If All Lives Matter, Maybe it’s Time to Stop Laughing at North Korea

North Korean soldiers at the military parade in Pyongyang of the 60th anniversary of the conclusion of the Korean War. Pyongyang, North Korea. July 2013
North Korean soldiers at the military parade in Pyongyang of the 60th anniversary of the conclusion of the Korean War. Pyongyang, North Korea. July 2013

This article originally appeared in The Berggruen Institute on Governance and The Huffington Post’s WorldPost

Hands up — who changed a Facebook pic to show solidarity with Paris? Raged about the barbarity of the gunmen? Or even, for those “tragedy hipsters” among us, bemoaned the relative indifference of Westerners to other brutal attacks in Lebanon, Kenya and now Nigeria? Me too. What about the World Food Programme’s confirmation — for the umpteenth time — that 1 in 3 North Korean children is stunted due to malnutrition? Anyone? But I bet you’ve seen that video of those “creepy” North Korean kids playing guitar.

Unlike posts about Syria and almost any other hotbed of humanitarian crises, the North Korea-related posts that “break the Internet” tend to be those making fun; of Kim Jong Un’s haircut or the nation’s tech-poverty, for example. Rather than focusing, for instance, on the fact that 2015 crop yields are down 10-15 percent in a country dogged by chronic hunger since a famine in the 1990s that wiped out up to 5 percent of the population, we delight in the apparent ridiculousness of propaganda slogans such as: “Let us turn ours into a country of mushrooms!”

In our irony-obsessed, meme-driven culture, laughing at North Korea has become a major sport. With the permeation of social media into almost every aspect of life in the last few years, quick click posts often win the day, and sadly North Korea is a country with a slew of gritty problems but a dearth of gritty images to actually illustrate them.

In our irony-obsessed, meme-driven culture, laughing at North Korea has become a major sport.

Given that the DPRK is a nation in which foreign visitors find themselves under constant surveillance, their camera images vetted — a country where the crime of unauthorized “native” journalism (North Koreans smuggling out footage of public executions, for example) is punishable by death — it is no surprise that we often see little more on the web than the sort of polished pictures available in North Korean propaganda journals themselves. Such images are fascinating and captivating of course; the goose-stepping military, the crowds bowing before the leaders’ statues. Increasingly, we’re also seeing little details that Westerners can relate to — a flash of a smartphone here or an expensive car there — evidence of a gray market-driven consumerism that has been incubating for years. These glimpses of consumer products in the DPRK are probably the most common driver of our “oh, perhaps they’re just like us” moments. Such social media favorites, often touted as “daily life in North Korea,” mostly star elites in Pyongyang, the showcase capital where 9 out of 10 North Koreans could only dream of living.

Amongst all this, we Westerners know vaguely that millions of North Koreans have suffered immeasurably, as the latest U.N. report confirms. But unlike in Paris or Syria, there are no iconic photographs to encapsulate the crisis and prick our collective conscience. There are no close-ups of emaciated labor camp prisoners — but these people exist. There are no pictures of guards enacting forced abortions and torture, unless you count the many stick drawings completed by former prisoners. There is little to connect the defector stories we’ve heard with actual images, and in the digital era, the image is almost everything. Perhaps this is one reason for North Korea’s more frequent status as joke fodder than tear-jerker. The Hermit Kingdom simply doesn’t offer the social media user an easy I’m-a-good-person share factor. But there is plenty of retweet mileage in a cleverly photoshopped meme.

Perhaps just as crucially, even if images of these reported horrors were in abundance, there would be no straightforward calls to action to caption them with. How do you solve a problem like North Korea? This seemingly impossible geopolitical conundrum is why, beyond the memes, North Korea remains mostly the preserve of professional watchers and international relations geeks. Since before the Korean War, the peninsula has been seen as somewhat of a proxy for competing interests, something that the regime in Pyongyang has always known and exploited, during the Cold War and on into these changed political times. What do you get when you cross a rogue nuclear state with one of the globe’s biggest tech powerhouses, each with their own rival world power having served as its historic sponsor (China and the USA respectively)? I don’t think anyone wants to know the punchline to that one.

At what point do memes cease to be subversive, becoming perhaps instead a rather grotesque display of privilege, since we are able to laugh so much and so often at a man whom millions are afraid of?

Last year, when a special U.N. report detailed “unspeakable atrocities” inflicted on North Korean people, the commission’s chair drew parallels with the Holocaust, warning that other nations would not have the same excuse employed around the world when the Nazi camps were liberated; namely that they “didn’t know.” Inquiry chairman Michael Kirby said: “Now the international community does know. There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know. It’s too long now. The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.” But what should our response be?

When a personality cult helps to uphold corruption and brutality in a dictatorship, satire can be a subversive force for change — a point that The Interview movie, in its own half-witted way, was perhaps trying to make. On the other hand, despite the tide of moving defector memoirs being released and the increasing demand for information on the secretive state, in the West there is a lack of truly mass movements advocating for North Korean human rights. To illustrate: the most successful Change.org petition in the last couple of years urging China to stop its North Korean refugee repatriation policy received a total of less than 1600 signatures. On the other hand, a petition about the Yulin dog meat festival on the same website garnered over 4.3 million supporters. Add to that the World Food Programme’s revelation that it will need to extend its fundraising deadline again, because it has reached only half of its $160 million target for North Korea — and perhaps it’s time we all took a good long look at the way we conceptualize the DPRK, and if it is helpful.

Of course, giving food aid to North Korea is not without significant controversy, and perfectly illustrates the point that any discussion of the DPRK always generates more questions than it answers. But ask these questions we must, or else become mere passive consumers of other people’s suffering. Is the unending barrage of North Korea satire causing us to lose our sense of urgency with respect to the country’s humanitarian problems? At what point do memes cease to be subversive, becoming perhaps instead a rather grotesque display of privilege, since we are able to laugh so much and so often at a man whom millions are afraid of? Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector and human rights activist recently weighed in on this, telling Westerners they lived in a comparative “paradise,” and tearfully begging for us to take North Korea’s plight seriously: “To me it’s not a joke.”



These are the Unseen Victims of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

This article originally appeared in The Berggruen Institute on Governance and The Huffington Post’s WorldPost during the Gaza conflict of 2014

EAST JERUSALEM - DECEMBER 3, 2010: Palestinian youth flee tear gas fired by Israeli police in clashes in the streets of the Al-Issawiya neighborhood protesting the demolition of homes by Israeli authorities.
EAST JERUSALEM – DECEMBER 3, 2010: Palestinian youth flee tear gas fired by Israeli police in clashes in the streets of the Al-Issawiya neighborhood protesting the demolition of homes by Israeli authorities.

“He fell in front of my eyes,” Marwan Fararjeh tells me, his voice breaking.

He’s recalling the moment when, in the biggest round of West Bank protests since the current Gaza onslaught began, Israeli forces opened fire on a group of civilians in Beit Fajjar.

A veteran nonviolent activist and former political prisoner, Marwan is used to witnessing lethal force from the Israeli army. But seeing a defenseless child shot dead inflicts a level of horror too much for almost anyone, even when you have lived and campaigned through two intifadas.

Unlike the victims of the Gaza conflict, whose charred bodies fill the feeds of social media in Western countries, these dead are part of a war you don’t see. Whether it’s anti-Hamas protesters shot in Gaza or Israeli peace activists beaten by right-wing thugs in Tel Aviv, nonviolent protest is a dangerous business in Israel/Palestine. And nowhere is this felt more acutely than in the West Bank.

  These dead are part of a war you don’t see.

“Sadly, there are those on both sides who simply don’t want peace,” Sami Awad, a leading Palestinian nonviolent activist and director of the Holy Land Trust peace NGO tells me. “We’ve had people who are part of our nonviolent work, fully committed to nonviolence, [who] have had their homes raided and every piece of furniture turned over or destroyed.”

Sami’s own work has earned him numerous arrests and beatings, not to mention vitriolic attacks in the press — including accusations of Hamas links.

Sitting in his office in an antiquated stone building in Bethlehem, I ask him about these allegations. Unflinching, he tells me: “Some senior members of Hamas came to us and said, ‘we want to know what this nonviolence thing you’re talking about is.’ And we were happy to train them.”

For activists like Sami, a willingness to engage persuasively with hard-liners shows a commitment to real change in the Territories — facing head-on the anger and mistrust that has fermented after such a long and bloody conflict. But such willingness to talk to all parties has made him enemies on both sides of the Green Line.

Israeli peace activist and comrade-in-arms Marcia Kreisel-Schwartz tells me: “For probably the majority of Israelis, (and) for many Palestinians… any cooperation with Israelis — even friendly Israelis — is seen as something that is against the Palestinian interests. (So) people like Sami and the people that he’s working with actually are in some danger, because the extreme right, or the extreme terrorist organizations, they do kill people.”

The night I met her, Marcia had come to the West Bank for a peace conference, the evening’s journey merely the latest in a string of excursions into Palestinian territory since the First Intifada. Excursions that have seen this tiny 76-year-old lady put on an Israeli government watch list, interrogated repeatedly and tear-gassed by the military.

While the world monitors the latest ceasefire anxiously, we don’t talk about the Israeli anti-war activists chased into a Tel Aviv alley and set upon by fascists.

“I know that the world doesn’t know about the Israeli left,” Marcia tells me sadly.

We don’t talk, either, about the latest West Bank marchers killed over the past weekend. Or the 11 year-old Palestinian boy shot dead last Sunday whilst playing outside his house, as advancing Israeli forces pursued protesters.

But we must. Not least because fates like these provide tinder for today’s war in Gaza, as Hamas lobs thousands of ineffective rockets into Israel that serve a symbolic purpose more than anything. The current Gaza conflict has much of its roots in West Bank grievances. Likewise, “we are all Gaza” is a phrase you hear often in the Occupied Territories these days.

For in-the-trenches activists like Marcia and Sami, real, lasting Israel-Palestine peace will be achieved not simply through treaties signed by a few men behind big desks. It will be wrought through popular protest and open, grassroots dialogue between communities. It must come from a cultural shift, in which both sides can be “rehumanized.”

“Every Israeli is afraid,” Marcia tells me. “People are afraid of the Palestinians. They are afraid of war. They are afraid of the hatred. Most of them don’t realize that it’s us that are creating the hatred…I’m trying to figure out ways to bring out the facts of the Occupation into the Israeli consciousness, in a way that it won’t be blocked out and denied.

They are afraid of the hatred. Most of them don’t realise that it’s us that are creating the hatred.

“Politicians have failed us enough times,” Sami insists. “We can develop a movement of resistance from within. We don’t need to wait for anybody. We can mobilize ourselves. We can organize ourselves. We can become proactively engaged in nonviolence.”

But as the body count for protesters continues to rise, the question is: how much longer will raising a voice mean risking a life?

Perhaps the answer lies in a recent statement made by Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch:

The Israeli military is responsible not only for reckless and unlawful killings in Gaza, but also for unlawfully killing Palestinian protesters in the West Bank. Because of (its) long history of operating with virtual impunity, more unlawful killings are predictable — unless Israel’s allies apply meaningful pressure.

Obama, Cameron, et al, you have your marching orders.


First Cologne, Now Sweden: How Left-Wing Apologism Is Fueling Right-Wing Populism

Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany - June 12, 2016: Policemen patrolling near Cologne Cathedral and Hauptbahnhof.
Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany – 2016: Policemen patrolling near Cologne Cathedral and Hauptbahnhof.

This article originally appeared in The Berggruen Institute on Governance and The Huffington Post’s WorldPost in January 2016.

In recent days, how many of us gasped at photos of emaciated Syrians in the besieged town of Madaya? In light of this tragedy, the post-Cologne fence-building and anti-refugee postulating around Europe must surely be even more alarming. The Syrian humanitarian crisis remains as desperate as ever, but after Cologne’s New Year’s Eve mass sexual assaults, right-wing populist “refugees not welcome” sentiments seem to be gaining ground throughout Europe. Monday morning also brought allegations that Swedish police covered up group sexual assaults in Stockholm, too, because of fears of a right-wing backlash. In an increasingly globalized news culture, and particularly when it comes to EU countries like Germany, “their” concerns are frequently “our” concerns, too. All over Europe, merely condemning right-wingers as bigots will neither quell popular fears nor win the argument. Liberals must look in the mirror. And then we must make some concessions.

Since reports of the Cologne attacks emerged over a week ago, accusations of police and government cover-ups have flourished in a kind of perfect storm of liberal conspiracy narratives. Sadly, it’s not hard to see why. Up to 1,000 men said to be “of North African and Arab appearance” conducted coordinated attacks on women and teenage girls — surrounding them in groups, grabbing and groping them so hard they left bruises on their bodies — but an initial police press release claimed the night had “passed off peacefully.” Then, after revelations, days of insistence that there was no evidence for asylum seeker involvement followed, with Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker even branding any suggestion of refugee involvement “impermissible,” an internal police report emerged last Thursday. German magazine Der Spiegel claims to have seen the report and said it revealed that some of the attackers asserted they were Syrian refugees. One reportedly told an officer: “You have to treat me kindly. Mrs. Merkel invited me.” Another apparently ripped up residence papers in front of officers, shouting defiantly: “You can’t do anything to me. I can get a new one tomorrow.”

We must confront the fact, for example, that some dangerous undesirables will indeed have found their way into the EU amongst all the decent and deserving refugees.

Perhaps because the police report appeared to give credence to a some-bad-apples-among-the-innocent-refugees narrative that we liberals often like to pretend has no bearing, for a whole day after it emerged in Germany, only the right-wing press in Britain deigned to publish it. In some cases even as late as Friday morning, there were left-leaning articles sticking with the “nobody really knows if migrants were involved” rhetoric. Perhaps purely because this is the sort of thing the xenophobes will jump on, many on the left seemed reluctant to touch it. Concern for minorities, or knee-jerk political tribalism at its finest?

When political correctness reaches the point in which people are — never mind being afraid to express opinion — afraid to report police memos, then we know sanity has been left behind. This sort of obfuscation is dangerous not just because it makes detection of the actual perpetrators more difficult, but also because it is driving otherwise reasonable people away from the left and all too often into the arms of right-wing populism. Now, German police have publicly confirmed that more than half those questioned so far are indeed asylum seekers, and the right is doing its victory dances. Scroll down any comment thread and amidst the growing calls to leave the EU, you’ll find “Libtards” and “the left” named as the personae non gratae in this whole affair. And for American readers, understand, this is exactly the sort of thing that Trump and his cronies can seize on, a perfect “Europe is being cowed” cautionary tale. In the words of an anti-racist Cologne protester on Saturday: “It’s not good to ‘protect’ us, it just makes the racism worse.”

Frankly, we on the left must wake up and become more willing to describe the world as it is. To confront the fact, for example, that some dangerous undesirables will indeed have found their way into the EU amongst all the decent and deserving refugees. If not, we face the prospect of being ruled for the foreseeable future not only by those on the right who want to “stoke up anti-immigration rhetoric,” but also who will happily dismantle our public services. Right-wing populism finds a perfect ideological punchbag in a woolly liberalism that often fails to stand up for liberal principles. In the case of Cologne, we’ve seen not just obfuscating, but also what might be called victim-blaming. Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker, for example, advised women on a “code of conduct” for public celebrations, including “keeping more than an arm’s length away” from men, even reportedly warning against being in a “celebratory mood.” Channel 4 News broadcast an interview with a Tunisian refugee who said with a straight face: “It is not the fault of the refugees — the couple of refugees who were there, who might also be culprits. It’s the fault of the laws and bureaucracy in Germany that say you have to wait six months or one year for the day when you can find a legal job.” I’m sorry, what?

Right-wing populism finds a perfect ideological punchbag in a woolly liberalism that often fails to stand up for liberal principles.

Recently, two activists I know freshly returned from work with migrants and admitted sheepishly to me that their time on the front line had led them to consider — briefly — that perhaps Germany should close its borders. They told me that most of the migrants they had seen were not actually refugees. And then they looked at me as though they expected I would roundly accuse them of being Nazis. Unsurprising, since nuance and pragmatism are frequently becoming trickier in the ideological battle trenches of the digital era. Perhaps because of the constant demand for brevity in tweets and Internet comment pieces, a popular, and often false, thought association ensues: if you think this, then you must also think that. Suppressing debate and dissent within the left itself, this phenomenon has become a kind of digital McCarthyism. And it is driving people away from the very political associations that would protect their public services and democratic rights. Suggest last week that any asylum-seeker sex attackers be deported, for example, and sit back and wait for the Hitler comparisons to be pelted at you faster than you can say “no platform.” Personally I am firmly left of the political center and share concerns about anti-refugee sentiment but — and call me Mrs. Picky — I draw the line at welcoming sex offenders into Blighty for toast and tea.

Last week it was revealed that 40,000 Syrians — including many women and children — trapped in Madaya because of Assad’s war, were resorting to eating grass as they starved to death. One must ask: how is covering up for young men who seem determined to gleefully flout European norms and laws going to help those thousands of innocent would-be refugees who might otherwise be offered a haven were it not for the impending right-wing blowback against the worst excesses of liberal apologism? Merkel’s seeking of greater powers of deportation for asylum seekers found guilty of, say, sexual assault, has been characterized by some on the left as “bowing to populist pressure.” But is Merkel justified? In our reluctance to face up to the painful — yet credible — reports of migrant involvement in these horrific Cologne attacks, we have unwittingly given succor to those who would deny haven to any refugees at all.


No Place for the End of a Life

A work of short fiction as part of my time as Writer in Residence at Sage Gateshead
A work of short fiction as part of my time as Writer in Residence at Sage Gateshead




                          Moll said to throw her ashes off the Tyne Bridge because she’d often thought about jumping. When she’d not long moved here, when the place was still an escape, she’d travel over the Tyne Bridge to Newcastle to see the sights. Buzzing past the traffic next to the green bridge railings in her mobility buggy, she’d pause every time at the Samaritans Helpline sign to think: could I?

She said to throw her ashes off the Tyne Bridge, so I’m here on a Tuesday night – little hairpin figure under a black perm of clouds, walking up to the bridge’s centre with my Jumbo Vanilla Ice-cream tub. She didn’t want an urn; she thought they reeked of conceit.

With my back to the wind, facing the glass covered music centre where we learned to sing, that’s where I’ll tip it. ‘Be careful not to throw it against the breeze,’ she said at the clinic. And she laughed, her morphine-glazed picture of me, pasty faced old woman spattered with ash, blackish mess clinging to the hair she always said I was too vain about.


I met her in the singing group for over 50s. Stood outside having a smoke and she comes whirring up the concrete in her buggy, fuzzy auburn hair peeking out of the plastic flaps in wisps. She looked too young to drive it but I didn’t want to be nosy. Long purple skirt, flat shoes and a wide mouth without make-up. For some reason, I wanted to talk to her right away.

Some of the others didn’t like her, said she had airs. Smiling at nothing, like she knew something you didn’t.  Showing off, is what Audrey said one Wednesday, when Moll put her hand on her heart during the chorus of ‘Black is the Colour’. Right over her heart, flat palm like she was swearing an oath. But I don’t think it was showing off. She wasn’t the best singer in the world and she knew it. She didn’t come to the choir to hear her own voice, but to feel it – that’s the difference.


At the centre of the bridge now, next to the tribute flowers for the jumpers – that’s where I’ll throw it. The flower heads have long been taken by the wind; just pink plastic wrapping left fastened with parcel tape to the railings.

‘Why the bridge?’ I said, on the plane we took.

‘I like it. There’s a spot you can stand on where you can look both ways, and the squash of buildings and chimneys looks all higgledy piggledy, like a kid’s drawn it.’

If you’re asking me, I’d always imagined a quiet send-off for myself. It seems wrong to tip her into the air with all the cars rattling past. This is what I want to say. This is what I want to say to her now.

‘Do it at night,’ she said. ‘I want to go into the dark. Wouldn’t that be more interesting? If you do it at night then I can just fade, disperse. There’ll be a sense of me disappearing, the way all things fall into everything else.’ She was always saying strange, grand things like that.

I pull the collar up on my coat and lower my chin, looking around. Thick green steel curving up towards the stars. The engine revs that smack the air. The angry headlights.  No place for the end of a life.


Back when she first got diagnosed, before I knew her, Moll had tried to think herself better. She tried meditation, crystals and little white pills you get from hippy doctors. But it didn’t work and the time came when she couldn’t dance any more.

When they recommended the buggy, she was against it. Buggies were for geriatrics and defeatists. She thought if she got the buggy it would be “sending the Universe the wrong message”. She’d been meditating to send light to the bad part of her brain to fix things. If she got the buggy it was like admitting the good thoughts weren’t working. But then, she’d be stuck indoors, watching the light flicker and fade over dusty furniture. In the end, she got the buggy.

But she took care to decorate it with colourful pictures, words and stickers, to make it more interesting than the average “granny cart”. Still, whenever she mentioned the buggy, and before she got in it each morning, she had to close her eyes and picture herself dancing; pushing up some white light in circles around her, that light that would help her to dance again.


Moll used to be knock-kneed afraid of death – more than the normal. She even told me once she’d been part of an anti-death group.

‘How can you be anti? It just happens.’

‘A cult, my daughter called it. They kicked me out when they realised I wasn’t getting better. Well, but that’s to say they stopped looking in my face. They thought I’d got ill because I’d missed something – not tried. They thought it was a failure to be optimistic.’

My mouth hung open. My mind was full of tut and swearing.

‘The third time nobody came to pick me up for a meeting, I cried for the rest of the day. And then I decided to come singing.’


Red woollen hat pulled down and my collar up against the bridge wind now, I’m holding the ice-cream tub close. Somewhere I can hear laughing. My sigh makes a speech bubble in front of me. The rainbow arc of the Millennium Bridge flickers ahead.

I always wondered what Moll was doing around here.  Some kind of a beret for a hat. Big hand gestures like a conductor when she told a story. Travelling look in her eyes and that circular way of talking like she was trying to discover something. She never did fit.

I pull open the tub. The ashes are harder, heavier than you’d imagine. Like ground-up bones, which I suppose is what they are. Reaching my hand inside they’re cold and bumpy and strange. Perhaps I’m supposed to say something, but I feel stupid. ‘Bye, Moll.’ Little grating sound as the pieces slip from my fingers into the night. The wind gets louder.

I wait a moment and listen to the breathing traffic. I lift the tub and tip; the pieces swarm and disappear. There.

I reach into my pocket and pull out the two plane ticket stubs. Swiss Air. Two rips and they’re gone.

And the angry threat letters that I’ve been sent since, from her haven’t-heard-a-peep-in-years daughter. I pick them out of my pocket. Light them one by one. Letting go when the flames reach my fingers and sting the skin.