More Fallout from Google in North Korea

January 11, 2013 12:15 PM

One last post on Bill and Eric’s Excellent Misadventure in Pyongyang and then we’ll quit. We promise.

First, we stipulate that it is possible that highly constructive things have gone on behind the scenes and the public battering that Governor Richardson and Google's Eric Schmidt are getting in this country is undeserved and in retrospect will be regarded as regretable. In this post we set those issues aside and examine how the North Koreans are portraying the visit.

Our man in Seoul, the redoubtable Dan Pinkston, has been closely tracking the North Korean press coverage of the trip. As we know from the excellent work of scholar B.R. Myers, the North Korean press in English and the North Korean press in Korea can be two very different things.  And it is more than an issue of translation.  The North Korean press in Korean tends to portray North Korea’s interactions with foreigners in terms of the foreigners paying tribute to North Korea’s leaders and its political system.  So it surprised some to learn, for example, that US food aid is not portrayed as humanitarian assistance to needy people, but rather as a gift given by an inferior in recognition of the superiority of North Korea and its leaders.

The recent visit by former Governor Bill Richardson and Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt sadly appears to be a rather vivid case in point. Here is some textual analysis from Dan:

Pyongyang, January 9 (KCNA) -- A delegation of the Google Inc. of the U.S. headed by Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico State, visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to pay tribute to Generalissimos Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Wednesday. The members of the delegation paid high tribute to the statues of the peerlessly great men. They went round the rooms where the orders they received are on display, mourning hall and the halls housing cars, an electric car, boat and trains which the Generalissimos used during their field guidance and foreign tour till the last moments of their lives. They made entries in the visitor's book.

Pinkston: But I must note that the Korean makes the delegation seem even more respectful and in awe of the great generals. The Korean also includes an adjectival clause for KIS's and KJI's great contributions towards accomplishing independence for humanity. It sounds like "google delegation led by former New Mexico Governor Richardson" expressed the classic toadyism and deference expected of the tributary missions to the Chinese emperor under the old East Asian World Order.

위대한 김 일 성동지께와 김 정 일동지께 금수산태양궁전을 찾아 미국 구글회사대표단 경의 표시

위대한 수령 김 일 성동지께와 위대한 령도자 김 정 일동지께 금수산태양궁전을 찾아 9일 빌 리챠드슨 전 뉴멕시코주 지사를 단장으로 하는 미국 구글회사대표단이 경의를 표시하였다.

손님들은 나라의 륭성번영과 인민의 행복을 위하여 한평생을 바치시였으며 인류 자주위업실현에 거대한 공헌을 하신 위대한 김 일 성동지와 김 정 일동지를 경모하여 삼가 인사를 올리였다.

그들은 훈장보존실,울음홀과 위대한 대원수님들께서 생애의 마지막시기까지 현지지도와 외국방문의 길에서 리용하신 승용차와 전동차,배,렬차보존실들을 주의깊게 돌아보았다.

손님들은 방문록에 글을 남기였다.

As Dan goes on to observe, “The average North Korean has no idea what google is or who Eric Schmidt is. They do recognize U.S. government positions such as "governor" even if they might not recall or know Richardson's name. They just know this is another high-level delegation coming to pay respect to the "DPRK's great founders and to acknowledge the sublime nature of their great system and people." For the very senior leadership, let's say the top 200 officials or so (KWP CC members let's say) who do know what this is about and who do know what IT is and what google is, they will be very impressed that Richardson and Schmidt came to Pyongyang. This validates state science and technology policy and is clear recognition (in their minds) that KJU really is a tech-savvy guy who can manage high-tech projects like space launches and the implementation of IT in economic production and distribution to compensate for the dreadful inefficiencies in their command economy. Of course, they don't believe those inefficiencies are caused by their system--but because of the "U.S. hostile policy!"

The North Koreans have this interesting way of insulting people. Kim Jong-il did it with the letter he gave to Carter at the end of his last visit. I read the original, and it was quite odd. He called Carter "teacher" (Carter 선생/先生) "whom he respected" but then did not use the appropriate grammatical particles (선생님 and honorific verb infixes) that would be included in that type of speech or text. And this was not a difference in dialect. He didn't call Carter by his official title or use appropriate language when addressing one's elders in Korean, like he did when he met Kim Dae-jung in June 2000. But the subtleties are completely lost in translation. I found the Korean text very disrespectful to Carter, and that certainly was understood by all of KJI's underlings who read that memo basically addressing a former U.S. president as KJI's [supplicant].”

Adam Cathcart checked the Chinese translations and found them to be rather vivid, at one point describing the delegation as "Looking like venereal disease patients, those American gentlemen are prattling about their respect for human rights." Well, at least they are prattling about their respect for human rights. Kudos to them on that point.

Maybe Schmidt and Google can be excused for not understanding how their trip would be used. And as I stipulated at the start, there may be more here than meets the eye. But their adviser, Tony Namkung can't plead ignorance.  He’s the Korea-hand.  He must have known how his fellow travelers would be portrayed internally.

But in the end is this just a tempest in a teapot, albeit a weird, snarky, tragic-comic tempest in a teapot?  As my partner Steph Haggard has observed, "Potemkin village visits still leave the country a Potemkin technological power. The Schmidt message is essentially correct in the end."

In the interests of full disclosure, Google is a corporate supporter of the Peterson Institute.



I wonder if they'd use 반말 with a Chinese delegation, or if that's a linguistic flourish they reserve exclusively for us 미국놈....

Adam Cathcart

Incidentally I think Dr. Schmidt might have been saving up anecdotes or using his North Korean sojourn as a kind of grinding stone for a few thoughts about internet and the state more generally. His three- (or four-)part lecture series at Cambridge later this month would indicate as much, at any rate:

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