Maxi Kim

Did Somebody say North Korea?

Risible though it may sound, many of us are still deeply under the impression that a vague notion of the end of history still applies to our current political landscape. Is this not the most insidious aspect of our current era? From the way conservatives in the United States lump in North Korea with Iran and Iraq, to the way liberals[1] treat North Korea as simply one unfortunate case in a series of unfortunate cases in the third world – it appears that the default mode of today’s humanism is global consumer capitalism with a human face. Even if you’re not a right wing cretin like Francis Fukuyama who argues in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) that “What we may be witnessing [at the end of the XXth century] is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”; even if you don’t explicitly self-identify with this ideological line, the way we (our current Secretary of State for example) act as if it is simply a matter of time before pre 9/11 bad places like Iraq will become sooner or later post June 12 election good places like Iran – tells us a lot about how the unconscious expectation of the end of history or the specter of the end of history still has the profound ability to shape and structure our political activities. To avoid any misunderstandings, my point here is not that pluralism, secularism, and free-market democracy isn’t worth fighting for. My point here is the exact opposite; that is to say it is precisely to fight for pluralism and secularism that we ought to shed ourselves of the premature triumphalism that is inherent in the concept of the end of history. Premature triumphalism breeds a certain lazy armchair engagement with reality as it is; after all, why should I have to work for justice? Why should I struggle for emancipation if it’s simply a matter of time? if it is simply written in the stars, why should I bust my ass? It is precisely to break us out of this end of history malaise, this neoliberal neoconservative ennui – that I propose that we not only “return to history” but return to a zero level. Because what has become almost impossible to express to even my relatively open-minded academic friends is the truly singular, “ahistorical” uniqueness of North Korea. As Christopher Hitchens so aptly put it, ‘But not even in the lowest moments of the Third Reich, or of the gulag, or of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” was there a time when all the subjects of the system were actually enslaved. In North Korea, every person is property and is owned . . . Every minute of every day, as far as regimentation can assure the fact, is spent in absolute subjection and serfdom. The private life has been entirely abolished. . . . George Orwell’s 1984 was published at about the time that Kim Il Sung set up his system, and it really is as if he got hold of an early copy of the novel and used it as a blueprint. (“Hmmm . . . good book. Let’s see if we can make it work.”)’ [2] To underline the point again (if you didn’t get it at the first go around) – as a point of fact North Korea as a system is not only the worst totalitarian system compared to other systems from modern history, but it is even worse than the worst fictionalized, dreamt up system in recent history. Beyond Kim Jong Il and the Chinese state that props it, where else do our enemies reside? The answer of course depends on who you ask. You ask my dad and everyone else who listens to Rush Limbaugh and the answer is simple: liberals. You ask my anarchist friends and the problem is the Jewish state. For my friends who are still avid readers of Noam Chomsky & Ralph Nader, the problem is big business & the corporation. For a growing number of moderates (Christopher Hitchens belongs in this group) the totalitarian wing of Islam is the major threat today. As for old school Leftists like Slavoj Zizek the problem is still and always will be capitalism. To avoid yet another misunderstanding – my point here is not that the matrix is an illusion. My problem: they all assume that a certain vague notion of humanism is the answer. But what if humanism itself was the problem? What am I most afraid of? A permanent holocaust. To be quite cynical I can well imagine a distant future Bladerunner type dystopia where global warming has killed off all the bees, the fight against AIDS in sub-saharan Africa has been lost, the peaceful two-state solution in Palestine is deferred to a zero-state solution… Meanwhile, North Korea is still being run by the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il father-son duo – only this time it is the son of the son of the son of the Dear Leader who is deemed the heir apparent of North Korea. It is precisely to avoid this apocalyptic future that I maintain that humanism is not enough. Perhaps what we need is a new nihilism to break us out of this XXth century humanist funk. As Hyok Kang, a recently emancipated North Korean refugee put it, “In the true meaning of the word, a nihilist is someone who refuses all forms of social constraint and calls for total freedom. In North Korea, the term refers to the worst enemies of the State.”

[1]“For Rorty, the liberal . . . is someone who believes that cruelty is the worst thing there is. Liberal society, therefore, must encourage the value of tolerance as a way of minimizing suffering.” See Simon Critchley’s Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity, London & New York: Verso, 1999, p. 85.

[2]See Christopher Hitchens’ Slate article, Worse Than 1984: North Korea, slave state. Posted Monday, May 2, 2005 @

Maxi Kim is the author of One Break, a Thousand Blows! (Books Works).

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