Bryan Caplan  

Who Cares About Park Yeon-mi

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At the 2015 Students for Liberty conference, my sons and I were privileged to hear North Korean defector Park Yeon-mi share her story of self-liberation from totalitarian oppression.  But her talk got me thinking. 

On the surface, there is nothing uniquely libertarian about her journey or her views.  Virtually every mainstream thinker, regardless of ideological standpoint, would agree that the North Korean regime is diabolically evil, and cheer Park's successful jailbreak.  But libertarians are still exceptionally interested in her story - and eager to embrace her as a heroine.  It's very hard to picture her receiving a major speaking offer at a liberal or moderate convention.  And it's not even clear that many conservatives would be interested, either.

I could be wrong, of course.  For all I know, Park's in multi-partisan, pan-ideological demand.  But assuming I'm right, what gives?  If almost everyone agrees that North Korea's government is horrible, why are libertarians so much more likely to take stories like Park's to heart?

P.S. My answer would start here.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
david writes:

It is not the North Korean regime but the disposition of the South Korean government, and US forces stationed there, that matters to US domestic political actors. Libertarians by and large don't have strong opinions on the appropriate diplomatic direction to take - sanctions? sunshine? silence? The libertarian penumbra has surprisingly little emotive disagreement over foreign policy toward hostile regimes.

For liberals or conservatives of most factions, there is a problem that the DPRK defector may not precisely agree with their pet attitudes on HR1771 and so forth, or may refuse to denounce fellow DPRK defectors that disagree. So they cannot easily uphold the status of these defectors.

Compare Aung San Suu Kyi pre-Rohingya riots.

Ilya Somin writes:

There is a much simpler explanation. Libertarians hate communism much more than most liberals and moderates do. Thus, they have a much stronger visceral affinity for the victims of communism, and heroes of the struggle against it. Hostility towards communism is probably a more important aspect of libertarian ideology than even conservative ideology, though it would not surprise me if Park gets invitations from some conservative groups, as well.

In addition, many liberals are anti-anti-communists. They don't support communism or believe it is good. But they are wary of what they see as excessive displays of hostility to it, which they view as likely to tar the left more generally, unless very carefully circumscribed. Thus uncomfortable with honoring and recognizing the victims of communism, with the exception of some who are themselves explicitly left-wing (Vaclav Havel being a good example).

Sean Mack writes:

It's even simpler than Ilya's simpler explanation:

Victims of communism are not politically useful to left-wing statists. They present no opportunity to score points against the usual suspects: corporations, profits, WASPs, individualism, etc., plus no interest group on that side of the spectrum is strongly disposed to identify with those victims.

In that respect it's a lot like Ferguson. You couldn't have built a movement like that around black civilian kills black civilian, because wrong villain. Nor could you have built it around white cop kills white civilian, because no built-in constituency.

The left looks above the 38th parallel and sees no capitalism to blame, and nothing that directly involves the interests of its various constituencies (plus maybe, if they look long enough, they spot an uncomfortable analogy or two).

So for them being opposed to North Korean atrocities becomes something like what being against racism is to Republicans: "Okay, guys…you know the drill. There's nothing in this for us, and we're not terribly good at saying it, but we're required to be on record against the damn thing, so make sure to mention it and then quickly move on."

Daniel Kuehn writes:

re: "I could be wrong, of course. For all I know, Park's in multi-partisan, pan-ideological demand."

I think you are. She's been on lots of major networks which is as good an indicator of multi-partisan demand as anything.

I find these other theories very contrived. It's interesting to see what other people consider to be obvious.

As for conferences I think libertarian conferences are unusually broadly themed. I imagine this has to do with the lack of real political power (so they can do more blue-sky thinking). A self-described liberal conference is going to focus more on practical and probably domestic issues. This is not going to be universally true. There's leftish international human rights conferences all the time. I don't know if Park herself has made it to any of those, but they're constantly featuring similar cases of defectors from totalitarian regimes.

Kevin McGartland writes:

Seems to me that it's a matter of whom the rhetoric poses as the "enemy" and as the "savior"-- private v. public actors.

Liberals want speakers who expose private actions as bad and public actions as corrective. Libertarians want someone to tell us about the wrongdoings of government and how (private) individuals can correct it.

Jan writes:

Most non-libertarians think of the Kims as evil, but the same sort of evil as Ariel Castro -- imbalanced, psychotic, cruel -- and way out of the ordinary. They see Park as a great story, but there are lots of great stories.

Libertarians, by contrast, think of the Kims as the extreme manifestation of the evils that all government expresses. They see Park as the symbol of the same repression we all experience, although certainly in far more extreme form.

Kevin writes:

I think it might go toward Arnold Kling's three languages approach. Park tells a extreme, personal story that fits the mold of freedom versus tyranny perfectly. This is a story that, of all groups, libertarians are most keen to hear.

A Park-equivalent telling a story about oppressed versus oppressor or a civilization versus barbarians would be more likely invited to progressive and conservative talks, respectively.

Andrew_FL writes:

Generally, I don't think people take conservatives seriously when they talk about the horrors of Communism as if everyone didn't agree Communism was horrible. Generally, I think "Liberals" don't like to think about how Communism is horrible.

It's not that Conservatives would be averse to her message. I think sadly most of us recognize that such a message is, for most people, irrelevant to contemporary political discussion.

Zach writes:

Jan is correct, and I'm surprised that this explanation isn't obvious. "North Korean public policy is destructive and cruel" is just a banal statement.

Park's story occupies the same genre as the stories of individuals who've escaped human trafficking rings; interesting and inspiring perhaps, but not illuminating of any actually existing political debates.

Josiah writes:

It's very hard to picture her receiving a major speaking offer at a liberal or moderate convention.

Why is this very hard to picture?

Ricardo Cruz writes:

Josiah, It's very hard to picture her receiving a major speaking offer at a liberal or moderate convention.

The convention you refer does not look politically affiliated in the least.

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