Later this afternoon I leave for the People’s Republic to start my first of two semesters at Peking University, close to Beijing’s beautiful Summer Palace in the northwest. While I like to kid that I look forward most of all to the food, I will also enjoy the opportunity to study and learn about China. But coming to China from Europe, where you cannot help but be exposed to all sorts of stereotypes, assumptions, and truisms, it might be healthy to reflect a bit on how exactly I will study there before I leave.
Today an issue played regarding a September publication in fashion magazine Elle that listed ‘North Korean Chic’ as a top fashion trend for this autumn. Small as this slight may seem, it is a good example of trivialisation that happens with regard to the North Korean issue. Look at those silly North Koreans in their retro uniforms and their retro concentration camps!
One problem is the lack of realisation that what is going on there is seriously horrific. We are talking about a country where in the past few years up to 100,000 inmates have disappeared from the concentration camps, many of which presumably starved when the new regime redirected scarce food resources to prop up its support base. Regardless of the accuracy of that number—earlier reports talked about 20,000—it is still an incredibly crime that merits global attention on its own. Jokes about the outfits of North Koreas Army, essentially ten years of forced corvée labour for the men, is not fitting.
However, of course is has not only got to do with a lack of knowledge, but also with defining a group so much as the Other, that empathy is reduced. Only that can explain the fact that things like the grueling, child-abusing Arirang Mass Games are filed under entertainment. Stories about sex scandals and executions are passed on like Snowden files at a journalist get-together, only for their entertaining value. We have to stop seeing North Korean lives as worth less worry and care than those of people we can culturally and physically relate to more easily.
I believe that the above justifies that even such small issues such as the Elle gaffe should be addressed, proportionally of course. A few angry responses to Elle Magazine have already sorted some effect: the magazine has removed the reference and expressed regret. This is a good way to address this issue and I encourage every reader of news media to do the same.
Is your news source of choice oversimplifying the situation, trivialising suffering or just being plain racist? Send a letter and show the editors that you care!