Monday, October 11, 2010

In Memorium and Understanding

Hwang Jang Yop has left us. He was a man who inspired many, but who, for good reasons, had a great many critics. Sitting having dinner after paying my respects at his memorium in Seoul yesterday night, I was forced to decide something I had been avoiding for many years; what do I actually think of Hwang?

To represent the basic viewpoint of some people, one blogger wrote this;
Hwang Jang-yop, the chief architect of North Korea's guiding Juche philosophy who defected to South Korea in 1997 and became a vocal critic of North Korea and any attempts to engage Pyongyang, has died of an apparent heart attack.

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, reportedly had a special loathing for Mr Hwang and saw his defection as a particularly egregious betrayal. Mr Hwang became a mouthpiece for groups on the right opposed to the DPRK, and he became a valuable source of intelligence for Seoul and Washington. Let's just say he knew where all the bodies were buried because he helped bury some of them himself.

I've made no secret of my dismay that someone who was responsible for so much suffering became a poster boy for Pyongyang's critics. When I saw him speak at North Korean human rights events, I was not the only one who asked, "Why isn't this man in jail?"


Requiescant in pace, Mr Hwang and all your victims.

Which may or may not be representative of the public at large, but is a definite strand of opinion that is out there, that is clear.

So then, why would South Korean human rights activists, who are firmly in favor of bringing down the Kim Jong Il dictatorship for human rights reasons, be unstinting in their support of Hwang when he was, as a Chosun Workers' Party secretary, complicit in the deaths of a great many North Koreans and many more human rights violations?

In the end I believe it is because, and forgive me if this is obvious to you, he not only changed his mind, but because he really meant it. The South Korean people are very forgiving of misdeeds, should they be made amends of. And Hwang certainly tried. He worked tirelessly for 13 years, wrote 20 books, gave an uncountable number of lectures, seminars and sundry impromptu talks, and in the process did more than any other one person to reveal to the world the terrible circumstances in which the North Korean people live and forced the world to pay attention to what was going on behind the last vestiges of the bamboo curtain.

Hwang saw what was happening in North Korea, and decided that he could not accept it. He made a conscious choice to get out and work for the other side. Does that completely absolve him of responsibility? No, morally it certainly does not, but if actions speak louder than words, then Hwang Jang Yop tried harder than most to fix the mess he surely helped create. To fail to see this is to fail to get the point.

A friend of mine told me some months ago that her father had visited Pyongyang on business one day in 1997, and seen Hwang's family being led away with sacks on their heads. He was told not to look at the traitors, but he watched through his hands anyway. He later told his daughter it was the worst thing he'd seen, in a country where bad things happen all the time.

To sacrifice a whole family like that must have been the worst of all possible decisions to have to make, and the torment that I am aware Hwang suffered following the making of that decision was immense. Maybe he was guided by utilitarian logic, maybe his philosophical training stood him in good stead to make that fateful choice, but the very fact that he did it can tell us much about the state of the nation he was leaving behind, of that much I am sure.

So that's it. I think Hwang did his best to make good the things he did wrong, and that was all that we could hope for by the time he came to us in 1997.

I would rather, then, that we not ponder too deeply the rights and wrongs of Hwang Jang Yop at the time of his passing. I would prefer instead that we focus hereafter on bringing about a time when nobody, and I mean nobody, has to choose between the fate of their nation and the certain, painful death of their entire family. That, that, is the point.

May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Habitat for Whom?

Just today, I was drawn by him to here thanks in part to him.

But upon arrival I realized that I already knew this story; it has been at the planning stage for three years or more, and now seems to be coming to pass. This organization, The Fuller Center for Housing, a religious non-profit not unlike Habitat for Humanity, is building 25 energy efficient duplexes in the middle of a collective farm near Sunan Airport, Pyongyang. The news, such as it is, is that Jimmy Carter, who recently descended on Pyongyang to pull an ill-advised missionary sort, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, out and take him back to Boston, where he should probably consider staying, has endorsed the project;

They’ve already gotten permission from the government of North Korea to come in; they’ve already had a team there to assess the construction possibilities. This has to be a very flexible thing because as you know all of the houses in North Korea are owned by the government,” Carter said. “We’re just thankful that we’ll be able to get some houses built in North Korea for people in need.

Anyhow, my attention span shortened by the lack of newsworthiness contained in this revelation, I ambled over and took a short look at the blog of David Snell, the president of the organization. He was in North Korea in late-September, he reveals. But it was what else he said that concerned me;

A final stop for the day was the E-Library at Kim Il Sung University. This was a project of the Paektusan Academy and took one of the original campus buildings and turned it into a state of the art computer center. Students can do research ‘online’ accessing thousands of books on terminals in a number of study rooms. Very impressive.

Monday evening was set aside for a special treat—we went to the Arirang mass games performance. This is an annual event that involves some 20,000 dancers and gymnasts. The back bleachers are a solid mass of placard-bearing youngsters who change their cards to create panoramas that provide the backdrop for the performances. It was an amazing experience. I was exhausted by the time it was over.

On Tuesday we broke from our discussions to visit the Taedonggang fruit farm, a massive sea of apple trees that has grown from nothing to 1,600 acres since 2008. Big is a part of the culture here. We went to see some new houses that the Academy has been working on—very nice, very tidy and appropriate to what we will be doing.

Now I’m back home. The miracle of modern travel can make for a disjointed life. There are few places on the planet as different from Colorado Springs as is Pyongyang. Remarkably I feel pretty much at home in either one.

I don't really want to get into the rights and wrongs of The Fuller Center for Housing, or Habitat for Humanity for that matter, working in North Korea. I expect that they may end up building homes for Party loyalists in the countryside of South Pyongan and North Hwanghae, but life is probably fairly hard for those people, too, and being a mid-level rural Party functionary does not, in my book, make you particularly evil, so maybe a new house is not unreasonable, anyway.

Furthermore, David's organization is doing something, and anyone doing something is better than everyone doing nothing, more or less. And he is building trust, which is equally important.

And in any case, from his use of bold in a previous post, here, it is also clear that David believes the international media is doing North Korea a disservice;

I arrived in Pyongyang Saturday afternoon and was met at the airport by Mr. Sin from the Paektusan Academy and my interpreter, Mrs. Kim. My seatmate for the flight was a young man from Alberta, Canada, who was traveling with his wife and two sons and 11 other Canadians who are coming to Pyongyang to teach English for three months. This is one of the few cases I’m aware of a longer stay being allowed for western visitors. Things seem to be changing in the Democratic People’s Republic. At the airport I happened to meet the British Ambassador and the Hong Kong representative of the ATPN news group—a providential meeting perhaps.

But on the other hand I will also say this; there is good quality evidence that the people who take part in the Arirang Mass Games are forced to do so (knowing about the North Korean system, one knows that volunteering plays little part in anything), that the audience is also compelled to be there, and if there is a sea of apple trees why isn't there a sea of apples for the children in the schools and orphanages around the nation?

At the very minimum, I think more perspective and a critical approach are necessary if David Snell's laudible attempts to work with North Korea are going to bring about the best possible results.