The famine that is today rapidly descending upon North Korea reminds me of a rare visit I made to that country in 1986. The North Koreans were then just beginning to expand their interaction with the non-socialist world. They had invited some scholars from the United Nations University (UNU), including myself, to come and meet the academic community of this so-called hermit nation. What I saw stunned me. The magnitude of this country’s isolation, in time and space, was simply indescribable.
The international airport at Pyongyang featured only two destinations: Beijing and Moscow. No matter where a traveler was coming from, one had to pass through one of these socialist gateways to enter North Korea.
Pyongyang, the capital, had two faces. Its somber side, adorned with imposing statues of Kim IL Sung and gigantic monuments to the revolution and the fatherland, appeared like an excessive caricature of a typical socialist city. The roads were the widest I had seen anywhere – more suited to military parades than to the lean traffic that passed through them. The buildings were of uniform gray stone, lifeless, massive and intimidating.
But, there is the Pyongyang of gentle willow trees and charming rivers, of endless wooded parks and flower gardens. For a while, I thought I was in Europe, in one of the exclusive suburbs of Paris, London or Berlin. Just 2 hours away by plane from Beijing, Pyongyang bore no resemblance whatsoever to the great ancient city next door.
But what struck me most were the people. They wore a uniform blue or gray suit made from a locally-produced synthetic fabric. Each one of them, young and old, had a pin of the “Great Leader”, Kim IL Sung, on their lapels. In addition, there were all kinds of pins commemorating certain events in North Korean history. The pins came in different colors and sizes, and I imagined that the precise manner they were arranged on one’s breast could be a precious way of subtly expressing a forbidden individuality. Even so, the centerpiece on everybody’s lapel was invariably the pin that bore the same chubby face of the nation’s father.
It was a people that did not seem to know what to do between work. In the afternoon, during lunch break, they would sit on the curb of the street and watch the black cars of the bureaucrats and military officials pass by. Rare organized leisure for the average Korean seemed to consist of an unchanging diet of circuses and amusement park rides. The shopping centers were already virtually empty even at that time. Money is useless in a society like this, unless you had foreign money, which alone provided access to the special markets for diplomats.
Workers were encouraged to spend their time in the library of the people during their free hours. Here, they were expected to increase their knowledge of their nation’s history, its problems, the state of the world, and the philosophy that should guide their everyday life. On a tour of this huge library, I noticed a number of open cubicles that looked like counseling rooms. I learned that they were actually little classrooms presided over by professors, who could be approached for information on any subject – just like the way our own radio listeners phone their questions and health problems to an omniscient Professor Ernie Baron.
Being academics, we were interested in their universities. The Kim IL Sung University in Pyongyang is the country’s premier university. I went through its card catalogue for theses and dissertations, and asked my interpreter to read these out in English. What I heard made me sad. Every type of research and every form of theoretical reflection was somehow connected to the Juche principle. Juche is the governing ideology and philosophy of North Korea.
The notion of mastery seems to capture its major meanings. The young sociology professor who became my friend taught me how the study of society was handled in the North Korean context. There were 3 basic disciplines in the social sciences, he said — sociology, economics and philosophy. Sociology is the mastery of social relations. Economics is the mastery of nature. And philosophy, he went on, is the mastery of self. These were novel and fascinating definitions, I said, but who is doing the mastering? Why, of course, the people, my friend said.
If there were any masters in North Korea, it was obvious that it wasn’t the ordinary people. The level of subjection of the individual self to institutions and authority figures appalled me. On a visit to a showcase nursery school in Pyongyang, we were greeted by the joyous singing of kids who, with their red cheeks and robust bodies, looked like freshly-picked tomatoes. After singing a rousing welcome song, they excitedly swarmed about us like gentle bees, touching and kissing us in a show of unbridled friendship. Then, after some minutes, as abruptly as they came, all the happy kids withdrew when the teacher clapped her hands and barked some words. Like trained soldiers, they stiffly fell in line, the smile totally gone from their faces. In a flash, I saw the future of North Korea, and it disturbed me to see what a state could do to a nation’s children.
This has nothing to do with socialism, I tried to assure myself. Unfortunately, socialism, unlike Christianity, tends to be judged by its living experiments rather than by its timeless ideals.
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