[OUTLOOK]North must help itself first

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[OUTLOOK]North must help itself first

I was full of anticipation the day I visited Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea, in June 2004. I had happy expectations, and I was also curious to know how many students were there, what subjects were taught to them, what the campus looked like. After all, it is the most elite university in North Korea.
However, my expectations crumbled from the start. As soon as we arrived there, the guide led the way to a room where North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is said to have studied when he was young, not to an official reception room or briefing room of the university. Then the guide showed us around 10 classrooms, one filled with books Kim Jong-il studied, another displaying reports the leader wrote, another where he gave on-the-spot instructions after he became the leader of the country and so on. That was all.
The guide then told us to get on the bus that would take us back to the hotel. I strongly insisted that he show us at least a library or a bookstore, but he did not budge. In the end, what we saw was not Kim Il Sung University, but rooms that showed us Kim Jong-il’s old days.
The same thing happened at Mount Baekdu. We were supposed to take a cable car that the guide had talked so much about, and move down to the lake in the bottom of the crater, but it was canceled because we apparently ran out of time.
Instead, the bus took us to a secret billeting place, or Milyoung, from where general Kim Il Sung, the great leader of North Korea and Kim Jong-il’s father, is said to have led the fight for independence from Japan. It is said that Kim Jong-il was born in one of these places. So we hurried down from the sacred mountain of the Korean people to see the “sacred land” of Kim and his son.
Such unfortunate incidents took place repeatedly during our three nights and four days’ stay in North Korea. The place where we had a chance to recharge, amid all this tension and despondency, was strangely, the burial place of General Ondal. The story of stupid Ondal and the crying princess helped us endure more than “100-wins-and-no-losses” hero stories.
The incidents that our group experienced were probably experienced by others as well. They must have happened before us and they will probably happen again after us, and they will never change. This is because the guides, who saw the irritated expressions on their visitors’ faces and heard their dissatisfied voices, probably could not or did not relay the situation to higher authorities. Perhaps they decided against making a report so that they could protect themselves, or they might have made reports many times, only to be ignored.
The point is that this is not an individual problem but a problem inherent in the system. It is the result of awfully strict bureaucracy. The streets and monuments of Pyongyang were filled with signs and placards in red, touting the “Juche Ideology” and “Military-first Politics.” This was the reality of Pyongyang. North Korea is a socialist country in name, but socialist signs were hard to find.
If my observations are correct, it will be difficult to convey the United States’ declaration that it considers the system separate from the people. The same goes for the “humanitarian” principles that South Korea has been professing, too. Even if helping North Korean people results in helping the regime there, there is no way to separate the two effectively.
In this case, the alternative solution is simple. There is a way to continue the present level of contacts with the North without taking into account whether such contact neglects the collapse of the North Korean system or will cause a disaster to the people. In case of the former, enormous costs and sacrifices will follow, but there is a smaller risk with the latter.
Actually, what the North Korean regime wants more than anything else is the recognition of its political system, and the United States has been assuring the North that it will not ruin the system by force. Even if this isn’t the true intention of the United States, we need to believe in it and try to make it a reality. Maintaining the status quo might be the only way we can solve current problems on the Korean Peninsula.
Last week, I watched the TV broadcast of the World Cup qualifying match between North Korea and Japan, which was held in Bangkok without an audience. But the comments made by a South Korean sports commentator were not fair. When the North Korean team narrowly missed the Japanese goal, he said, “Oh, what a shame,” but when the opposite happened he said, “Phew, that was close.”
Am I being too sensitive when I say that I felt nationalism in these comments? Maybe I’m wrong, because the newspapers have recently said that 45.8 percent of South Korean university students are willing to give up their nationality.
A flurry of conflicting mottos that deal with national cooperation or cooperation with outside forces are being shouted out around us. They say that heaven helps those who help themselves. I think North Korea needs to show an attitude of helping themselves first in order to solve this conflict.

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Joseph W. Chung
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