Anyone reading the title may laugh (sotto voce would be most appropriate) and wonder what I’m really getting at. Not only because a) for the uninitiated, Don Draper is the fictional advertising executive from television’s Mad Men, but b) for the initiated, Draper’s portrayal in the show as a defender of “blood-on-your-mouth” capitalism makes him a rather unworthy candidate to represent a worker’s paradise like the DPRK.
But really, I’m serious.
To put North Korea’s popularity abroad in SAT terms:
DPRK : Outside DPRK = LeBron James : Outside Miami (Except Seattle)
In fact, with the steady stream of refugees who leave the country every year, one can suppose that this image is now not limited to those outside the country. When Kim Jong Un recently visited an amusement park and lamented about its broken sidewalks and unweeded grounds, he could not have intentionally stated a better metaphor for the general state of disrepair the country he rules is in. And the word “disrepair” may be generous. For all intents and purposes, the DPRK is a failed state: for the fourth straight year, it continues to hover around the “top” 20 vulnerable countries in Foreign Policy magazine’s Failed State Index.
It is very, very difficult to find people who are willing to defend Pyongyang’s image abroad. This is certainly for good reason: North Korea’s chronic dependence on humanitarian aid and dismal human rights record is not exactly a formula that attracts believers. When you have folks like Alejandro de Cao Benos as one of your foremost spokespersons in the international community, you know you’re in deep bantha poodoo.
Certainly the regime does itself no favours with the statements it releases through KCNA. Ranging from the outlandish to the disturbing, KCNA has developed a Howard Stern’ish appeal among North Korea watchers: what is the regime going to say next? Whether it’s calling Hillary Clinton a “pensioner going shopping,”or threatening to shell the major (conservative) newspapers in downtown Seoul, or calling for the racial purity of the Korean people, the regime’s own attempts at PR only help isolate a country that is already pretty well isolated. Unfortunately, this is naturally having adverse effects on how the general public views North Korea, and more importantly, the North Korean people. If talking about the DPRK with the average Canadian is any barometer, most do not view the country through the lens of the hungry, or the prisoner, or even the average citizen. Most see North Korea through Kim Jong Un, nuclear weapons, and the tidbits that make the oddity columns of the major media outlets.
This is extremely puzzling. If Pyongyang did not care about its image abroad, it would not go to the effort of issuing English language statements through KCNA. Nor would it invite one of the world’s premier wire services, the Associated Press, to set up shop in Pyongyang. If Pyongyang really didn’t care, it would not allow groups of travellers to enter the country (at high mark up, of course) and carefully walk them through an orchestrated tour attempting to demonstrate all that is great about the DPRK.
I can’t but wonder whether this is all frustrating to the PR people in Pyongyang. They seem to be trying their best, but they can’t seem to rehabilitate the image of the regime they represent. But what’s even more troubling is that because the image of North Korea that most people receive is Team America, failed rocket launches and Kim Jong Un looking at things, the focus is on the regime itself. And the more that this focus is on the regime itself, the more likely that your average person is going to look at North Korea as a monolithic block of people.
This becomes extremely problematic to anyone who either wants to raise awareness of the hunger of North Koreans or the human rights situation in that country. The first step of any advocacy campaign is to create empathy. It is to humanize the voices that you are advocating on behalf of: for instance, Schindler’s List’s value for Holocaust remembrance was enormous. It gave an audience human characters to relate to, and took them through an unforgettable and harrowing journey borrowed for the most part from historical fact. But what it most triumphantly did was not simply portray the characters as victims: rather, those who perished in and survived the Holocaust became real people. When North Korea’s image is represented by someone that people can relate to, someone who is not bizarre, is inherently human, then it makes the advocates’ job a lot easier. When North Korea’s image is represented by Kim Jong Un, goose stepping soldiers, and nuclear weapons, the antithesis of the average human experience, why should people care?
Now I can already hear folks haranguing me about the fact that the mainstream media does not do its job in reporting North Korea properly. That our image of North Korea is Kim Jong Un, goose stepping soldiers and nuclear weapons because the mainstream media tells us it is. To those who point this out: you are absolutely correct. That is why we have websites like CanKor. But do you still think that this would be the case if the mainstream media had any reasonable access to the DPRK? To the North Korean people? When the North Korean regime severely restricts access and funnels the information that it wants out to the mainstream media, who is ultimately to blame when North Korea and the North Korean people look like they’re from Mars? (Criticisms of the Associated Press’ coverage of North Korean notwithstanding)
That’s why North Korea desperately needs a Don Draper to spruce up their PR campaign. Not because I want to see the regime’s standing in the world rise – not even Draper himself could find a way to do that, short of a North Korean de Klerk coming out of the woodwork. No, the DPRK needs an image change for the sake of the North Korean people.
To the detriment of its own people, the regime has done a wonderful job at reinforcing the image that North Koreans are from Mars. In fact, the longer it goes on, one has to wonder whether this ongoing PR fiasco is one of ignorance or ineptitude – or whether it’s deliberate. With information coming out of North Korea scarce and at times unreliable, the North Korean regime is the dominant actor in providing this precious commodity. And as long as the regime controls the message, this bizarre image of the North Korean people will be the one that is distributed and consumed. As long as that image is dominant, North Koreans will remain Martians, and the first step towards empathy will be missing.
There does exist another option to prevent the “Martianization” of the North Korean people: increase the flow of reliable information that comes out of the DPRK. Of course, as the folks at Good Friends and Rimjingang can tell you, in a country like North Korea, that is easier said than done. It will take time to set up a network that produces information that is both plentiful and reliable.
In the meantime, in light of the regime’s best efforts in this Martianization process, human rights and humanitarian aid advocates may want to pause before continuing their campaigns. Before we stand up and speak about the usual statistics that are thrown about when hunger and human rights are talked about, perhaps we need to take a step back and re-evaluate our approach so far – and why, for the most part, we have been unsuccessful. For perhaps, with every pun intended, we have forgotten the first elementary step in this whole process: the human factor.