did I get interested in Korea in the first place? I told you
it was embarrassing. But you have a right to know. If I now
think I have some kind of handle on Korea's truth (or truths),
it's only after travelling a long and winding road, through
many swamps of error
23 July 2001
was a teenage great leader groupie: a Pyongyang-watcher confesses
happens so often, you'd think I could handle it by now. That
conference or cocktail moment. We've been introduced, perhaps
exchanged cards, and I reveal what I do for a living. Korea!
they say. How fascinating (not always uttered with conviction).
But do tell me, they go on. Why Korea, of all places?
Perfectly fair question. It's just that the answer is deeply
embarrassing. But seeing as I keep urging the DPRK to come
clean on this or that, in all fairness I should 'fess up too.
So here's the tawdry tale.
In a word, it all goes back to 1968, that year of revolutions
(real or imagined). And Africa. As a callow but soft youth,
I'd travelled in Africa and been appalled by the poverty and
misery. Being of a leftist cast of mind, like many in those
distant days, I blamed all these ills on imperialism rather
than Africa itself. Influenced by the dependency theories
of Samir Amin and Andre Gunder Frank then in vogue, I was
certain that capitalism not only had not, but never could,
develop the Third World as it had the First. To develop had
to mean breaking away from the existing world-system into
some form of self-reliance.
Thus predisposed, I happened upon a book mentioned in an earlier
column: Again Korea, by Wilfred Burchett, an Australian communist.
According to Burchett, not only was North Korea defying the
west - but it was ahead of South Korea economically. Eureka!
I had my exemplar, and started reading all I could about North
Korea. I had no interest whatsoever in South Korea: a US satellite,
Naturally I also tried to get to the promised land. I failed,
but had adventures en route to be recounted another day. So
I was spared writing the kind of dewy-eyed tosh that so many
did from Mao's China at the time. Still, I did my bit. My
first article on the DPRK, in the 1970s, was a study of its
economy, whose debts were starting to embarrass. Still, I
concluded, North Korea is a house built on rock, while South
Korea was on sand. (A Christian education will out.) Colleagues
still fish out that quote to tease me - and are unconvinced
when I claim to have predicted Seoul's 1997 financial crisis
20 years early.
Reality intruded in the early 1980s. My university, Leeds,
began Korean classes, so I had to decide if I was serious
about this. (I was and am, but still struggle with the language.)
And I was invited to Korea - South Korea. Believe it or not,
I saw this as a moral dilemma like going to apartheid South
Africa. But being an opportunist, I went anyway - and confronted
a reality that blew my world-view to bits.
Unlike most of Africa, South Korea palpably was developing,
economically and socially. (It also had a thriving culture,
a dimension to which like many Marxists I'd been blind.) True,
it was a police state - but then North Korea was hardly a
beacon of liberalism either. I devised a suitably oriental-sounding
mantra for my new confusion: "Love the culture. Hate
the government. Respect the economy." And I belatedly
started to get to grips with this other far more interesting
and dynamic Korea that I'd ignored.
And North Korea? For a time I tried to have it both ways,
praising both Koreas for standing up to their respective superpower
allies. Such bipartisanship startled many in Seoul, who saw
north and south as a stark case of them versus us. A few bold
student radicals reversed the polarities and held my old view:
admiring North Korea, and trashing their own state as a weak
neocolony. We had some splendid rows. So of course by the
time I finally got to North Korea, in the 1980s, I was long
since disenchanted - and have only become angrier since, with
the sheer perversity of a regime that prefers famine to reform.
Looking back, the only bit I would defend is that, incredible
as it now seems, North Korea really was ahead of the south
economically until the 1970s - even the 1980s by some accounts.
But it's no excuse for fellow-travelling. Well up on both
Orwell and Trotsky, we - talkin' 'bout my generation - really
should have known better than to get fooled by Stalinism all
over again. Kim Il-sung was a minority taste, but many admired
Mao, a few (God forgive us) Pol Pot, or - more defensibly,
I dare say - Castro.
So that's the story of how, long ago, a faraway land took
over my life. There are other dimensions too. Somewhere along
the way Korea got so thoroughly under my skin that I can never
imagine giving it up or doing anything else. It's far too
fascinating: all of it, north and south. I've always insisted
(well, at least since 1982) that it makes no sense to view
either North Korea or - as more often happens - South Korea
on its own. It's not just sentimental to see the two Koreas
as a single story, indeed one that can only become more so
in the years ahead. And what a story! It's like a Tolstoy
novel: on a vast canvas, full of blood and fire. And I want
to know how it will end: happily, I hope and pray, but who
One final irony. Over time, what had been a sideline grew
as I wrote more about Korea - until finally I took a deep
breath, quit the treadmill that British universities have
sadly become, and went freelance. So I broke away from the
system and chose self-reliance. Maybe the Great Leader had
a point after all.