David Pilling

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David Pilling of the Financial Times visited North Korea’s showcase city, Pyongyang, and had a “stage-managed” experience that elicited very little about the true nature of Kim Jong-un’s country-wide cult. An excerpt:

“One needs to be wary of impressions gleaned from Pyongyang. This is a showcase city, the home of the connected and presumably loyal elite. You have to remind yourself constantly that you are being shown the ‘good parts.’ The rest of North Korea is, to quote resident diplomats, ‘another country.’

The second thing to note is the pervasive sense of victimhood. Paul French’s book North Korea: State of Paranoia is aptly named. Any conversation on a serious topic starts and ends with Pyongyang’s struggle for survival in the face of unrelenting pressure from ‘the imperialist US’ and its ‘puppet’ South Korean servant. The US wants to control all of northeast Asia. China wants to use North Korea as a buffer. Everyone wants to topple the Kim regime. (Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.) Singled out for opprobrium are the regular US-South Korean military manoeuvres, which are deemed ample justification for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

Even economic policy is framed in terms of external threat. That is why North Korea must be self-reliant – something it has patently failed to achieve given its dependence on outside aid. Paranoia assumes an almost surreal quality. Asked about the rate of economic growth, the head of one institute replies: “It is the policy of our party not to reveal statistics about our economy.”

A third observation, hardly surprising, is the sheer intensity of the cult of Kim. The interests of state and dynasty have merged. One senior researcher quoted a poem suggesting the Kims would rule forever. No mention of the nation’s founder is complete without the epithet ‘Great Leader’ and no reference to his 31-year-old grandson and current ruler without a nod to ‘the wise leadership of the Great Marshall Kim Jong Un.’ Kim badges, worn over the heart, are obligatory. So is bowing at the foot of the dynasty’s ubiquitous monuments.

Yet in the end, [Barbara] Demick is right. A visit to North Korea reveals little. Our trip resembled The Truman Show, in which the protagonist is trapped in a televised soap opera.”

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Why is Japan unlike any other place on Earth, not just in the way that all nations are unique, but in a deeper and stranger way? What’s with the monkey waiters, the karaoke machines, the warm embrace of lifelike robots and the penchant for personal electronics and hardcore porn long before the rest of the world joined in? My guess would be that the chief ingredients are a homogenized populace, siding with Hitler during WWII and being on the receiving end of two atom bombs. In David Pilling’s Foreign Policy piece “Why Is Japan So…Different?” he examines the question in greater historical detail. An excerpt:

“Some foreign observers have been as enthusiastic about promoting Japan’s alleged uniqueness as the Japanese themselves. Of course, all nations are unique, but in Japan this truism became a fetish. The Japanese developed a form, which dates back to the Tokugawa era but which flourished in the post-World War II period, of quasi-philosophical writing called Nihonjinron, or ‘essays on the essence of Japaneseness.’ Written by both Japanese and foreigners, these tracts sought to explain what made the Japanese unique and how they differed from foreigners, who were, all too often, lumped into one homogeneous category. Such lines of inquiry often settled on a description of the Japanese as cooperative, sedentary rice farmers who use instinct and heart rather than cold, Western logic. Unlike Western hunter-gatherers, the Japanese were seen as having a unique sensitivity to nature, an ability to communicate without language through a sort of social telepathy, and a rarefied artistic awareness.

In 1946, U.S. anthropologist Ruth Benedict made it respectable to see the Japanese as a race apart with the publication of her classic study of Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. She described a highly codified society operating with conventions all-but-incomprehensible to outsiders. Her work paved the way for shelf after shelf of Nihonjinron texts by Japanese authors. These multiplied with Japan’s post-war economic success, which the Japanese and foreigners alike began to attribute to the country’s supposedly unique organizational and social structures. Gavan McCormack, an Australian academic, describes Benedict’s book as ‘one of the greatest propaganda coups of the century.’ In stoking Japan’s own sense of its own uniqueness, he argues, the book helped sever Japan’s psychological ties with its Asian neighbors. ‘What they believed to be ancient tradition,’ he writes, ‘was quintessentially modern ideology.’

Japan’s perception of itself as isolated and different persists to this day, often to its disadvantage. It has, for example, hampered the country’s electronics industry: Japanese manufacturers often produce goods perfectly adapted to Japanese customers but of little global reach. It yearns for what it sees as its rightful place in the hierarchy of nations — it has for years waged a campaign to obtain a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. But whether defending whaling, or the rights of its leaders to worship at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the ‘souls’ of more than 2 million dead Japanese soldiers, including 14 class-A war criminals from World War II, Japan often has a hard time explaining itself to the rest of the world.

Some in Japan, however, especially on the right, seem bent on preserving the mystique of a country that is somehow unintelligible to outsiders.”


Monkey waiter in Japanese restaurant wearing lady mask:

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In a Financial Times article by David Pilling, unorthodox Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang, something of a lone wolf in the dismal science, argues against his discipline’s prevailing ways of conducting business and also explains his contention that washing machines were more revolutionary than the Internet. Two excerpts.


“‘The predominant view in the profession is that there’s one particular way of doing economics. It’s basically to set up some mathematical model, the more complicated the better,’ he says, advocating instead what he calls a multidisciplinary approach. ‘In a biology department, you have people doing all sorts of different things. So some do DNA analysis, others do anatomy, some people go and sit with gorillas in the forests of Burundi, and others do experiments with rats. But they are called biologists because biologists recognise that living organisms are complex things and you cannot understand them only at one level. So why can’t economists become like that? Yes, you do need people crunching numbers, but you also need people going to factories and doing surveys, you need people watching political changes to see what’s going on.'”


“What’s all this about the washing machine and the internet?

‘I was not trying to dismiss the importance of the internet revolution but I think its importance has been exaggerated partly because people who write about these things are usually middle-aged men who have never used a washing machine,’ he replies. ‘It’s human nature to think that the changes you are living through are the most momentous, but you need to put these things into perspective. I brought up the washing machine to highlight the fact that even the humblest thing can have huge consequences. The washing machine, piped gas, running water and all these mundane household technologies enabled women to enter the labour market, which then meant that they had fewer children, had them later, invested more in each of them, especially female children. That changed their bargaining positions within the household and in wider society, giving women votes and endless changes. It has transformed the way we live.'”

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