In which CanKor editor Erich Weingartner probes the private motivations of loyal servants of the DPRK system that keep them locked into defending regime survival whatever the cost. (First published in CanKor Report 317, 16 October 2009.)
Erich Heinz Weingartner: Mr. Pak, I really wish there were a better way to communicate with you. It’s been too long since we last talked.
Pak Kim Li: I called you once in May.
EHW: Yes, and although I have hardly traveled at all this past year, you call me on the one day when I’m out of town.
PKL: Perhaps I should tell you what has been happening lately.
EHW: I know what has been happening lately. The front pages of newspapers the world over have been reporting what’s happening lately! Is there no way I can call or email you other than by leaving a message at the DPRK UN mission?
PKL: You can email me to the Ministry’s address.
EHW: Whatever method I choose, it takes a dozen censors to come to a decision as to whether or not to forward my request to you.
PKL: You exaggerate.
EHW: I just want to register my complaint, that’s all. I thought by now they had enough confidence in me — and in you, for that matter.
PKL: I got all your messages. But as I am trying to explain, I have been busy.
EHW: So it was YOUR decision not to communicate with me? I suppose it makes sense. You can’t possibly be happy about your country’s recent activities.
PKL: What are you talking about? What has my country done that I wouldn’t support?
EHW: Intercontinental ballistic missile test, underground nuclear test… shall I go on? When we first began with these interviews in 2006, just after your military developers had tested an intercontinental missile, I got the distinct impression that you did not share your colleagues’ enthusiasm for military solutions.
PKL: You got the wrong impression. What I regretted was the need for our country to pursue military options under pressure from our enemies. What I regretted was that my country is not allowed to live in peace. In my opinion it would be better to settle our differences through peaceful debate and friendly competition. Unfortunately, it is my country’s fate to be surrounded by friends we cannot trust and enemies that seek to destroy us. And by the way, none of this has anything to do with why I was unable to communicate.
EHW: If that is the case, I stand corrected… and curious. Were you working on former US President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang by any chance?
PKL: Mr. Erich, don’t assume you know us just because of your intermittent contact with us for the past 25 years.
EHW: My apologies, Mr. Pak. What have you been up to these past several months?
PKL: If you will just let me explain, you will wish to congratulate me.
EHW: You’ve been promoted?
PKL: I have been fathered.
EHW: Come again?
PKL: I have become a second father!
EHW: Your wife had another baby? That’s fantastic! My goodness… Yes, of course! Congratulations are in order… to you and even more so to your wife. Boy? Girl?
PKL: Girl, just like I was hoping.
EHW: You never mentioned your wife was pregnant!
PKL: You never asked! You ask me about politics, economics and military matters; you talk to me of religion, philosophy and ideology, but you never ask any relevant questions about my life.
EHW: I thought your wife didn’t want any more children. I was afraid this was too personal a topic… too sensitive an issue for me to raise.
PKL: You remember when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra visited Pyongyang last year?
EHW: How could I forget?
PKL: Well… my wife, as I told you, was deeply moved by the experience. It gave her renewed hope. She decided we should have another child.
EHW: So you plan your family in accordance with the political climate in your country?
PKL: As you know, my wife suffers from depression. This became acute after the death of our first daughter during the arduous march of Juche 95.
EHW: The famine years… Yes, of course I remember it well. What a tragedy for your entire family!
PKL: She said that if she could not protect her children, she would never again want to give life to a child.
EHW: But she changed her mind…
PKL: When President Kim Dae Jung came to pay respects to Chairman Kim Jong Il, she was swept up in the great wave of hope that washed over the entire Korean Peninsula. She felt that now there was a future for our children. Of course, I was more than happy to oblige.
EHW: And the result was that handsome and no doubt clever and talented young man who calls you father. I am sorry I was never allowed to meet him, but my wife and I were pleased to meet your wife at that dinner party we hosted in our apartment… So you’re telling me the visit by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra had a similar effect on her?
PKL: As you know, my wife is a pianist. She lives in a world where emotion is an important asset to her art.
EHW: Whereas you live in a world where emotion is a liability.
PKL: Not really. Even in the political world, emotion can be an asset. It is a positive force to love your country and hate your enemies. Emotions are tools for good not only in the arts. But in both cases, they need to be guided and trained. A musician can express true emotion only if she possesses the skills required for that expression. When my wife plays piano, she disappears as a person. She becomes the music she plays. Her skill and her emotion dissolve into one reality. That certainly wouldn’t be the case if I were the pianist! <laughing> You would never be able to guess my feelings if you heard me play the piano.
EHW: And when you play at politics? Would I be any better at guessing your emotion? When you say that UN Security Council sanctions are a declaration of war, or when you threaten to turn Seoul into a sea of fire, am I supposed to cringe with fear, or should I shrug my shoulders and take it as a sign that it is your side that is afraid?
PKL: Of course you should always take us at our word.
EHW: But what is the emotion behind those words?
PKL: Without the required skills, emotions can become a dangerous disturbance in the political realm. Technical training is necessary for acquiring musical skills. In a similar way, we need guiding principles in politics to even know what it is we are feeling, let alone learning how to express those feelings. That is where my countrymen have the advantage. Our Juche idea explains why we feel the way we do. It expresses our feelings through our revolutionary slogans.
EHW: How can an ideology possibly know what you are feeling, or worse yet, what you should be feeling? We call that brainwashing.
PKL: Of course you call it brainwashing, because you have no interest in understanding. You come to our country with an individualistic mind-set. You read or hear our slogans poorly translated into English, and you judge them to be formulaic and hollow. Since you don’t understand the deeper meanings, you conclude that only a brainwashed person could respond emotionally to our precepts, or base his entire life on them.
EHW: Mr. Pak, the election slogan for the Supreme People’s Assembly was “Let everyone vote in agreement!” How much emotional content does that pack?
PKL: About as much as Mr. Obama’s election slogan “Yes we can!”
EHW: OK, bad example.
PKL: You should come to one of our mass rallies and hear the people shout and sing…
EHW: I have done that, Mr. Pak, on a number of occasions!
PKL: Let’s not call them “slogans,” if that’s a perceptual stumbling block. I know that word has negative connotations in the capitalist world. Don’t think of them in the same category as Coca Cola ads. Think of them as proverbs: the collected wisdom of the brightest minds our country and society and political system has produced. When we shout or sing these — in unison — together with thousands of our countrymen… you can feel the hair rise up on your arm.
EHW: That’s exactly my problem. I attended one of your rallies with a German colleague. When he witnessed the jubilation of tens of thousands at the appearance of your leader on a balcony, he had visions of millions of Germans shouting “Heil Hitler!” with outstretched arms. After your nuclear test 100,000 people packed into Kim Il Sung square In Pyongyang, shouting “Let’s smash the USA!” in unison while punching their clenched fists in the air. Would you not call those “emotions that have become a dangerous disturbance in the political realm?”
PKL: Not at all. Loving your country and hating your enemy — these are healthy emotions. When we shout out our anger at the aggression aimed against our country, together and in public… when what we feel is echoed by tens of thousands of our compatriots… that is when we come to know — to experience — the reality of our collective will. That is when we come to know that together we will overcome our enemies. And in that moment, feeling and knowing are one and the same.
EHW: Except that they are not one and the same. What you describe is what Sigmund Freud called crowd behaviour. Your wife didn’t just react to the inter-Korean summit or the New York Philly visit as part of a crowd. She made personal, life-altering decisions. And you obviously supported her.
PKL: Of course. I was thrilled! I always wanted two children, one of each. Look, it is a good thing when our personal decisions reflect our country’s needs — even a necessary thing. For us, the needs of our people and the needs of our country are one and the same.
EHW: And for the past six months your country needed you to stay home to take care of your wife and your new baby. I didn’t realize that fathers could take maternity leave in the DPRK.
PKL: My work has prevented me from taking a vacation in several years. My boss ordered me to stay home. Visits by foreigners had pretty much stalled in the weeks and months after the nuclear test. I was allowed to work on translations at home… which I very much enjoyed, of course. It was a good time to have a baby.
EHW: …on a personal level at least. Is your wife still happy with her choice? Is she still hopeful about your country’s future?
PKL: It was good that I could spend time with her. Her post-partum depression was rather severe again. But if you are trying to extract some political metaphor from my wife’s personal misfortunes, I warn you to be careful.
EHW: I wouldn’t do that, Mr. Pak. But this can’t be a very hopeful period for either of you. Your leader’s illness, the renewed tensions following missile and nuclear tests, UNSC sanctions, worsening relationships with all your neighbours…
PKL: It is certainly not the kind of progress we had in mind. That much I admit.
EHW: Then why this turn of events? Why antagonize the only US President in recent history who promised to extend a hand to those countries which were previously treated as enemy states?
PKL: We have learned by bitter experience not to trust the worlds of American presidents. Mr. Obama needs to satisfy American conservative forces in order to push through his domestic policies. When dealing with us, he needs to show how tough he is. So he reverts to abusing the favourite whipping boy of all US administrations since the Second World War. That happens to be us. His Secretary of Defence is the same one appointed by Bush. Those who work in the State Department on Korean issues are the same as under Bush.
EHW: He appointed Mrs. Clinton as Secretary of State. Her husband came closer than any other US President toward a rapprochement with you. Had his term lasted any longer, he would probably have been the first US President officially to visit Pyongyang.
PKL: He just did visit Pyongyang. And President Carter did before him.
EHW: I meant while still in office.
PKL: That was ten years ago. Those were different times. We also do not forget that at the beginning of his term, Bill Clinton was closer than any previous US president to launching a nuclear strike against us. Mrs. Clinton still has presidential ambitions, so she is using us to appear stronger than Obama. On her first visit to our arch-enemy Japan, she called our system a “tyranny”. She hinted that the Obama administration is considering putting us back on the list of states sponsoring terrorism. She is using us as the scapegoat. She even said that we have a “succession struggle” going on in our country!
EHW: Surely that must be something you are concerned about as well.
PKL: There is no “succession struggle”.
EHW: Your leader suffered a major stroke last summer. Does it not concern you that no successor has been named?
PKL: These are all fabrications of south Korean intelligence in order to prop up another unpopular leader, south Korea’s Lee Myung-bak.
EHW: There are many who think that the recent events in your country have something to do with fears about the health of your leader. If he were to die suddenly, the lack of a successor could undermine the unity of your country. According to this interpretation, whipping up anger within your population at an external enemy and flexing military muscle is meant to discourage internal divisions.
PKL: Where do you get such nonsense?
EHW: The usual sources: in addition to the news media, I stay in touch with numerous academic colleagues. We are all trying to make sense of the recent turn of events. Last summer you blew up the cooling tower of the only nuclear reactor you possess. It seemed that the Six-Party Talks were finally showing progress. And that was during the administration of Mr. Bush, certainly not a friend of yours. Now you have detonated another underground nuclear test, not to speak of the spent nuclear fuel rods you are in the process of uncanning. Your government even declared it would start operating the uranium centrifuges that you previously claimed you did not possess.
PKL: All of this is in response to the hostile sanctions against us perpetrated by the UN Security Council under pressure from your Obama administration.
EHW: I’m a Canadian. It’s not MY administration. But don’t forget that the UN acted in response to your ballistic missile test…
PKL: …which was nothing more nor less than exercizing our legitimate right to put a satellite into orbit. There is no international law against that. Where are the sanctions against south Korea which has just done exactly the same thing? When south Korea launches a satellite into orbit, nobody seems to view this as a threat. Yet after our launch, Obama said, “Rules must be binding, violations must be punished.”
EHW: He was speaking about the non-proliferation regime…
PKL: …from the comfortable position of president of the nation with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world!
EHW: Mr. Pak, I know all the arguments. The name-calling has been going around in circles for decades. Surely you don’t want this uncertain history to continue for yet another generation. Is this the future you wish for your two children? Whatever is the truth about your satellite launch, whatever is the real purpose for the nuclear test, you must agree that these actions — coming at this precise period of time, after such a hopeful start last summer, after the election of a US President who seems genuinely interested in solving past conflicts — you must surely have anticipated that these actions would antagonize your enemies and alienate your friends. I always thought of your leaders as shrewd negotiators. I always marvelled at their ability to orchestrate events in order to get what they want. But right now I am puzzled: why at this moment would you wish to unite your enemies against you? How can that be good for you? I feel I am missing something.
PKL: What you are missing, what you are always missing, is our perspective, our perception of what we need — what will benefit our people and our children!
EHW: Have you ever considered that your perception may be faulty? You have had the opportunity to travel the world. You of all people should be aware of the cost your children will have to bear — are already bearing — as a result of the wasteful “military first” policy pursued by your government. Your people have sacrificed so much for such a long time, and yet they have been left far behind the rest of the world in terms of economic development and social benefits.
PKL: Do not lecture me, Mr. Erich, and especially do not make theoretical comparisons based on your ideas of “development”. I have seen the world, and what I saw was an American empire that has exploited the global economy for the sake of its own excesses. It is wasting resources at an abominable rate, while millions of children die of starvation and disease the world over. And for all the wealth that your overstuffed Western conglomerates have stolen, the President of the United States — supposedly the most powerful man in the world — is not even able to provide health care to his own people! The very people who elected him!
EHW: Have you noticed how every time I question your country’s policies we end up discussing the faults of the USA instead?
PKL: I assure you, capitulating to foreign powers will not ease the suffering of our people.
EHW: Neither are your current policies easing the suffering of your people! What you call “capitulation” I call doing business. I call it getting a grip on reality.
PKL: What would you have us do that would not be capitulation?
EHW: It’s time for your leaders to face facts. It’s time for you, Mr. Pak, to face facts. Think of your children!
PKL: I AM thinking of my children! Did you reflect even for one moment what would be the consequences to my children’s lives if your desire for our regime’s disappearance came true?
EHW: Any change in your policies away from military threat would be greatly rewarded by all those who have crossed you in the past. And if you would give up your misguided nuclear weapons ambitions, the richest countries of the world would write you a blank cheque. Or here’s a thought: if you are really concerned about succession, how about calling a general election for the next leader so that Kim Jong Il can enjoy a restful and well-deserved retirement in his declining years?
PKL: Before I give in to the temptation to debate your surrealistic flights of fancy, I wish to point out that you have completely missed the point as far as my children are concerned. Do you really believe that any regime acceptable to our enemies would allow our leader a restful retirement? For that matter, do you think a faithful servant of the old regime like me will ever even reach retirement? How many of us do you think will lose their jobs or even their lives according to your scenario?
EHW: All the more reason for you to make a deal! Even the conservative ROK President Lee Myung-bak is proposing a “grand bargain”. At this point you could pretty much dictate your terms!
PKL: We ARE dictating our terms! It is your side that refuses to accept our terms.
EHW: Just give up the damn nukes! Everything else is negotiable.
PKL: If we gave up our nukes, there would be nothing left to negotiate! Look, if circumstances were really as you believe them to be, and if the Americans were really interested in solving the Korean “problem”, the only way they could disarm us is by convincing us that there is no reason to fear them. Put yourself in my position. Would you be convinced? Believe me, my family’s current situation is vastly preferable to any alternative scenario that I can “realistically” — your word — that I can realistically imagine. For now, please just let me serve my leaders — my regime — the best way I can. Speaking of which, I thought this time we were going to talk about my own concept of god.
EHW: It seems to me your Leaders are your god!
PKL: Our Great Leader Kim Il Sung was the closest approximation to god that we have had in human history. Juche teaches that man is the master of all things. But man has not yet fully reached the pinnacle of what it means to be a man. That ideal of the perfect man will always be just out of reach, because man is always in a state of evolution. That ideal of the perfect man…
EHW: …or woman.
PKL: That ideal of the perfect human being is what I would call my god.
EHW: But can that god save your children from the DPRK regime’s apocalypse? The Platonic “god as ideal” concept is fine as a philosophical construct. But does that help in the here and now?
PKL: That is where the Great Leader comes in. We know who god is because we Koreans have the great fortune to have our own model of such a perfect man. He is not god, but looking at his example and following his precepts will point us in the right direction toward perfection.
EHW: But you can’t have a relationship with perfection. You cannot rely on perfection. You cannot communicate with perfection. How can fallible men like you and I ever relate to an ideal that will by definition never exist? If my doomsday predictions ever came true and your regime faced its inevitable demise, what lesson would you teach your son about the Juche god?
PKL: I would tell my son then what I already tell him now: that he must find his own excellence. Every person has within him a seed of perfection. That seed will grow if it knows its place, if it is given the right environment and nurture. You have to find within you that place which resonates most purely with the ideal. When something inside your spirit tells you this word or that word of the Great Leader is true, when you experience the love of family, ancestors and nation, when your heart sings with appreciation on hearing your mother play the piano, when you feel your heart explode at the beauty of your loved one, when you feel compelled by your love for all your compatriots and your leader to take your place in the great design of the revolution, that is when you will find your own personal seed of excellence. That seed is the meaning of your life. That is the seed to which you must dedicate your life. That is your personal contribution to the architecture of perfection. That seed is a unique part of god within your heart. And that seed is also your designated place in the heart of god.
EHW: Mr. Pak, I thank you for this conversation.