A sentimental trip to Pyongyang

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A sentimental trip to Pyongyang


Kang Chan-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The Democratic Party lawmakers who visited North Korea for three days to attend the 11th anniversary of the October 4, 2010 inter-Korean summit had mixed feelings — especially the former activists who contacted the North as part of the reunification movement in the late 1980s. The highlight was the reunion with their North Korean counterparts.

“Rep. Song! It’s been 30 years. How have you been?” Rep. Song Young-gil, who joined the delegation as the head of the Special Committee for East Asian Peace and Cooperation in the ruling Democratic Party, was surprised to hear the familiar voice. It was Ri Kum-chol, who, as a student at Pyongyang Foreign Language University, guided Lim during her visit to the festival 29 years ago. Kang Ji-yong, who was the head of the student council at the Kim Chaek Engineering University, also showed up. Kang is now the head of the North’s Joseon Council of Religions, and Lee is the vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Joseon Social Democratic Party.

Ri Kum-chol told Song, “I thought you would succeed as the campaign was going well, but your rival was formidable. It is regrettable.” He was referring to the Democratic Party convention on Aug. 25, where Song lost to Lee Hae-chan in the party chairman election. Ri was practically showing off that he was well-informed about the situation in the South and the lawmakers.

Li also said, “Please send my regards to Lim Su-kyung, Presidential Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok and Shin Dong-ho, president’s speechwriter.” Im Jong-seok was the president of the Hanyang University student council at the time. As the third president of the National Council of Student Representatives in 1989, he orchestrated Lim Su-kyung’s illegal visit to Pyongyang and had been imprisoned for more than three years. Shin Dong-ho, who has been writing speeches for President Moon Jae-in, was an executive member of the National Council of Student Representatives at the time.

Ri Kum-chol named two of President Moon’s trusted aides and emphasized their “connections” with the North to dominate the conversation. Other North Korean figures also made remarks with similar intention. Ri Chang-dok, a director at the National Peace and Unification Committee, cynically said that South Korean politicians should prioritize the nation, rather than being trapped in party interests.
Those who had contacted their North Korean counterparts as college students in the 1980s met one another after 30 years as established politicians in South and North Korea. They had a lot of catching up to do. Rep. Ahn Min-seok said, “When we visited North Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, everyone was wary and cautious. But now that inter-Korean relations are improving and we have grown older, we could have deeper conversation like friends. We even talked about our first loves.”


The North Korean counterparts praised Ahn as the “star who dug up the Choi Soon-sil scandal.” Ahn continued, “Kang Ji-yong and others commented on my work. I knew Kang from my visit to Pyongyang 10 years ago. But the officials who first saw me recognized and greeted me. It proves that they are closely watching what’s going on in South Korea everyday.”

The lawmakers did not fall for North Korea’s idiosyncratic strategy. Hwang Ju-hong of the Party for Democracy and Peace said that he met the members of the Supreme People’s Assembly — the parliament of North Korea — but that it was just a nominal body that meets only once a year. He added that it was nonsense to compare it to our National Assembly that works on democracy. He also said it was his second visit to Pyongyang in 13 years, and that it was regrettable that changes were slow. “The change of their mindset was so slow and closed, probably due to the sanctions. They also said that they were worried about Kim Jong-un’s safety if he visits Seoul this year.”

Song made insightful remarks. “As I visited North Korea, I realized that the Democratic Party should not be fighting against oppositions but should grow as a global party. The rival of the ruling party of the country with the 10th-largest economy in the world should be China’s Communist Party, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, the Republican Party of the United States and Russia’s United Russia Party. We can protect the nation when we lead them. North Korea’s Workers Party can never lead the Korean Peninsula.”

The vision of the activist-turned-politician is convincing. He can only say this because he personally went to North Korea and felt the reality. The opposition Liberty Korea Party needs to stop blindly disregarding North Korea. Without making efforts to contact and understand the North Korean leadership, it can never break the ruling party’s monopoly on inter-Korean relations.

Inter-Korean parliamentary talks are planned to be held within this year. As it would be a bipartisan event in the National Assembly, it is unlikely that oppositions would be sidelined.

The Liberty Korea Party claimed that it would boycott the event if it is held in Pyongyang. But National Assembly speaker Moon Hee-sang is considering a plan to host it in Seoul. I urge the opposition party to participate in the event with an open mind.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 11, Page 28
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