Conversation #11

In which CanKor editor Erich Weingartner plumbs Pak Kim Li’s abiding faith in the DPRK workers’ paradise. (First published in CanKor Report 313-314, 12 December 2008.)

Erich Heinz Weingartner: Do you believe that you live in paradise, Mr. Pak?

Pak Kim Li: What?

EHW: Didn’t your great leader say that the DPRK is the “workers’ paradise”?

PKL: I thought we decided last time that our topic would be the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea!

EHW: Indeed we did. And as you previously explained to me, for Koreans the 60th birthday is a propitious anniversary, the completion of a cycle of life. You said a kind of re-birth happens as a new cycle begins. Your founding father Kim Il Sung called your country a paradise. So what I am asking you is whether you believe, at the end of the DPRK’s first 60-year cycle — celebrated with great fanfare on the ninth of September… I want to know whether you honestly believe that you and your people are indeed living in paradise.

PKL: Why do I have the impression that your question is a prelude to making another one of your condescending points of irony?

EHW: I did not invent the irony. Look how many books and articles on the DPRK mention “paradise” in their title. “North Korea Under Communism: Report of an Envoy to Paradise” by Swedish diplomat Erik Cornell; “The Last Paradise,” a book of photographs by Nicolas Righetti; “North Korea: Ideology in Paradise,” a photography portfolio by Hiroshi Watanabe; “Even in Paradise,” published by Newsweek International; “Escaping Paradise,” on the plight of North Korean refugees in China, by Roger Dean du Mars; “The People�s Paradise crumbles,” a Special Report by The Manchester Guardian’s John Gittings; or there’s Shane Smith�s video entitled “North Korea�s Socialist Paradise”…

PKL: I get your point.

EHW: …and last February the Centre of Korean Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London hosted a seminar by Paul French entitled, “Paradise Lost: From Chollima Speed to Slow Motion Famine — How North Korea Got Where it is Today.”

PKL: None of these are by DPR Koreans, in case you haven’t noticed.

EHW: Alright, what about the book by Hyok Kang, entitled “This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood”, published as recently as 2005?

PKL: Ah yes, from the pen of one of my country’s traitors — or “defectors” as you like to call them. This may shock you, but we don’t talk that much about paradise in our country.

EHW: Really? Don’t you still perform stage musicals like “The Song of Paradise”? Don’t you continue to sing songs like “We Shall Boast of Our Paradise Before the Whole World”?

PKL: And why shouldn’t we? We are still proud of our country, even if we do have some temporary difficulties. You know yourself how beautiful our country is. Are we the only country in the world that boasts of being a paradise? In Greece there are several islands and regions claiming to be paradise, like Koufonissia Island or Chalkidiki near Mount Athos. Marco Island in Florida claims to be paradise. The Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Lord Howe Island in Australia, and The Great Chiquitania in Bolivia all claim to be the “last paradise” on earth. And my favourite (since I lived in Indonesia for a while as a child): who has not referred to Bali as “paradise”? And let me assure you, the local Balinese are hardly any better off than the people of my country!

EHW: Point taken. But in these examples, the word “paradise” is merely a promotional ploy to entice foreign tourists to places of great natural beauty. In your case, the word “paradise” is used as an ideological tool to convince a population without access to the outside world that the DPRK is the best of all possible worlds. My question, if I may be frank, is to you, an official who has seen much of the outside world: is “paradise” still an appropriate analogy when you consider the reality of chronic food shortages and your crumbling economy?

PKL: I’m surprised you didn’t mention “egregious” human rights conditions!

EHW: Yes, let’s add those as well. I’d be happy to add that as well! Although I do not want to get into another exercize of comparing your system to mine. We did enough of that the last time. The question I am asking right now is rather inescapable, don’t you agree? According to your own criteria, sixty years after the founding of your state, do you still believe in the viability of what you call the “workers’ paradise”?

PKL: What you are really asking in a rather blunt and unsophisticated way is whether I believe in my country’s propaganda. Alright, then I will tell you just as bluntly: Yes I do.

EHW: I thought you might say that.

PKL: Of course you did. Makes it easier to dismiss my opinions.

EHW: On the contrary. I am seeking to understand your opinions. I want to understand how a man as intelligent as you could be blind to this blatant contradiction. This is where I confess my puzzlement. The two of us have traveled throughout your country. Together we have witnessed with our own eyes the sorry state of life of your citizens. I remember watching you carefully on our first trip upcountry. I knew that you had not had much exposure to the life of ordinary people, having spent your childhood and youth in the elite comforts that the city of Pyongyang can provide. I could see astonishment in the expression of your face. It was rather obvious to me that you had not expected the depravations you were seeing. How can you tell me now that you still believe you are living in paradise?

PKL: Your confusion rests in the fact that you don’t know, or rather you can’t decide what it is you are asking. There is a huge difference between “Do you still believe in a worker’s paradise?” and “Do you still believe you are living in paradise?”

EHW: Are you saying your answers to these two options would be different? Yes, you still believe in a worker’s paradise; no, you don’t believe you are living in paradise?

PKL: No, that’s not what I am saying. I would answer both affirmatively. I also believe that we are living in paradise. What I am saying is this: The fact that you do not distinguish between these two options indicates to me that there may be a disconnect between what you mean when you say “paradise” and what I may understand by the word “paradise”.

EHW: Granted. For me paradise is synonymous to heaven, a place of perfection, a place where people can live freely in peace and prosperity, a place of happiness, where fear, pain, and sorrow are banished. In other words: a place quite unlike the DPRK. And that is precisely why your claim to this word strikes me as so ludicrous. As I have known you over the years, you are an intelligent, reasonable man. If you still believe in the appropriateness of this self-designation, then you better tell me: What on earth could you possibly mean by “paradise”?

PKL: You mentioned our trips together to the countryside. Do you remember traveling between Pyongyang and Wonsan?

EHW: Along the main highway — the only highway in fact — between the west and east coast of your country. Yes, of course. It is burned into my memory. We traveled that highway quite often: a divided four-lane concrete superhighway that was in constant need of repair. We had to swerve around enormous potholes, over hard, uneven surfaces, where slabs of concrete had shifted or broken, especially at entrances and exits of the many bridges and tunnels through the mountains.

PKL: There is one trip I remember especially. It was winter. When we reached the last tunnel before Wonsan, it was raining quite heavily.

EHW: Indeed! That very long tunnel, about half an hour from Wonsan. The longest one in your country, I believe. For the entire 2½ years I lived in Pyongyang, this tunnel seemed to be permanently under repair.

PKL: It was being widened to accommodate the increased amount of traffic. During this reconstruction, only one lane could be used. So we often had to wait a considerable length of time at the entrance of the tunnel, waiting for the opposing traffic to clear the 11km length.

EHW: I remember clearly. Driving through the tunnel was slow and laborious as well, past equipment and workers, over broken surfaces and through clouds of exhaust fumes since there was no ventilation…

PKL: Once I understood the system, I would call ahead from Pyongyang to verify whether we could get through the tunnel on a particular day, and to find out an approximate schedule, so we wouldn’t be held up too long.

EHW: It was in this tunnel that I saw the conditions in which many of your ordinary soldiers have to work. Like with all major construction jobs in your country, the military was in charge here. I saw very young and very thin teenagers in uniform huddling around fires in the middle of the tunnel, trying to keep warm. Others were breaking concrete with bare hands: one would hold a large metal spike — without gloves in mid-winter, protected only by a ring of woven straw over his hands — while another wielded a massive sledgehammer. I could only imagine the workplace injuries such a construction job might entail.

PKL: On that particular day, we waited behind a long line-up of trucks at the tunnel. For an hour, nothing seemed to move. After I repeatedly asked the guard for an approximate timeline, he became rather annoyed. I was telling him I had an important international guest. He told me he was an officer of the Korean People’s Army and couldn’t care less about my international guest. He finally told me there was no guarantee we could get through the tunnel at all on that day. After discussing the situation with our driver, I suggested we should give up and return to Pyongyang. But you were not amused. You were quite severe with me, as I remember. You were quite adamant that we could not cancel our trip.

EHW: Your colleagues at the FDRC [Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee — a government bureau responsible for aid agencies] were constantly looking for excuses to cancel monitoring trips. I wasn’t about to do so myself voluntarily!

PKL: You said we should take the alternate route across the mountain. The guard had warned us that it was snowing only a hundred metres above the tunnel entrance. But you said Canadians aren’t afraid of snow, that we had new snow tires on our Toyota Land Cruiser and a set of chains in the back in case we needed them. You even offered to drive, if our driver was afraid to make the journey.

EHW: Aside from the fact that my DPR Korean driver’s licence was invalid outside the Pyongyang city limits, there isn’t a professional driver in your whole country who would ever voluntarily relinquish the steering wheel — especially to a foreigner! I do remember that particular journey quite clearly. How could I forget? We were only half an hour up the narrow serpentine road when we found ourselves in the midst of a substantial snowfall. As the snow thickened on the road, we came upon a long line of cars and trucks that were spinning their wheels, bare tires losing their grip, sliding sideways, no longer able to move forward. Our driver stopped to put on the chains, then very expertly manoeuvred us around the stuck vehicles, including — with a satisfied grin on his face — several military trucks and a police car that could not advance. At one particularly precarious turn, a truck had gone off the edge of the road, slid down a steep incline. Fortunately, a tree stopped its descent. We watched several men in the process of trying to rescue the driver. I wondered aloud if there had been any passengers on the back of the truck, as was often the case. At another corner, a fuel truck had slid into a rock face and was now burning out of control. It’s a good thing we had already made plans for an overnight stay in Wonsan. This detour added more than four hours to our itinerary.

PKL: My favourite part about traveling with you, Mr. Erich, was that you always brought along a selection of music cassettes or CDs — popular music from overseas. I enjoyed this unfamiliar music immensely. Do you remember what you played as we crossed the mountain?

EHW: Was it Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”?

PKL: No, that one we played on the way home — until the driver begged me to make you stop playing it. On the way there you introduced me to Amanda Marshall. I enjoyed the music, but confessed that I can never understand the lyrics of American popular music. So you started to articulate the lines in the song “Last Exit to Eden”. The only thing I could understand in that song was “Johnny Walker Red”. I asked you why she did not sing about Johnny Walker Black, which would be a better choice of whisky.

EHW: Oh yes! I remember how hard it was to explain what a Judas kiss is, from her line: “Like a Judas kiss Did my heart betray me Back on the road I never chose.” In fact, I had to tell you a number of Bible stories without which you could not possibly understand these lyrics.

PKL: That is when I told you that you were a more interesting English teacher than any I had previously known. But it was your explanation of Eden that I am reminded of at this moment. You said that the Garden of Eden was the place — according to the creation story in your sacred book — where the first human beings lived.

EHW: Adam and Eve.

PKL: And this Garden was a paradise, where the human beings had no care and were always happy.

EHW: Until they disobeyed God.

PKL: Yes precisely. Because of their disobedience, their god drove them out of the Garden into the world, where they had to struggle to make a living with blood, sweat and tears.

EHW: But whether or not we have ever heard the story of Adam and Eve, there is in all of us a primordial memory of Eden. All human beings long for that perfection. We have the urge to regain paradise, to find our way back to the Garden.

PKL: Which is why in the song, Amanda is so desperately concerned that she might have missed “the last exit to Eden”.

EHW: Which is why all political systems intent on retaining the loyalty of the population promise us a version of Eden — whether this be a Capitalist, Communist or Juche variety of paradise.

PKL: Perhaps so. But if I may make an observation, your concept of paradise is a static one. Eden is a place. So are all the holiday destinations that call themselves paradise. Naming such a place “paradise” indicates an emotional reaction on the part of tourists — foreigners who for a short period of time are pampered in pleasurable surroundings. Paradise to them is simply a desirable place that is unattainable in their ordinary lives. In your understanding, Bali remains a natural paradise whether or not tourists are present. On the other hand, the local Balinese don’t need to call it paradise. To them it is simply their home. They are aware of the shortcomings of their surroundings. And if it were not for the fact that tourism has completely disrupted and replaced their indigenous economy, I assure you that every Balinese would prefer their “paradise” devoid of tourists. The Garden of Eden remained paradise even after the first humans were banished from it. In fact, these humans were something like tourists there. They came last and left first. While they were in the Garden, Adam and Eve would not have realized it is paradise, because they had nothing with which to compare. In your conception, when you designate something as “paradise” you are actually expressing an emotional yearning for something that is unattainable.

EHW: I suppose you are right. It is an ideal that we strive for but never completely attain. That is why it seems quite ludicrous to us when we hear you call the DPRK a paradise.

PKL: And I hazard an assumption that you would find it ludicrous whether or not we were economically successful. Would you call south Korea or Japan a paradise?

EHW: Obviously not.

PKL: Then let me try to explain our point of view. For us, the true meaning of “paradise” is found not in a place or in an emotional yearning for perfection, but in our commitment to the community. It is not a static concept like yours — so easily dismissed with ironic slurs because it doesn’t measure up to your standards of perfection. Our use of the word is an active concept. Paradise is not a perfect place, but a way of living pursued by our community, our nation and our system. That is why we preface the word paradise by “workers’” or “people’s”. Paradise is the revolutionary fervour of our people. Paradise is the communal coherence of our Korean nation. These visions are not measured by the level of our gross national product.

EHW: And you really believe that your revolutionary fervour and communal coherence are still intact?

PKL: Of course we have setbacks. Of course we have people who become disillusioned. Of course we have anti-social misfits and traitors. Perhaps more now since we have so many more foreigners visiting our country — alien influences that we have permitted to infiltrate past our ideological defences. We reach out to our enemies in search of peace, reunification and mutually beneficial trade, but they retaliate by sowing seeds of dissatisfaction. As you have done with your question whether I still believe in the workers’ paradise.

EHW: Perhaps the 60th anniversary is a time to think of new ways to build your community and your country. Is this not a time for rebirth? Perhaps it is time to set aside outmoded concepts like “workers’ paradise”.

PKL: In one of the discussions we had about your religious beliefs, you told me about the concept of the “Kingdom of God”. Remember our last conversation? You said nowadays kings and queens are merely figureheads without power. Doesn’t it appear odd to continue to use the outmoded concept “kingdom” centuries after this word has been deprived of its connotation as the locus of ultimate power?

EHW: Good point, although I may have told you that “Kingdom of God” has always been a spiritual, rather than a material concept. It is part of Christian eschatology, a teaching about the end of time. The kingdom of man — or the power of an earthly domain — is contrasted with the Kingdom of God, understood as a power that resides beyond the material world, beyond time and matter.

PKL: Then what could that possibly have to do with our present, material realities?

EHW: That is a good question. Christians believe that the spiritual world has a direct impact on our material existence. We also believe that in God the past and the future, the beginning and the end, are connected to the present reality. Although the Kingdom of God will unfold at the end of time, already two thousand years ago Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is among you.”

PKL: You are talking about the founder of your religion, the one this Judas betrayed with a kiss in Amanda Marshall’s song.

EHW: Yes, he is also called the Christ, the Anointed, the Messiah, the Saviour, the Prince of Peace, the Son of God. Jesus taught that through faith we already live in God�s Kingdom, even though we are still walking through the valley of tears. The Kingdom of God is both a future goal and a current reality. We look forward to the promised perfection, yet at the same time we have a responsibility to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. The Kingdom is a promise and a hope, but it also requires our participation and sacrifice. We pray for the Kingdom to come, but we diligently work for peace and for justice in order to prepare the way.

PKL: That is very sensible. And it sounds very much like what our Great Leader President Kim Il Sung taught as well. We live in the workers’ paradise because our system is built up to favour workers and farmers and intellectuals — unlike the capitalist system, which favours the rich and exploiting classes. It is the unity and solidarity we experience under a loving and benevolent leader that makes it a paradise, not the material benefits that we have already achieved or have yet to achieve. When we sing of our version of paradise, it gives us the courage to confront all who would seek to destroy our system. And it gives us the endurance to continue to struggle to build up our paradise here on earth — a paradise that is both a future goal and a present reality. You see, Mr. Erich, we are not all that different, you and I.

EHW: I will have to agree that we share many similarities as human beings, although I suspect the divergences outweigh the similarities as far as our respective religious convictions are concerned.

PKL: I for one have no religious convictions.

EHW: And yet you seem to have a faith in your great leader that rivals my faith in God. Is that not a religion in secular guise?

PKL: A fascinating topic for a future discussion. But I am afraid my work calls me away. Perhaps we can have one more encounter before I leave for Pyongyang in a week’s time.

EHW: That would be much appreciated, Mr. Pak. I thank you for this conversation.

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