by Col. Jargalsaikhan Mendee, graduate student from Mongolia, Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia, 12 July 2010
Attending a reading by Erich Weingartner at UBC last May, I couldn’t help feeling the pain of his fictional friend Pak Kim Li. Mr. Pak is in the middle of everything: ideology, civilization, history and humans. Pak’s story was touching because we have lived in a similar closed society in Mongolia. Personally, Pak’s story was believable because my experience was similar to his. Pak’s story is heartbreaking because after so many years, we are still not doing enough to understand him and his people.
I still can’t figure out why my friends expressed our condolences when Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev died in the cold winter
of 1982. On that morning, four ten-year-old boys remained silent for a minute at the corner of the street, where we used to meet and walk to school through the darkness of cold winter mornings. Was it because we could not watch our favorite patriotic movies for a whole week? It was more than that. It was the result of ideology and propaganda.
I don’t believe my grandparents and parents were communists. But they were indoctrinated. We learned all the party slogans by heart. We read all the bad things about American imperialists, Japanese capitalists and Chinese expansionists. The very first foreigners I met were Russian soldiers serving in Mongolia. When I was a kid from the countryside, I used to approach Russian soldiers to practice my Russian language skills – and to (secretly) exchange my grandma’s bread and milk brandy for military badges. Anything is interesting to a country boy! The Soviet media and culture were our windows to see and judge the world.
Mongolia was one of the socialist countries that were closed to many Westerners and our immediate neighbors in the south. Due to integration with other socialist countries, we shared many similarities. Our society—with its contrasting social classes of intelligentsia, herdsmen and workers—was controlled by a single party. Every piece of news was censored, and speeches were always in line with party dogma. I don’t remember hearing a single good news story about America or China. They were simply considered to be evil. Society was militarized to defend the nation from any aggression by capitalists and expansionists.
In retrospect, many were worried about a potential war with China in 1979, when military forces of the Soviet Union and Mongolia conducted a major exercise near the Chinese border to threaten China to stop its invasion of Vietnam. Did American or Chinese leaders have any intention to engage in war? Probably not. It was an illusion meant to keep a society in the dark, and to justify enormous defense spending and social control. In a closed society, you know only one view – and you believe that to be the absolute truth.
While attending the Defense Academy, I was fortunate enough to meet an American woman who used to take her dog for walks in the morning. She was the spouse of early American Embassy staff in Ulaanbaatar. She agreed to teach me English while walking her dog. My grandfather, who fought against the Japanese in 1939, hated the capitalist Americans. He warned me that the American lady was a spy. My parents on the other hand were supportive, though I would assume they received the same anti-American indoctrination.
Right after my graduation from military academy (1994), I approached some American military engineers, the first to be dispatched to the newly established Mongolian democracy. Without any official permission (obviously nobody would have approved), my friend and I joined them on their morning run. We also frequently visited their work place (after work or at lunchtime).
The USA started offering foreign military training assistance to Mongolia. Language training was obviously the first choice. Senior officers encouraged all to learn English and to take tests. The Ministry of Defense officials (Foreign Cooperation Department) started calling me for translation support, usually for periods of 2-4 days. My first task was to help the aircrew of Alaskan National Guard C-130, which was delivering aid to Mongolia. This was the start of my experience dealing with foreigners. Interestingly, I became friends with our drivers, who usually served for foreign delegates.
In 1996, I was sent to Texas for an English language course. This was a total shock for a country boy and young officer trained to fight against Chinese and Americans. I came to realize that as people, Americans are not that different from us. Some problems our English teacher described sounded exactly the same as my mom’s. My language skills gave me the opportunity to travel often to the USA. I studied in Monterey and in Hawaii, and attended a variety of events in the Asia-Pacific. When I worked at the US Central Command in Tampa, I came to understand that the military mind is also the same everywhere. The challenges are the same. My senior leadership and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs then posted me as a Defense Attaché in Washington DC. In that position I found that all bureaucracies – not only the military – have the same challenges and routines, the same complicated procedures and a suspicion-built culture.
After all these years of miracles due to my interest in language and the opportunities that were provided for my generation, I liked the story of Mr. Pak, and listened very carefully.
After my assignment in DC, I was posted as a Chief of the Foreign Cooperation Department of the Ministry of Defense. My only goal was to re-engage with the North Korean military before pursuing an academic path. Our main aim was to understand them and to expose them to what we Mongolians have achieved in the short period of ten years. I visited Pyongyang with my staff in April 2008, and hosted my North Korean counterpart in July 2008. Then I re-visited the DPRK with our senior leader in November 2008. We didn’t talk about arms sales or any related topic. Instead, we paved the way for increased military educational exchanges, cultural and sports exchanges, and other types of non-combat exchanges.
During these interactions, I encountered my own “Mr. Pak”, a military translator. Just like I had been doing several years ago, he was searching for new words and phrases, putting sentences meaningfully, avoiding any misunderstanding between his countrymen and us foreigners. I saw senior military officers, who were attentive to see our reactions, to gauge if we understood correctly (or whether Mr. Pak was translating correctly). Other military officers looked jealously at Mr. Pak, wishing they had learned English when they were young. I saw North Korean drivers who enjoyed going with foreigners and helping Mr. Pak explain his culture and life correctly to the foreigners.
Obviously, Mr. Pak had an opportunity to hear other views and to shake hands with the “devil”. I assume he had moments of doubt and anger because it was truly hard to understand the mind of evil. Maybe he realized that these people were not devils; that they are just the same as him, but with different opinions based on their culture, religion and lifestyle. Like Pocahontas, a Virginia Indian chief’s daughter, interpreters become a bridge between his/her people and strangers. They help their people to link new ideas with old ones to make things better. Translators help all to get over suspicion, hatred, and misperceptions. But this takes time and effort, and sometimes it will fail. It demands patience from the interpreter, whom I would call a mediator of ideas.
Truly, I felt sorry for Pak and his people for not accessing all the amenities we enjoy today. I saw children playing happily in the streets of Pyongyang, and I recall my childhood as the happiest moments of my life in the absence of the wealthy Toy Land and IT world. We need to engage North Koreans and we need to assure them that we are people just the same as they are, even though they live in the most controlled and closed society. In our daily life, we never try to punish children for their parent’s mistake and actions. Churches, schools, charities, and neighbors always try to help children who are in need, because they are the future.
As humans, we need to help people know about others. And language is the only tool for this. If we isolate the North Korean regime even further, we are punishing the souls of those who want to know about others and who want to be friends with others. Unless people communicate with each other—like Mr. Pak and Erich—they will never understand their souls and minds. A whole society will be kept in darkness and people will suffer. Isolation makes it easier for politicians and militaries to gain attention and resources. Isolation only empowers the few at the top and helps to securitize/traumatize the nation.
These were the thoughts and feelings that hit me after listening to and reading the story of the North Korean “patriot”. I am glad that Weingartner didn’t forget his friends in North Korea. I knew many foreign officials and experts that worked in tough nations for per diem, and never tried to understand the people. They gave more focus to leaders and their official policies. It is good to know there are also people who try to understand what others are thinking. Drivers and translators are representative of the people, the local community. In fact they are closer to people. They know their problems, often seeking a better life for their people. Who knows? Maybe Mr. Pak is a future Minister of Foreign Affairs or Ambassador to Canada, if conditions improve!
[Photographs courtesy Mr. Mendee from his 2008 visit to the DPRK.]