Monday, June 04, 2007

Kristof reporting from the Chinese-Korean border: many things in a small place

Krugman is the better thinker and arguably the better writer, but Kristof is the better journalist. He deserves to sit at the table with those nameless Africa correspondents who occasionally illuminate the undeserving pages of The Economist. In the midst of a visit to China with his Chinese-born wife, he takes a side-trip to the North Korean border. There he reveals many aspects of a complex situation, here's one excerpt:
Escape From North Korea - New York Times

... China has also increased its punishments for its own citizens who are caught helping North Koreans. The penalty used to be a fine, but now it is jail for a year or two — or for a decade or more if someone smuggles escapees to South Korea.

“Now most Chinese don’t dare help the Koreans,” said one local official who secretly protects a safe house full of North Koreans — and who even stood guard outside as I interviewed them. “But I feel so badly for them. They’re just wretched.”

With the help of incredibly courageous conductors on the modern Underground Railroad, I visited four shelters that together house dozens of North Koreans, and residents of a fifth shelter were brought to my vehicle so that I could talk to them safely. My entire visit was conducted under very tight security to make sure I did not lead police to the safe houses.

The North Koreans I talked to described a society that is increasingly corrupt and disillusioned. One said that even with the latest crackdown, a $400 bribe to guards will win a prisoner’s immediate release. Another estimated that up to 20 percent of North Koreans in her area are disaffected enough that they listen illegally to Chinese broadcasts.

Chinese and South Korean missionaries are also beginning to evangelize secretly in North Korea, a sign of weakening government control. One Chinese Christian I talked to had made four trips into North Korea to evangelize. “If I’d been caught, I don’t think I would have been executed,” she said, “but it wouldn’t have been good.”

All the same, none of these North Koreans thought an uprising was imminent. Indeed, a surprising number of them are so steeped in propaganda that they still insist that “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is a good man. “The problem is with lower officials, not with Kim Jong-il himself,” claimed one man who has arranged for smugglers to bring his entire family out to freedom in China. (For more on the North Koreans, go to my blog,

... Those three children are modern reminders of the terrors of Anne Frank. They fear with every footstep outside their door that China will arrest them and send them back to their national torture chamber...
The Anne Frank connection is arguably valid in this case. I was struck by the role of Christian (protestant) evangelism, the persistence of the "Dear Leader" mythos (shades of those who blame our governments fiascos on everyone but Bush), the inevitable* heroic figure guarding the safe house and, of course, the persistent misery of North Korea.

It will be interesting to see if Kristof is able to get a visa next time he tries to visit China.

I suppose I'll have to start reading his blog now.

* I use "inevitable" in an exasperated rather than disparaging way. It's the persistent recurrence of these heroic types, apparently thrown up by some odd mixture of genes and environment, that make it so difficult to retire humanity and try dolphins instead.

Update: Kristof's blog discussion has some superb comments and adds much more background information and complexity. That reminds me, on the way to work I heard a brief NPR snippet on a book bemoaning the destruction of the media "pillars" of society by "amateur culture". That was enough of the "pillars" for me, I hit the "source" button on my car "radio" and switched to an In Our Time podcast.

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