Thursday, December 16, 2010

Violence, the Currency of North Korea

Until the 1960s, a fish known in Korean as 아귀 (Agu: angler fish) was the much-derided bastard child of the domestic fish establishment. There was no market for the fish, a fact mostly put down to its ugliness, so it was discarded as worthless by trawler captains. But then, for no obvious reason except perhaps post-war poverty and the realization that it tastes pretty fine behind that gruff exterior, 아구찜, or 'braised spicy angler', slowly but inexorably grew in popularity.

Now, this spicy stuff is sold for $40 a plate.

All of which has little or nothing to do with North Korea, of course, except for the fact that it was in such a restaurant that I most recently enjoyed two seemingly unrelated conversations with one of the North Korean defectors I know; conversations, note, forced upon us by the inevitable arrival of the first of a festive tsunami of end-of-year parties.

(Note here that since South Korea is not a Christian country (yet), Christmas is relatively unimportant, and what westerners would normally call a Christmas party is, here, called an end-of-year party)

Anyway, that matters no more and no less than the history of the angler fish. What matters is that my North Korean friend was explaining two things which this bruising, gangsterish fish would have enjoyed, and which have far-reaching implications; first, that no North Korean end of year party is complete without a fight, and, second, that North Koreans only respect three South Korean presidents.

Two facts which overlap more than you might think.

First, North Koreans have end of year parties, you asked? Yes, of course they do, this is not the 19th century. Look, it goes a bit like this; the enterprise which, and I like this translation, "is living well" at the time of the party puts up the money in the form of a pig and maybe a 15kg+ edible dog etc, and the person with the biggest house puts up the real estate to host the party. Thereafter, everyone eats a lot and gets jolly drunk. Really very simple, and sounds quite nice in some ways. Of course, with men drinking comes lairiness, and lairiness leads, as night follows day, to fighting. Mostly, my friend explained, of the "did you spill my pint?"-type of lairiness, and always post-scripted with a hug and a concilliatory bout of further drinking, but nevertheless almost mandatory. Not a drunken stumble into conflict of the man who has lost his self-awareness, you see; more a habitual procedure that must be negotiated in order to get to the next round.

Of course, it is fighting that decides many things in North Korea. It is a violence-oriented society, is it not? Can this possibly be a surprise? No, not at all. When there are no civilized ways to express discontent effectively, when one's anger at the arbitrariness of state controls cannot be expressed at all for fear of imprisonment or worse, when upward mobility in society is entirely contingent upon one's forebears or the whim of a senior, can it be at all surprising that people fight with each other?

Anyway, onwards and upwards. Next, we talked presidents. Only three, remember. Who? Park Chung Hee, Chun Doo Hwan and... Lee Myung Bak.

Why? This is where the two issues overlap. It's the tendency of these three to employ the diplomatic equivalent of violence, the determination to give nothing until something is given in return.

And this is where the respect comes from. Just as I, as a North Korean man, can't respect you unless we fight at some point (then make up and drink more), so no North Korean leader can respect his South Korean counterpart unless he refuses to give you anything without getting something in return. And what, I inquired on your behalf, did the North Korean leadership think of the Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Dae Jung administrations? For the Korean speakers, "바보 같은 녀석들". Think dismissive, think smirking irrelevance, think idiots.

This predominance of violence, its integration into the very fabric of society, is important since if things go South Korea's way it will be just one more potential problem for the post-unification leadership to deal with in trying to integrate 23 million North Koreans into a South Korea governed, broadly speaking, by rule of law, and it is already a huge hamstring for any future international effort to talk to the North, period.

By the very act of talking, the act of talking is rendered meaningless, and success even harder to achieve. Quite a Catch-22.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bet Kim Hyung Jik Didn't Foresee This

Kim Hyung Jik, father of Kim Il Sung, good revolutionary and all-around believer in the Mankyungdae Line, or so it is said. But also a man who has thrust the Chosun Workers' Party propaganda wonks into a bit of a bind with his most unperspicacious 1918 declaration that North Korea would thrive in the third generation, meaning that of Kim Jong Il;

What is awakened in the father's generation, is implemented in the son's generation, and thrives in the grandson's generation.

Or, in the words of Kim Jong Il;

From early on, teacher Kim Hyong Jik laid out a far-reaching ideology, and he created a song called 'the Green Pine-tree on Mt. Nam,' which conveyed the idea that revolution should be undertaken by every generation in succession. The Great Leader inherited and improved the ideology, and paved the new path of our revolution. And the teaching was ultimately fulfilled by me.

To be fair, there is every chance that he didn't say that, but I do like to imagine the unabridged chutzpah that would be needed to have done so.

Anyhow, the rub now is that the pinnacle of this musing has theoretically been arrived at in the form of Kim Jong Il, the third generation. In which case, what is left? Well, apparently, "망하다", according to the original Korean of a whispered postscript to this so-called "Kim Hyung Jik prophecy" which is apparently doing the rounds in North Korea.

This, I believe, is a word which can most accurately be translated as "fucking it all up royally".

Therefore, The Daily NK's source tells us that North Korean people are pointing out to each other, I hope with a wry smile, that "이제 조선은 증손자 세대를 남겨두고 있으니 망하는 일만 남았다", which, employing my uniquely evocative translation, means that the people of North Korea are saying, "Well, since we are now down to the great-grandson's generation, only fucking it all up royally remains."

It's certainly a possibility.