Ski lifts, cognac and human rights in North Korea

Does North Korea's anger at Switzerland's refusal to supply ski lifts for the country's first luxury ski resort suggest that stricter sanctions could work?

North Korea is due to open the country’s first luxury ski resort this Thursday. The Masik Pass will cater to an estimated 5,500 skiers in the country, or 0.2 per cent of the population, the Associated Press reported. Masik Pass has however come up against one big problem: no one wants to sell them ski lifts. The Swiss recently pulled out of a $7.7m deal, citing sanctions on the import of luxury goods to North Korea, and French and German manufacturers have also said no. North Korea's state-run media has called the Swiss decision a "serious human rights abuse”.

To put this into perspective, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in North Korea are imprisoned in forced labour camps, where as well as carrying out backbreaking work, they are starved, denied medical care, and face constant beatings, and even executions, by camp staff. Around 10 per cent of the population suffers from malnourishment, and the average worker earns around $4 a day. Citizens are not allowed to leave the country, and anyone who questions the status quo risks detention without trial, torture and even public execution.

The United Nations sanctions on luxury products were intended to put pressure on North Korea’s regime in response to its nuclear weapons tests. While North Korea’s leadership is unlikely to worry too much about the effect of crippled economic growth on its populace (as long as they are starved into submission, rather fired up for revolt), it was hoped a ban on luxury products will focus the minds of the North Korea’s cognac-swilling elite - North Korea’s late dictator (and the father of its current leader) Kim Jong-Il reportedly spent $720,000 a year on Hennessy cognac.

Unfortunately, no one can agree on what counts as a ‘luxury’ item, and China in particular, while agreeing to sanctions in principle, tends to apply a far narrower definition than most. North Korea doesn’t publish data on its imports, but UN data from 2010 details exports including 50,000 bottles of wine, 3,559 sets of videogames from China, 3,191 cars (including one from Germany costing almost $60,000) and 839 bottles of spirits worth an average of $159 each.

This Radio Free Asia article describes department stores in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang selling Chanel perfume, designer clothing and Rolex watches to the country’s elite, and senior North Korean officials visiting China have no problem stocking up on luxuries to take home.

The big fuss that the North Korean regime is kicking up over ski lifts suggests that Switzerland’s decision to respect sanctions has hurt and riled the country’s leadership. In Iran we may be starting to see sanctions having an impact, and similarly tighter sanctions on North Korea may well be the best, if not the only way, to force North Korea’s leadership to start serious negotiations about its nuclear weapons programmes, and hopefully (but perhaps less realistically) be pressured into domestic reform. Ski lifts are not a human right, but perhaps together with cognac, videogames and luxury cars, they can be a tool for promoting them.
 

The construction site of the Masik Pass Skiing Ground. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era