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Beware of Groundhog Day: John Pilger how American politics is repeating history

Barack Obama is a politician of a system described by Martin Luther King as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world".

One of the cleverest films I have seen is Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman who finds himself stuck in time. At first he deludes himself that the same day and the same people and the same circumstances offer new opportunities. Finally, his naivety and false hope desert him and he realises the truth of his predicament and escapes. Is this a parable for the age of Obama?

Having campaigned with "Change you can believe in", President-elect Barack Obama has named his A-team. They include Hillary Clinton, who voted to attack Iraq without reading the intelligence assessment and has since threatened to "totally obliterate" Iran on behalf of a foreign power, Israel. During his primary campaign, Obama referred repeatedly to Clinton's lies about her political record. When he appointed her secretary of state, he called her "my dear friend".

Obama's slogan is now "continuity". His secretary of defence will be Robert Gates, who serves the lawless, blood-soaked Bush regime as secretary of defence, which means secretary of war. (America last had to defend itself when the British invaded in 1812.) Gates wants no date set for an Iraq withdrawal and "well north of 20,000" troops to be sent to Afghanistan. He also wants America to build a completely new nuclear arsenal, including "tactical" nuclear weapons that blur the distinction with conventional weapons.

Another product of "continuity" is Obama's first choice for CIA chief, John Brennan, who shares responsibility for the systematic kidnapping and torturing of people, known as "extraordinary rendition". Obama has assigned Madeleine Albright to report on how to "strengthen US leadership in responding to genocide". Albright, as secretary of state, was largely responsible for the siege of Iraq in the 1990s, described by the UN's Denis Halliday as genocide.

There is more continuity in Obama's appointment of officials who will deal with the economic piracy that brought down Wall Street and impoverished millions. As in Bill Murray's nightmare, they are the same officials who caused it. For example, Lawrence Summers will run the National Economic Council. As treasury secretary, according to the New York Times, he "championed the law that deregulated derivatives, the . . . instruments - aka toxic assets - that have spread financial losses [and] refused to heed critics who warned of dangers to come".

There is logic here. Contrary to myth, Obama's campaign was funded largely by rapacious capital, such as Citigroup and others responsible for the sub-prime mortgage scandal, whose victims were mostly African Americans and other poor people.

Is this a grand betrayal? Obama has never hidden his record as a man of a system described by Martin Luther King as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today". Obama's dalliance as a soft critic of the disaster in Iraq was in line with most Establishment opinion that it was "dumb". His fans include the war criminals Tony Blair, who has "hailed" his appointments, and Henry Kissin ger, who describes the appointment of Hillary Clinton as "outstanding". One of John McCain's principal advisers, Max Boot, who is on the Republican Party's far right, said: "I am "gobsmacked by these appointments. [They] could just as easily have come from a President McCain."

Obama's victory is historic, not only because he will be the first black president, but because he tapped in to a great popular movement among America's minorities and the young outside the Democratic Party. In 2006 Latinos, the country's largest minority, took America by surprise when they poured into the cities to pro test against George W Bush's draconian immigration laws. They chanted: "Si, se puede!" ("Yes we can!"), a slogan Obama later claimed as his own. His secretary for homeland security is Janet Napolitano who, as governor of Arizona, made her name by stoking hostility against Latino immigrants. She has militarised her state's border with Mexico and supported the building of a hideous wall, similar to the one dividing occupied Palestine.

On election eve, reported Gallup, most Obama supporters were “engaged” but “deeply pessimistic about the country’s future direction”. My guess is that many people knew what was coming, but hoped for the best. In exploiting this hope, Obama has all but neutered the anti-war movement that is historically allied to the Democrats. After all, who can argue with the symbol of the first black president in this country of slavery, regardless of whether he is a warmonger?

As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, Obama is a "brand" like none other, having won the highest advertising campaign accolade and attracted unprecedented sums of money. The brand will sell for a while. He will close Guantanamo Bay, whose inmates represent less than 1 per cent of America's 27,000 "ghost prisoners". He will continue to make stirring, platitudinous speeches, but the tears will dry as people understand that President Obama is the latest manager of an ideological machine that transcends electoral power. Asked what his supporters would do when reality intruded, Stephen Walt, an Obama adviser, said: "They have nowhere else to go."

Not yet. If there is a happy ending to the Groundhog Day of repeated wars and plunder, it may well be found in the very mass movement whose enthusiasts registered voters and knocked on doors and brought Obama to power. Will they now be satisfied as spectators to the cynicism of "continuity"? In less than three months, millions of angry Americans have been politicised by the spectacle of billions of dollars of handouts to Wall Street as they struggle to save their jobs and homes. It as if seeds have begun to sprout beneath the political snow. And history, like Groundhog Day, can repeat itself.

Few predicted the epoch-making events of the 1960s and the speed with which they happened. As a beneficiary of that time, Obama should know that when the blinkers are removed, anything is possible.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech

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She’s leaving home: the women who left North Korea

There is something unsettling about the western media’s fascination with North Korea, as these two books reveal.

Yeonmi Park and Hyeonseo Lee were born more than a decade apart and spent much of their early childhood in Hyesan, a North Korean city on the banks of the Yalu River, which separates the “hermit state” from China. Both women are strong-willed and resourceful and share a flair for fashion ­inherited from their mothers, who worked as smugglers and rebelled against North Korea’s strict dress codes whenever they could by buying knock-off Chanel handbags or perming their hair. Yet while Lee was born to parents with high songbun (“status”), Park’s parents fell close to the bottom of North Korea’s rigid caste system. Lee remembers “idyllic summers” picnicking in fields and watching children catch dragonflies; Park was so hungry that she caught them to eat.

A few weeks before Lee turned 18, she walked across the frozen Yalu in her fashionable new red shoes, hoping for a short adventure in China. She has never been able to return. Park was just 13 when she fled Hyesan, starving and desperate, with her mother. They are among the 25,000 or so North Koreans to have escaped successfully from one of the most repressive regimes in modern history and two of only a small number of female defectors to tell their ­stories. Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names and Park’s In Order to Live describe their difficult and very different journeys to freedom and offer an unusual insight into the secretive country that they left behind.

There is something unsettling about the western media’s fascination with North Korea. The government-sanctioned haircuts, the camp gymnastics displays and the state media’s ridiculous rhetoric linger in the public consciousness much longer than reports of executions and gulags. Both books contain titillating details of the country’s weirdness. Park recalls a campaign for patriots to donate their poo during a fertiliser shortage. At her school, a typical maths question went like this: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?” Any child who referred to US citizens without using one of the official descriptions – “American bastard”, “Yankee devil” or “big-nosed Yankee” – was punished for being soft on the enemy.

The most revealing passages describe the rare moments when the alternate universes of North Korea and the rest of the world collide. Park describes watching a bootlegged copy of Titanic and marvelling that “Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were”. The film gave Park her “first small taste of freedom”. That North Koreans would risk imprisonment or death for pirated video games and Hollywood blockbusters shows how strong the desire for entertainment and novelty can be. Yet Park’s memoir also illustrates the strength of propaganda – how else could you “believe that North Korea is a socialist paradise . . . while devouring movies and TV programmes that show ordinary people in enemy nations enjoying a level of prosperity that you couldn’t imagine in your dreams”?

In some ways, Park and Lee were like teenage girls anywhere – falling in love, mooning over romantic pop, discovering pornography, rebelling against their parents – except that their thoughts, movements and even ambitions were regulated by the regime and the threat of violence was ever present. It was “normal, like air pollution”, Lee writes. Her descriptions are brutally matter-of-fact. She attends the execution of a well-liked smuggler; she writes: “When the shot hit the popular guy’s head, it exploded, leaving a fine pink mist.” In North Korea, she explains, most people try to avoid watching executions unless they know the person, in which case it is customary to attend, as they would a funeral.

To the regime, individuals’ lives might be considered worthless; for human traffickers, however, they have a price. After she crossed the river to China, Park was sold for $260, and her mother for $65. The traffickers wanted to rape Park but her mother offered herself up instead. Later, although still only 13, Park was forced to become the mistress of a trafficker and helped him collect, clean up and sell the women in his charge. There was no opportunity to complain of mistreatment to the authorities, because in China North Korean defectors are routinely arrested and sent back home to almost certain death in a prison camp. Her story sheds light on the dark mechanics of the trafficking industry and the chilling consequences of China’s forced repatriation programmes.

Lee’s journey seems to have been driven less by desperation and more by her irrepressible desire for a better life. What kind of teenager would cross one of the world’s most dangerous borders in her cool new shoes, hoping for a holiday? A naive one, certainly – yet her determination and independence are also remarkable. In China, she chooses to go on the run rather than accept the safety of marriage to her boyfriend, a wealthy if dull Chinese-Korean gamer. By the time Lee makes it to South Korea, she has so effectively adapted to Chinese society – she has acquired Chinese ID, speaks Mandarin fluently and is earning a good wage as a translator – that it takes her a long time to convince officials that she is a North Korean defector. As soon as she is safely in South Korea, she risks everything to help her mother and brother escape.

In publishing their memoirs, Lee and Park are taking yet another big risk. Last year, the UN noted how difficult it was to keep witnesses safe. Many North Korean defectors feared speaking to it, even confidentially, for fear of reprisals. Both Park and Lee are hoping that by going public they can expose human rights abuses in their country and increase the pressure on China to change its policy on its neighbour. Yet their stories also tell of the vulnerability and resilience of refugees all over the world. What despair and courage it takes to wade through the freezing water of the Yalu River, or march unguided across the icy border between China and Mongolia in the dead of night, or clamber into a crowded Jeep traversing the Sahara, or cram your children on to an overloaded boat on the Mediterranean, in the faint hope that anything must be better than what you have left behind.

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Tale by Hyeonseo Lee with David John is published by William Collins (304pp, £16.99). In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers is published by Fig Tree (288pp, £18.99).

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide