Lately I’ve been so pre-occupied with my operation and recovery that I haven’t been as active in keeping up with the current state of world affairs. In my previous post I mentioned how I was in hospital undergoing surgery that will hopefully lead to recovery of my sight, but I didn’t mention something else that happened when I turned on the television in Ward 81. Whilst being poked and prodded by a nurse, I happened to flick the channel to a special KBS (Korea Broadcasting Service) news bulletin in which I instantly recognised the face of the woman who is the only person who I have ever seen, been allowed to present on North Korean State Television, and I instantly knew something was wrong. She was wearing black, and luckily my Korean has gotten to a point where I can understand enough to make out the general gist of a conversation. And she was all ‘Woe is Me’,and for some reason I didn’t think to look at the hangeul characters at the bottom of the screen, when I actually stopped trying to botz it and looked at the bottom, it said in violently bold hangeul characters that Kim Jong-Il had died at 8:30am on Saturday 17th of December. Merely a week before Christmas.
This bleak dictator of epic proportions had been a thorn in the side of international state relations in the region. And his death wasn’t exactly lauded by the international community as a great loss of any description. North Korea is the outsider, the pariah of the region, the dirty uncle no one wants to invite to Christmas dinner, but we do anyway so that we can appease them and keep the peace in the family. North Korea is a constant cloud that hangs over the heads of people here in Seoul. Notwithstanding the fact that we are only 60kms from the border with North Korea, there takes on a greater sense of vulnerability knowing that we are well within reach of any North Korean missiles and artillery attacks. Life in South Korea goes on rather unbeknowest to any benin or malignant threats from the north. Since I’ve lived here there have been numerous ‘provocations’ by the North, two incidents in particular were the scariest. The bombing of the Cheonan, and the attack on Yeongpyeong Island, the latter forced the New Zealand embassy to send an email out to all expats here to update their details, just in case. Needless to say there were some people who were ready to jump. I on the other hand have fallen into routine with the rest of the South Korean population, treating North Korean threats with rather smug indifference. Maybe I should be careful not to tempt fate.
The point is however, is that despite all of this, Kim Jong-Il’s death prompted me to think of other things besides politics. Ignoring the internal power struggle that will now ensue in Pyongyang I started to think about the people of North Korea. (I get these random thoughts all the time) And I just couldn’t help but feel completely and utterly sad for them. Not only because of the appalling conditions that the majority of the population live under, or the lack of access to basic medical care and food allocations, but mostly because they had been denied the biggest fundamental right an individual should have. Freedom.
It sounds kinda like Western Democratic drivel, the Democratic form of propaganda aka Information Politics, but to me it’s more than just rhetoric. And freedom for the North Korean people does indeed mean liberty in this instance, but what I mean by freedom, is freedom to not be forced into doing something that you did not consciously choose yourself. And this to me is not limited to the realm of dictatorial regimes. Freedoms are denied to people in our societies every day.
As a western society we tend to think that we have everything pretty neatly worked out and put in a particular order. We think that we are free to choose what we want to do with our everyday lives, that we can go wherever, and do whatever in a western society; and this means we are living a life far superior to those 60kms north of us, I think in this case we couldn’t be anymore mistaken. The type of affixations and limitations that western, democratic, capitalist societies have created aren’t all too different on the ability to own and exert freedom than those created by an autocratic regime.
If we consider that today so many of us are tied to material possessions, that we are not free to live our lives the way we want, we can see that our freedoms are being limited by the societies that we have created. We have to work to pay for those Christmas gifts, to pay the rent, to buy the groceries; living in cities means that there isn’t anyway we can be hunter gatherers. Increasingly your pen is becoming your arrow and notebook your spear as you try to hunt for a meaningful existence in a concrete abyss of hedonistic noise and chaos. Your ability to survive and reach freedom is hampered by your inability to make money. Capitalist criticism aside (I am by no means a commie) there is an even more dangerous limitation to freedom that our societies have created. Democracy. (cue gasp)
Democracy is supposedly government by the people, for the people of the people. (Thanks Ab Lincoln) It has always been championed as the protector of life, liberty and freedom. But really what is democracy but a tyranny of the majority? It’s where 51% of the population gets to tell the other 49% what to do. How different is that to an autocracy? The idea of democracy is a noble one, in fact I believe in representation and believe in its merits wholeheartedly. But what I don’t enjoy about democratic systems is how a government that enjoys marginally over 50% of the citizens support can claim to be legitimate. Additionally what I don’t like about the tyranny of the majority is when they make policies that attempt to regulate peoples personal lifestyle decisions, such as a persons decision to engage in ‘socially unacceptable’ behaviour.
Socially unacceptable behaviour is a constructed norm. It’s not real. There is no law of nature that says that prostitution is bad, nor is there a law of nature that says that swearing in public is going to make your eyes pop out. Or that if you engage in pre-marital sex that you will gain a horrible STD and die prematurely. Everything that we consider normal, has been created by someone else. Judged by someone else’s experiences and doesn’t actually have anything to do with you.
And it happens in all facets of society. People are limited by cultural norms, by gender norms, by societal norms, religious norms, norms, norms, norms! (I hate the damn word, because I’m not normal) If we look at what is acceptable custom in Korea with a very Patriarchal structure, Men are still seen as superior than woman in many fields. (I detest this myself) and women are normally expected to give up their jobs if they start a family. Homosexuality is very much still a taboo topic, and so is prostitution (although both are rampant and alive). I personally don’t have a problem with any of this stuff, why? because at the essence of any person, is humanity. Alot of people don’t realise that you don’t get to choose who you are. You are who you are, you are born a particular way and then you spend the rest of your life trying to protect yourself from others who try to turn you into someone who you are not. (And lets not get into religious norms, cause we’d be here all night!)
So we do this because we fear what is different from us, because at the root of humanity is insecurity. One law of nature that does persist in all of us is our survival instinct and the battle for the survival of the fittest. At our core, we are competitive beings. Our pre-historic ancestors were born into a world far different from us, where their security wasn’t guaranteed, where they were not the dominant species, so surviving at any cost meant everyone had to pull rank, and do whatever it took to survive. And in some ways this is still being reflected in our anti-outsider mentalities today. So my message to everyone is to relax. We are the dominant species on the planet, and we don’t need to compete so intensely with each other for pre-eminence anymore. Like my Mum would always say, slow down, no one’s gonna take your food out of your mouth!
And the sooner we come to grips to with this, the sooner we can start to give freedom back to everyone. Freedom to be who you are, not to be judged for being different, and most certainly not to be restricted from pursuing your happiness so that others can be more secure. And in some ways this is what Kim Jong-Il and his father Kim Il-Sung did to the people of North Korea. Kim Jong-Il seemed like a man that was wrought with fear, fear that he would never live up to his father’s great image, fear that his people would revolt against him. And then there are our leaders, who are fearful of the backlash of the electorate. Exploiting peoples insecurity for political gain, pushing religious agenda’s for political gain. All in the meanwhile, the minority groups become more and more marginalised and an increasing number of people have their freedom to be who they are crushed.
So my Christmas wish this year is not one for me, it’s for everyone. I wish everyone the right to freedom, to true freedom, to be who you are without being told that what you are is wrong, or that your mere existence is a blight on society. Above all I wish people to gain security in their mindset that the existence of things that are different to them doesn’t threaten their personal security. And being different from someone else is a blessing, not a curse. To allow diversity to bloom is to secure our future.
As an educator, I have grown to love and have a genuine care for my students. They are so full of optimism, in the beginning, they have a clear unbiased view of the world, but as they grow older, this tends to change as they are slowly engrained with the ‘norms’ in which they will have to operate. I see it how they are taught that that kind of behaviour is ‘gay’ or it’s wrong to have a different hairstyle, they get laughed at for wearing something that I personally think is quite stylish (I think I’m quite fashionable myself lol). Shunted when they give out of the box answers (I’d prefer the word ‘creative’) We need to give our children the freedom to be who they want to be, not who we want them to be. If theres one legacy I wish to leave with my students is that all my students can say that I always gave them the freedom to be whatever they wanted to be in my class. And that’s how it should always be for them. And for me and you.
So at risk of sounding like a failed Miss Universe contestant, I’d like to say, World Peace.
Merry Christmas and God Bless from the city of Seoul.