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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

North Koreans catch the 'English Disease'

Finally back in the real world after a surreal little holiday. Seems as though the real world has unthoughtfully provided a lot of stuff for me to catch up on while I've been disconnected from the Matrix.

I won't bother catching up on what's been going on because the latest news is more interesting: riots have erupted in P'yôngyang during and after a World Cup qualifying football match between North Korea and Iran. Apparently the crowd of 60,000, almost all supporting North Korea naturally, became upset at refereeing decisions and started throwing missiles at the pitch. The violence continued after the match (2-0 to Iran) when crowds prevented the Iranian players from boarding their coach. (See BBC and Reuters reports)

It might be going a bit far to read too much into this incident, but it does raise a few thoughts in my mind. First, this show of rampant, violent nationalism gives credence to the idea that the 'regime changers' find impossible to believe: that many North Koreans are proud of their country. Dogstew had something on this topic recently, and although I don't agree with everything they say, I think the central point is valid: it is possible for large numbers of ordinary people to support a totalitarian regime (particularly, I would add, when the country is, or is perceived to be, under constant military threat). Iraq should have been an instructive lesson for the Neo-cons and their followers (a Mr Blair comes to mind) who consistently believed the tales they were told by Iraqi defectors about how the US would be welcomed with open arms when it invaded and there would be no resistance. Former British cabinet minister Robin Cook made this point in a comment piece just last week (via DML). But the Neo-cons and regime-changers just don't seem to get it: living under a horrible, repressive regime does not automatically mean that you will support US intervention, especially when you know what happened the last time.

Of course any 'popular support' that exists for a regime like that of Kim Jong-il must be highly unstable and contradictory. So while it doesn't surprise me that many North Koreans would be highly nationalistic and anti-US - especially considering the history of conflict between the two countries - this does not necessarily guarantee that they will always support Kim Jong-il's regime, or that they themselves do not have contradictory feelings. Nationalist sentiment could easily spill over into wider protests giving vent to underlying frustrations with the government at home (which no doubt do exist in North Korea).

This brings me to my second thought, which concerns the echoes of the anti-American protests in Beijing at the time of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. At first it seemed that the Chinese authorities were quite happy to see spontaneous anti-American demonstrations on the streets, but they quickly became very worried and had to crack down on them, blocking off the entire embassy district of the city. Assuming that conspiracy theorists are wrong and this was not some massive government-orchestrated exercise in whipping up nationalist feelings, then I would have thought that the North Korean regime is rather worried by what happened in the stadium today.

UPDATE, 1st April:
For you information, here's how the North Korean media reported the football match. It's interesting to be honest that they go as far as to say that the spectators "vigorously protested":

Football Match Held between DPRK and Iranian Teams

Pyongyang, March 31 (KCNA) -- A football match between the DPRK and the Iranian teams belonging to the group B of the 2006 World Cup Asian regional qualifier took place in Pyongyang on Wednesday. The Iranian team won the game 2:0.
At the end of the match all the spectators were angered and vigorously protested the wrong refereeing by the Syrian referee and linesmen.


At April 02, 2005 3:52 PM, Anonymous sy said...

Surely Nationalism (displayed at a football match!) and popular support for any particular regime are two entirely different things precisely which DPRK in its report is trying to equate, probably to make the regime feel better, if that. I’m thinking in particular non-support for the Chun Doo-Hwan regime and the 80’s when RoK mass had never quite failed in demonstrating their Nationalism at any sports event. Incidentally, that’s roughly the same period when a string of anti-Japan books made onto bestseller lists and subsequently into TV shows.

Before anyone says “look where did that lead to!”, I must point to the long history of pro-democracy movements in RoK that goes as far back as the early ‘60s if not before. And it should be noted having Japan, a democratic society, nearby certainly benefited the movements as certain ‘subversive’ publications could be smuggled-in in Japanese translated version and then circulated underground. All this is to say, it’s difficult to know for sure if anything of that sort has existed in DPRK – prior to the famine; on the other hand, it’s just as difficult to think the much publicised demigod stature of Kim Jong-Il (or Kim Il-Sung for that matter) hasn’t already been questioned in private by many.

At April 03, 2005 11:29 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

I think what this demonstrates (and what you are getting at if I've understood your comment correctly) is the dual nature of nationalism. The way in which it has been the principal mobilising ideology for capitalist ruling classes for over a hundred years. And yet at the same time it has provided the main organising and motivating force in anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles around the world.

It can also prove dangerous for regimes that rely on it to prop them up. How many times have we seen democratic or popular revolutionary movements wrap themselves in a national flag that only days before was symbolic of the autocratic regime they have overthrown? Nationalism and support for a particular regime can be one and the same thing for certain periods of time, but this situation can change very rapidly. I think this is a possible scenario in North Korea, and one that probably wouldn't play out very well for the US.

The interesting thing to me about South Korea is the amount of consensus between the old forces of the right and the leftwing forces that were mainly created in the 80s on the subject of nationalism. Some important reasons for the nationalism of the South Korean left come to mind: the semi-peripheral position of the South Korean state under US hegemony and the desire to be finally free of 'colonial' powers of one form or another. And... Stalinism.

At April 04, 2005 8:41 PM, Anonymous sy said...

True, in the past and under certain circumstances Nationalism could be a support for particular movements; but today I wouldn’t go as far as to think they can be same thing even for the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist causes, e.g. Iraqis’ support for the resistance groups against the occupation, the Palestinians’ for their cause. It’s rather a passive strategy opted by the peoples, with great reservations. Hairsplitting am I…

My concerns at the time of writing were mainly about a history of, if existing, democratisation movements in DPRK - or, any sort of popular movements that can be sorted as against-the-regime - because I tend to believe in organised movements. Yet it is possible the Koreans would rise up against Kim Jong-Il without being led by any groups, a la Kwang-Ju in ’80; though seems rather far-fetched.

Ok I’ll take the bait. Stalinism?!

At April 04, 2005 10:13 PM, Anonymous sy said...

Disregard that last bit. Stalinism... yes.

At April 05, 2005 1:07 AM, Blogger kotaji said...

It strikes me, on reflection, that the basis for any popular anti-government movement in North Korea would probably have to be nationalist. Revolutionary movements can only really work with the ideological raw materials they have to hand. And these in North Korea are overwhelmingly going to be nationalism and the ideology of national/racial unification. Outside of certin layers of the intelligensia I doubt whether the ideology of 'democracy and freedom' would have much currency and it is hard to imagine the development of a radical workers' or students' movement.

In the history of movements against state capitalist [ie 'Communist'] regimes we do find cases of workers taking the lead on a class basis: Hungary in 1956 and particularly Poland in 1980 with Solidarity. But the more recent pattern has been one of nationalism. The USSR was broken up by forces ideologically proclaiming themselves as nationalist and even in Russia itself it was a call to nationalism that broke the hold of the Communist Party (or rather allowed its cadres to repackage themselves).

But then again predicting how things will play out in North Korea is notoriously difficult, so I'll hope be proved completely wrong about this.

At April 08, 2005 7:11 PM, Anonymous sy said...

I second that it is difficult to predict. A coup is more likely than a popular uprising.

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