[VIEWPOINT]The meaning behind a visitThe North Korean authorities have made it a rule to require citizens pay a visit to the tombs of the revolutionary fighters in Mount Daeseong, the Geumsusan Memorial Palace or one of the statues of Kim Il-sung to offer flowers and prayers whenever a change in life occurs, such as entering a new school, getting married, finishing military service or getting a new job.
The formalities of offering flowers and a prayer induce the citizens to have loyalty to the regime and to enhance the will to safeguard the system under the leader. Therefore, the flower dedication and prayer to the symbols of the system became the essence of the life of the juche ideology and the determination of North Korean citizens.
When South Korean visitors arrive in Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport, the first place the North Koreans take them is the colossal golden statue of late leader Kim Il Sung. Watching the North Koreans solemnly dedicating at least a flower, if not a bouquet, the South Korean visitors, who are unfamiliar with the culture of a personality cult, barely get out of the awkward moment by slightly bowing or taking a photo.
Pyongyang has taken yet another initiative in the inter-Korean relations through the ceremony of worship, a unique custom to maintain the dictatorship. Considering the precedent of sending armed infiltrators and attempting to blow off the main entrance to the memorial tower in 1970, the visit to the National Cemetery is an exceptional move.
The fact that the government had spent four days discussing the matter before making Pyongyang’s proposal public suggests how delicate the matters were. To move to the future and leave the past behind, the South Korean authorities inevitably had to allow the visit. It will be hard to open a new era of two Koreas if Seoul doesn’t address the most crucial issue, while claiming to pursue a new relationship with the North.
As the North Korean delegates visited the National Memorial Tower, they must have had as complicated a calculation as the South had. As Lim Dong-ok, the deputy director of the United Front Department of the North Korean Workers’ Party, has said, the decision to visit the National Cemetery must have been a tough one.
When the North Korean delegates paid a visit to the National Memorial Tower, where the remains of the unknown soldiers are laid, they stood in a silent tribute, the lowest form of worship, and skipped the formality of the flower dedication, a token of respect. Kim Ki-nam, the chief delegate, interpreted the meaning of the visit in a narrow sense, saying that they were visiting the cemetery because the tablets of those who dedicated their lives to national liberation were enshrined there. Adept in strategy and tactic, Pyongyang must have hoped for various effects from the visit which lasted only 10 minutes.
First, Pyongyang takes into account the direction of international politics, which is towards synchronization and cooperation in the now-recessed six-party talks on its nuclear program, by maximizing the concept of “among Koreans.” Second, North Korea has the principle of reciprocity in mind, thinking that South Korean delegations would have to visit the tomb of patriots during their visit to Pyongyang.
While the National Cemetery and the Geumsusan Memorial Palace are different in nature, South Koreans have little justification to refuse a visit. Pyongyang would tacitly request Seoul to deviate from the conventional behavior and make a “courageous” move because they had initiated a gesture of reconciliation. To convince the citizens confused about Pyongyang’s intentions behind the National Cemetery visit, the government would have to prepare a guideline for visits to North Korea in advance.
In fact, we cannot interpret North Korean delegates’ visit as an expression of regret over the Korean War. Instead, just as the head of the delegation has explained, the visit is more of a courtesy to those who had fought against Japan in time for the 60th anniversary of the national liberation. Pyongyang must have many obstacles to preparing a complete set of formalities suitable for its chief executive’s visit to the national cemetery, such as sincere flower offering, incense burning and prayer. And yet, North Korean delegates paid a visit to the National Memorial Tower on their own initiative.
If North Korean National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il makes a decision, inter-Korean relations in the future could be filled with dramatic events beyond our imagination that can transcend the past at once. The current of reconciliation could become swift when it is combined with the trend of nationalism of the two Koreas.
We might have frequent ex-changes and contacts that were inconceivable through the perspective of the Cold War. In the process of increasing contacts with the North, the government must take care to secure transparency and listen to public opinion. Also, the authorities need to respond sensitively so that the situation does not develop friction between the conservatives and the progressives.
Both Seoul and Pyongyang need to keep in mind that reconciliation and cooperation can lead to a great outcome only when the efforts do not go against the grand flow of the international community.
* The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Nam Sung-wook