[VIEWPOINT]Academically, They're Not 'Just Like Us'

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[VIEWPOINT]Academically, They're Not 'Just Like Us'

"Our Great Leader, Kim Jong-il stated, 'Pyongyang is a historical city, which boasts a long history, glorious civilization and the wisdom and talents of our people.' Pyongyang is a city of a long history and a superior cultural tradition ever since the history of mankind started, where people have sowed the seeds of culture and flourished since the dawn of human history."

That was the introduction to a thesis presented by a North Korean scholar on relics excavated in and around Pyongyang at a seminar organized by the Association of Korean Studies in Europe in London last April. The lecturer introduced exciting relics such as a newly-discovered Old Stone Age hunting area, fossils of Neolithic humans, a New Stone Age grave where the living were buried with the dead, the stone walls of Tangun Choson, an ancient tribal kingdom, ruins of shrines and dolmen. Lecturing on prehistoric life and culture in the Pyongyang area, he concluded, "We should try harder to explore historical sites and relics, and show off our country's long history and superior civilization to the whole world."

A second North Korean scholar talked about how patriotic the anti-Japanese literature of the 1910-1945 Japanese colonization of Korea was, while a third spoke about the patriotic zeal of the Reformist scholars of the late Choson dynasty. The North Korean presentations all began with quotations from the Great Leader and ended with patriotic resolutions.

The presentations on anti-Japanese literature and the Reformists interested me because of the new interest in them in the North, which places priority on anti-Americanism and the so-called "literature of class struggle." At the same time, they testified that among North Korea's academics, the standard by which literary or ideological works are evaluated is their patriotism.

In fact, the presentation on Choson's Reformists was about those scholars' efforts to reject the mainstream's dependence on China and arouse a spirit of self-determination. But the presentations ended up sounding like state propaganda, beginning with the North Korean leader's patriotic remark, emphasizing at intervals that the Reformist ideology was a patriotic one and concluding by saying, "We expect to inherit the patriotic tradition (of the Reformist scholars) and to march on, to accomplish the holy task of national reunification."

The Association of Korean Studies in Europe appreciates the North Korean participation, and thus applauded the propaganda-like theses that lacked academic rigor. Not many international seminars would accept such papers except this association. Listening to the presentations, I was concerned about the embarrassment that Northern scholars will have to suffer when they enter the international academic arena.

Today's academic world does not allow evaluating literary works or ideology based on the strength of their patriotic fervor. To be accepted in academic circles, papers should structurally analyze the meaning or the symbolic structure of the subject in an academically rigorous way.

Archaeologists would not accept the self-congratulatory assertion that, "The fact that Neolithic fossils show characteristics of modern Koreans proves that the region (around Pyongyang) is where the evolution of the human race took place and that Koreans originated from this place."

Asked about the relationship between anti-Japanese literature and the North's philosophy of class struggle, the presenter said, "I do not see it as a revolutionary tradition." And asked when North Korea began to study the Reformist school, the presenter of that thesis replied that the ideology has been recognized as patriotic since the mid-1980s, when "our Great Leader" called it such.

We should be prepared to deal with such huge differences in all areas with the North when the two Koreas engage in free exchanges and ultimately reunite.


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The writer is a professor of English language and literature at Korea University.


by Suh Ji-Moon

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