As the auditorium filled up, I began to get a KONY2012 kind of feeling. The room was full of well-scrubbed university types. Most of them had nice smiles. On the screen at the front of the room were projected the words “The People’s Crisis”, against a background of what looked like an old propaganda poster; red and white faces, some with set jaws, some with open mouths, most with eyes gazing up and out.
This was the launch of Liberty in North Korea’s (LiNK) new film, documenting one of their missions to smuggle North Korean refugees safely from the border of North Korea, through and out of China, into a safehouse somewhere in Southeast Asia, and eventually into a new life in South Korea or the US or wherever.
The first words in the film are spoken by the filmmaker, talking about how draining the mission had been for the team. The KONY2012 feeling grew even stronger. Here was a well put-together film focusing on how American kids were making a sudden difference, succeeding where many others had failed, combating injustice with exuberance. They proposed to redefine an existing humanitarian crisis. They wanted to raise awareness. They needed the help of all the healthy, vibrant young things in the room. They knew how to put on a good show.
The guys in the video didn’t really seem like people smugglers. They didn’t speak the local languages and stood out from their surroundings. There were other ‘guides’ to do a lot of the actual smuggling; these guys seemed to have just inserted themselves into an already-existent, already-functional network. The LiNK guys were, however, bringing cameras, publicity, promotion and probably fund-raising. All hugely valuable; but were they directing their energy into the right places? Were they getting in the way; more determined to make a difference than to make the right kind of difference?
There is undoubtedly a crisis going on in North Korea, but had they identified the crisis correctly? They stated that there were 24 million people in the country, all suffering terribly under a cruel regime. The suffering isn’t really in doubt, but I’m not sure every citizen is suffering. Someone has to be benefitting from the system. Someone has to be propping it up, keeping the regime in place. Probably quite a few someones.
Sitting in judgement in the dark auditorium, I labelled the project KIMY2012.
The KONY2012 video lasts for about 30 minutes. If ‘The People’s Crisis’ only ran that long, it would really be no better than KONY2012. The second 30 minutes of ‘The People’s Crisis’, however, is far richer than the first. It does a lot that KONY2012 doesn’t do. That’s because it doesn’t just tell the stories of victims for them. The second half of ‘The People’s Crisis’ is powerful viewing, because it contains the firsthand accounts of North Korean refugees themselves. All were young, all had left behind families that they might never see again. One woman had got caught up in the refugee trafficking rings in China. She’d been sold to a guy, had had his child, had been largely ignored by him, and now needed to get out of China to find work to support her child.
When the film finished Joseph, another refugee who had come to the US and just graduated from high school came to the podium to speak. Well-dressed, self-effacing and humorous, he spoke of watching his father starve to death, and of living on the streets as an orphan, scrounging for food until he decided to escape North Korea. He had a plan, a long-term one; go to university, get into business in Asia, find his sister.
Joseph’s plan is also LiNK’s plan; slow, pervasive influence. With every refugee that escapes the country, North Korea is, whether it acknowledges this or not, dragged further in global participation. Refugees do get in contact with family members back home. They send funds. They share information. Unlike KONY2012′s calls for militarisation, for someone with power to do something, KIMY2012 turns out to be far more grounded. Focus on the individuals, keep them safe, let them and their family ties start to make change happen.
KONY2012 made a lot of noise for a lot of reasons. Its greatest lingering effect for me, however, has been to raise questions about a lot of humanitarian projects. It may be pretty easy to poke holes in the KONY2012, but do other campaigns by other organisations really differ so much? There’ll probably be a lot more musing on thus in the future. LiNK at least seems to be a big step in a good direction.