the lefties always blame the US for everything? That is decidedly not the case, and it simply betrays a lack of nuanced thinking that is creative and realistic about the risky grey areas that attend any strategy for really bringing change—any change—to the common north korean daily existence.

    Again: rearing up in jingoistic offense (which of course implies that I –in contrast to you– hate my country) does nothing to help the persecuted North. Sorry.

    I also note with fascination that the "like" button has been turned off on my post. We would never want to actually let alternative views be seen as favored over the obvious right-wing slant, now would we? Bad for clicks and ad revenue, right? All this while you would surely accuse me of being the one who doesn't love my country and its free speech, right? Thanks for making my point even more indelible.

    • truebearing

      Amazing doesn't begin to describe your level of delusion. You babble interminably about the right and its flaws when it is the thinking on the Left that caused the North Korean disaster. I've seldom seen such mindless, self-righteous hypocrisy. Your ideological beliefs are what you should be questioning, not those who have sanely opposed the failure of Marxian derived thinking.

      • Amazing.

        Delusion? Babbling? It's you who has said "it is the thinking on the Left that caused the North Korean disaster." That's a great example of delusional babbling to me, truebearing, and in typical right-wing fashion, not a stitch of evidence for your remark.
        By the way, what are your solutions to bring hope to common north Koreans? I will look forward to your answer.

        In the end, I just wish you folks would get off the left/right binary addiction, and just talk about problems in a non-partisan way. Is that just wishful thinking?

        • truebearing

          Leftists always want people to see the problems as shared, or entirely the fault of the right.____Need I remind you that North Korea is a communist country, of the Leninist mold? That's leftist in any sane person's book. ____Do you need more evidence that NK is communist? Are you in the throes of solipsism too?____Unfortunately, China is using North Korea as a proxy state and any real solutions have to come from China. Various Christian organisations have been helping by sending food, etc, but until the regime in power is somehow removed, the tyranny will continue. I doubt the communist leadership in china has any intention of doing that. A government paid idiot in Norway who calls himself an artist isn't the solution. I can guarantee that much.____I wish people who live in delusions and think chanting kumbaya will solve all problems would wake up and smell the coffee. Is that just wishful thinking?__If you want to solve a problem, you have to look at its source. The problems in NK stem from Marxist thinking, just like the rest of the 20th century regimes that killed over 150,000,000 of their citizens. maybe you'll get a clue some day….is that just wishful thinking?

    • Steeloak

      The only permanent solution to the problem of North Korea is regime change. Whether that comes from internal revolt, by the Chinese deciding to end the problem, or by the North launching another war which they will lose, it doesn't matter. Only the removal of the violent Stalinist regime will end the repression of the violent Stalinist regime.

      The North Koreans are tough bastards who only respect brute force, anything less they regard as weakness. Generations of liberal fools in the West have tried to negotiate with them, only to have the talks turned into a circus time & again.

      • Steeloak

        The only path that has ever gotten results worth having from them is to stand toe-to-toe with them, backed with military force & the clearly demonstrated will to use it if necessary.
        Baring regime change, permanent military strength & vigilance to contain their agression will be necessary.

        Perhaps someday in the distant future, long after the Kim's are gone, some North Korean Gorbachev will come along who will fail to understand the true nature of Communism & will attempt to reform North Korea. Like Gorbachev, he will fail to roll the tanks to preserve the state & the people will rise up and put an end to it once and for all.

      • Amazing.

        Steeloak. I'm not sure I agree. That is of course *one* solution. But I do not think it is rational to believe that the power-base will ever let that happen. People have been predicting regime change for years — decades even. And it has never happened. In fact the regime is stronger than ever these days, particularly with Chinese and Russian investment pouring in.

        So what are we left with? We can launch a pre-emptive strike that would indeed oust the regime. But it would also plunge the entire region into an economic crisis of colossal proportions. None of the neighboring countries want regime collapse for this very reason. China for one will never allow a US military presence on its border, an inevitable and swift outcome of any military strike against North Korea.

        You are right that they respect brute force. But the power base is also faced with continuing inflows of outside information, foreign direct investment, and a slow, but steady trickle of foreign organizations working inside with more and more freedom. In my mind it makes sense to maximize the doors that have been opened, and the soft-diplomacy opportunities that are before us. Trust me: not all North Koreans –even among the elite– resonate with the bluster that we as foreigners are exposed to by the official DPRK news. That news is usually tailored more for internal consumption that will show a strong and powerful Korean People's Army that resists all outside influence. But it is important to dichotomize propaganda that is tailored more for the common north korean than it is for us on the outside. Sometimes the diplomatic tenor is much different, and we would be wise to discern the difference as we consider our approach to diplomatic interactions.

    • Gary Hagland

      Amazing, you seem to forget or ignore that we've been trying to engage with the North Koreans for years, especially over their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Remember the photo of Madeline Albright toasting Kim Jong Il after she had signed an agreement in 2000 that stipulated the North's weapons program would end? North Korea pursued its goal anyway, breaking the agreement and despite the generous aid we and allies like Japan and South Korea provided. BTW, where did that aid in the form of food, fuel, and credits go? Not to the folks starving, but to the military and the regime's infrastructure. Condi Rice tried to reengage with the six party talks. That process was a dead end. The Japanese and South Koreans have independently attempted initiatives with similar results.

      Besides unimaginable brutality to its own people, North Korea's actions toward its neighbors over the years has been one of hostility and duplicity, with some petty crime added for good measure. The Japanese have been long suffering. North Korean agents have kidnapped children from Western Honshu coastal villages to raise them as spies and language trainers for spies. The North Koreans have launched Taepodong 2 missiles over Honshu. They've supplied the yakuza with guns and counterfeit money. A couple of years ago, south of Kyushu in Japanese waters, a North Korean fishing vessel had a running gun battle with the Japanese Coast Guard. The North Korean vessel was sunk. When it was raised, it turned out to be much more than a simple fishing vessel.

      The South Koreans have been forced to deal with the outrageous actions of the North Koreans since the signing of the cease fire in 1953. In recent years, they've had numerous vessels attacked, including a destroyer sunk. The North Koreans continue to attempt to infiltrate commandos into the South. And the people in South live with the constant specter of a North Korean attack. If you want to see Patriot missile batteries, visit South Korea or Japan.

      The only country with any influence on North Korea is China. But China, not being a nation that places much stock in humanitarian causes, cares little for the plight of the North Korean people. They see the North useful as a buffer against South Korea and Japan. For that reason, they have no enthusiasm for the prospect of the reunification of the two Koreas, which the majority of Koreans want. The Chinese are perfectly happy with the status quo.

      As is the North Korean regime. In a country, where the simple possession of a cell phone is a capital offense, the North Korean leaders will maintain the harshest dictatorship in the world. They will continue to favor the military to ensure their privileged positions in a destitute land with starving people. To do otherwise invites an opening they fear could sooner or later lead to their loss of power and the real possibility that they'd pay for their crimes. The North Korean leadership's biggest fear isn't the U.S., South Korea and Japan. It's its own people breaking free.

      • Amazing.

        I am certainly willing to acknowledge the massive duplicity on the part of the NK government in negotiations, crime, drug running, arms dealing, you name it. But that has been their modus operandi for decades. Why does this still surprise us? Of course it is not acceptable.

        My point is that we need to find ways to work from the organic, ground up through simple cultural exchanges that will indeed grant contact with many officials in the elite of Pyongyang. Sometimes a friendship can go a long way for North Koreans.

        But it is important to dichotomize high-level state diplomatic interaction (EG: Madeleine Albright's visit) and low-level, organic activities that might not be as flashy and might not be televised by CNN. But, I argue, they can still be affective forms of soft-diplomacy that gradually begins to break down the propaganda about foreigners that Pyongyang-ites hear all the time.

        This is very important. These low- and mid-level officials have access to the upper echelons of the regime. To be sure, they love their country, but they are willing to experiment with slow, small steps toward change that opens the country up in ways that might resonate somewhat with the opening up of China in the 1970s. That opening up was spear-headed by diplomatic negotians by Kissinger and later Ford in 1975, What is more, the "ping-pong" diplomacy of the 1970s literally opened the door for Nixon's famous visit to china.

        I think we need to be cognizant of the horrific nature of people's lives on the ground, and you would agree. But that is the very reason I aggressively support work that is in the tradition of seemingly innocuous soft-diplomacy like the "ping-pong" diplomacy of the 70s.

  • Jeff N

    Gary, how can you expect anyone to take your opinions seriously when it contains blatant untruths?

    "The simple possession of a cell phone is a capital offense"

    Cellphones are perfectly legal in North Korea. There are in fact over a million users across the country with over 60% of Pyongyang citizens (between 20 and 50) owning a cellphone.

    They have a 3G network known as Koryolink which is run as a joint venture with Egyptian firm Orascom.

    • Steeloak

      Gary was probably refering to possessing an illegal Chinese black market phone. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1255375/N

      • Gary Hagland

        Thanks for adding that Steeloak.

        Now, Jeff N, what are the other blatant untruths?

        I lived in Okinawa, Japan for years and made several visits to South Korea. What I wrote was local news.

        • Guest

          Quite frankly, I would find local news sources in Japan and especially South Korea to be among the LEAST accurate or objective in their coverage of the DPRK, due to the high prevalence of propaganda against the North. No, I'm not in any way equating a totalitarian state like North Korea with either South Korea or Japan, both of which are open, democratic societies; I'm simply pointing out that there is a lot of propaganda on both sides of the 38th parallel, and as a result news sources there are not necessarily an objective source.

      • Amazing.

        But there are plenty of *legal* cellphones in North Korea… in the hundreds of thousands as a matter of fact. And this indicates a very small, but significant thaw. The organization that works with the north on the legal cell phone market is an Egyptian company, Orascom. Look it up: http://www.northkoreatech.org/2011/01/24/orascom-

        So no – the simple possession of a cell phone is not a "capital offense." And even if you are caught with a chinese cell phone, you will probably just be reprimanded, and demoted. Every crime in NK does not send on to a prison camp, although admittedly, many times it does.