Conversation #12

In which Weingartner challenges Pak’s claim that his faith in the Juche idea qualifies him as an atheist. [This episode has been greatly enhanced by a discussion among Korea experts in the Koreanstudies mailing list.]

Pak Kim Li: I apologize that I had to cancel our last appointment. My life is not my own, you know.

Erich Heinz Weingartner: So I understand.

PKL: As much as I enjoy talking to you, you aren’t exactly my number one priority.

EHW: Which is a pity. But neither are you my first priority.

PKL: I’m not? That surprises me. Writing about the DPRK has become quite the cottage industry in the West as far as I can tell.

EHW: Yes, except that it pays very poorly.

PKL: You should consider the ideological satisfaction that you get in the process.

EHW: Perhaps I don’t have much faith in ideology.

PKL: If you have the right ideology, it will give you faith.

EHW: Your ideology has faith in you?

PKL: That’s an odd question. Not what I meant, however. You need to ask yourself the following question: Does what you believe give your life purpose and meaning? If your ideology gives your life meaning, you will have faith in it. You will act according to its dictates, and you will find satisfaction in doing so.

EHW: That almost sounds like a religious conviction. Last time we spoke you told me you have no religious convictions.

PKL: I don’t. What I am describing is based on simple logic. Let’s take an example you might be able to relate to. Why do people in your country become environmental activists?

EHW: Because they’re convinced that we are headed for an environmental holocaust if we do not stop destroying the ecology of our planet.

PKL: Precisely. You might say that their ideology has given them faith in the meaning and purpose of their lives.

EHW: The majority of the people involved in the ecological movement would deny that ideology is guiding their activities.

PKL: And yet they are guided by a set of ideas, among which is the conviction that human activity has caused an environmental crisis and that human activity is required to repair the damage. Add to that disappointment in the political process that exacerbates rather than resolves environmental issues, and before you know it, you have a “green” political party in Canada with — I would assume — an ideological position.

EHW: I don’t think they would regard their political platform to be an ideological one.

PKL: That is just a matter of semantics. Here is the important point: The satisfaction that environmental activists acquire from their activities is based not on the material profit they might gain on an individual basis, but on the knowledge that their struggle is part of a communal effort that will have a positive outcome for the world at large.

EHW: That may be so, but I am still not convinced that what you are talking about is logic rather than religious conviction. Facts and logical arguments about environmental degradation can lead as easily to despair and fatalism as to hope and activism.

PKL: Only if you lack an ideology to give you the appropriate guidance. If your ideology does not offer you guidance, you will become lost in the illusion of your individualism, which will inevitably result in fatalism. In my case, the Juche idea shows me what my place is, where I am located in the political and social family of our nation. Knowing my specific place gives me the courage to confront obstacles with confidence, because I know I am not alone in facing life. I am a member of a human community that shares my hopes as well as my fate.

EHW: But surely you have to admit that Juche is more of a religion than an ideology.

PKL: Semantics again. It all depends on your definition of religion or ideology. If a religion did not require supernatural beings or metaphysical realities, it would be more difficult to distinguish between ideology and religion. Whatever your definition, Juche definitely does not require belief in any god or gods. In fact, we actively discourage such superstitions.

EHW: Mr. Pak, I have visited Kumsusan Memorial Palace on three occasions. Even though I have visited temples and houses of worship in many parts of the world — including St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City — I have never in my life seen as much religious fervour and adoration as in Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum.

PKL: Why call this religious fervour? Should we not honour and adore our Great Leader and perpetuate his legacy? He was an exceptional human being, the founder and architect of our nation, the author of the Juche idea that has given meaning to Korea’s long suffering and raised our spirits to work for the bright future that lies ahead of us. All the same, he was human like the rest of us. His physical life has ended. You have seen his dead body with your own eyes.

EHW: And yet, he is called Korea’s “eternal president”. Your slogans and songs proclaim the great leader’s eternal life. When I first visited North Korea in 1985, the slogans I saw wished him long life. But when I went back in 1997, I saw signs that proclaimed “Kim Il Sung lives forever.”

PKL: That is a mistranslation. The slogan says he lives with us forever, or he lives forever in our hearts. Chairman Kim Jong Il proclaimed him our “Eternal President” because out of profound respect, he did not wish to take his father’s presidential title. The Great Leader was our first beloved president, and no one can take his place, not even his son. As long as we live his legacy, he will remain with us, in the sense that he will remain alive in our hearts.

EHW: Mr. Pak, you are evading my question. Let me remind you of what you yourself once told me. Do you remember our trip to the northernmost tip of your country? On a very cold northern autumn day we drove from the guest house outside Onsong to a hill overlooking the Tumen River at the border with China. There was an enormous group of bronze statues at the site, looking towards Yanji on the Chinese side. A very young Kim Il Sung was depicted, surrounded by townspeople from various walks of life. The local Party chairman who accompanied us told me that as far back as 1932, while Kim Il Sung lived in exile on the Chinese side of the border, he founded the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army as a guerrilla fighting force against the Japanese occupation. In my head I calculated that Kim Il Sung must have been only 20 years old at the time. To be honest, I have been more than sceptical about the historical basis of some of the stories I have heard in your country. Back in our car I expressed to you my surprise that a youth of only 20 could have founded an army. I have never forgotten your reply. You answered quietly, with a voice that conveyed a reverence that held me back from pursuing my scepticism. Your words were: “That is why I consider him to be a god.”

PKL: Yes, I do remember that trip. And though I do not remember what I said to you on that occasion, I may well have expressed myself in those words. But I am afraid you may have misunderstood me. I wanted to convey my deepest respect, my admiration and devotion to our deceased Leader. Since I spoke to you in English, I thought that “god” would be the right word to convey my meaning. All the same, I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that I believed our Great Leader to be the upper case “G” God of monotheism, the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe. Since I am an atheist, I could obviously not have meant that.

EHW: And if you had spoken in Korean?

PKL: There are many ways to refer to our Great Leader. We might call him tongji, which means “comrade”, or wonsu for “marshal”, changgun for “general”, susang for “president”, and of course suryong, which means “leader”. And apart from that, we also refer to him as oboi, meaning “parent”, or aboji, which means “father”.

EHW: Most Christians pray to God using the words “our father”.

PKL: That isn’t the same thing. When we use the term “father” we mean biological father, not creator. We want to emphasize that our nation is like a family, with our Great Leader as its head. For Koreans, as you well know, the family is very important. By calling our leader “father”, we understand ourselves to be the genetic inheritors of a special relationship.

EHW: That is very Confucian, isn’t it?

PKL: We do not believe in Confucianism. We have eradicated Confucian beliefs and behaviours in our country.

EHW: Oh come now, Mr. Pak. According to historians, Korea was the most thoroughly Confucianized state in Asia. You may have officially eliminated Confucianism, but you can’t deny that Confucian values still have profound influence in your society and culture.

PKL: I did not know you were an expert on Confucianism.

EHW: I am not an expert, but I do enjoy history. I have read that Confucianism places great importance on hierarchical relationships: father-son, husband-wife, old-young, friend-friend, and ruler-subject. That is why the first question I am usually asked in Korea is my age. People need to know how to rank me because there is a linguistic difference in how I should be addressed depending on whether I am older or younger than the person speaking to me. Korean texts apparently ranked the father-son and other familial relationships as the most important. This was in contrast to the Japanese, who placed the greatest emphasis on the ruler-subject relationship. By making your leader the father, by turning the entire nation into the family, you seem to have combined the two.

PKL: This is nothing but uneducated conjecture, if you don’t mind me saying so. If I didn’t know you so well, I would be insulted.

EHW: Because of my reference to Confucianism or my reference to Japan?

PKL: Both. Neither. You insist on projecting your own religiosity and historical precedent onto our home-grown Juche idea.

EHW: I did not mean to be insulting. I just want to understand better. I am not the first person to be impressed by the deeply-felt emotional attachment to your leader and to your system by your compatriots from all walks of life. And this despite your massive economic problems! Let me return to our conversation in Onsong. None of the terms for your leader that you just listed could be properly translated as “god”. How would you have expressed that same meaning to a Korean speaker?

PKL: There is no single word for god in the Korean language. In Korean traditional or folk religions, there were many gods, most of them rather mischievous spirits. Not the kind of benevolent god that Christians believe in. For example, parents used to avoid calling their children by their real names because they were afraid these “gods” or “spirits” would have power over them — even kidnap or kill them — if they knew their names. There was a practice of giving children nicknames with demeaning connotations, in the hopes that the gods and spirits would lose interest in them.

EHW: Is this still the practice today?

PKL: Naturally, we no longer believe those fairy tales. What I am getting at is that you and I have very distinct understandings that reach beyond the purely linguistic. When Christian missionaries first came to Korea, they had a lot of trouble finding a suitable Korean word to express their monotheistic concept of god. Such a god simply did not exist in Korea. The only vaguely familiar concept of a supreme being was the Chinese “jade emperor” idea…

EHW: …which the missionaries would certainly have considered inappropriate! I am told that Protestant and Catholic churches use different Korean words for the same God. That may explain why your government distinguishes Catholics as a different religion from Christians.

PKL: The Catholics were the first to come to Korea two hundred years ago. They had already been established in China, so they used the word cheonju, which is simply the Korean version of a Chinese word meaning “lord of heaven”. The Canadian Protestant missionaries who came a hundred years later considered “lord of heaven” to be problematic, because in the Korean shamanist tradition, the god of heaven exists alongside the god of earth and other gods. Not their idea of the Supreme Being. The Protestants eventually agreed on the word hananim, which they mistakenly thought means “the honourable one”.

EHW: Mistakenly?

PKL: Well, they probably misheard an expression about god that sounded like hananim. So they thought, “Aha! We know that hana is the numeral “one”, and nim is an honorific. So hananim must surely mean “the great one”, or “the honourable one”, therefore a good word for the monotheistic god they were introducing to Korea. But there is a Korean word that to a Western ear sounds a lot like hana, namely haneul, which means “heaven”. They probably heard haneullim, which is what local Koreans would have called the “lord of heaven” in the vernacular. As you know, the Western letters R, L and N are almost interchangeable in transliterating Korean characters. That’s why the names “Roh” and “No” are actually written with the same Korean characters. As is the case with Li, Lee, Rhee and Ri, all of which are the same name. If I am right, then Catholics and Protestants use different Korean words for god that in actual fact have exactly the same meanings.

EHW: I think our Canadian compatriots were a lot more intelligent than you give them credit for. Since they were involved in a project to translate the Bible into Korean, they thoroughly discussed terminology at great length with both Koreans and overseas linguistic experts. If Protestants chose to use hananim to mean the one God they believed in, I am sure they were very conscious of the reason for doing so. But let’s get back to you. I suspect that you would not have used either of these words in reference to Kim Il Sung.

PKL: Of course not. When I spoke to you, I was trying to convey in English my feelings — trying to put feelings, not intellectual or theological concepts, into English words. If you really want me to tell you a Korean word that might express these feelings, I might use the word shin. In olden days, this was a word commonly used for various gods or spirits. However, there was an additional use for that word. As you know, in traditional Korea we had great respect for our ancestors.

EHW: Yes, of course. One of the holidays you share with South Koreans is chusok, when you gather with your families at the grave of your parents and grandparents.

PKL: Chusok is the Korean harvest festival. Something like your Thanksgiving. But yes, we also honour our ancestors on that occasion. And we also honour exceptional human beings who have contributed much to the community. Traditionally, such persons might have been viewed as shin, venerated spirits or gods after their death. So in reference to my using the word “god”, I would have been quite correct in using the word shin to refer to our Great Leader.

EHW: I am quite impressed by your knowledge of Christian history and even theological concepts. Most interpreters I worked with had great difficulty translating theological concepts. For such discussions I had to rely on the interpreters of the Korean Christians Federation.

PKL: When I started interpreting with foreign aid agencies I took a course on Christian history and theology at Kim Il Sung University. As you know better than most, many of the non-governmental humanitarian agencies operating in my country are Christian ones.

EHW: They have courses on Christian theology at Kim Il Sung University?

PKL: You seem surprised.

EHW: Shouldn’t I be? You keep telling me how atheist your country is.

PKL: That doesn’t mean we should not pursue knowledge of the religions of the world. Besides, it is important to know the gods of one’s adversaries, don’t you think? You express interest in the Juche idea, don’t you? The Americans claim to be one of the most Christian countries in the world, yet during the Great Patriotic War, they bombed the churches in North Korea on Christmas day. Should we not be interested in knowing what it is about this religion that leads to such atrocities?

EHW: In your Christian history course they should have taught you that despite what certain political leaders might wish to tell you, countries cannot be Christian. Only churches and individuals can claim that designation.

PKL: I beg to differ. Every nation develops a certain ethos, a set of beliefs that defines its members, motivates them, impels them toward good or evil. There are many similarities among those nations that have been defined by Christianity. One distinguishing characteristic of these countries is their propensity for delusions of superiority. They believe they are more developed, more ethical, more intelligent, more creative, more technological, and indeed more rational than those they consider less developed. And all of these superior qualities justify their subjugation of other countries, exploiting their resources and bending them to the rules and sanctions they impose.

EHW: Mr. Pak, I don’t think I want to get involved in an “un-holier than thou” debate at this point. If you have such an antipathy towards Christianity, why is it that faith-based aid agencies have generally been more welcome in your country than secular ones?

PKL: That is a total fiction. We have welcomed all sincere aid agencies, and you should know that.

EHW: That is not really accurate. Back in the late 1990s there were many more NGOs willing to help your country during its famine. You restricted their access. Only a dozen or so NGOs received residence permits, and those were restricted to European ones under the wing of the European Union.

PKL: I have never understood the NGOs obsession with residence status.

EHW: That is a different subject. You cannot imagine how frequently I am asked why the DPRK is so cozy with Christian organizations, even some that on the outside make no secret of their antipathy toward your system. Some have tried to answer that question by pointing out that the Juche ideology is a faith-based system that shares some similarities with fundamentalist Christianity. As a result, they say, you are drawn toward each other. At the unconscious “gut” level, you understand or resonate more easily with Christian than with secular agencies.

PKL: An intriguing theory suitable for fiction, not reality.

EHW: It is further said that Juche is part of a global trend in the rise of fundamentalist religion. In fact, there are those who compare Juche in North Korea with the astonishing rise of evangelical Christianity in South Korea.

PKL: Mr. Erich, many insults are heaped on my country on a daily basis. Let me re-emphasize that we welcome all people of good will, even those who disagree with our politics or our worldview. We have worked well with some NGOs and not so well with others, depending on their willingness to respect our system, our way of life, and our legitimate security concerns, regardless of whether they are faith-based or secular. We appreciate Christian organizations because they often have a longer perspective. They are often more willing to establish and maintain relationships over an extended period of years, unlike some secular NGOs who look down on us or see us more as a short-term “target” for their business interests. But whatever the case, we regard relationships with external agencies in practical, not theological terms.

EHW: I have no doubt that is the case. That is why, when political or security tensions rise, external agencies are less welcome, and as was the case at the end of 2005 (and is again as we speak in March 2009), NGOs who have been working very conscientiously are asked to leave the country. But that is a different issue. What I would like to understand is the extent to which you and your compatriots adhere to Juche as a faith-based system rather than a secular, politically-based system, or as you like to point out, a system with a scientific foundation. I was living in Pyongyang when Kim Jong Il ascended to the position of General Secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party in late October 1997. At that time I read in the Pyongyang Times (which, as you know, is an English-language paper meant for a foreign readership) that in response to this great event, fruit trees in the northern mountains spontaneously burst into blossom. The Workers’ Party organ Rodong Sinmun carried an article claiming that when the great general is about to take a picture, rain suddenly stops, the sky becomes bright and clear, and even the mist clears in order to safeguard the great general. Following the death of Kim Il Sung, numerous banners admonished people to “pray for the eternity of the Great Leader.” To whom are people supposed to pray?

PKL: Metaphors. We aren’t the only people to use them. All humans resort to metaphor to express verbally what is difficult to express verbally. Metaphors are like short-form symbols that express a reality that we take very seriously in the depth of our hearts. That is how you should read the references you mentioned above. The scientific truth is that when our respected general Kim Jong Il became General Secretary of the Workers’ Party, there was an unusual warm spell in one area of the northern mountains that caused trees to blossom out of season. For the people there, this corresponded to their emotion at the fact that our Dear Leader was stepping into the footsteps of the Great Leader after the end of the three-year mourning period. They found nature to resonate with their feelings. I don’t think it is a bad thing to express ones wonder at such events, even if the physical cause and effect cannot be ascertained scientifically. For simple-minded local people, such distinctions are meaningless anyway.

EHW: And to whom do simple-minded local people pray?

PKL: When we say “pray” it is an expression to indicate that we hope fervently. I am sure you have heard me say I “pray” for good weather on the weekend. I am not actually kneeling down and imagining a god of weather. I am just underlining how badly I want the weather to cooperate if, for example, I want to take my family for a picnic in the mountains. In the same way I “pray” that the Great Leader will live eternally in our hearts.

EHW: So when the Preamble to 1998 DPRK Constitution quotes the late comrade Kim Il Sung as saying “The people are my God”, was he also speaking metaphorically?

PKL: Yes of course. But that is not an accurate translation. What he literally said was that he believes in the people as in heaven.

EHW: You mean the Foreign Languages Publishing House got it wrong?

PKL: My colleagues were faced with the same problem I have had in explaining these concepts to you. Let’s face it. We Koreans just think differently than you Canadians. The unofficial People’s Korea translated it more literally, but I actually like the Foreign Language Publishing House version better, because using “God” better expresses the actual metaphorical meaning than the word “heaven” would do. It makes it easier for an Anglophone culture instantly to absorb the intended meaning. What the sentence wishes to convey is that our Great Leader held serving the people as his highest, most important vocation.

EHW: So Kim Il Sung did not actually believe in heaven?

PKL: You must stop thinking of heaven in Christian terms. When we say “heaven” we are talking not about afterlife, or a place in space or time. Heaven for us is an abstract principal of order in the highest possible degree, not some promise made to us by an anthropomorphic being.

EHW: Are you sure that you are not sanitizing your beliefs for my benefit? Your explanations sound a lot more “rational” (if you will pardon the expression) than the kind of faith system I experienced every day during my residence in your country.

PKL: You experienced our faith system as “irrational”?

EHW: It seemed to be less concerned with rational explanations of reality than with ritual adherence to certain articles of faith. I felt like I was living in a faith-based rather than a logic- or science-based society. Let me give you another example. I arrived in Pyongyang for my World Food Programme assignment in early 1997. As you know, the WFP is located just across from the Friendship Hospital in the Munsudong diplomatic compound. On the first of December of that year, I looked out my office window and saw a poster at the hospital entrance with the number 24 painted in large figures. The next day, the number changed to 23, and every day following, the number was reduced by one. Obviously it was a count-down to something. During that same time, my ten-year old daughter had an Advent calendar that counted down the days till Christmas. Advent is the season during which Christians traditionally anticipate the birth of Christ. The numbers displayed at the hospital seemed to be counting down to the day which we celebrate as Christmas Eve. In astonishment, I asked a Korean colleague whether North Koreans are also celebrating Christmas.

PKL: <laughing> December 24 is the birth date of Kim Jong Suk, a great and venerated martyr of the revolution, bodyguard of Great Leader Kim Il Sung and mother of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.

EHW: That is indeed what I learned. Some of my WFP colleagues joked that you now had the third person of the trinity.

PKL: The Christian god, who is supposed to be both one and three at the same time.

EHW: Yes, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Mind you, I corrected them on that count. If anything, Kim Jong Suk would be the equivalent of the Virgin Mary rather than the Holy Ghost. Yet there is a kind of trinity in your country. It is father, son and the Juche idea. Juche is the real “spirit” of your system. And whether you regard it as metaphor or reality, the veneration of this trinity still seems more like a theocracy than a materialist worldview. It is not one option among others. It is a daily, relentless, ever-present reality, from the 5:30 a.m. wake-up songs emanating from loudspeakers in the streets of every city and town in your country to the music heard as the sun sets each day. Statues, banners, slogans, songs, artwork, theatre, television, cinema, and even the two national circuses are dedicated to the leaders’ honour. Every breast bears a pin with the image of the great leader. Framed portraits of both father and son adorn the living room wall of every home. You have just finished celebrating the son’s birthday. I know from the experience of my daughter that children throughout your country celebrate this as a holiday with special outings. They receive gifts of sweets and other items like new clothes, school uniforms, etc. On the birthday of the father in April it is planned to launch a satellite into orbit, despite warnings from both friends and enemies. And let’s not forget that in 1997 you switched from the Gregorian calendar, which began with the year of Christ’s birth to the Juche calendar, which begins with your great leader’s birth. That makes 2009 “Juche 98”. I understand that already there are preparations for Juche 100 (2011), which are bound to be spectacular.

PKL: And what is wrong with creating our own calendar? In our view, it is thoughtless and rather inconsistent with Juche to use a Western calendar. Why has the Gregorian calendar become the norm? There were and still are many other calendars in existence. Even atheists in your own society have changed the designations BC (before Christ) and AD (ante domini) to BCE and CE, meaning “common era”.

EHW: That just shows how we’re becoming less religious and you’re becoming more so.

PKL: Mr. Erich, apart from the issue of the Juche calendar, what you are trying to extract from this conversation is a very complicated issue. I really don’t think you have even begun to grasp correctly what lies underneath or behind my end of this debate. I have been too much reacting to your questions. But frankly, these are not the right questions to elicit the answers you are seeking. If you would study Juche more deeply — rather than just sneering at it — you would realize that we do indeed have our own concept of god, even a single god. But let me surprise you by saying that the one god we believe in is not our Great Leader — nor the trinity you referred to. Unfortunately, it will take a lot longer to explain this properly than I have time for today. Why not put this on the agenda for next time?

EHW: I look forward to a continuation, Mr. Pak. Soon, I hope. Meanwhile, thank you for this conversation.

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