I just got back from Barnsley where I did my illustrated talk on touring North Korea for the Barnsley chapter of the Skeptics in the Pub network. The Skeptics is a brilliant idea, a nationwide network of open but informal lectures by experts talking with interested punters in a jolly pub setting. Ostensibly the subjects are of the kind that a scientific approach could discuss or dissemble, like the recent talk on the origins and tricks of Victorian psychics and seances. But my North Korea tour talk fits by way of being in essence about what you really can see on a tour, beyond the pervasive, skeptical perception and criticism that it’s all just a la-di-da Potemkin illusion, and all you see are automaton actors reading approved scripts in these pristine locations, all as part of an epic feat of open theatre that fools everyone into believing this is truly a Socialist paradise. Well … no, on the contrary.
Of course you do not see the worst vestiges of poverty, but if you think all along “we’re seeing the best,” you’d have to be deranged to come away thinking “well these people are well-off – or at least, they’d like to fool us so!”. It is a blatantly poor country, a highly technically educated and developed country for sure, but for the most part the infrastructure is, at best, 1980s Soviet technology, and is desperately worn, while the country still has a precarious food situation, an appalling lack of potable water, a terrifying deficit of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, and so on. These things are very, very obvious.
anyway, the talk went down very well, a really nice and interested audience and a really good gang of hosts as the Skeptics. And even though the talk came, what, one day after the North tested a Big One underground, and the world waits for the sky to fall, nobody asked about that, because … it’s kind of not interesting.
I’m just reminded though by this picture, the first time I did this talk, at the Newcastle Lit & Phil, this was the image at which point in the talk the chap from the UK-Korea friendship group (Korea as in North Korea, this was a Kim Il Sung-pin wearing hard-core Communist), took umbrage at my wondering as to the incongruousness of the fertiliser factory, and the political posters on the wall, to which he began his rant ‘they’re just the same as adverts selling stuff like we have all over here,’ and then he went off on one. It’s only just occurred to me, in that case, what are these posters advertising? Do adverts in this country exhort people to go take out some Imperialist foreign devils? Maybe I suppose, the army does advertise. Are these North Korean versions of ‘Join the TA!’?
To come: Edinburgh, Leicester, Bedford, Aberdeen, York, Cambridge, Newcastle, Newcastle Univ politics society, Goldsmiths. Yay!