Why Do Celebrities Ignore North Korea?

I admit, this could be a blessing in disguise, but the question remains.

Is North Korea just not sexy enough? Do stars not want to be affiliated with propping up the Kim Jong Il regime? (I could foresee the North Korean propaganda that would result from Bono holding a charity concert in NYC or Pyongyang for that matter. Of course, the Dear Leader himself is known to be an admirer of many things coming from Hollywood.) Or does the lack of transparency just make it not worth the effort? And if that’s the case, what’s not stopping celebrities from donating their statuses to the victims of other corrupt governments?

When I was growing up, we were told as kids to eat all the food on our plates because children were starving in Ethiopia (this was in the 1980s). These days, parents might as well tell their sons and daughters to eat all their veggies as there are kids dying of hunger in North Korea. Unfortunately, there are kids dying of starvation in many countries and as a result, emphasis or awareness on North Korea’s humanitarian disaster loses out to other nations also struggling with malnourishment.

But this goes back to my original question: What dictates, in the world of stardom, why one country receives attention and another does not?

While I feel not all celebrities pick up causes for sincere reasons, I must admit that if any good comes out of their efforts, it’s an increase in public awareness. And no matter how shallow some (not all) of these celebrities’ pleas may seem, there are fans out there who are listening.

As for North Korea’s status, the facts are out there for everyone to see. According to the World Food Programme:

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) continues to suffer widespread food shortages due to economic problems, limited arable land, lack of agricultural machinery and energy shortages.

[…]

WFP/FAO assessments confirmed a significant deterioration in food security in 2008. Close to three quarters of respondents had reduced their food intake, over half were reportedly eating only two meals per day (down from three) and dietary diversity was extremely poor among two thirds of the surveyed population. Most North Koreans sustain themselves by consuming only maize, vegetables and wild foods, a diet lacking protein, fats and micronutrients. Food is scarcest during the “lean season”, the five-month period prior to the autumn rice and maize harvests when stocks of the previous year’s crops rapidly run dry.

The impact of food shortages has been unevenly divided amongst the population, with urban households in areas of low industrial activity (particularly the Northeast) being the most affected. These groups have been hard hit by higher food prices, reductions in public food rations as well as lowered employment and salaries caused by industrial recession. Vulnerable groups including young children, pregnant and lactating women and elderly people remain particularly vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition due to their particular dietary needs.

You would think that with the political games North Korea has been playing lately, Western celebs would be crawling all over themselves to use this opportunity (much as they did with the politics involving Sudan) to voice concern for the people of the DPRK. I know Sudan is no North Korea and vice versa, but it is interesting that as a nation that makes headlines for all the wrong reasons, North Korea’s people aren’t feeling much love from Western stars. (South Korean celebs, surprisingly – or not – have put their weight behind the issue.)

Joshua Stanton of the must-read blog One Free Korea had some speculative thoughts to share with me about the topic. “Maybe many in Hollywood sense that the famine is caused by Kim Jong Il’s policies, but because Kim is anti-American, they choose not to draw attention to that,” he told me.

As to whether or not Stanton feels one of the reasons Hollywood ignores North Korea is due to celebrities’ doubt that any aid raised through their efforts would reach the needy, thus, why waste the time and effort, he replied that fear of aid diversion probably isn’t the only reason for Hollywood’s lack of interest in the DPRK. In his opinion, aid diversion has never been an issue in the past in terms of determining which causes celebrities choose to champion or ignore.

“During the 1980’s Live Aid fad, celebrities raised money for food that was channeled through the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Maryam who proceeded to steal most of the food and give it to the army that was oppressing and relocating the starving people of Eritrea and Tigre provinces,” he said. “Certainly the Ethiopian regime’s diversion of aid and complicity in causing the famine by moving people off their land were known well enough. Bob Geldof and Hollywood were too superficial and blind to care, but would you have heard the name ‘Bob Geldof’ otherwise?”

(Excellent point!)

Stanton also added that while some celebrities are using such causes to advance their careers, many of them, in his opinion, are doing good work – how Hollywood has raised awareness regarding the crisis in Darfur being one good example.

As for North Korea, obviously the question about Hollywood’s lack of interest is not easy to answer. In his continued speculation regarding the topic, Stanton offered another observation:

“Anti-American causes — and in particular, chic anti-American dictators — seem to arouse Hollywood’s sympathy, even its libido. To many in Hollywood, nobody who hates America can be all bad.  Why else would killers like Che, Mao, and Fidel have icon status?  Why else would Naomi Campbell and Sean Penn cozy up to a thug like Hugo Chavez?  To me, Chavez is no worse a thug than many others in the world — he’s no Kim Jong Il — but he is more vocally anti-American, so celebrities flock to him.  I don’t doubt that Kim Jong Il’s face would be printed on messenger bags and coffee mugs if he’d been born handsome.  Certainly the prevailing view in Hollywood isn’t enamored with the idea of a free, open, and liberal society (not for Cubans, Venezuelans, or Chinese, anyway).  Anti-Americanism has a way of innoculating even the most ugly and indefensible killers from Hollywood’s criticism.”

(Yet another good point!)

As for me, I’m going to sit in the camp that claims the DPRK just isn’t sexy enough for Hollywood attention right now. Tinsel Town is probably having too much fun (and making too much money off of) ridiculing Kim Jong Il anyway. (And I admit, I laugh often at the charictures of KJI myself.) I’m not saying stars should stop championing the causes of other needs throughout the world and focus on the DPRK. All I’m really trying to do is make the curious observation that despite the headlines North Korea is making, and the obvious realization that the people in the DPRK are struggling, Hollywood has yet to pick up on this cause in any strongly visible way.

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