A talk by Bertil Lintner
Grant, James McAndrew, Richard Nelson-Jones, Louis
Annelie Hendriks, Manus Brinkman, Marie Burrows, Bodil Blokker, Peter
Gose-Symes, Peter Kuowenberg, Adam Dedman, Mark Bleadon, Tom Hughes,
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
Chutima and John Murphy, Floor Meyers, Rick Vanenzuela, Kari Barrer,
McLees, Oliver Hargreave, Mariko Kuga, Jean-Claude Neveu, Svend
Petersen, Pietre-Yves Manguin, Judy and Dale Harcourt, Klaus
Ohlson. An audience of 47.
summary has been compiled by your convenor from the
notes that Bertil used for his talk.
Bertil started by saying that after studying and writing about Burma
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
and a new consulate in Hong Kong.
Bertil went to Hong Kong and started sifting through company
looking for North Korean companies doing business outside North Korea.
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
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
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
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
to Meeting Diary