Conversation #7

In which Erich Weingartner challenges Pak Kim Li about the apparent contradiction between the DPRK’s request for technical and development assistance and the Juche ideology of self-reliance. (First published in CanKor Report 307-308, 12 May 2008.)

Erich Heinz Weingartner: So you welcome the transfer of knowledge from foreign partners to your country?

Pak Kim Li: Yes, we put great value on such cooperation.

EHW: Like language instruction?

PKL: Yes. And other topics as well.

EHW: What about technical assistance?

PKL: Of course.

EHW: Training?

PKL: Yes.

EHW: Workshops? Conferences? Study tours?

PKL: Yes, yes and yes.

EHW: Capacity building?

PKL: Mr. Erich, these are interchangeable terms. What are you trying to get at?

EHW: I was under the impression that the DPRK does not welcome capacity building.

PKL: No you weren’t. You know us better than that.

EHW: Okay, other people have that impression.

PKL: This is one of the most annoying things about the way we are perceived by you Westerners. Whatever you don’t like to see or do, you project onto others. It isn’t we who have a problem with capacity building. It is the Western aid and development agencies that don’t wish to help us. By turning the tables, they have an excuse not to help.

EHW: It isn’t that they don’t want to help. But there are too many obstacles to that help.

PKL: Yes, and most of them don’t have anything to do with us. There are US sanctions; there are UN sanctions orchestrated by the USA…

EHW: Look, the competition for assistance is fierce and getting more so each year. If you don’t provide the appropriate access and working conditions…

PKL: You mean like Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe and maybe Myanmar?

EHW: Well, they’re not getting all that much assistance either; are they?

PKL: And yet aid agencies are frothing at the mouth for the chance to…

EHW: I wasn’t talking about emergency assistance. That is really a different topic. What I want to know is the extent to which the DPRK is willing to engage in knowledge sharing.

PKL: Sharing or imparting?

EHW: As you know, some of us prefer the term “sharing”, because it implies reciprocity. You’re big on reciprocity aren’t you?

PKL: Yes we are. But again, we did not come up with the word “sharing”. You did. And you did so specifically to entice reluctant development donors to become engaged. You told me yourself that the Canadian International Development Agency will not agree to put money into capacity building until the nuclear issue is resolved.

EHW: If that was our strategy, it didn’t work, did it? The word “sharing” hasn’t been any more successful in attracting funding than any of the other terms. No, you are wrong. The reason we proposed “sharing” is to underline that education is a two-way process. We are trying to be fair to both sides. If you wish, we are trying to educate both sides.

PKL: And who, may I ask, is the teacher?

EHW: Wait, let me rephrase that. Some of us are trying to encourage a dialogue about these issues in order to facilitate a fair sharing of information towards a developmental path that will benefit the people of the DPRK.

PKL: Better. I can’t personally disagree with such an approach. As I said before, we are ready to have such a dialogue.

EHW: Which brings me back to the question I was trying to ask at the beginning of this conversation: In asking for technical assistance, don’t you find yourself in an ideological contradiction?

PKL: How so?

EHW: You believe in self-reliance. “By our own hands!” I can’t count how often I have heard that expression from DPRK colleagues. Isn’t that what your “juche” ideology is all about?

PKL: Take it from a professional interpreter: “self-reliance” is a very poor translation of “Juche”!

EHW: Okay, I know that the juche ideology is a hybrid of communism and Korean nationalism.

PKL: Ouch! No, that is an even worse translation!

EHW: I was being kind. There are people who call it a downright racist ideology.

PKL: These people are obviously afflicted with racism themselves. Just because you are proud of your national heritage doesn’t mean you are nationalist or racist like the Nazis were. There isn’t really an English word that truly captures the rich meaning of Juche.

EHW: I understand that. Let me read you how Bruce Cumings defines it in his book “Korea�s Place in the Sun” [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997]: “The term is really untranslatable; the closer one gets to its meaning, the more the meaning slips away. For a foreigner its meaning recedes into a pool of everything that makes Koreans Korean, and therefore it is ultimately inaccessible to the non-Korean. Chuch�e [sic] is the opaque core of North Korean national solipsism.”

PKL: Ouch again! “Solipsism?” What does that even mean?

EHW: It’s the philosophical idea that the self is the only thing that exists, that reality is ultimately subjective.

PKL: I know the dictionary definition. I just don’t understand how Cumings can apply it to the Juche idea.

EHW: “Man is the master of all things.” Isn’t that the central core of the juche idea?

PKL: Yes, that is certainly a major philosophical tenet of Juche. But that’s not the same as subjectivism. Juche is something that gives us an identity; tells us that we are different from other people. You might translate it as the essence of what it means to be Korean.

EHW: Like Popeye.

PKL: What?

EHW: Popeye. The cartoon character. You know, the one that sings “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”

PKL: Are you making fun of Juche?

EHW: Not at all. I’m trying to understand the meaning. If not self-reliance, then what is it?

PKL: Our Great Leader Kim Il Sung described the essence of Juche as the notion that Korea should not become “a plaything of great powers.” We had won our liberation from Japanese oppression, but found that Joseph Stalin tried to exert Soviet influence on our country. American influence in the southern part led to the formalizing of the division of our country. After Mao Zedong helped us to repel the US invasion during the Great Patriotic War, China tried to exert influence over us. The Juche idea opposes all forms of domination by foreign powers.

EHW: That still could fit the definition of “self-reliance”.

PKL: The Juche idea is the opposite of south Korea’s ideology, which has made them economically, politically and militarily dependent on one foreign power. — Not so different from Canada, wouldn’t you say? If you call us solipsistic, we’ll call you sycophants.

EHW: It wasn’t me who used the term. And Bruce is American.

PKL: Well then, you should tell him that Juche is in reality our “Declaration of Independence.”

EHW: All of which is very educational, but doesn’t explain how you reconcile Juche with the notion of technical assistance and capacity training.

PKL: Our Great Leader said that any individual who thinks he does not need his comrades is a fool. That would be a mistaken understanding of self-reliance. We should gratefully accept all help that is offered in friendship and mutual respect. On the other hand, we must guard with great diligence — if necessary with our very lives — against any scheme to undermine our independence or the security of our country, system and way of life.

EHW: Which explains why there are so many restrictions on the activities of foreign aid agencies.

PKL: Some of us are more diligent in attracting foreign assistance; others are more diligent in defending our country against the dangerous side-effects of foreign assistance.

EHW: A case of deciding which is worse: the disease or the cure.

PKL: Something like that.

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

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