At the risk of being egotistically reflective, I feel stupid. For those who have been living under a rock, Laura Ling and Euna Lee have just been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea (link), which means they are now either political pawns or just victims. Usually, in such cases, I feel a sort of detachment. A quasi-intellectual this-is-a-black-and-white-documentary-movie-that-doesn’t-apply-to-me sort of detachment. You know the kind – the one where you see grotesque images from the developing world before dinner, sigh along with your friends about how terrible life is, skip over to some trivial discussion, and proceed to scarf down a nice serving of pizza completely guilt free.
Yet, I can’t detach myself now. I intuitively can’t. I’ve never met Laura or Euna. I’ve seen a bit of Laura’s and her sister’s (Lisa Ling) work on Current.TV. I was blown away by Lisa Lings home page and the issues she covers… but what it comes down to is that Laura, Lisa, Euna and other journalists resonate with me almost like family – they are my generation, they live and do the way I feel. They are real. They are who I wish I could be. I watch Bill O’Reilly, Anderson Cooper, a host of other commentators and none of them speak to me. I do not feel a sense of kinship with them. I do not feel like they are my eyes. They are a different generation, they think in a different way, the way they report seems to be full of that detachment – perhaps because they have seen it all before and have come to accept it as the way things are.
Yet with Current.TV and reporters like Laura, Lisa, Christof, I feel that they have credibility with me beyond anything that I would see on any major network. I intuitively know that these people are not politically driven, they don’t take sides, their loyalty is not with a party, or even a country. Their loyalty is with humanity. And I mean this in the most unpretentious way possible.
My generation is different. We have no rules. No countries, no borders, no judgements. It is all replaced by an initially curious, later turning into compassionate observation with a firm belief that we are doing good. That we can do something about it. Ideologues perhaps born initially out of luxury if the West – we did not fight for our survival. Our parents did that. We, on the other hand, are like Buddha – sheltered, protected by parents until we come out and look. And then…
And then we are initially no different from other generations – we want to change things. Yet, unlike previous generations, we can. We live in an age when doctors Twitter from hospitals, when a two hundred dollar device can create a revolution, when the very natures of democracy and humanity is reevaluated, when Web startups go from zero to having multi-billion dollar evaluations, when people travel between continents with as much effort as previous generation would put into travel between cities. We see the world differently.
For us borders now delineate only cultural heritage and who collects taxes to provide services. The idea of legitimacy granted to a government simply because some group usurped power is preposterous. Respect for fellow human being, no matter how different, trumps all. It is a way of life.
And generally, the older generation, which has come to accept the status quo, and the newer generation live side by side. Sets of mental blocks, iron curtains, blinders. Screw North Korean civilians – just so long as North Korea doesn’t get The Bomb, fact that hundreds of thousands may perish in gulags is "unfortunate", but that’s about all. And the younger generation, my generation, didn’t know any better. But now this is changing. We grew up. My generation does care and not only do we care, we get involved. And when we get involved, that is when the difference between different worlds is made evident: the present picture with Laura and Euna feels ridiculous. It is the the contrast between something that is out of a history book and a generation of people who are aware and who can do more than the previous generation simply because of the tools available to us.
I am not saying we are better or worse than our parents. Initially I am sure they were just like us and we like them. What’s different is the tools available to us and the environment in which we were brought up.
So what can we do? Or, rather, what can we do that would be radically different from the past?
The way I see it is:
- Refuse to accept that, which is unacceptable – the status quo is unacceptable
- Acknowledge that everybody has incentives – nobody is pure evil. Or at least few are. In case of North Korea, I am pretty sure that this is a rational society. A very oppressive, probably fear-driven, but rational society
So what is the problem?
- The government in NK must remain repressive to sustain itself in the present environment
Which means that either the environment needs to be changed or the government needs to be given a different set of incentives. Giving incentives is incredibly difficult – what do you give to someone who has little to profit from whatever you can offer? This is a dangerous path to take as it likely requires resorting to animal dynamics and execution on military threats in an environment that would likely yield a heavy heavy civilian toll… that is if a strategy was chosen for effectiveness rather than posturing. Not a very good option.
An alternative would be to change the environment. What is lacking at this point is communication, empowerment of civilian population. Of course it is silly to talk of empowering civilian population when you have secret service watching your every move and, even if the dissident movement is strong, you are pushing for a revolution, a civil war. So this alone would not work either.
Having said that, what a hybrid solution? Would it be possible to persuade the North Korean government to conduct the following experiment: identify a region to be splintered off from the main body of North Korea. The region then undergoes a rapid change as follows:
- distribution of cell phones for
- mobile transaction system
- Job creation
- Introduction of Amazon Turk and similar platforms to generate revenue
- Establishment of Western factories to produce goods
- Exported into neighboring countries
- North Korean government collects taxes from this region and thus profits
The main challenge, the way I see it, is to persuade the North Korean government that this sort of a transition is in their interest because both they and the country will be in a far better economic and social state. Is this doable to any extent? I don’t know. But there must be some way to set up communication and conveying this in a reasonable sane manner. I acknowledge that I am being very naive, but, when you think about it, it would have been naive that any Web 2.0 site would ever get off the ground. "Wikipedia? You mean everybody edits and contributes? Don’t be so naive!"
I hope that Larua and Euna come home safely. As bad as it may be on a philosophical level, I have no problem of dividing the world into "them" and "us". I want to help "them", but I want "us" to be safe. Having said that, I hope that this situation will create awareness in the developed world and create an opportunity to help a backwards regime evolve into what every country should be – a state with a government that represents and serves its people.