Conversation #9



In which CanKor editor Erich Weingartner elicits information from Pak Kim Li about the “re-education camps” that DPRK diplomats are required to attend after extended absences from the home country on overseas assignments. (First published in CanKor Report 311, 7 November 2008.)


Erich Heinz Weingartner: I was afraid I had lost you, Mr. Pak. It’s been four or five months since we last spoke.

Pak Kim Li: Yes, well you know my ambassador was recalled from his New York posting.

EHW: Yes, I read that.

PKL: I was actually quite pleased when he asked me to return as well.

EHW: You didn’t enjoy living in the freedom of New York?

PKL: You must be joking. You think it is fun to be restricted in your movements and under 24-hour surveillance in the land of your worst enemy?

EHW: Well, you don’t exactly enjoy freedom of movement in your own country…

PKL: In my own country it is for my own protection. Besides, I am glad to be back with my family.

EHW: And I see that your ambassador has received a promotion.

PKL: Yes, he has become a Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs. In that capacity he is currently in New York at the United Nations General Assembly.

EHW: And you are once again accompanying him, which is why we are able to communicate. I take it this is a promotion for you as well, isn’t it?

PKL: I am still just a lowly interpreter.

EHW: Somehow that adjective doesn’t ring quite true. But tell me what you have been up to these past months.

PKL: Well, after New York, of course, I spent a month in re-education camp.

EHW: Re-education camp? What were you being punished for?

PKL: (laughs) No punishment, It was a privilege!

EHW: That isn’t what I know about re-education camps in Vietnam or in China.

PKL: Never confuse us with China, Mr. Erich. The Chinese “laojiao” serve a different function. One might call them camps for rehabilitating anti-social elements through labour. But that is different from our system. All officials who have lived overseas for a certain period of time are required to spend a time of concentrated political education to help them readjust to our socialist society. It is a service that is rendered to people like me.

EHW: You mean like attending a special school?

PKL: Better than a school. Do you remember on one of our trips to North Hamgyong Province we once visited the hot springs?

EHW: Indeed! The holiday resort up near Chongjin. How could I forget? You abandoned me in a separate private hot bath while you, the driver and the local officials enjoyed the large pool…

PKL: We thought as a Westerner you might feel more comfortable not being surrounded by naked men.

EHW: At the time you told me it was because the main pool would be too hot for me. But yes, I remember quite clearly. The spa was surrounded by apartment buildings that you explained were occupied by vacationing workers and their families — a reward for those who had distinguished themselves in service to their country. You also told me it was the place favoured by Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk during his exile in the DPRK.

PKL: Yes. Our Great Leader Kim Il Sung even had a special cottage built for the Prince.

EHW: And is that where you went for your re-education?

PKL: Not precisely at that location, but it was a place quite similar to that one.

EHW: “Re-education camp” still sounds ominous to my ears. In Vietnam these were prison camps for defeated South Vietnamese officials — and later for forcibly returned boat people. Hard labour was always part of this so-called “re-education” process.

PKL: Let’s not call it “re-education” then. Call it “re-integration” instead. For DPR Koreans, going overseas is always a bit of a culture shock — as you might appreciate, since you had the experience in reverse. It is easy to be infected by self-serving capitalist values when we are abroad. We lose touch with our people, and our political commitments might begin to soften…

EHW: …as has happened to numerous diplomats who defected to the West.

PKL: Not numerous. Defectors from our embassies are very rare. But yes, some of our morally weak compatriots have allowed themselves to be corrupted and enticed by bribes and false promises. Therefore it is a good thing to be reminded of who we are and what we stand for.

EHW: So you’re telling me that a re-education camp is more like attending study sessions at a holiday resort? No hard labour involved?

PKL: On the contrary. We also worked very hard. During the daytime we helped farmers in the field. Some of us joined factory workers or road-repair teams. How else could we re-connect with the life of our people? It is good for government officials and office staff to work alongside ordinary workers. As you well know, during transplanting and harvest time all office workers spend time in the fields to assist our farmers. That pleasure is denied us when we are overseas.

EHW: And in addition you attended lectures?

PKL: We started each morning with political classes before breakfast. These were not only to catch us up on current national policies, but to reaffirm our understanding of the juche idea and how it relates to our lives. Before dinner we had self-criticism sessions. On weekends we did more study and also had group sessions where we could share what we had learned overseas, we could discuss problems we encountered and propose solutions. And of course we also had relaxation time, using the sauna and hot springs, playing billiards or janggi (Korean chess), and of course singing.

EHW: Karaoke, I presume?

PKL: Not only that. We had some marvellous voices among us. A choir was organized, and three of our ambassadors, each a very good singer, formed a trio. You should have heard them!

EHW: I am intrigued by your reference to self-criticism sessions. That sounds rather embarrassing. Isn’t that a bit like self-flagellation with an audience watching you?

PKL: (Laughing) Yes, maybe in your imagination it might appear like that. You Westerners have an exaggerated sense of privacy.

EHW: Which is why you leave me alone in the hot tub while you have a party in the pool! So what kind of things did you confess? Your impure thoughts while you were away from your family?

PKL: Look, these sessions are very valuable to all of us serving overseas. There are many temptations out there, some trivial and some very serious. It is important for us to understand what they are, and how others have dealt with them or have failed to deal with them. We can check with the others in the group how to avoid inappropriate reactions to what we see and hear. I’m not speaking only about the private realm. For example, for me it was particularly interesting to hear what questions our diplomats were asked overseas, and how they answered those questions. Often we will make an answer that in retrospect gave a false or misleading impression. Such answers can even cause international embarrassment to our country. These sessions gave us an opportunity to discuss better ways to answer those questions.

EHW: I thought you would have a handbook that gave the right answer to every possible question.

PKL: Not just a handbook. In interpretation school I took courses on how to interpret every conceivable answer into the English language. In most cases, the questions journalists ask are very predictable and easily answered. But then there are people like you, Mr. Erich. Your questions often follow twisted paths of reasoning, and because we know each other quite well by now, I am afraid I am not always careful enough in my answers to you.

EHW: You were criticized for how you answered me?

PKL: Yes of course.

EHW: Like what, for instance?

PKL: I came to understand that some questions are better left unanswered.

EHW: For example?

PKL: That one.

EHW: Which one?

PKL: (Laughing) That one too.

EHW: Don’t be funny. Why are you being cryptic?

PKL: Self-criticism sessions are like going to the confessional for you Christians.

EHW: Roman Catholic Christians.

PKL: Whatever. I understand that a priest must vow not to divulge what he has heard.

EHW: I wasn’t asking you to tell me what any of the individuals in your self-criticism session might have confessed. I merely wanted to know which of my questions might have gotten you into trouble.

PKL: I didn’t get into trouble because of your questions. We encourage everyone to ask whatever questions they like.

EHW: Except that you might get into trouble for your answers.

PKL: I achieved a better understanding of the traps that certain questions contain.

EHW: But you already knew that. In fact, you point it out to me repeatedly when I ask certain questions.

PKL: Yes of course. But as you once said to me, someone is always trying to build a better mouse trap. I have a good grasp of the English language, and I may be a good interpreter. But unless you and I share the same political and social culture, I may misunderstand your question, and you may misunderstand my reply. We could both be very sincere and truthful, yet the resulting understanding could be completely false or misleading. If that is the case for sincere friends — as I assume we are — then think how much more damaging the result would be if the questions were deliberately planted by our enemies! Or even if it is you who ask the sincere question, once you publish my sincere answer, it might easily be falsely interpreted by our enemies. There have been a multitude of examples of precisely such questions in the south Korean press since we last spoke. I have come to believe that it is far better not to answer certain questions.

EHW: So you’re still fine with me asking whatever question I wish?

PKL: Absolutely.

EHW: Because I wanted to ask you about Chairman Kim Jong Il’s health.

PKL: Except that one.

EHW: I shouldn’t ask you that question?

PKL: It is better that you don’t.

EHW: Because you would not be authorized to answer it?

PKL: Because I don’t want to have to tell you that I will not answer that one.

EHW: Why not?

PKL: Why won’t I answer?

EHW: Why don’t you want to tell me that you won’t answer?

PKL: I’d prefer not to. Whenever the Western press or south Korean media go into a feeding frenzy over an assumed “fact” that has no substantiation whatsoever, whatever we say is taken as “proof” that their fabrications are true. If we say that our leader is in good health, they say we are lying to cover up his ill health. If we say “no comment”, they say that is tantamount to an admission that he is dying or already dead. If our media report that our leader attends a university soccer game or show our leader visiting troops, they say these photos and videos were taken before he fell ill. Under such circumstances, I would prefer we find other subjects to talk about.

EHW: The health of your leader is a serious concern, would you not agree?

PKL: I can see the headlines now: “Pak Kim Li affirms that North Korean leader’s health is a serious concern.” I do not wish to play this game. Next question.

EHW: Last July a South Korean tourist was shot dead in the Mount Kumgang area by a DPR Korean soldier.

PKL: You’d better ask this question to south Korean authorities: What was the woman doing a kilometre inside a restricted military area at 4:30 in the morning, and responding to warning cries of our soldiers by running away?

EHW: Apparently she wanted to watch the sun rise over the East Sea.

PKL: I have no further information. Next question.

EHW: On the 10th of September a 34-year-old DPRK woman posing as a defector pleaded guilty to espionage charges in Seoul after obtaining secret information from ROK military officers with whom she had sexual relations over the past five years.

PKL: Are you enjoying yourself? This is a totally fabricated case. Next question.

EHW: American security researchers say that the DPRK has quietly built a long-range missile base that is larger and more capable than the older, well-known launch pad for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

PKL: Next question.

EHW: The US Administration has moved forward to take the DPRK off the list of terrorist-sponsoring states. What compromise did the DPRK offer to make this step possible?

PKL: Compromise? There was no compromise on our part. We remained firmly committed to the principle of words for words and actions for actions. It was the US side’s turn to take the next action, but instead they continually raised the bar on the delisting, trying to obtain additional concessions from us without offering anything in return.

EHW: In September you removed IAEA inspectors from the Yongbyon reactor site and began reversing its dismantlement. At the beginning of October, US chief negotiator Christopher Hill visited Pyongyang. A week later, US President George W. Bush approved the list removal. Surely something changed during Hill’s visit.

PKL: Let’s be clear about something: this US Administration has been a house divided since the beginning of our negotiations with them. There are those who want to negotiate in good faith for a positive result, and there are those who do not wish to negotiate and will oppose all results, whatever their merit. When we talk to Chris Hill, substantive agreements are not the main problem. We consistently stick to our side of these agreements. The main problem is always trying to figure out what Hill needs to convince Washington to stick to theirs. He came for our help, and we gave him what he needed to get DC to cooperate. Next question.

EHW: I don’t seem to be having much success today in finding a topic on which you are willing to engage in conversation.

PKL: Your so-called topics are nothing but a repetition of headlines from American newspapers: always cynical, always critical, always negative. I might just as well talk to the US media directly.

EHW: Alright then, what would you like to talk about?

PKL: There are plenty of positive stories that do not get the headlines. Why not ask about the development of our relations with Russia: an agreement to redraw our borders; a railway agreement that has begun to refurbish a 52-kilometer section of track and will build a container terminal at the port of Rajin? Why not ask about the tripartite DPRK-ROK-Russia plan to build a natural gas pipeline from Russia to south Korea via the DPRK? Why not ask about the 11th Pyongyang International Film Festival that took place in September with entries from over 40 countries? Or the 11th Pyongyang International Trade Fair? Or the introduction of the first city-wide mobile phone service network in Pyongyang, to be completed by December? Or the large-scale construction project that will turn our capital into an international city by 2012? Or why haven’t you even asked a single question about the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of our state in September?

EHW: I am sorry Mr. Pak, but we have been unable to talk for such a long time, there certainly seem to be many things to catch up on. I am happy to follow your suggestions. Let’s start with the 60th anniversary celebrations. You might remember I was present when the 50th anniversary was celebrated in 1998. I even had the fortune to see Chairman Kim Jong Il in person at that time. But I understand that this year he was apparently not in attendance.

PKL: Mr. Erich, this conversation is over.

EHW: Wait! Please wait. I am sorry, I couldn’t resist. Let me approach this from another angle.

PKL: I really cannot. There are other urgent matters demanding my attention.

EHW: Will there be another opportunity to talk before you head back home?

PKL: I will try to make time if you try to be more respectful.

EHW: I will try my best not to disappoint you, Mr. Pak. Thank you very kindly for this conversation.

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