What are you doing about North Korea?
By Casey Lartigue
“What should be done about North Korea?” “How can we help North Koreans?” Those questions are often asked, but rarely answered to the satisfaction of questioners. In the last five years of speaking at and attending North Korea focused events, I have yet to see audience members, reporters or experts respond, “At last! This is the answer about what to do about North Korea!”
Why can’t anyone give a satisfactory answer? One, the answers are based on the biases and skills of the speakers and aren’t addressed to the particular biases and skills of listeners. It would be like asking someone what you should buy when you go shopping, without the person answering knowing what you already have in your refrigerator or living room. You can get a generic answer, but not specific and customized. If you ask researchers what should be done, most will probably ask for more research. An activist wants to stop the talk, get to the action, to hell with more data.
Two, it is easier to agree in theory rather than in practice. Activists may agree on the need for action, but one may want to send air balloons or do radio broadcasts into North Korea, another may want to rescue runaways, another may focus on resettlement. And then there are different approaches within those approaches, setting up backstabbing turf wars.
A third reason listeners are rarely satisfied with the answers: There is often a mismatch between what is suggested and what can be done. Even if you believe that the USA should sign a peace treaty with North Korea or that six-party talks should be restarted, you are part of the 99.9% who lack the power to get it done.
There are many suggestions about what to do about North Korea. There are calls for the United Nations, China, Laos, Russia, South Korea, and the United States to do more, such as sanctions (heavy or targeted), bombing or invading North Korea or suing/arresting/assassinating Kim Jong-Un.
There are others advocating for engaging North Korea, investing in the country, educating North Koreans, giving targeted humanitarian aid, expanding trade, and increasing academic and cultural exchanges.
Most of what is recommended can’t be done by advocates, no matter how much people debate at conferences and on social media. While those with power are cautious, others with strong opinions but no power can comfortably assert what should be done–and still have their jobs as commentators or professors the next day.
I’m sure some readers are thinking, “Okay, Mr. Lartigue, if you are so smart, what is your answer?” I am now leading up a project asking North Korean refugees to develop plans about what to do about North Korea.
Unlike cases of having a refugee answer questions emailed by a reporter or asked at the end of a speech, the “How to help North Koreans” project, organized by the Teach North Korean Refugees Education Center at AOU, will follow through by helping refugees implement their proposals. It started with our speech contest in February, in which refugees explained what they would do to address North Korea. We left the question broad, so they could address any aspect of North Korea (the country, leadership, North Koreans who are escaping or resettling).
Refugees were tasked with developing original and authentic ideas. Next, they will be selecting from a pool of eager volunteer “helpers” who will add various skills and expertise (website design, social media, editing, writing, etc.). They will be given two months to develop their projects. After that, they will go live with their projects.
That is, if we can get them to slow down. Some of the refugees who presented their ideas at the third speech contest don’t want to wait for our timeline. We did notice that the expectation that they would implement their projects limited pie-in-the-sky proposals. Of course, that approach will disappoint experts and reporters looking to be dazzled (by impressive plans that never get implemented). As I have noted in other contexts, reporters, experts and researchers are often like children at a birthday party waiting for a rabbit to be pulled out of a hat, they need something surprising or shocking to excite them.
The refugees in TNKR’s project will be able to talk about their plans to audiences around the world, rather than just giving impromptu responses during Q&A. There may be mismatches with some audiences, sure, but instead of, “What should be done,” the focus will be, “Here’s what I’m doing. Please join me to add your skills.” Researchers can join by adding their research expertise and activists can add opportunities for action. Asking “what are you doing about North Korea” is an uncomfortable question, so speakers may long for the day they were asked, “What should be done about North Korea?”
The writer is director of the Teach North Korean Refugees Education Center at American Orientalism University. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.