Conversation #3

In which Erich Weingartner and Pak Kim Li discuss the 2008 New Year’s Joint Editorial, the DPRK’s annual statement of projected government policies. (First published in CanKor Report #301, 31 January 2008.)

Pak Kim Li (PKL):   I was merely joking, of course.

Erich Heinz Weingartner (EHW):  Joking? You?

PKL:  Yes, I admit it isn’t Korean style of humour, but it is humour that you taught me.

EHW:  I taught you to make jokes when I’m trying to conduct a serious interview?

PKL:  Yes, you know… April fool!

EHW:  This is January.

PKL:  Do you remember our very first field trip together?

EHW:  Clearly. I was still very angry at FDRC [Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee] for reassigning my previous interpreter who had worked closely with me for over a year.

PKL:  And you were unwilling to give me the benefit of a doubt.

EHW:  That’s not the point. I had spent a lot of time training him for a lot more than interpreting — as you were soon to find out. He had become a valuable FALU [Food Aid Liaison Unit] staff member. All my international colleagues in the WFP office suspected that the FDRC brass pulled out your predecessor because his relationship with me was becoming too personal; that his mind was being polluted by my ideas.

PKL:  That’s a lot of nonsense.

EHW:  Is it?

PKL:  Look, everybody at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was eager to work at the WFP. Even the drivers. The pay wasn’t any different, but there sure were plenty of “perks”, as you call them.

EHW:  I know that. Those of you lucky enough to work with us got a chance to travel all over your own country, which is practically impossible for the vast majority of your citizens.

PKL:  We could practice and improve our English proficiency with native English speakers. We could read foreign newspapers and magazines at the office. We could borrow foreign music CDs and even movies to watch at home.

EHW:  And the drivers were practically lusting after our Toyota Land Cruisers.

PKL:  But most of all, working at the UN agencies gave us the practical experience for future overseas assignments.

EHW:  Like you working at the UN Mission in New York.

PKL:  For example. And even within the WFP, the jobs had different value. If you worked with the port captains, you would go to the Nampo Port every day. But this became a pretty boring routine after just a week. Or worse, you could be stuck doing administrative work in the Pyongyang office with no field trips at all. Or you could get an assignment in one of the sub-offices far away from Pyongyang, where you wouldn’t see your family for months at a time. FALU was the best combination of all the good options.

EHW:  [smiling] And here I thought it was because I was such a good teacher and a pleasant boss!

PKL:  That too, of course. [rolling eyes] Bottom line: there was a waiting list of people wanting a plum job in FALU. Anybody working there for over a year must have had very good connections — and became less and less popular with the rest of us the longer they stayed.

EHW:  If that was the case, why didn’t anybody from your side bother to explain this to me? We could have made arrangements for a transition period. Look at it from my point of view: I arrive at the office on a Monday morning, and there was my long-standing colleague introducing you to me as his replacement. As of immediately! Out of the blue. Without prior warning.

PKL:  He told me he had informed you.

EHW:  Really? On Friday night, before leaving the office, he told me that he would introduce me to someone Monday morning and that I would be surprised. Well, it certainly was a surprise! Not a very pleasant one, considering that we were just about to leave on a five-day monitoring trip!

PKL:  Yes, you were hardly civil to me. I didn’t have a very good first impression of you. After a cursory “pleased to meet you” you ordered us both out of your office.

EHW:  I was livid! I called the FDRC and practically shouted at them through the phone.

PKL:  We heard you from the hallway.

EHW:  Of course, as usual, it didn’t get me anywhere. They said I could always cancel the monitoring trip if I felt we needed to discuss this further.

PKL:  And why didn’t you?

EHW:  Are you kidding? We made it a policy never to cancel monitoring trips from our side. Goodness knows there were enough times when your security officials found reasons to cancel them for us. Besides, on this particular trip I was supposed to introduce the new WFP Country Director [CD] to the field! The FDRC knew all this, of course, making it the perfect time for them to make the switch. They assured me that they had taken special care to find a suitable replacement; that you were above average intelligence and experience, one of the most competent interpreters in the entire foreign ministry.

PKL:  [grinning] And were they right?

EHW:  Let’s say you were as good a student as I was a teacher. But why did you bring up our first field trip?

PKL:  That was the time I learned the meaning of “April Fool”.

EHW:  [laughing] I told you then and I’m telling you now. That wasn’t my idea.

PKL:  So you say. But you played along with it for a full day!

EHW:  It was the first of April, after all!

PKL:  Well, my English teachers never taught me the meaning of that day. Now look at it from my point of view: Here I was on a new assignment with a new foreign boss and a foreign high-ranking UN official whom I had never met. I was the lone DPR Korean — other than the driver — going upcountry to places where I had never been, responsible for your safety and responsible for maintaining good relations between Pyongyang headquarters and officials at provincial, county and local levels whom I had also never met, many of whom were frankly not all that thrilled to host you.

EHW:  Yes, because their agreements were with the central Government, not with the WFP, and they never did understand why they should play along with our conditions…

PKL:  And you were still angry at me for reasons that had nothing to do with me.

EHW:  I did apologize afterwards.

PKL:  So in the middle of our trip — I was totally unaware that it was April first and didn’t know the significance of that date in any case — first thing in the morning, the CD has me arrange a telephone call to Pyongyang. That was far more complicated than even I could imagine. The only long distance telephone connection available in the town where we were staying was in the office of the county chair, who was really interested only in getting rid of us as quickly as possible. The connection was very poor and kept breaking off. The county chair kept demanding additional payment every time we re-dialled.

EHW:  I remember. He even demanded that we ship him new telephone wire to run a line from his office to the guest house.

PKL:  When we were finally back on the road, the CD told me very gravely that I would no longer work with FALU after we returned from this trip. He said his secretary in Pyongyang heard from other Korean colleagues that the FDRC had reassigned me to the port captain’s office.

EHW:  [grinning] You should have seen your face!

PKL:  [pouting] It was a very cruel thing to do.

EHW:  It wasn’t my idea!

PKL:  No? Well for the next several hours, you couldn’t stop telling me — with considerable delight — what an interesting job I would have working for the port captain!

EHW:  I was trying to make you feel better about it.

PKL:  Oh sure. And the CD kept telling me that I should confirm this news with the FDRC as soon as we reached our next destination.

EHW:  [laughing] But you didn’t do it, did you?

PKL:  He even said that I should inform the FDRC that he fully supports my request to stay with FALU. If I had followed his and your advice at the time, it could have gotten me fired!

EHW:  Come now. It was just a harmless joke.

PKL:  In my country, juniors don’t play jokes on superiors.

EHW:  But the joke was on you.

PKL:  In either case, I would have looked pretty foolish, wouldn’t I? Not good for a promising career. It wasn’t until the evening dinner that the two of you sang “April fool!” and finally explained the joke to me.

EHW:  And apologized for our cruelty. And I have to admit that you were a great sport about it.

PKL:  What choice did I have? I wasn’t about to create problems on my first assignment with FALU.

EHW:  And you’re still trying to get even with me, as I can see.

PKL:  If you think that, it’s because you still feel guilty about it.

EHW:  Okay, let’s leave the past behind. I have a question about the future. You say you translated the New Year’s joint editorial.

PKL:  Helped to translate. I wasn’t the only one involved. It went through several drafts, as you can imagine. I did more of the correcting and editing, since the published English version was shortened somewhat.

EHW:  “Glorify This Year of the 60th Anniversary of the Founding of the DPRK as a Year of Historical Turn Which Will Go Down in the History of the Country!”

PKL:  A pretty good translation, wouldn’t you say?

EHW:  Since I don’t understand Korean, I can’t really tell. But why does the title have to be so long? I can barely remember the first part of the title by the time I reach the end.

PKL:  For Koreans the 60th year is very auspicious. When you reach the age of 60 — five cycles of 12 — you come full circle in your life.

EHW:  No, but all your titles are long ones. In 2007 it was “Usher in a great heyday of Songun Korea full of confidence in victory!” [CanKor Report #271] In 2006 it was “Make a higher leap full of great ambition and confidence!” [CanKor Report #232] In 2005 it was “The Party, the Army, and the People should unite as one and make the military-first policy be more powerful!” [CanKor Report #191] In 2004 it was “Let’s glorify this year as a year of proud victory through revolutionary offensive on all fronts of building a great prosperous powerful nation under the Party’s leadership!” [CanKor Report #149] In 2003 it was “Let us fully demonstrate the dignity and might of the DPRK under the great banner of Army-Based Policy!” [CanKor Report #113] In 2002 it was “Glorify this year that greets the 90th birthday of President Kim Il Sung as a year of a new surge in the building of a powerful nation!” [CanKor Report #69] In 2001 it was “Let us open up the road of advancement toward a new century in the spirit of the victorious march under trials!” [CanKor Report #23]

PKL:  Okay, I know what you are driving at. Your idea about titles is obviously not the same as ours. In a competitive news market that exists under capitalism, every newspaper and magazine tries to attract customers by short, sensational titles that pique the reader’s curiosity. The title doesn’t really give away the whole story, just a tantalizing taste of it, like the worm on a fishhook. Then if you want to bite into it, if you want to know what the story is all about, you first have to pay money.

EHW:  Except if the news source is CanKor!

PKL:  And then you’re “hooked”, as you say. Most of the time, you still don’t really get the whole story; only the story that the sponsors of the media want you to believe. The title of a New Year’s Joint Editorial actually tells the main purpose of the whole story. It is a slogan for people to remember. Everyone is encouraged not only to read the joint editorial, but to study it in detail.

EHW:  I know that. You study it in your weekly political sessions…

PKL:  Not only that. We study it in work groups in factories and farms; we study it in our educational institutions; we organize rallies where the contents is presented and explained; in the cities we even fill stadiums for the study of the joint editorial. The title serves as a slogan, a “motto” if you will, to encourage you throughout the year, to fill you with confidence in our leadership, pride in our country and hope in our future.

EHW:  So what is this “historical turn which will go down in the history of the country?”

PKL:  In our culture, the 60th birthday is a kind of rebirth. You know about the Korean horoscope, the 12 animals by which the years are counted.

EHW:  The Chinese horoscope. Yes. This coming year it’s the Year of the Rat.

PKL:  Not Chinese. Korean.

EHW:  Okay, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Buddhist…

PKL:  Having gone through five cycles of 12 years each, a person is said to have come full circle. You have lived a lifetime of actualizing yourself, and now you enter a new lifetime full of potential.

EHW:  I like that. A very positive way to regard the elderly.

PKL:  You know that Koreans have great respect for our elders and their wealth of experience and wisdom. Unlike Western capitalists, who consider old people as unproductive burdens on society.

EHW:  There is something that really bothers me about all the editorials I have read. On the one hand, this editorial has positive things to say about the inter-Korean summit of last October, and looks forward to peace on the Peninsula. It even goes so far as saying, “The idea of confrontation regarding the fellow countrymen as the archenemy should be discarded, the military tension be eased, and the elements of dispute be removed.”

PKL:  Absolutely! This is one of the main elements of what the editorial calls “historical turn”. We no longer consider south Korea as our archenemy. But unfortunately, the south Korean military still designate us as their number one enemy. We sincerely hope they will change that during this historic year.

EHW:  But why, on the other hand, does the New Year’s joint editorial continue to promote the “Songun” or “military first” policy? That seems rather contradictory.

PKL:  Not at all. We are not threatened only by south Korea. Our main enemy is the USA, which still has military bases in south Korea and Japan, not to speak of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, long-range bombers and missiles.

EHW:  But in a year of “historical turn”, a year in which there might finally be a peace agreement to end the Korean War, a year in which the DPRK is supposed to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme, what kind of signal are you giving to the world with words like this? “Building up the national defence capacity is anationwide, all-people undertaking. Priority should be given to the development of the defence industry as required by the line of developing the economy in the Songun era in order to consolidate the material foundations of the self-defensive military capacity.”

PKL:  In the first place, the New Year’s Joint Editorial is written for our own people, not as a way to give a “signal” to the international community. In the second place, as the editorial says, “Strong defence capabilities are symbolic of the independent dignity of Songun Korea and a basic guarantee for its prosperity.” Our nuclear programme, as you well know, has always only been intended as a defensive strategy. It is what prevented the USA from invading us as it did Iraq. Once we have a peace agreement with the USA, we will no longer need the nuclear capacity. But that doesn’t mean we no longer need a defensive capacity. The USA is not about to dismantle its military capability in this region. And we have no idea who will be the next president of the USA and what his or her policies will be towards us. We have been deceived too many times before — in fact very radically deceived when they last changed presidents! Mr. Erich, the sad truth is, if we don’t have nukes, we will need an even stronger conventional military capacity.

EHW:  I know what you are saying, but still find it rather sad and disappointing. Wouldn’t this time of “historical turn” have been a good year to drop the “military first” policy in exchange for a “people first” policy?

PKL:  If you would read carefully, you would find that these two are not in contradiction. The Songun policy is meant to guarantee the life of the people. Look at this paragraph: “The people’s-living-first policy should be pursued. This policy reflects our Party’s firm determination and will to make our people, who have pushed their way through trying ordeal and hardship, lead an affluent and cultured life to their hearts’ content and give fullest play to the advantages of the people-centred socialism of our style. We should make this year, which marks the 60th anniversary of the DPRK, a worthwhile and delightful year which sees a substantial change in improving the people’s standard of living.” This is followed up with concrete economic modernization measures in consumer-oriented industry, and a people-oriented public health system. It even talks about “effecting a radical change in education,” and “the principle of making people enjoy substantial benefit while ensuring the greatest possible profitability and the principle of developing external economic relations.” Isn’t that what you outsiders always demand of us? Market reforms and “opening up” to the outside world?

EHW:  Agreed that there are some hopeful signals in this latest editorial, but there is also the ominous reference to central control. “It is necessary to establish the strict order and discipline of concentrating all economic work on the Cabinet and organizing and carrying them out under its unified command.” That’s not exactly what most of us consider a market orientation.

PKL:  Would you not agree that it is necessary, especially in an era of rapid change, to conduct the management of economic affairs in a responsible manner? Do you think we want to repeat the chaos and violence that ensued after the break-up of the Soviet Union? We don’t want to “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” as you like to say. We want to preserve the specific features of our economic structures that were built for the common good of our people. We are a socialist country, after all.

EHW:  Yes, a country that still finds it necessary to include in the editorial the slogan, “Defend the leadership of the revolution headed by the great Comrade Kim Jong Il at the cost of our lives!”

PKL:  And what’s your problem with that slogan? Don’t the British fight “for King and country”? Don’t Canadians still sing “God save the queen?”

EHW:  Well, no, we don’t actually. We may preserve some of the trappings of the monarchy, but in a democracy, the leaders are merely what one might call “first among equals”. We don’t ask our young people to die for the prime minister and his cabinet.

PKL:  That’s because you can no longer think in any but individualistic terms. For us, the leader is not an individual. The leader is the country. We have every right to ask our young people to defend our country, our system, our revolution at the cost of their lives. To my mind, that is far nobler than your leaders asking Canadian young people to offer their lives to defend criminal warlords and their poppy fields in Afghanistan.

EHW:  Now you’re being unfair. But I’m not going to take the bait. There is another very interesting sentence I want to ask you about. When the editorial says, “All the Koreans should launch a vigorous anti-war, peace campaign to foil the war moves of the hawks at home and abroad,” is it implying that there are hawks in the DPRK that need to be foiled?

PKL:  Of course not. This sentence is in a section dealing with inter-Korean rapprochement. In this case, “home” refers to our common Korean home. The only real warmongers are in the south.

EHW:  You have no hawks in your military?

PKL:  Mr. Erich, this time I am not going to take your bait. Look, the New Year’s Joint Editorial is published by Party, Military and Youth newspapers. It means it has three distinct audiences. So of course, some of it will deal with military matters, and will specifically encourage the military to make sacrifices. But it has other parts as well, which you seem to gloss over.

EHW:  And I suppose this sentence is directed at the youth of your country: “It is imperative to resolutely smash the enemy’s reactionary ideological and cultural infiltration and psychological warfare and not to tolerate any elements that undermine our system and corrode our socialist morality and culture and our way of life.”

PKL:  Not only the youth, although yes, also the youth, who, as you are well aware, are often more vulnerable to psychological and cultural temptations. But let me, as a final effort, point out to you that this year’s editorial is quite unique in the powerful way it advocates peace and prosperity. Here are two sentences for you to meditate on until we speak the next time. Please weigh each sentence very carefully, word for word. These sentences represent what I firmly believe, and what I hope my son will take to heart. First, “We should direct primary effort to bringing into fullest play the mental power of all the soldiers and people, which is more powerful than nuclear weapons.” And finally, “Under the banner of independence, peace and friendship, the DPRK will continue to make earnest efforts for stability on the Korean Peninsula and peace in the world and further develop relations of friendship and cooperation with all the countries that are friendly toward it.”

EHW:  Mr. Pak, I thank you for this conversation.

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