In the End, We Become Them

Andy Greenberg’s piece for WIRED (April 2015) on the struggle to smuggle information into North Korea is very readable. But while the cause is obviously just–expose an indoctrinated people to the reality of the outside world in the hopes that they will revolt against their oppressive, tyrannical government–I wonder just a little bit if the means (propaganda) aren’t committing the exact same sin of omission, in the fact that we’re carefully curating the sort of contraband that we ship into North Korea. Yes, we’re offering them a different window, and that’s good, and perhaps full exposure might send the wrong message about our values–but isn’t the point that we should be letting people decide? It’s the same issue we face in America: those who watch and read the news, even FOX, are ostensibly more educated and perceptive to what’s going on in the exterior than those who live in insulated bubbles–but it’s only by confirming and deepening this understanding of “facts” through real-world experience and other first-hand sources that we actually learn what the world is actually like. (And even then, not totally.)

Besides, who are we to determine what exactly will be the tipping point for a North Korean? Would we ever have expected that Friends, of all shows, would be the thing that made people more welcoming of Western values? (Maybe the unspoken racism appeals to them.) Or that Titanic would be so inspiring– as Yeonmi Park puts it in the article, “In North Korea, they had taught us that you die for the regime. In this movie it was like, whoa, he’s dying for a girl he loves.” It’s a bit discouraging, then, to read that North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (led by an escaped North Korean who used to work for their thought police, confiscating contraband) actually screens media for a “defector focus group” in order to better “smuggle in the materials with the most impact.” On the one hand, I see the need not to waste valuable resources smuggling in content that won’t spur the population to act, but at the same time, shouldn’t this be the people’s choice? And aren’t resources being spent, after all, airing Superbad to these testers instead of just casting it out, message-in-a-bottle style on a USB drive, and seeing what happens? Some of our products definitely make America look stupid, but if we’re honest and open enough to show that–to show all of that–isn’t that a point in our favor, especially if we’re comparing that to the secrecy and closure of the punitive North Korean government?

If WikiLeaks chose which data to release, or offered to compromise with governments by continue to censor material that was especially sensitive, wouldn’t that massively devalue the site itself, given how difficult trust is to earn and protect? Same too, perhaps, with North Korea: let’s find a way to get them access to everything, and let them figure out how to use it.

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