Simon Winchester is a best-selling author. You’ve probably seen his popular histories, in particular, The Surgeon of Crowthorne. He received an OBE from the Queen in 2006 for services to journalism and literature. He is apparently witty, charming and intelligent. And he thinks we’ve all been a bit unfair to North Korea.
In the London Times shortly after the death of Kim Jong-il, Winchester argued that, sure, the Hermit Kingdom has its ”flaws”, but life there is ”not nearly as bad as is supposed”. The restaurants are few, but the medical clinics are clean. The bars sell imported beer, and the hairdressers are friendly.
But for Winchester, the great thing about North Korea is that it isn’t South Korea. The North hasn’t been ”utterly submerged in neon, hip-hop and every imaginable American influence”. It is ”a place uniquely representative of an ancient and rather remarkable Asian culture. And that, in a world otherwise rendered so bland, is perhaps no bad thing.”
Never mind the poverty. The tyranny. Or that Winchester visited at the tail end of a famine that killed about 10 per cent of the population – a famine caused deliberately by a hereditary dictatorship. The real issue is Western consumerism. North Korea is desperately poor, but let’s focus on how crass America is.
Winchester is not alone. Writing in Crikey, Guy Rundle argued that yes, North Korea is in a state of oppression, but (don’t you know?) neoliberalism and globalisation are really bad too.
There is a long history of left-wing intellectuals apologising for communist dictatorships. And it’s always been less about the places they’ve venerated, and more about the intellectuals themselves: their deep, unshakable dislike of capitalism, and their belief that Western liberties just result in vulgarity. In his 1991 book The Wilder Shores of Marx, the English psychiatrist Anthony Daniels wrote about returning from a visit to North Korea a few years before. He recalls describing to a colleague, a professor of medicine, the pervasive propaganda and brainwashing in Kim Il-sung’s regime. The professor responded: ”But have you considered how much power Rupert Murdoch wields in this country?”
Sure, no 20th-century dictatorship has been without its defenders. Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Castro’s Cuba, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam: they’ve all been praised by Western socialists looking for a model of the good society. And their ”flaws”, the tyranny and terror and poverty, have been downplayed.
Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is one of the great anti-dictatorship films, but his opposition to tyranny was selective. Chaplin thought ”the only people who object to Communism [are] Nazi agents”. When he heard about Stalin’s purges, Chaplin said they were ”wonderful” and were needed in America.
When Mao died in 1976, Gough Whitlam couldn’t praise the dictator enough: Mao ”was the inspiration to the Chinese people” and made China ”secure, stable and self-confident”. Of course, he killed 45 million people doing so. One would have hoped the wistful romance of tyranny would have disappeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its final, conclusive, unavoidable demonstration of the dangers of communism.
Not so. The romanticisation of communism survives. When the former Czech president and anti-communist dissident Vaclav Havel died last month, Guardian columnist Neil Clark complained Havel had never talked about communism’s good side. Communism offered welfare, education, and women’s rights. So ”the question which needs to be asked”, intoned Clark, is did Havel’s ”political campaigning [make] his country and the world a better place?”
Havel had been repeatedly tortured by the Czech police. He was punished for demanding democracy and human rights. But perhaps Havel’s experience of torture and imprisonment blinded him to how great life under Marxist dictatorship actually was.
Or perhaps many Western writers are so desperate to blame capitalism for the world’s problems that they’re willing to forgive, even support, non-capitalist tyranny.
Someone is always saying something nice about the worst totalitarian states. After Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, visited North Korea in 2010, she told the media she’d seen few signs of malnutrition. Mind you, she only visited Pyongyang and had been escorted the whole time by North Korean officials.
Even better, Chan had seen no signs of obesity. North Koreans, the Director-General approvingly noted, do a lot of walking. People in affluent Westernised Asian countries do not. I guess the upside to material deprivation is how it encourages physical exercise. And there is, Simon Winchester might say, a real ”authenticity” in that.