Last week, a bright and bland advert for North Korea found its way onto the pages of the University of Sydney’s student newspaper Honi Soit. Written by PhD candidate and former tutor Jay Tharapell, it chronicles a nine-day, not-at-all-stage-managed visit to the hermit kingdom in strikingly positive terms. The trip was arranged through the “DPRK Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries”, a private company managed by Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez, founder and president of North Korean soft power centre Korean Friendship Association.
However, Tharappel reports that, rather than being shown “the very best of the country”, his party was shown “a lot more of daily life, from humble farming households, to department stores, to the educational facilities on offer to Korean children. The repression is swept over as an unfortunate necessity for any country fighting imperialism:
A country that endeavors to credibly stand up to the United States must necessarily be authoritarian for the simple reason that they are a nation at war, and cannot be one where the population are timid, beaten, and demoralised …
He concludes that he saw a “highly organised, egalitarian and energised society, with good reason to believe that they’re now reaping the fruits of past sacrifices”.
Inevitably, there was a backlash. Heir to Sam Dastyari’s “woke but amusing” throne, Tim Watts, tweeted “Everyone associated with this article ought to be ashamed” and the Australian Union of Jewish Students are reportedly considering making a formal complaint.
Tharappel is unrepentant, saying criticism of his piece is “repeating exactly what the US corporate media says about the DPRK”. And it’s true, US corporate shills like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are always banging on about the torture, repression and starvation imposed on the people of North Korea.
This isn’t Tharappel’s first brush with controversy. He was similarly unapologetic when he called Kylar Loussikian (then at News Corp) “the traitorous scum who desperately wants a second Armenian genocide. How much did they pay you traitor? I guess stabbing SYRIA in the back with that surname is the best of telling the world you’re for sale, right?” Loussikian is of Armenian descent, in case that genocide reference seemed weird or something.
“If people like [Loussikian] wage war on our post-colonial homeland then I will wage war against them,” Tharapell said at the time. Tharrapel’s initial outburst was in defence of his friend, famous Bashar al-Assad fan Tim Anderson, with whom he traveled to North Korea.
Tharappel graced Honi Soit‘s pages again yesterday, responding to questions about the badge he wore (very recently) with a Yemeni Houthi (Ansar Allah) slogan, which — translated from Arabic — reads: “God is the greatest, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam”.
“I wore the badge for its symbolic meaning, not its literal meaning,” he told them. Anderson, for his part, defended Tharappel, saying he is a “great friend of Syria” being attacked by “Zionists”.
Honi Soit‘s editors told Crikey they stand by the decision to publish both Tharappel and the piece more specifically: “The newspaper regularly publishes work by post-graduate students, and even by students who are not at USyd”. When asked if they knew about Tharappel’s history, and whether that affected their decision to publish his work, they said:
“Our team considers a number of criteria before approving a pitch. These include whether an article is relevant to USyd students and young people, whether it adds something to the discourse it belongs to and whether it is original. No pitch must satisfy every criterion, and each editor may have different reasons for approving a pitch. The majority of editors felt that Tharappel’s piece met some of our criteria. This does not reflect whether perspectives conform to the political opinions of editors.”