15 juli 2014

Onderweg naar Korea


Morgenochtend vroeg vertrek ik via Frankfurt naar Seoel, voor uitwisseling aan de Universiteit van Korea. Daarvoor heb ik eerst heb een dikke vijf weken om het land te leren kennen. Het beloven vijf interessante maanden te worden!

Net als mijn reis naar Hangzhou van vorige zomer wil ik ook deze keer mijn blog bijhouden voor de thuisblijvers en de andere geïnteresseerden. Ik zal proberen het leuk te houden door er zo min mogelijk een droog reisdagboek van te maken – met die details kan ik thuis wel lastig vallen via Skype of de mail – en in plaats vooral het land te laten zien en wat ik onderweg leer.

Met vijf weken heb ik ruim genoeg tijd om het land te leren kennen, maar dan moet je natuurlijk niet in de grote stad blijven hangen. De eerste twee weken is dat nu juist wel mij plan; ik blijf in Seoel om op mijn gemak te kunnen wennen aan het land. Bovendien is daar meer dan genoeg te doen! De definitieve plannen voor de rest van mijn zomer moet ik nog maken, maar één ding staat vast: 23 augustus meld ik me bij de universiteit voor mijn introductie. Dan zal ik Korea van weer een heel andere kant leren zien.

Allemaal mooie dingen om naar uit te zien!

21 november 2013

Ironies of history captured in photo

Bijeenkomst presidentieel paleis

The above picture shows the delegation of the Dutch prime minister, who is currently on a trade mission in Indonesia, meeting with their Indonesia hosts inside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta. The irony here is that Merdeka Palace—named after the slogan of the Indonesia struggle for independence, ‘freedom’—was built as Paleis Koningsplein, the residence of the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies.

Where now hang portraits of former presidents, once were the solemn gazes of Dutch kings caught in paint. The very red and blue flag standing proudly in this room stands for everything that was prosecuted from here.

The Delftware in the back and the Dutch colonial architecture show there is a historical link that cannot be forgotten. But it is clear that the tables are turned. Where the power of The Hague was once on display, the Dutch prime minister is now a humble guest, hoping to be noticed amongst other possible trade partners. This is the irony of history.


19 november 2013

Speak out against trivialisation of the North Korean issue

Today an issue played regarding a September publication in fashion magazine Elle that listed ‘North Korean Chic’ as a top fashion trend for this autumn. Small as this slight may seem, it is a good example of trivialisation that happens with regard to the North Korean issue. Look at those silly North Koreans in their retro uniforms and their retro concentration camps!

One problem is the lack of realisation that what is going on there is seriously horrific. We are talking about a country where in the past few years up to 100,000 inmates have disappeared from the concentration camps, many of which presumably starved when the new regime redirected scarce food resources to prop up its support base. Regardless of the accuracy of that number—earlier reports talked about 20,000—it is still an incredibly crime that merits global attention on its own. Jokes about the outfits of North Koreas Army, essentially ten years of forced corvée labour for the men, is not fitting.

However, of course is has not only got to do with a lack of knowledge, but also with defining a group so much as the Other, that empathy is reduced. Only that can explain the fact that things like the grueling, child-abusing Arirang Mass Games are filed under entertainment. Stories about sex scandals and executions are passed on like Snowden files at a journalist get-together, only for their entertaining value. We have to stop seeing North Korean lives as worth less worry and care than those of people we can culturally and physically relate to more easily.

I believe that the above justifies that even such small issues such as the Elle gaffe should be addressed, proportionally of course. A few angry responses to Elle Magazine have already sorted some effect: the magazine has removed the reference and expressed regret. This is a good way to address this issue and I encourage every reader of news media to do the same.

Is your news source of choice oversimplifying the situation, trivialising suffering or just being plain racist? Send a letter and show the editors that you care!

16 november 2013

‘But what proud nation will accept democracy as a gift from insolent conquerors? One thing that the war has done, and one of the worst, is to make of the Kaiser, to every German, a symbol of their national unity and national force. Just because we abuse their militarism, they affirm and acclaim it; just because we abuse their militarism, they affirm and acclaim it; just because we attack their governing class, they rally round it. Nothing could be better calculated than this war to strengthen the hold of militarism in Germany, unless it be the attempt of her enemies to destroy her militarism by force. For consider—! In the view we are examining it is proposed, first to kill the greater part of her combatants, next to invade her territory, destroy her towns and villages, and exact (for there are those who demand it) penalties in kind, actual tit for that, for what Germans have doen in Belgium. It is proposed to enter the capital in triumph. It is proposed to shear away huge pieces of German territory. And then, when all this has been done, the conquerors are to turn to the German nation and say: “Now, all this we have done for your good! Depose your wicked rulers! Become a democracy! Shake hands and be a good fellow!” Does it not sound grotesque? But, really, that is what is proposed.’

— Dickinson (1916: pp. 77-78) has still a few words everyone considering military intervention should beware.

14 oktober 2013

Hedley Bull’s downside of nuclear deterrence: not so stable after all

Students of International Relations are probably familiar with the concept of nuclear deterrence so loved by especially neorealism. Simply put, the utter and complete destruction that today’s nuclear weapons are capable of, combined with second-strike capabilities, they say, create stability in the international system. Because attacking a nuclear power is too costly, no state will do so.

However, in his book ‘The Anarchical Society’, famous English School theorist Hedley Bull highlights an important deficit in the line of reasoning followed here by the neorealists. Bull paraphrases Spinoza discussing Hobbes’ “warre of all against all”. The problem, Spinoza says, is that man has to sleep sometime. He can be sick or distracted or deluded. In the absolute anarchy of Hobbes, where there is no authority, this is incredibly dangerous. Because it takes only one good hit to kill a person.

Note that it is the Hobbesian kind of international anarchy that neorealists hold for true.

But, says Bull citing Von Clausewitz, war between states is not as immediate as the act of killing a person. It takes several different blows for one state to ‘kill’ another, but most wars do not even end in the complete annihilation of one party. This means that the anarchy experienced by states is not so Hobbesian after all.

However, since states have acquired nuclear weapons, from a neorealist conception the Hobbesian anarchy seems to be more and more realised. Nuclear powers now have the ability to kill an entire state at once. How more states become nuclear powers, how closer we get to the kind of Hobbesian anarchy as described by Spinoza.

So, Bull shows in an aside from the main line in his book, strive for nuclear deterrence might only increase the state of anarchy for a neorealist.

3 oktober 2013

Ue o muite arukou or Sukiyaki – the saccharine Japanese song with protest roots

Above is the sweet Japanese song 上を向いて歩こう (Ue o Muite Arukō) with its characteristic whistling. Known in the West under the virtually meaningless name ‘Sukiyaki’, this is the most famous version, sung by Kyu Sakamoto in 1961. The song was written by Ei Rokusuke. When you read the lyrics, you see the text of saccharine tune about love lost or desired.

However, its origin is not as sweet. The composer wrote this song after he returned from a protest against a revision of the Security Treaty with the United States. Ei was so disappointed by the failure that he wrote the following words:

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I’m all alone tonight

The text was adapted and turned into a general tune that had little more to do with political engagement and it went on to conquer the world as one of Japan’s first successful cultural exports. As such it is already important. However, I find the context of this song also noteworthy.

The early sixties, the period in which this song was published, was one of great turmoil for Japan. The occupation by the US was over, but the country was still in the process of restoring its full sovereignty and it was grappling with the issue of balancing sovereignty with very useful security guarantees from the US and a volatile society.

At the same time, the Japanese society was also undergoing changes: the first postwar generation was growing up and the country was only on the outset of the huge economic growth that would later make Japan so huge. The political climate was fraught with tension while the left battled the right. The on-stage assassination of socialist leader Asanuma Inejirō serves as a shrill illustration of this era.

One grouping in this political tumult were the pacifists. Consisting for a large part of people grown up or born during or after the Second World War, they were abhorred by what had happened in that war, especially the atomic bombing. They—of course, there is no one ‘they’ here—did not like to be drawn into further conflict and were afraid that by choosing one side in the Cold War, Japan would risk being drawn into a new war. That is why they often demonstrated against alignment with United States. Apart from them, there were also leftists who were just against the conservative-dominated government.

Composer Ei participated in protests organised by groups like these. It was about the failure of one such protests that he wrote this song. The shed tears for compromised sovereignty or neutrality compromised, I feel, show the emotional side of Japanese nationalism or patriotism.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that this song did so well in the United States and the rest of the West. It reached the top of the charts, is still one of the best sold single ever and has been covered many times. Still, behind this ostensibly saccharine love song lies an interesting story!


Best, Anthony – International History of the Twentieth Century and Beyond, 2nd Edition
Totman, Conrad – A History of Japan, 2nd Edition

2 oktober 2013

White People Slap: unconscious discrimination

Ever since I’ve returned from China, I have been itching to leave again and go to any of the big three countries in East-Asia, be it Korea, Japan or China. It has also made me think about the views I hold and the way I perceive the world.

You see, I come from a small village of four-thousand souls in a part of the Frisian countryside. Our province basically consists only of small villages such as that and of the occasional town. In my village I could count the number of non-white families on one hand and because part of my family originally comes from a different province forty-five minutes away, even I already stood out a little bit.

Coming from such an undiverse background—my family can be traced back to the same areas in the North of the Netherlands for centuries—and from such an undiverse village, I feel that I have to be mindful of possible prejudices I might have. Of course it would be generalising (discrimination!) to say that countryside folk are all more inclined to bias and prejudice, but I do think that we are more prone to unconscious prejudice and even racism, because we are simply not used to dealing with people outside our own ethnic grouping. Also, whenever you as a westerner have enthusiasm for a certain non-western area, the danger of orientalism creeps in.

You can only improve yourself by learning and in that spirit I would like to write this blog post about an example that illustrates the mechanisms at play very well. I only heard about it in a YouTube video, but a quick Google search did not return much, so it must be somewhat lesser-known or very original. Anyway, I am talking about the so-called ‘white people slap’.

The Slap

Basically, it consists of a white person asking a compatriot or someone like that with a non-white background too detailed questions about that non-white background. An example could be someone asking a person of Chinese descent about his or her opinion about the influence of western missionaries in laying the foundations for the Taiping rebellion. It would be ridiculous to assume that every person of Chinese descent is also a China scholar versed in all eras.

Although questions like the one above might be a demonstration of well-intended enthusiasm or be intended as such, if you do not find yourself in a discussion that in this case would concern 19th century Chinese history, you did do something wrong. There are several problems here, besides the fact that you look a bit like a show-off.

First of all, when you ask someone a question, it’s usually because you consider the addressee to be someone knowledgable enough to help you out. If the person you are talking to is just a random member of the identity group you are asking a question about, you imply by asking the question anyway, that you assume that all people of background X are all the same in the sense that they know everything related to their background X. Simply being of background X means they know everything about it.

Secondly, by asking this question and taking the above implicit assumption, you demonstrate that you equate the person with his background X. However, you don’t know where the allegiances of the persons you are talking to lie. They might be immigrants or children of immigrants who relate much stronger to their current country. Even if they aren’t, you still oversimplify their relationship with their heritage.

The ‘white people slap’ is not overt racism. However, it is a tool for subtly making the receivers of the slap feel that they do not fully belong. It is a way of marking the in-group and the out-group, with the added bonus of someone from the in-group graciously expressing interest in the out-group. In a sense you rob the addressees of their individuality and force them to be part of a collective, without knowing if they are or if they even want to be part of the collective you are assigning them. It contains parts of the mechanisms that fed the Yellow Peril and other racist ideologies that target a certain group. Even if they consider themselves fully part of the collective, of background X, they still deserve to be addressed as individuals.

Therefore, no matter how enthusiastic you are about a certain country or how much you want to know the answer to your burning question, always ask yourself if you are asking it to the right person.



I know that writing about discrimination and racism is not easy and that you easily risk being hypocritical and contradiction your own claims. I have tried to avoid this. If you don’t agree, please assume good faith on my side and please let me know why you think I am wrong.

23 september 2013

Haunting documentary on North Korean camps: ‘Camp 14: Total Control Zone’

It might ruin your day, watching this documentary. But I think that you should nevertheless.

It tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean who was born inside concentration camp 14. His father had gotten his mother as reward for good labour. Interviewing Shin and two former guards who defected to the South, the film makers show you the world of horror. An artist draws the scenes described.

Shin is a famous defector, because he was born in the concentration camp and managed to escape a total control zone. His tragic story adds to this: in his youth he told the camp leaders that his mother and brother might be planning an escape. After months of torture in prison he had to watch their public execution.

There are so many things from this documentary I would like to share that I can only recommend you to watch it fully. But I would like to draw your attention to several things:

See how meticulously dressed the guards are and compare it to Shin, who does not sit on a chair as he tells his story, but on the floor of his apartment, which he kept empty to remind him of the home he used to share with his mother.

Notice the grin of one of the guards after he describes the position of absolute power he held over his inmates.

“The public executions in the camp weren’t restricted to adult inmates. That could happen to children too.”

“I hadn’t learned that you are supposed to cry when your mother is executed.”

This is not a horror from the past. This is happening right now as we speak.

Read the review of the Guardian for some more context of this movie. You can buy the German DVD already on Amazon, for the English version you will have to wait until 28 October.

18 september 2013

Not Syria, but the United States is the greatest threat to international order

The civil war ravaging Syria is filling the columns of newspapers around the world with horror. When I first saw the footage of the victims of the chemical attacks in spasms on the television in a Hangzhou bus, the terrified look on their faces seemed to beg the question: why is no one doing anything?

More people are asking that question and calls for intervention—inevitably led by the US—got louder and louder. If we would not intervene, the proponents said, we would do great damage to international order. For it would be a great danger for all of us, if Assad could get away with using chemical weapons, since others would see it is possible to get away from it.

In this article I do not want to talk about intervention in Syria. The question of intervention seems to be off the table (for now?) while a diplomatic solution is being implemented. Rather, I want to focus on one of the arguments used in favour of intervening. I do not agree that intervention is necessary to preserve order. Instead, I would like to draw attention to the fact that there is a much greater danger to the future of the current international society: Washington D.C.

Syria just signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, a first step on the path of a plan in which the chemical weapons of the country be completely gone next year. This solves the biggest concern of the Americans, who like to see the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons universally enforced. Universally? Well, not exactly of course. Israel is not a signatory to the CWC and the US Armed Forces also have plenty of napalm, nuclear weapons and even smallpox at their disposal.


This hypocrisy is one of many and follows a great tradition. The American Declaration of Independence espoused great values that certainly deserve some admiration. But at the same time, those rights of self-rule and the opposition to tyranny were trampled on when it came to the native Americans, who were chased away from their own lands and put into reservations like animals.

Washington does not like it when other countries ignore treaties they have signed with the US. However, it has a long history of ignoring or nullifying treaties when it is convenient for itself. Examples are the numerous ignored treaties with the native Americans and the American refusal to listen to the judgement of the ICJ when it lost the case the Nicaraguan government had brought against the United States for their involvement in a rebellion.

Nowadays we see that the US continues to campaign against torture, even though at the same time it engages in torture itself. It says that states have to sovereignty and human rights, while it is taking out suspects, their families and the surrounding civilians by drones without even asking full consent from the countries they’re operating in. It allows Israel to ignore the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while being furious when Iran seems to have the beginnings of a nuclear programme.

President Obama has said on Syria that inaction from the UN Security Council undermines its legitimacy. It is true that inaction is starting to become a problem; America’s continuous refusal to allow any action against the clearly illegal behaviour of Israel has done a lot of damage to the UN’s standing outside the western world. The fact that it used its veto to prevent a judgement from the ICJ against it to be enforced and that it has no qualms in ignoring fundamental rights of non-Americans, like privacy or the right to life, show how easily it ignores the desire for justice from the rest of the world when it suits it.

Now, I am not denying that what Syria is doing is okay or that it would not in some way have damaged the international order, if the world would have let the use of chemical weapons go unpunished. However, Syria’s actions are much less important for shaping what is possible in the international arena than what the US has done and is still doing. Syria is not a global superpower, but virtually a failed state. The US, to the contrary, is the chief architect of the present international society.

International society

When the Second World War was over, only the United States was left standing. Europe was burned by war, Britain having gone virtually bankrupt in the process and France and Germany being too busy with rebuilding. Asia was scarred, with Japan in shambles and China getting ready for civil war. Russia also had had a price to pay and Latin America had in the course of the war only become more dependent on the US. This left Washington room to remodel the international society in its own image.

The result, with of course also input from other countries, was the United Nations system with a key role for the American dollar and the role of global policeman for the United States, in the West at least. Via the GATT and later the WTO, an economical system of international free trade soon spread and expectations of respect for human rights and democracy were built in. Not every member of this society followed this liberal world view, but it was at least the norm against which everyone was judged.

The United States has not only shaped this international society, even nowadays it is also still more or less the most important actor. No longer completely the ‘most popular kid’, it is instead the most respected and feared and somewhat popular kid. This still gives Washington the most power of any actor to influence the international society. Its actions have weight.

Drowning its own child

Past actions of the United States have shown how it regards the international society and its rules of conduct: they are very good and morally significant and all that, but not when it comes to its own ‘national interests’. In that case they only apply to the Other. This selfish way of thinking is putting the whole system in danger.

If Syria ignores the rules of the international society, it falls outsides that international society and it is punished directly or indirectly. Our norms will not stretch to include the wretched ideas of Assad. He is simply not influential enough for that. However, when the very author of the same order disregards its own universalist claims, that sends a completely different signal. If the pope would marry a man, that would be of far greater impact than when a priest would do the same. The pope could simply excommunicate the priest. But who would excommunicate the pope?

Because of the way it behaves, the United States is doing the same. The norms and rules of the international society require a moral leadership from the main powers in that system that Washington is not able to provide. If it does not change its behaviour, less and less countries will regard it as a legitimate authority for determining what states are allowed and what not. In that case, someone else will take over this role. If not the European Union, this might lead to an international society led by one of the rising powers.

The changes that such a move would bring to the international society would be far more far-reaching than whatever is happening in Syria right now, moving it to a new phase that might or might not be desirable.

This article was inspired by slowly growing anti-American sentiment I notice in myself and by George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian, ‘Obama’s rogue state tramples over every law it demands others uphold’ of 9 September. Apologises for its rantiness, but I believe this is an important point.

25 augustus 2013

Laatste bericht uit China

De theetuinen bij Meijiawu, een dorpje in de heuvels naast het Westelijke Meer.

De theetuinen bij Meijiawu, een dorpje in de heuvels naast het Westelijke Meer.

Na iets meer dan zes weken in Hangzhou is het nu tijd om weer terug te gaan naar Nederland. Met veel moeite heb ik mijn spullen in de koffer weten te proppen en mijn kamer is inmiddels aan kant. Nu rest enkel nog het afscheid vanavond, waarna ik morgen vroeg op de bus naar het vliegveld stap. Dan is het al weer voorbij!

Als je zo’n lange tijd ergens bent geweest en hebt geprobeerd een taal te leren, is het altijd goed je af te vragen wat het je heeft opgeleverd. Want ik heb niet alleen allerlei geweldige ervaringen opgedaan met de mensen hier, maar ik heb ook zes weken lang bij Mandarin Capital de Chinese taal geprobeerd te leren.

Is dat dus een beetje gelukt? Het antwoord op zo’n vraag hangt af van de verwachtingen die je vooraf hebt. In mijn geval had ik niet de ijdele hoop dat ik na afloop vloeiend Mandarijn zou kunnen spreken. Ik wilde hier naartoe om daar een begin mee te maken. Mijn doel was om een beetje te kunnen spreken en wat gevoel te krijgen voor de taal. Dat is gelukt.

Chinees-Koreaans hotpotten ter afscheid van een paar mensen.

Chinees-Koreaans (汉韩) hotpotten ter afscheid van een paar mensen.

Op deze manier heb ik een goede basis om terug in Groningen verder te gaan bij bijvoorbeeld het Confuciusinstituut. Ik heb nu op enigszins ongestructureerde wijze kennis gemaakt met de taal en kan straks gestructureerd verder. Omdat ik al zinnen kan maken en wat kan praten, kan ik nieuwe dingen nadat ik ze leer gelijk gebruiken. Dat is goed voor je motivatie en maakt het leren makkelijker.

Het was dus een goede beslissing om hier te komen. Niet alleen heb ik de basis gelegd voor het verder leren van de Chinese taal, ook weet ik beter wat ik later wil doen: ik wil niet in China wonen.

Wat?! Dat is de uitkomst van zes weken Hangzhou? Ja, hoewel het een geweldig interessant land is, de mensen vriendelijk zijn en het vanuit mijn vakgebied bekeken ook erg interessant is, ben ik er achter gekomen dat ik er niet een groot gedeelte van mijn leven zou willen wonen. Een paar jaar is niet erg, maar ik zou hier geen permanent leven op willen bouwen.

Mijn focus verschoof zich de laatste maanden al naar het Koreaanse schiereiland en de afgelopen weken is dat definitief geworden. De verschrikkingen die naar buiten komen bij de verhoren van het lopende VN-onderzoek naar de mensenrechtenschennissen in Noord-Korea bevestigen voor mij nog eens hoe zeer die zaak de volle aandacht van de wereld verdient. Want daar lijden miljoenen mensen al jaren en het einde is nog niet in zicht. Om daar wat aan te doen is goede kennis van China echter geen overbodige luxe. Zonder China zal er geen oplossing mogelijk zijn.

Dat brengt mij terug naar de belangrijkste reden voor mijn reis naar Hangzhou: ik wilde Chinees leren, omdat ik denk dat het zeer nuttig zal zijn voor mijn toekomstige carrière. Dat argument blijft staan en ik ga eenmaal terug in Groningen dan ook gewoon verder met leren. China zal altijd mijn aandacht houden en ik zou er graag nog vaak terugkomen.

Nog even en dan zit ik al weer in de universiteitsbanken of achter mijn bureau op kantoor. Maar eerst: afscheid nemen, terugreizen en dan kort bijkomen!