[LETTERS to the editor]Stage-managing history

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[LETTERS to the editor]Stage-managing history


It’s only been a few weeks since the second inter-Korean summit concluded. It is unclear what this summit has produced, aside from the controversy that has sprung from Roh Moo-hyun’s post-summit comments about the Northern Limit Line. Perhaps, in the wake of this particular summit, “no news is good news.” If there really is no news, this means that Roh’s efforts were a sort of absurd and slightly bizarre exercise in diplomacy. On the other hand, and to be fair, Roh’s engagement with the North may have added a bit more weight to the positive side of a scale which may one day tip toward more openness in North Korea and regular relations with the global community.
Until we can truly sum up the effects or consequences of the inter-Korean summit, what lingers most with us are the images. Most notable of these were the footage and photos of Roh and First Lady Kwan Yang-sook crossing the demilitarized zone on foot in advance of their motorcade.
This truly impressive, awe-inspiring media moment had a touch of the iconic, with the ingredients of history in the making. It was a CNN moment. It calls to mind a great host of historical events that people witnessed live throughout the world.
These definitive events can perhaps be ordered into three rough categories: milestones, tragedies and mere spectacles.
A worthy example of a milestone event disseminated through the global media is the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the second group, tragedies, one could include the Challenger explosion and the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
More recently, though, carefully staged spectacles have become common currency in the world of high politics. These may seem like milestone events at the outset, but it soon becomes clear, if it wasn’t from the very beginning, that they are strong on form and formula but weak on substance. U.S. President George Bush’s landing on an aircraft carrier to declare “mission accomplished,” was one such spectacle that later backfired. The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad is another example of an orchestrated “turning point in history.”
Yet, recently, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has attempted to disassociate the U.S. from media spectacles. In her push for progress between Israel and Palestine, she stressed, “We have many things to do. We don’t need a photo opportunity.”
Meanwhile, from Burma, cell phone cameras and Internet technology have allowed compelling images of brutal dictatorial repression to emerge. These have been made accessible through the international news media. If ever there was a story that deserved worldwide exposure, this was it.
But what does all this have to do with the inter-Korean summit between Roh and Kim Jong-il? And was the footage of Roh crossing the DMZ a true historical milestone, a tragedy or an out-and-out empty spectacle?
I would rather leave this last question open, for now at least.
But perhaps the case of Burma can inspire us to question why there hasn’t been as much attention raised, or global protest rallied, through the horrific, damning footage that has been smuggled out of North Korea at grave personal risk to many over the past few years. What about the North Korean tragedy?
Matthew C. Crawford, visiting professor,
Chungnam National University
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