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MEETINGS 2006


272nd Meeting - Tuesday, March 21st 2006

" Great Leader, Dear Leader: Demystifying North Korea under the Kim Clan "

A talk by Bertil Lintner


Present: Ron Grant, James McAndrew, Richard Nelson-Jones, Louis Gabaude, Annelie Hendriks, Manus Brinkman, Marie Burrows, Bodil Blokker, Peter Gose-Symes, Peter Kuowenberg, Adam Dedman, Mark Bleadon, Tom Hughes, Anais Chalet, David Steane, John Cadet, Paul Barber-Riley, Jeanette Pembroke, Reinhold Hohler, Brian Doberstyn, Victoria Voneiter, Mark and Dianne Barber-Riley, Mike Long, Frank Mohlmann, Jeff Maynil, Lorenz Ferrari, Keith Lorenz, David Salisbury, Donald Hermit, Bonnie Brereton, Markks Steeb, Chutima and John Murphy, Floor Meyers, Rick Vanenzuela, Kari Barrer, Megan McLees, Oliver Hargreave, Mariko Kuga, Jean-Claude Neveu, Svend Petersen, Pietre-Yves Manguin, Judy and Dale Harcourt, Klaus Bettenhausen, Thomas Ohlson. An audience of 47.

Summary: This summary has been compiled by your convenor from the (scant) notes that Bertil used for his talk.

Bertil started by saying that after studying and writing about Burma for 20 years, he decided it was time for a change. Casting around for a new subject, his investigatorial eye fell upon North Korea, another closed country that needs to be prised open. At that time, about 5 years ago, North Korea was showing signs of opening up with trading houses in Bangkok and a new consulate in Hong Kong.

Bertil went to Hong Kong and started sifting through company registries, looking for North Korean companies doing business outside North Korea. He found quite a few, which indicated that North Korea was opening up but, as he discovered, economic reforms were at a snail's pace. While other communist regimes: China, Vietnam, Laos, had collapsed or were reforming themselves, only the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Cuba have remained relatively untouched by the passage of time.

In a book review of Great Leader, Dear Leader in the Bangkok Post, the reviewer asserted that Bertil's description of North Korea painted it as a Stalinist regime. Bertil countered this by saying that if it was Stalinist then it was lax Stalinist, but he didn't think that Stalinism explained it.

The first Western envoy to Pyongyang was Erik Cornell, the Swedish Ambassador, who at one time represented the rest of the world in North Korea. Today (if I remember correctly) Sweden and India are the only countries with embassies in North Korea.

Bertil's note: But even North Korea's communist allies seemed dumbfounded by what they saw and heard. To illustrate this he told the story of the Cuban ambassador's wife on a visit with her husband to North Korea. While touring around the country she had noticed that she had not seen any cemeteries. To satisfy her curiosity, during an official reception she asked a North Korean official if there was a reason why she had not seen any cemeteries. The official, with a dead-straight face, replied "Madam in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea few people die."

North Korea's security apparatus includes 'Stalinist style' secret police and prison camps, the first security chief Soviet Korean having modeled them on the Stalinist system. Bertil met one man who had spent a number of years, from his childhood, with the rest of his family in a prison camp. The family had been 'arrested' and taken to the camp without being told why - what law they had broken or what they had done wrong. Prison camps are in a sense a deterrent, a warning to the rest of the population to conform and obey. But the North Koreans have not adopted the Stalinist ideology.

Bertil contacted Hans Maretzki for information on Red Confucianism, and found that North Korea was more Confucian than the South and much more than Japan or China. North Korean social order is strictly hierarchical; a society divided into different, distinct social classes combined with a very strong (required/enforced) sense of nationalism. In response to a question on education in North Korea, Bertil said that schools abound; at least one in every village, because this is where the inculcation of nationalist doctrine starts.

Bertil never thought he would have the opportunity to visit North Korea. In fact, the original manuscript was finished in January 2004. But then, suddenly, there was an opening. He could go as a member of the Swedish prime minister's entourage. The Swedish prime minister, however, cancelled his visit but Bertil pressed on with his application for a visa and was greatly helped by some local Koreans working in the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, who every day took it upon themselves to move Bertil's application from one desk to the next, and Bertil got his visa.

He went to North Korea in April 2004, and, after what he saw there, when he got back he rewrote the manuscript. By way of summing up his experience of North Korea, Bertil said that in his youth he had hitch-hiked through Eastern Europe, but there was no comparison between North Korea and Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. During his time in North Korea Bertil discovered that the people are shockingly normal; they like to drink, sing, tell dirty jokes, and are keen to talk about just about anything, except Great Leader, Dear Leader and anything to do with the regime that could be overheard and even remotely construed as non-nationalist.

On his visit to North Korea, Bertil spent most of his time in Pyongyang, which he described as a 'Showcase city'. While there he met a Swedish Pentecostal missionary who showed him slides he had taken of the countryside - not 'Showcase'. The people are poor, very poor, and the greatest problem they face is not starvation but malnutrition. That more than anything else has forced North Korea to let some market forces loose, and once the genie is out of the bottle North Korea will change, the question is 'In what way?'

Bertil ended his talk with the rhetorical question, 'Will North Korea collapse?' He didn't think so any time soon. North Korea has been on a war footing for more than half a century, so the regime won't fall apart easily. A significant difference between North Korea and the Soviet Union and China is that in North Korea there are absolutely no dissidents. You are either part of the system, and obey, or you leave the country.

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