Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Meredith Burgmann, North Korea, Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il and deeply batty brass rubbings

You know, I once had the opportunity to work inside North Korea, and I don't want to sound sanctimonious or righteous (okay, I will sound priggish), but I turned it down, even though it would have been more a junket than actual work.

Along the way, I saw some truly bizarre footage shot by North Koreans allegedly as part of scientific experiments, but really more reflecting the ability of a fox to gnaw through the bone in a desperate desire to escape the trap.

But those images of animals at each others throats adds a special, piquant flavor to reading Meredith Burgmann's North Korea: More kitsch than M*A*S*H.

We don't often sojourn with the loony left, but all loons are welcome on the pond, and Burgmann's piece surely qualifies her for residence in the far left of the pond (though depending on your point of view, you might not be able to see much difference to the far right).

Ms. Burgmann, you see, has been to North Korea twice, and boasts of the special insights this gives her about dear leader Kim Jong-Il:

I won’t say I ‘m close to him although he did once present me (through an intermediary) with a black lacquer vase (which I then declared on my pecuniary interests register as a gift from “the Dear Leader” as he is known ... and which no journalist in the NSW press gallery picked up as an issue).

Te he, what a card she is.

So what insight does she bring back about the dear leader? Well it seems North Korea is deeply paranoid and the dear leader deeply batty, which I'd put as an insight at about the level of working out that Tony Perkins' character Norman in Psycho is at least mildly disturbed.

It seems the dear leader's antics are all a theatrical show, designed to generate publicity:

The invasion of Iraq proved that if the US thinks you have a bomb you jolly well better have one or you are toast. Kim’s nuclear posturings are much more about stopping what he sees as a possible US invasion than launching his own.

His weapons are rudimentary and unreliable and how could he possibly launch an attack on South Korea when the only possible target, Soeul, is so close to his own southern border.

While Kim may appear batty it is important to remember that publicity is central to deterrence ...

Phew what a relief. Deeply batty but not enough to indulge in any self-harm. A bit like Saddam Hussein. That's alright then, he's just like that lovable character in Team America. Deeply batty, but in love with Hollywood. Sure he might be able to nuke his neighbours, but think of that as a kind of playful love tap. After all, Dr. Strangelove is a deeply batty comedy, and I laugh every time I see the deeply batty characters getting ready to nuke the world.

Hang on a minute, what am I saying? It's better than alright. The dear leader might be batty, but no more so than the Major in Fawlty Towers:

The whole point about North Korea and its deeply batty leader is that you don’t have to love him but you don’t have to fear him either.

Phew, that's a triple relief. Fear George Bush (I did, I did) but indulge our deeply batty dictator with heartfelt understanding.

You will also be relieved to know that Ms. Burgmann doesn't support DPRK domestic policies, considering them "harsh and often loopy". Yep, death in a gulag is just so ... well, loopy.

But all that distasteful talk of gulags and prisons and starvation and people living in fear  - when you think about it hard and deep, as Ms Burgmann seems to do - is, what's the word I'm thinking of? Distasteful. 

Let's not dwell on the unfortunates, let's have a fun time with the fortunates, as people were wont to do back when apartheid was all the go in South Africa:

We also have to keep remembering that the government of North Korea is not the people of North Korea. It is easy to forget that, as in any country, there are human and humorous citizens there.

They are not aliens and monsters. These are people that we invited to a Swans v Carlton match and while muffled in their Swans scarves (after some encouragement) leapt to their feet in admiration of the great Tony Lockett ...”Number four kicks very good”.

Say no more. Anyone who loves Tony Lockett and AFL football surely can't be a member of an oppressive regime responsible for the deaths of thousands, or millions. (Take your pick as to the actual number). Unless of course you hate the Swans, in which case you probably can't imagine a more oppressive bunch of aliens and monsters.

Burgmann provides an even more warm hearted anecdote about the guards in the room where the peace treaty was signed, who are in the habit of absenting themselves in a polite way whenever one side or the other has VIP visitors in the room - such jolly, discrete, harmonious co-operation between two countries still technically at war.

And it seems other things are going spiffingly well, with the north providing cheap and obedient communist labor for the capitalist south factories at Kaeson. Why, they couldn't have organized it better if they were trying to run Animal Farm. As for the worker bees and drones? Never mind, we just love cheap obedient workers turning out knick knacks for the two dollar stores.

But the capper anecdote involves travel companion Professor Ian Howard and his interest in the conjuncture between military and civilian culture:

Ian talked his way on board (captured American spy ship the USS Pueblo), taped some of his art paper across the pock marked and riveted funnel and began his crayon rubbing under the suspicious eye of a tall navy official dressed something akin to an Admiral, with a very large gun.

As Ian was getting up steam and I was taking photographs, the Admiral moved forward and grabbed Ian by the shoulder. I became quite nervous at this stage but the admiral simply took the piece of crayon from Ian’s hand, did a few dramatic gestures of rubbing and then proceeded with a flourish to date the artwork.

He understood the nature of the project probably better than Ian’s students back in Australia. It was a wonderful moment.

I produced a comic book narrative of this incident with my long time collaborator Yvette Andrews for the art show. The Professor’s rubbings looked spectacular but at $50,000 a pop they weren’t exactly leaping off the walls.

Our graphic art works however were a hit at $200 and multiple copies of ‘Imperialist Aggressor’ found their way into the homes of art lovers and old Stalinist baby boomers around Sydney.

If art really does bring the people of the world together, I wonder what our comic offering will do for nuclear disarmament?

Well actually Ms. Burgmann your comic offering will do bugger all for nuclear disarmament, since you approvingly cite the benefits for North Korea of maintaining a nuclear posture - remember that line "The invasion of Iraq proved that if the US thinks you have a bomb you jolly well better have one or you are toast."?

And as for that wonderful moment when the Admiral dated the artwork, why did I feel a queasy sense of nausea flash over me, as if I'd eaten too much fairy floss at the show? Perhaps it was the cheerful reference to Stalinist baby boomers around Sydney, which is a bit like referencing old Hitlerites lurking in the Barossa Valley. Such a jolly pairing, and so vastly mis-understood, much like North Korean dictators.

And making out like bandits with the pricing of the art works? Hey ho, nonny no, what a pity instead of "Imperialist Aggressor", the artwork didn't have a different kind of wording. Like "Dictator Suck Ass" or "Funny gulag loser" or "Stalinist show trial".

But there you have it. North Koreans are funny, warm humorous people who just want to get along, and sure they might be paranoid and batty and armed with nukes, but never mind they mean no harm and you needn't fear them. As profound a bunch of privileged insights as we've been privileged to be given on loon pond.

So why do I think I learned more about life by watching Team America?

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