Given the amount of public interest in the just-concluded visit of Japanese and American wrestlers to Pyongyang, led by lawmaker (and former wrestling star) Kanji Inoki, I thought I might share a few comments I prepared just as the visit was getting underway.
I think this particular trip is much more about Japan-DPRK relations than some sop to warmer relations with the United States (via the wrestlers or the erstwhile rapper). The core delegation is Japanese, Inoki is a viable (if somewhat eccentric) interlocutor, and North Korea stands very much to gain for looking more open to Japan at this particular moment.
It isn’t a coincidence that the Inoki visit is going forward just a few short weeks prior to what is going to be one of the more important and delicate moments in Japanese-North Korean relations since Koizumi went to Pyongyang for a short visit in 2002 – the unveiling of what is broadly called ‘the abduction report’ but which will also attempt to explain the fate of what I think are a few thousand Japanese who died in 1945-46 during the Soviet invasion and before the DPRK, properly speaking, existed.
I find it interesting that North Korea is willing to talk to Inoki and will meet with a number of right-wing Japanese lawmakers, and that, relatively speaking, they have dialled back seriously on the anti-Japanese drumbeat in their official media. It took Pyongyang more than ten days to muster a comment on the visit of Japanese lawmakers to Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August, and they have yet to go after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo for his written message to the same venue on the same day; and they probably won’t go after him for that. There was also the meeting of the foreign ministers for the two countries at ASEAN, which I think was part of North Korea’s plan, certainly.
So the point is that the Inoki spectacle gives the Japanese public a different frame through which to view North Korea, and that it’s very much to Pyongyang’s benefit.
WHO IT IS FOR? THE QUESTION OF PERSONALITIES
One of the most interesting aspects of the Inoki spectacle, like the Rodman spectacle before it, is the question of interactions with North Koreans. We tend to ask questions like ‘will this impact everyday North Korean views of the United States (or Japan)’? And what about the North Korean athletes that they meet in Pyongyang? Do such visits ‘change hearts and minds’?
Well, first, the North Koreans who are allowed to meet foreigners on such sanctioned trips are already generally very well vetted, and extremely loyal to the system and to the Kim family. You can imagine that their momentary contact with an American or a Japanese athelete is important, but it’s not going to be a situation where the scales are suddenly falling from their eyes – if anything, the loyalty to the leadership system is more intense, because it is the leadership that has cared so much for them that the leader has gone out of his way to arrange for this visit and the education it will bring in terms of sports technique and, consequently, national power. These athletes are going into what in some ways is situation without any context or administrative undergirding – there is no Japanese or American cultural center (let alone an Embassy) in Pyongyang where the students could follow up on any kindled interest in US culture. Notice who is interpreting for these groups – they will often change, and the same young interpreter who had Dennis Rodman’s ear on one visit will not be seen on the next visit.
More interesting and more important, really, are the North Koreans in positions of power who such athletes are allowed to meet with. Kim Jong-un went out of his way to appear accommodating to Rodman and Rodman’s delegation, meeting them each personally and reportedly even spending time with them in private, having parties, etc. This is done in part just for the leader’s entertainment and enjoyment. Seen cynically, there is something positively arcane about it, the importing of jokers and circuses for the amusement of the young king – but of course the top elites who allow such visits to go forward are not ignorant of the international media feedback loop, and so one can put an ‘international friendship’ bow around what is otherwise a bit of a lark for Kim Jong-un.
If you want to be much more serious and supportive of the event, you say that it ‘opens up channels of communication’ between states and peoples – I think this phrase is somewhat misleading, because, like an artery, if nothing is moving through it, it’s not actually a channel but is an unhealthy wall. If there is no mechanism for follow-up, if one’s interlocutors change – and keep in mind that Inoki was the last foreigner to meet Jang Song-taek before he was purged and killed – then you are forced to start over at every stage and the notion of ‘progress’ via such visits is illusory.
Finally there is the question of propaganda to consider. You will often hear the phrase ‘useful idiot’ bandied about, and North Korea’s use of foreign individuals in state media is clearly rendered in a rather exaggerated way for the state’s benefit, showing us as somewhat obsequious.
But who cares? If an American, European, or Japanese lawmaker visits Kim Il-sung’s birthplace, they can now do so knowing that it is OK to wear a wrestling mask around the place. Bowing to a statue isn’t going to kill anyone and the last time I checked, we didn’t lose the Korean War and we have a few dozen B-52 bombers on the way to Guam; a few photos of foreigners bowing to a statue of the two dead Kims is not going to change that basic fact. (This is of course very different when North Korea has arrested/detained Americans who are then forced into humiliating public apologies; but even that does not seem to bother people as much as it did during the 1950s.)
If North Korea is willing to let in more foreign athletes, musicians, artists, journalists, etc., being stuck into a few propaganda photos is a fairly small price to pay. Not to mention the fact that the revenue gained by the state in such ventures is negligible; it also costs the state a great deal to conduct surveillance on the foreigners it lets in, to construct ‘massive edifices’ like Masikryong Ski Resort to impress them, etc.
THE CHINA THING
North Korea and China seem to use cultural events to work alongside bilateral disputes, such that exchanges go forward and at least preserve the veneer of normality between the two countries. We saw this after Jang Song-taek’s death, when Chinese song and dance ensembles visited North Korea for Chinese New Year, and the participation of a major national group from Beijing that came to Pyongyang in April for the arts festival. Because Chinese and North Korean official culture is still very Party-centered, they do have more inherent compatibility, but the principle is the same: We may be having serious disputes over a whole host of matters, but we are going to keep going with these very limited but also important musical and cultural exchanges, because appearances of comradeship still count.
I don’t think the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ is quite the right parallel (largely because US-DPRK relations are structurally not ready for a wholesale interface, not to mention the fact that North Korea isn’t about to end its own Cultural Revolution-level cult of personality and turn toward ‘reform and opening up.’