Everyone should watch Nick Kristof and his team’s riveting 26 minute documentary, on the New York Times website, “From North Korea, with Dread.” Unlike the oft-asked post-9/11 question, there’s no ambiguity about why the North Koreans hate us. They are not allowed to forget that General Curtis LeMay’s U.S. Strategic Air Command bombed them almost to oblivion back in the mid-20th century. And now they have our juvenile president’s intemperate threats, let alone the fate of Saddam and Qaddafi, to remind them just how worthy of their ill will we remain so many years later.
Mr. Trump fits perfectly into the script of Kim Jung Un’s hatemongering propaganda. Kim distracts his Stepford-citizens from realizing that they have either completely lost the ability to think for themselves or they are terrified to say what they really think—at least the ones captured by Kristof’s cameras. Trump’s threats allow Kim to distract his people from his own venality and murderousness. The North Koreans, the privileged ones in Pyongyang and not in concentration camps, live in a dream world where the repeated motif of a ballistic missile is used as a bizarre decorative motif in amusement parks, at concerts, at museums of technology, even in kindergartens. Almost their entire national identity seems to be bound up in their presumed capacity to destroy the United States.
Kristof asserts that we are far closer to actual war than most of us realize. That is horrifying because so many on the Korean peninsula, North and South both, would die—for nothing other than a 3rd grade pissing contest between two unpredictable leaders lost in an echo chamber of threat. Fear of the weapons themselves enlarges the mutual paranoia and willful ignorance that is a major cause of conflict. Kim assumes that he can avoid the fate of other dictators if only he can deploy enough missiles and warheads; Trump wonders how long he can afford to wait before Kim becomes too much of a threat and he himself looks like an appeaser. The result is, to use the title of an excellent new book on 21st century nuclear weapons edited by Dr. Helen Caldecott, we are “Sleepwalking to Armageddon.”
Brainwashing is not confined to North Korea. Our media culture in the U.S. has become a free-for-all, a polarized babble that is the obverse side of the coin of North Korean repression. Free (and much too quick) to speak our minds, we are losing the capacity to find common ground in proven scientific, moral and political truths. The president and Fox News form a closed feedback loop, where bloviators like Sean Hannity revel in their influence over Trump and cater to his worst instincts. The press toadies to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ bullying in ways that recall abject subservience to Kim Jung Un.
Without sinking into false equivalence, both countries are brainwashed in their separate ways. If the North Koreans are brainwashed by a complex system of almost complete internet censorship, blanket propaganda, and “minders” listening day and night for hints of sedition, we in the U.S. are brainwashed by our splitting off into separate camps that forget we are all in this together. We live in the illusion that our nuclear “superiority” will save us—a convenience for the faceless weapons corporations who are all too happy that we are distracted by our oppositional social media posts as they vacuum more and more taxes out of our pockets and into theirs.
Skirting this close to the edge of the abyss concentrates the mind wonderfully. It reminds us that all life on this tiny blue planet came from the same stupendous process of emergence—from pure energy, matter; from matter, life in all its diversity; and from life, mammalian care for offspring and a conscious capacity to wonder, question and explore. Will we allow the end point of this great evolutionary story to become the vaporization of millions? With what dreams is our childish behavior as “adults” haunting the sleep of the world’s children, many of them already traumatized by war?
The religious sages all come up with variations on the same theme of what our fulfillment as humans is meant to be: we are here to discover how to love. Just as we care for our children, we are meant to care for each other. This began as a tribal lesson—we care for the children of our tribe and protect them at all costs from yours. Now the lesson has become transnational, universal, inescapable: there is only one tribe, the human tribe, tasked with the challenge of sustaining the living system around us that makes our own lives possible. In an interdependent world, all war has become civil war. To remain stuck in brittle North Korean tribalism or decadent American tribalism is to court mass death. We can find ways to connect, even with our worst enemies, on the basis of our shared desire to survive.
Given that, in Reagan’s words “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought,” the first task of American presidents and their generals in the nuclear age is war prevention. Toward that end, out of the 195 nations of the world, the vast majority, 122, have agreed at the United Nations that nuclear weapons must be completely outlawed. Worldwide verifiable mutual nuclear disarmament is ultimately the only way out of our present impasse with North Korea.
Meanwhile, as Kristof and others have pointed out, a reasonable first step could be that we back the bleep off of our incessant military patrols up and down the borders of North Korea, lessening the threat to an impoverished, proud little country in exchange for a possible nuclear freeze. And would it not be a prudent investment on the part of our eviscerated State Department to bring some North Koreans into our country to begin to break down some dangerous stereotypes and misunderstandings?
Somewhere in a North Korean concentration camp we should have faith that more than one truth-telling Solzhenitsyn keeps difficult watch. With time and patience, change can come to North Korea without war. Auden ended his great poem about brainwashing, “September 1, 1939” on a tentatively optimistic note:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.