Build­ing the per­fect leader

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The vic­tims are African mi­grants in South Africa who do thank­less jobs like wait­ress­ing with no job se­cu­rity and salary but depend­ing on “tips” only; the vic­tims are also gar­den boys and those who sell prod­ucts in the streets of city cen­tres; and so on. Thus break­ing it down fur­ther, th­ese xeno­pho­bic at­tacks can be viewed as poor on poor vi­o­lence.

As stated ear­lier, th­ese so called xeno­pho­bic at­tacks are merely a symp­tom of a false sense of African na­tion­al­ism. This African na­tion­al­ism came as a re­sult of the boundar-

RE­CENT ru­mours about North Korean text­books ex­hort­ing a young Kim Jong Un’s prow­ess as a driver and sailor have sparked a re­newed cy­cle of blogs and ar­ti­cles mus­ing on just how weird North Korea is. Why is their pro­pa­ganda so odd? Do they be­lieve it all?

When it comes to li­onised feats of the lead­ers, there are two kinds of tales that we hear, as non-kore­ans. The first are the “real’ leg­ends, i.e. those ac­tu­ally prop­a­gated by the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea (DPRK). Th­ese are usu­ally quite in­cred­i­ble, but not un­be­liev­able.

So, for ex­am­ple, we’re told that the dy­nasty’s founder, Kim Il Sung, wrote pa­tri­otic slo­gans in beau­ti­ful cal­lig­ra­phy at age three and founded a proto-po­lit­i­cal party at age 13. Kim Jong Il was born on the sa­cred slopes of Mt Baekdu and as a mid­dle school stu­dent re­paired trucks while also or­ga­niz­ing ide­o­log­i­cal study ses­sions.

Th­ese kinds of sto­ries are pri­mar­ily meant for the do­mes­tic au­di­ence to con­vince them of the mer­its of their uniquely qual­i­fied lead­ers. Ed­u­ca­tion on Kim Jong Un’s ex­ploits will cer­tainly be grow­ing.

The sec­ond kind of myth ex­ists al­most ex­clu­sively in in­ter­na­tional me­dia and of­ten con­sists of truly un­be­liev­able tales. The best ex­am­ple is, of course, the “Kim Jong Il got 18 holes-in-one the first time he golfed” story.

This ap­pears to have been gen­er­ated dur­ing an in-coun­try con­ver­sa­tion with a vis­it­ing jour­nal­ist, ac­cord­ing to friends of mine present. It has since be­come can­non.

You can read vary­ing ver­sions of it, al­ways at­tribut­ing it to “North Korean me­dia” or “North Korean pro­pa­ganda,” but in­vari­ably ies that were cre­ated by colo­nial­ists in yesteryears.

The balka­ni­sa­tion of Africa into “states” cre­ated the par­a­digm of Africans only iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves as na­tion­als of a par­tic­u­lar coun­try and not nec­es­sar­ily as Africans with a com­mon her­itage and iden­tity.

Most are well aware of the Ber­lin Con­fer­ence of 1884 in which the colo­nial pow­ers ap­por­tioned Africa for them­selves by cut­ting up the con­ti­nent like a piece of meat thereby cre­at­ing the African coun­tries as we know them to­day.

The end re­sults of such a process link­ing to some other West­ern me­dia, if there is a ci­ta­tion at all. Kim Jong Il scor­ing a per­fect 300 the first time he bowled is an­other such tale.

North Kore­ans have never, ever heard of th­ese sto­ries, un­less they’ve been told them by a for­eigner. They ex­ist purely in a fan­tasy ver­sion of North Korea we too of­ten in­dulge in. We let this ver­sion take hold for sev­eral rea­sons.

First, the bar is ex­cep­tion­ally low for jour­nal­ism on North Korea. It is a dif­fi­cult place to cover, no doubt, but to all too many jour­nal­ists this seems to mean a free pass.

There is no pun­ish­ment for get­ting it wrong. With Kim Jong Il’s golf story, for ex­am­ple, ev­ery­one just knows the tale; there is no need to find out if it is ac­tu­ally true.

Sec­ond, South Korean jour­nal­ism on North Korea is prob­lem­atic — we should re­mem­ber the two coun­tries are locked in a 70-year pro­pa­ganda war.

The South Korean jour­nal­is­tic cul­ture al­lows for sto­ries to be built around a sin­gle anony­mous source, so with­out at­tri­bu­tion or cross-check­ing, this leaves re­porters open to a higher de­gree of ma­nip­u­la­tion or to ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

Mean­while, many West­ern news out­lets are quite happy to quote South Korean ar­ti­cles as au­thor­i­ta­tive.

Fi­nally, it is un­de­ni­ably a strange cul­ture are the per­pet­u­a­tion of Afro­pho­bia with Africans in ever­last­ing con­flicts with one an­other. Mean­while, the re­sources of Africa con­tinue to end up in the in the hands of the erst­while colonis­ers. And with the lat­ter we can ap­ply the anal­ogy that when Euro­peans came to Africa they had Bi­ble and we had the land.

When they said lets close our eyes and pray, we re­alised that af­ter say­ing “Amen” they now had the land and we had the Bibles. In short, the bound­aries of African states to­day are a re­sult of for­eign im­pe­ri­al­ists and not an African con­struct. There- to most of us, with in­for­ma­tion con­trols that are un­par­al­leled in the 21st cen­tury that make it hard to get re­li­able in­for­ma­tion. They also have cus­toms and rhetoric that are of­ten ex­treme or do not con­form to our stan­dards. Kids in the DPRK do sing songs for “their fa­ther Kim Jong Un,” for ex­am­ple.

Kore­ans still en­gage in self-crit­i­cism ses­sions, a rit­ual long gone else­where. The state me­dia did re­fer to U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in racist terms last year.

This strange­ness drives a seem­ingly in­sa­tiable de­mand for news on the place, as ed­i­tors well know. North Korea drives clicks in this con­tem­po­rary me­dia en­vi­ron­ment.

As au­di­ences, we drive weak jour­nal­ism on­ward: we love to read about the place be­cause we just can’t be­lieve what they’re say­ing or do­ing.

But do North Kore­ans be­lieve it? As for the Kim Jong Un sto­ries — it is hard to know whether they are even true or not. In try­ing to find out, one can fol­low the Huff­in­g­ton Post quot­ing UPI quot­ing South Korean TV quot­ing a text­book that no­body has as ev­i­dence.

It seems un­likely that North Korean text­books re­ally are claim­ing Kim could drive at age three, as this is pretty much phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble. But beat­ing an adult in a sail­ing race when 9-years old? Sure, why not?

More broadly, there are over 24 mil­lion peo­ple in the DPRK. There are trust­ing peo­ple, cyn­i­cal peo­ple, sim­ple peo­ple and smart peo­ple. How they in­ter­act with the in­for­ma­tion en­vi­ron­ment they face very much de­pends on who they are as in­di­vid­u­als.

Gen­er­ally, how­ever, it is fair to say most peo­ple ac­cept the sto­ries of their lead­ers’ hero­ics as the truth. But we should re­mem­ber that the sto­ries they hear are usu­ally not as weird as the ones we hear.

Andray Abra­hamian is direc­tor of Cho­son Ex­change, a Sin­ga­porean non-profit that trains North Kore­ans in en­trepreneur­ship, eco­nomic pol­icy and law. He is a Fel­low at Mac­quarie Uni­ver­sity, Australia. — Reuters

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