Bombing Perfect Strangers (Part II)

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Dispatches from Korea

“We are one people,” Koreans will tell you.

The differences between North and South are negligible. But the North is viewed — from the outside — as otherworldly, not part of the modern world, not one of “us.” How can the North be saved from a destructive modern-day, U.S.-led crusade against arbitrarily defined “evil”?

If one of the salient characteristics of contemporary popular culture is the hyper-adulation of good looks and fame, could pop culture have the potential to save us from what we’ve become: a civilization which, while it is in many respects good-natured, has also become callous about waging wars in order to maintain a cheap energy supply or punish “rogue” regimes? We accept war because we don’t think we will lose all that much as a result of it.

Koreans have something special. And that special quality easily translates into mass culture. Call it shallow, but, imagine the world getting to know and love Koreans through the massive, global pop-culture machine — as entertainers, writers, filmmakers or musicians. Wouldn’t it be more difficult to contemplate bombing them & even if they live in the North? Those who we are meant to despise are always presented to us as ugly, repulsive — couldn’t it work the other way around?

Asserting that culture has the power to stop the juggernaut of war is to invite charges of naïveté. But consider this, fascism — a political force that has relished in its control of culture — was so enamoured of culture as a socializing tool that even during the 1930s and 40s, a time when mass culture did not exist in its modern, TV-driven form, it was recognized as possessing something potent. We do not sufficiently question the propaganda value of our own culture. We think we’re too smart for that.

Culture convinces. It is masterful at appearing to be a form of evidence (because it presents us with such a convincing facsimile of reality) while not being real at all. So how can we make cultural forces work for good?

Remember that our mass culture is not the only mass culture that could exist. It could place more emphasis on the simple joys of day-to-day life. It could depict with greater sympathy the suffering experienced by the victims of violence. When the gun is fired, when the bomb is dropped, someone is hurt. It could help us remember our history.

But mass culture — with its vivid, supposedly uncompromising images of spilled blood and dismemberment — rarely shows the long-term effects of anything, but particularly not of violence. It creates the illusion that violence happens, then disappears, like a thunderstorm, leaving nothing behind. But, of course, it does leave something behind: the misery of its survivors, who, in some cases, are filled with such a craving for vengeance that they become what we call terrorists.

* * *

Living in South Korea is interesting because it has a very strong national culture. Although it has its fair share of gangland melodramas and heavily choreographed pop, it also possesses a strong sense of identity.

North Korea, alternatively, has no culture to speak of. Or rather, its culture — like its society — is so isolated that all we see of it in the West are stereotypes and second-hand descriptions. But if we are serious about understanding others, we need to acknowledge how little we know.

Locked in upon itself by fear or mistrust or ideological rigidity, North Korea remains a question mark — a blank screen onto which visions of evil are projected. Ironically, the North could do much more to alleviate the anxieties of the West and South Korea if it simply opened up as a culture and showed us something of itself. Like any other country, North Korea is imperfect. But the people who live there possess the perfection of all life — they are, in a sense, perfect strangers.

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