Which begins with a North Korean take on the election of US President-elect Barak Obama, then morphs into a discussion of the relative merits of Western and DPRK styles of democracy. (First published in CanKor Report 312, 21 November 2008.)
Erich Heinz Weingartner: Mr. Pak, did you stay up to watch the US election results Tuesday night?
Pak Kim Li: No, I did not.
EHW: Not interested?
PKL: Unlike our sycophant compatriots in south Korea, we don’t exactly hold our breath every time there is an election in the USA. I was busy preparing for our participation in an event organized by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York, not to speak of our dinner meeting with Chris Hill.
EHW: The chief US negotiator in the Six-Party Talks. But surely you agree that this election was of particular historical significance.
PKL: Perhaps for Americans. Not so for us.
EHW: Barak Obama promises real change. He favours negotiation. He has even stated that he would be ready to hold direct talks, including possibly a face-to-face meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Il.
PKL: Of course. We do keep track of events. And we have stated very clearly that any improvement in relations between our countries will be welcomed by us, no matter who wins the elections.
EHW: But surely you were hoping for an Obama win!
PKL: Have you read any statement from our side that would give you that impression? We have 60 years of experience with the USA. That represents 15 US elections. All US administrations have had a hostile attitude toward us. Surely only naive Obama groupies would believe that this will suddenly change.
PKL: A word you taught me. Am I using it incorrectly?
EHW: No comment.
PKL: We have a saying that words can lie, but actions will tell the truth. As our colleague Ri Gun [Director General of the DPRK’s American Affairs Bureau] clearly stated, we have dealt with US administrations that sought dialogue with us and administrations that attempted to isolate us. We are ready to deal with whatever policy the incoming administration implements.
EHW: And you personally? Do you really believe the election results make no difference whatever?
PKL: I have a wonderful job. I get to travel frequently; I meet many people; I overhear public and not-so-public conversations. Yet I have no responsibility for making judgements or decisions of my own. I simply interpret those of others.
EHW: You may be underestimating the power of the interpreter, Mr. Pak.
PKL: If you ask me for my reaction to specific people, I tend to regard their sincerity and integrity as more important than their beliefs. I have not met Mr. Obama, so I really have no opinion. Nor have I met Mr. Biden…
EHW: The Vice-President-elect. I’m surprised you have not met Senator Biden. He has been very active on the Korea file over the past ten years, especially as chief Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
PKL: Yes, but I did have occasion to meet Mr. Biden’s chief aide when he came to Pyongyang with a group of Americans that included Jack Pritchard and Dr. Sigfried Hecker in 2004.
EHW: Really? That was the famous visit that so irritated the Bush Administration. Professor emeritus John Lewis of Stanford University organized the trip. Pritchard of course was the disgruntled former US special envoy to the DPRK. And Dr. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was the first American nuclear scientist to be allowed to examine samples of the plutonium extracted at the Yongbyon reactor. Who was the aide you met?
PKL: A young man among all these elderly gentlemen. Like you, he had an unpronounceable family name, so I just called him Mr. Frank.
EHW: Frank Jannuzi!
PKL: Yes, that was him.
EHW: I know Frank. Like you, he is a very bright young man…
PKL: …with a rather sarcastic sense of humour.
EHW: Clearly we are talking about the same fellow. And did you know that Frank was Mr. Obama’s Korea policy advisor during the election campaign?
PKL: Yes, of course.
EHW: Which means he will likely hold a prominent Korea-related post in the White House. What did you think of him?
PKL: As a person we got along fine. Like his name, he tended to be quite “frank”, but I appreciated that. He was open about his opinions, which made it easy to understand his concerns, even though we could not agree on many points.
EHW: And doesn’t this inspire some confidence that with such people surrounding Obama, his presidency may open a new chapter in relations between your two countries?
PKL: Mr. Erich, I don’t know whether you are being naive or you are on a fishing expedition. Or maybe you just can’t step outside your individualist mindset. With his acceptance speech on the night of the 4th of November, Barack Obama ceased to exist as an individual. Now he is the leader of a superpower with a mind of its own, a machine whose very existence depends on domination of the whole world.
EHW: That’s a rather pessimistic view, Mr. Pak. What I read of the world’s reaction is that with Obama’s leadership, perhaps the USA will improve its relationship with other countries and regain its image as a genuine democracy, a role model for others to emulate.
PKL: You surprise me, Mr. Erich. On numerous occasions you have yourself questioned the democratic nature of the US system of government, where a candidate can become president even when the popular vote is dramatically below that of his opponent.
EHW: But in the case of Barack Obama, he did win the popular vote.
PKL: All bourgeois democracies are sham democracies.
EHW: Ouch! I think I read that in a Korean Central News Agency article.
PKL: Don’t mock me. You cannot deny the fact that it takes massive amounts of money to compete in — let alone win — an election in your so-called Western democracies. A handful of privileged billionaires exploit a political system designed by them to dominate the absolute majority of the population. The same group of people declare war against any nation that dares to resist their style of “freedom and democracy”, pretending it is the perfect model to be followed by the international community. And whenever the warmongers bring the world economy to the brink of collapse, these so-called “democratic” governments take hundreds of billions of the people’s hard-earned dollars to “bail out” the very criminals whose corrupt practices caused the financial crisis in the first place. This is nothing less than an insult to genuine freedom and democracy.
EHW: I think you are missing the whole beauty of the Obama victory. Here is a person who came from far behind, and with the support of millions of ordinary people managed to capture the imagination of the majority of voters with his call for change in Washington. He was able to defeat those you call “privileged billionaires” with the private donations of people who believe in him — even poor people who nevertheless gave of their hard-earned money, even if it was only five or ten dollars. That is what I call democracy in action: the ability of the electorate to defeat those who are currently in power.
PKL: Again I am surprised by your naïveté. Did you not notice that Senator Obama supported the 700 billion dollar bailout just prior to the elections? Did he not already in his acceptance speech dampen enthusiasm for change even by the end of his first term in office? How many of the appointees in his transition team really represent the popular masses that he pretends to champion? And even if he personally thinks he can create genuine change, do you really believe one man can battle the capitalist and imperialist juggernaut in Washington?
EHW: The Choson Sinbo [a pro-DPRK newspaper published in Japan], reporting from Pyongyang wrote that “the situation surrounding the Korean peninsula is about to enter a new phase,” because of the election of Barack Obama. Aren’t your views a little out of alignment with your government?
PKL: Not at all. I am willing to give Mr. Obama the benefit of my doubt. All I am saying is that words are not the same as actions.
EHW: Some people might find it a bit disingenuous of you to champion the cause of democracy, considering that your country is reputed to be the most anti-democratic — indeed autocratic — one-man dictatorship in the world.
PKL: I am aware of that opinion, but that is merely the by-product of 60 years of relentless slander against my country. Why should I not champion the true people-centred democracy that my country is founded on? You will no doubt have noticed the word “democratic” is the first word in my country’s official name.
EHW: Yes, but as you said yourself, there is a difference between words and actions. Your country is a one-party state. How can that be democratic?
PKL: The USA is a two-party state where both parties are entirely in the hands of the same bourgeois class of rich billionaires. How do you call that democratic?
EHW: Mr. Pak, the point is…
PKL: I know what the point is. We have an entirely different conception of democracy. For us, democracy is shaping policies according to the intention of the broad popular masses, the working people, not the rich. We strive to implement policies that serve the interests of the people as a whole, not the selfish interests of the greedy manipulators. That is how we can provide them with genuine freedom, rights and a happy life.
EHW: How do you even determine what are the interests of the people if they don’t have the right to vote for their choice of candidate in free and fair elections?
PKL: Article 6 of our Constitution states “The organs of State power at all levels, from the county People’s Assembly to the Supreme People’s Assembly, are elected on the principle of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot.”
EHW: Your election results are always 98% or 99% for the winning candidate!
PKL: Of course. That is why we have confidence that our elected leaders represent the interests of our people.
EHW: Mr. Pak, those ballots have only one name on them!
PKL: Our democracy is broader than yours. In your system, competing sectors and parties vie for power in order to use that power for their own particular interests. So the rich virtually purchase power in order to retain their wealth. Then they implement policies not only to increase their wealth but also to remain in power. They influence the content of education to the extent that even the impoverished working class is convinced their salvation lies in the conservation of this perverted “democracy”. Our system is based on a Juche-oriented revolutionary and socialist line. Comrade Kim Il Sung turned our whole society into a large family which is united in one mind, namely to serve all the people all of the time.
EHW: You know as well as I do that not all people can have the noble mind and intention that you ascribe to the founder of your political system. Most people are prone to use even the best-intentioned mechanisms to their own advantage. If you cannot choose between alternative candidates, can you really call that a choice?
PKL: Article 7 of our Constitution says, “The electors may recall the deputies they have elected if the latter are not to be trusted.”
EHW: But how can they do that?
PKL: I think I should clarify something in regard to the ballot with only one name on it. I realize that may sound somewhat odd to you, but I assure you it makes a lot of sense. Democratic sense. More sense than the US electoral system.
EHW: How so?
PKL: Obama, with a little over 52% of the popular vote receives more than two thirds of the electoral vote. When President Bush came to power, he received fewer votes than his opponent Al Gore, yet received the majority of electoral votes.
EHW: I admit that this seems somewhat peculiar even to us Canadians. Not that the Canadian system has solved all the problems that can arise with the potential disconnect between popular vote and representation in Parliament. But that disconnect arises in part from an attempt to ensure fairness in regional representation. It is by no means a perfect system. We do attempt to improve and refine the democratic nature of our electoral system on a continuing basis. On the other hand, I am astonished that you would claim that your system — with a single name on the ballot sheet — is more democratic than the admittedly convoluted American Electoral College system? How can you possibly justify such a claim?
PKL: If you will take just one step backward from the final vote, my reasoning might become more apparent. Let’s examine how candidates are chosen in the first place.
EHW: Candidates are chosen by their parties. In multiple-party democracies that results in multiple candidates per riding. In a single-party state like yours, that results in one candidate per riding.
PKL: You’re still thinking only of numbers, not of representation. As I have pointed out before, in an individualist and competitive system like yours, the quality of a candidate is measured by money. A candidate either has to have a lot of money to finance a good campaign, or be intelligent and capable enough to serve the moneyed classes sufficiently well to attract campaign contributions. Such candidates invariably — indeed, one might say inevitably — end up representing their capitalist masters more than the community who elected them.
EHW: And in your system candidates serve the dictates of the single party that appoints them.
PKL: In our system a person has to prove him or herself within their own community before they will be appointed to any post by the Party. In our system the Workers’ Party of Korea represents the interests of all working people. Candidates rise in the ranks when they have proven by their life and work their commitment to the wellbeing of their community. If there is any competition, it is a competition to become the most loyal, self-giving, energetic, productive and diligent role model in service of their community. By the time their names appear on ballots, they have already received the recognition and approval of their community.
EHW: So you’re saying your elections are more like a referendum on a slate of pre-approved candidates.
PKL: Our candidates have to have proved their worth to the community. Their political career doesn’t start only after their election. Their election is an acknowledgement of their selfless, patriotic service to society and country. Election Day is a formality and a celebration. You were there during the elections of 1998. What can you remember about that day?
EHW: If I recall correctly, it was not a working day. People were gathering in the streets outside polling stations. Women wore their pretty Sunday dresses. Some people had brought musical instruments. I was invited to join in a dancing circle right on the street where people stood in line to vote. There was a festival atmosphere… and I don’t recall a single person being in the least bit curious as to who would win the elections.
PKL: Your recollection is quite accurate.
EHW: That doesn’t mean I don’t have serious concerns about your version of “democracy”. It is admirable that the criteria for someone’s candidacy should include community service. But all human beings are fallible. What I have observed even in the DPRK is that people who attain power tend to use it to retain their own positions or help their friends and relatives to share in their privileges. Korea on both sides is still very much influenced by the traditional notions of family and class loyalties, not to speak of male chauvinism, if you’ll pardon the observation.
PKL: Mr. Erich, our Supreme People’s Assembly has more women members than the Parliament of Canada!
EHW: Point taken. But without a secret ballot that gives more than one choice, how do you depose someone who has proven to be unworthy of the office? Perhaps someone who is so sure of their position that they have stopped trying; someone who is no longer serving their community with all their heart; someone who is using their position to prevent others from rising in the ranks?
PKL: Do you remember Mrs. Lim Chan Sook in Tosan county?
EHW: Remind me.
PKL: The kindergarten cookie factory.
EHW: Ah, that Mrs. Lim. Yes, of course I remember her! She started as a kindergarten nurse who was so concerned about the children’s nutrition that she convinced her town’s council to convert an empty building into a small cookie factory. I took pictures there. She had half a dozen mothers of the children baking and packaging the cookies that were delivered to four or five kindergartens and nurseries.
PKL: You remember she asked you whether WFP could deliver micronutrients for those cookies? I recall this quite clearly, because at the time I was just beginning to work with you, and had a hard time translating “micronutrients”.
EHW: She also challenged me about our distribution plans. She insisted that the neighbouring town received more food allocations from WFP that they did.
PKL: And you in turn embarrassed the County Chairman by telling her that if she didn’t receive the appropriate allocations it was the fault of the Chairman sitting right next to you. I found that even more difficult to translate, though not for lack of vocabulary!
EHW: Ah yes, Mrs. Lim. I loved those kinds of conversations, because they confirmed to me that our food deliveries were reaching the intended beneficiaries, especially if the local people developed a sense of entitlement. I was able to give her a schedule of future deliveries and encouraged her to protest to the County Chair if her village failed to receive the allocated amounts of food.
PKL: At the time I was more than a little shameful that you might have stumbled upon some irregularities in the delivery of WFP commodities. Being a protected Pyongyang city boy most of my previous life, the entire experience was somewhat intimidating.
EHW: Did you know I ran into Mrs. Lim again several years later, when I visited your country on behalf of an NGO that was working on agricultural projects?
PKL: I was not aware of that.
EHW: She had become a rather prominent manager of a cooperative farm. Although she was not herself a farmer, she told me, she did grow up in a farming community, and became convinced that becoming dependent on food donations was contrary to the Juche idea. As you know, she can be a very forceful woman. She presented me with a shopping list of requests — seeds, fertilizer, farm equipment, tractor tires, etc. — addressed to the NGO I represented at the time. Her intention, she explained, was to move her farm in the direction of what we foreigners call “food security”.
PKL: And did you know that Mrs. Lim has since become an elected member of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the highest organ of State power in our country?
EHW: I did not know that. Although I can easily picture her there. Good for her!
PKL: This is just one example of how a person who faithfully follows Juche precepts gets the respect of her community. In reality, she did not even require a secret ballot. Everyone in the Party agreed she was the best choice — especially after her alcoholic predecessor had become rather dysfunctional.
EHW: I follow your line of reasoning, Mr. Pak. But you have taken us from national elections for a country’s leader, i.e. the presidency of the USA, to local, small-town politics in your country. I can see how a variant of direct democracy might work in a village or farm community, but you have to agree that there is no possible way to change your country’s head of state.
PKL: Is that so different from your head of state? Can the Canadian people depose Queen Elizabeth? You don’t even have the right to vote for your Governor General.
EHW: But these are merely symbolic figureheads, without any real power. Surely you would not compare that with Chairman Kim Jong Il!
PKL: Of course not. That has been my whole point. Our systems differ. You are convinced that your system is superior to ours. I am convinced that our system is superior to yours. I have no hostility toward yours, and I wish you would stop trying to change or destroy ours. Independence, peace, and friendship are the cornerstone of DPRK foreign policy. Just because we do not agree is no reason to insult each other or not be friends.
EHW: Of course not. But as you have said, actions speak louder than words. Or as the British say, “The proof is in the pudding.” Taking everything into account — the state of your economy, the condition of life for ordinary people, the constant state of military alert, the rigidity of your state structures — are you really convinced that you have a superior democratic system?
PKL: There is no doubt that we must overcome enormous problems, most of which are not of our own making. But I am also convinced that we have the will and the means to overcome, because I have to believe that for our people, for our time and for our situation, our system is the most democratic.
EHW: You “have” to believe?
PKL: Mr. Erich, I thought when we spoke last time we agreed we would talk about the 60th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK?
EHW: Indeed we did, and that is still my intention.
PKL: I am afraid there won’t be sufficient time for that discussion right now. I have to bring this interview to a close.
EHW: In that case, Mr. Pak, let’s put it back on the agenda for next time. I thank you for this conversation.