Restructuring the fightAbout 10 years ago, the streets of Pyongyang outside the Koryo Hotel standing tall along the Taedong River looked dark. The black-and-white TV showed a drama pitching devotion to local products. The young man who was accompanying me was dispatched from the North’s State Security Department and studied at the elite Kim Il-sung University. He smoked Mild Seven cigarettes, a Japanese brand. I asked him if it was okay to smoke a foreign tobacco brand. His answer was simple and clear. “Who cares?” There was no order or principle of “Juche” (North Korea’s quintessential self-sufficient political and economic ideology). People raised chickens on their apartment balconies and rice shops did not sell any grain.
North Korea has embarked on restructuring Kim Il Sung University. In order to foster talents fit for a mightier country, the law department was elevated to a law school and the economics department to a separate school of economics. Like capitalist countries, North Korea is beginning to value law and money. The school changed the title of the course on convergence studies to “frontier science” and made changes to the curriculum, according to Park Myung-kyu, director of the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University (SNU).
Park, who has led the institute for the past 10 years, just returned from a seminar attended by SNU, Kim Il Sung University and Yanbian University of China especially held for the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. Park concluded that a lot was changing in North Korea including education.
A day after he returned to Seoul, the two Koreas exchanged fire at the western border area, with North Korea pledging all-out attack for South Korea’s initiation of high-decibel propaganda broadcasts along the border in retaliation for North Korea’s distribution of land mines in the southern side of the demilitarized zone that maimed two soldiers.
The volley of artillery in the world’s heavily fortified border is a rare scene in this century. British historian Eric Hobsbawm declared the first half of the 20th century that suffered World War II with a death toll of over 12 million and the Korean War that killed millions an “Age of Catastrophe.” Human life was brutally cut short in the name of ideology. Massacres were committed under the pretext of creating a world where no one would go hungry. But North Korea, which put “People” ahead of its country name “Republic” to differentiate itself from South Korea, was defeated by the South in the ideological goal of feeding its people. North Korea became more and more isolated while South Korea prospered and stretched further into the bigger world. The deadly war of tension that the two Koreas have been waging since last week was triggered by long-gone Cold War ideology that does not exist anywhere in the world except on the Korean Peninsula. Why can’t this land be free from the chains of the “Age of Extremes”?
Last month in Havana, Cuba, a new chapter has begun. The age of revolutionaries led by Fidel and Raul Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara has ended with the rising of the U.S. flag in the capital city. The U.S. embassy formally opened in Havana after the U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in July. American political scientist Daniel Bell declared the “End of Ideology” in late 1950s. Some of the vestiges of the ideological age have been removed from Cuba. And yet in this part of the world, projectiles and artillery are still being fired, an inhabited island is attacked, a patrol ship is sunk, and propaganda leaflets are flown and broadcasts blasted. It is as if the Korean Peninsula has been cut off from the world of the 21st century and is stuck in a barbaric age. Our defense minister promising to keep the loudspeakers on and his North Korean counterpart considering it a declaration of war is all farcically behind the times in today’s world. Both Koreas must restructure their mind-set on unification. Restructuring is not just for companies and universities.
If they have the interests of their respective people at heart, the two Koreas should radically change their way of relating. What use is ideology in a contest between rich and poor and a more open-minded society versus a closed one? The right way is for the richer and more open-minded society to yield. The broader consensus is that we cannot tolerate anymore. But how hard have we endeavored to understand and exercise patience toward the unruly North? Park of SNU urged that we must do more. Inter-Korean relations cut off by the May 24, 2010, sanctions must be restored gradually through infrastructure investment, rice aid and cultural exchanges.
The Aug. 15 Liberation Day address by the president did not live up to our expectations. Our minds and approach have not changed even as we passed the 70th anniversary of liberation. North Korea remains intransigent, and it cannot be moved through propaganda broadcasts. Demands for opening and family reunions are old repertoire. North Korea responded by firing projectiles and South Korea took “stern action.” The Liberation Day address, nuanced with conciliatory gestures of dialogue and cooperation, resulted in nothing. Is there any way we can hear a song of exaltation on the 100th anniversary of liberation?
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 25, Page 31
*The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.
by Song Ho-keun