Saturday, March 30, 2013

North Korean Doctors in Africa And Russian Terrorism - Media Images That Need More Reflection

There was a news item back in February with this headline (from CNN):

"Attackers kill 3 North Korean physicians in Nigeria, official says"

My first reaction:  "What?  What are North Korean doctors doing in Nigeria?"

A Guardian article tells us a little more:
The doctors were living in a quiet neighbourhood of the town because there was not room to house them at the hospital, where they would have had some security protection, [Dr. Mohammed] Mamman  [chairman of the hospital managing board of Yobe state] said.

He told journalists that the three men were from North Korea and had lived in the state since 2005 as part of a medical programme between Yobe and the Pyongyang government.

There are more than a dozen other North Korean doctors posted to the state under the scheme, which also includes engineers, Mamman said. He said all will receive immediate protection from security forces. "It is very unfortunate," he said of the killings.
The media paints an almost universal image of North Korea as the bleak pariah nation where people lead grey, depressing, often hungry, lives.  Yet they have doctors helping Nigerians - they'd been there since 2005!

One person I mentioned this to responded,  "They have doctors?"

All this raises questions in my mind about what else we don't know about North Korea.

Stories like this help remind me to question 'common knowledge' on a regular basis.  I'm not arguing that North Korea is really an earthly paradise,  but I am raising the possibility that it's a lot more complex than the evil portrait we usually get.  Sure, the ruling family seems pretty bizarre, but given some of the people in Congress these days, probably not all that bizarre.  Imagine what the United States might look like if any of these Congress members came to North Korean-like power (list from People For The American Way):

Imagine what anyone, an Obama for example, might do with unlimited power!

At least Kim Jong Un, has the excuse of having been raised in relatively isolated conditions and taught that he was some sort of God-King.  The legislators, whether in DC or Juneau, don't have that excuse.

Except that his life apparently wasn't that isolated.  The Atlantic Wire reports that he spent several years at an English language school in Switzerland and a couple more at a German language school.  They quote school mates as saying he was infatuated with Michael Jordan, is a good basketball player, an has pairs and pairs of high end Nikes. 

Another chink in the media image of North Korea is the rocket program.  The press and politicians focus on the provocation of their rockets and their nuclear threat.  But if they have such capable weapons, they need to have some pretty competent scientists and engineers too.

And if they buzzed the US mainland from a stealth jet as, apparently, the US did to them the other day, you know we'd have shot it down and/or gone on a bombing raid that would make our drone strikes in Pakistan look like a holiday fireworks display.

And if all the countries our rockets could reach reacted to us the way we react to North Korea . . .  But, of course, it's because we're sane and rational and the North Koreans are crazy, right?  (Go back and look at that list of Congress members.) 

Again, I'm not supporting the North Korean regime in any way, just raising questions about the accuracy of the bleaker than bleak media images we get of the country.  An image which serves our government's belligerence toward North Korea well.  There'd be few protests if Washington found an excuse to take out Pyongyang.

All this was brought to mind again yesterday because I've started reading The Man Without A Face:  The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.   Early into the book there's a discussion of the bomb attacks in 1999 and 2000 in Russia in the run-up to the election that would elect Putin for the first time.  Author Masha Gessen argues that, based on the last bombing (attempt) in which the bombers were seen setting the bomb and that police were able to defuse, that the whole set of attacks was carried out by the successors to the KGB, the FSB (Federal Security Service) and not the Muslims who were blamed widely in the press. 

Gessen portrays everyone, including herself,  convinced that Muslim terrorists, most likely rebels from Chechnya, were the culprits due to the war against them.  It wasn't until later that she realizes that her assumptions were wrong.

So, in this light, I'd ask readers to prepare themselves for other options - just as many  Americans have reassessed their understanding of homosexuality and gay marriage.  After all, North Korea can somehow send doctors off to Africa and has people capable of designing and launching missiles toward the US.  That alone tells us that some North Koreans are getting at least a technical education.  And some have been living abroad for years - and, one would expect, have access to what's happening in the rest of world.

As another book I'm reading, Subliminal:  How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow says,
 "The world we perceive is an artificially constructed environment whose character and properties are as much a result of unconscious mental processing as they are a product of real data.  Nature helps us overcome gaps in information by supplying a brain that smooths over the imperfections, at an unconscious level, before we are even aware of any perception."
And for things we don't know personally - like North Korea or the Russian apartment bombings - what we know comes second- or third- or fourth-hand from the artificially constructed images of the reporters, their sources, and their editors.  

So it's always good to step back and check the crap detector and perhaps get an image that might be a little more in alignment with so called reality. 


  1. I did not know about the doctors in Africa, but I have had the same general thought about North Korea as well. We have been told for about 20 years that they are on their last legs and about to collapse.

    That is one long collapse if you ask me.

  2. [Barbara sent me an email saying she couldn't post her comment here and asked me to add it. Here it is.]

    The North Korea policy of assigning workers to other countries is not as altruistic as it might first appear. In this instance discussed in this posting, North Korean physicians are sent to Nigeria in order to insure North Korean access to Nigeria's oil supply. The work assignments are not a good deal for the workers and in this case doctors.
    The doctors are not permitted to bring their families with them AND they are not provided with a salary. All of the derived benefit realized in Nigeria is transferred to the North Korean government in the form of natural resources. czech.3455560.html?_r=0 to-envy-by-barbara-demick/

  3. Does anyone care to know how many Korean doctors and Russians killed TOOO many Nigerans?

  4. Matanzas, any information you can supply on this is welcome.


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