Strange days in South Korea

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, a large segment of public opinion– including much of the left, but not limited to it– was almost desperately eager to welcome the carefully-screened visitors from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These visitors included artists, performers, athletes and delegations promoting “peace and friendship between our peoples.” With the exception of the occasional defector, most of the visitors dutifully toed the Moscow line. Of course it would have been dreadfully rude of the hosts to ask them embarrassing questions about the lack of freedom and democracy back home. In fact it sometimes seemed as if the hosts feared that an impolitic remark might trigger World War III.

This bit of history came to mind when I read about the visit to South Korea by 300 Stalinist cheerleaders from the North. There’s the same desperate adulation, the same urgent desire not to offend:

Opposition leaders in the South say they are shocked by what they call public and official indulgence of the North. For instance, while the red carpet was rolled out for the North Korean cheerleaders, the South Korean government cracked down on anti-Pyongyang protests during the games in Daegu, the South’s third largest city, about 200 miles southeast of Seoul.

Hundreds of South Korean riot police prevented a group of demonstrators from burning a North Korean flag in one of Seoul’s main business districts Aug. 29. After the same group succeeded in burning the North’s flag on Aug. 15, [South Korean President] Roh [Moo Hyun] apologized to the North.

A group of North Korean journalists physically assaulted a handful of protesters who were carrying banners insulting President Kim during the games. In response, Seoul again expressed regret, and labeled the protesters, some of whom had to be briefly hospitalized, provocateurs.

That North Korea has 11,000 artillery pieces aimed at the South, many of them within striking distance of Seoul– and that these weapons are likely to stay in place after the cheerleaders return home– seems to be of little concern. Or maybe it’s the fear of what the regime in the North might at any moment do with those weapons which motivates South Koreans to be so accomodating to their guests.

The cheerleaders themselves appear to be either highly brainwashed or highly afraid:

During the games, the women were shown on television overcome after passing a welcome poster hung by local residents that depicted the North Korean president shaking hands with former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung. The cheerleaders cried hysterically, insisting the poster was haphazardly mounted on street lights and hung too close to the ground. Pouring out of their bus, they ran a quarter of a mile to retrieve it. “How could you treat our dear leader this way?” one sobbed on camera.

The bewildered South Korean residents who had hung the banner expressed their regret to the girls. “We’re sorry. . . . We didn’t know they would feel this way. I guess we must recognize how different our two cultures still are,” one resident said on local television.

Anyone who can get their hands on the September 8 issue of The New Yorker should read Philip Gourevitch’s chilling Letter from Korea.