Confronting the times

Print edition : August 03, 2002

A picture of commitment and development directions in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a socialist success.

Text and photographs: SUNEET CHOPRA

WRITING in the second volume of his Reminiscences, Kim II Sung, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), says: "For a capitalist money is capital, for a revolutionary the people are the source of his strength. A capitalist builds up a fortune in money, whereas a revolutionary changes and transforms the society by drawing on the efforts of his comrades." Indeed, when I visited the society that he helped liberate from the Japanese in 1945 and which he prevented from falling prey to a savage invasion by the United States between 1950 and 1953, carrying forward a badly mauled peasant country into the era of not only industrialisation but also socialism, I could not help but be drawn to the Korean people who are the heroes of the transformation they have wrought.

At a kindergarten in a collective farm in North Korea.-

My first impression of the DPRK was contradictory. I saw a country with hardly any arable land, not unlike Garhwal in northern India, but endowed with a well-developed industrial base, and even multi-storey dwellings in villages. If I saw sturdy mountain folk trudging along the hilly terrain or ploughing fields with no more than a single ox yoked to the plough, I also saw three-room flats of agricultural workers, spartan but equipped with electricity, water supply, toilets and baths. I saw creches for their babies, hospitals, dental clinics, kindergartens, schools and shops on the communes where one could get most things that were available in Pyongyang stores, not to speak of mechanised farming and stock-raising. Indeed, I could not help but think of India's agricultural labourers whose children lie in the sun during harvest, with snakes and rats scampering past them as the grain falls under the sickle of their parents.

India has much more arable land. India is a larger and richer country. Then why are India's people so much poorer? Millions of tonnes of grain rot in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India, while people die of starvation even in an agriculturally fertile area such as the Kangra district.

And here, while the European and North American media declare that people are starving, I see well-fed people in rural communes, on the streets of Pyongyang, in the schools, in the buses and on the underground railway. I do not see pale, depressed faces. And not a beggar is visible anywhere. What is the secret of this paradox? I know there is a food shortage, but what is there gets round to everybody. I know there is a power shortage, but the escalators in the Koryo Hotel (all 47 storeys of it) automatically come to a halt when no one is using them, just as the lifts get switched off in stand-by mode if no one presses the button for a few minutes. The problem has been tackled creatively. Unlike in our own country, plans are implemented, aid gets to the people, and things change for the better in the long run.

How does this happen? From the very beginning of the DPRK's existence as a socialist state, the Korean people have been their own God. A fiercely independent and creative people, they are wedded to an ideology of juche or self-reliance. It would be ridiculous to imagine that they have received no help from either the Soviet Union or the present-day China. Indeed they are mindful of it, and the railway carriage that Joseph Stalin presented to the Korean President has the pride of place in the exhibition of state gifts. But they do not make mentors out of those who have helped them, a lesson every country must learn from the Koreans in these days of global give-and-take.

And the Koreans learn from others' experience fast enough. When the Soviet Union collapsed, as early as 1992, the Pyongyang Declaration had been signed by over 70 parties, including the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It was a firm declaration making it clear that none of them subscribed to the view that the end of the Soviet Union was the end of socialism. On the contrary, it was a time for introspection, correction and advance. As, Choi Te Bok, the secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, pointed out in his report to an international gathering of revolutionary parties, on the 10th anniversary of its publication on April 18, today over 260 parties are signatories to the Declaration, reflecting its basic relevance.

Children working on computers in the Palace of Culture, Pyongyang.-

The lessons that Korea had learnt were already spelt out in a talk to senior officials of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers' Party by its General Secretary, Kim Jong Il, on January 3, 1992. The first lesson was that the collapse of socialism and the revival of capitalism in some countries was neither accidental nor merely an external process. It was an abnormal event. Certain mistakes had been committed as these countries were following an uncharted path. But, still, these mistakes had to be pinpointed, analysed and prevented from occurring elsewhere.

The major fault of the Soviet set-up was a failure to involve the masses. They had to be made conscious of the fact of "being masters and displaying their ability as such" in socialist society, rather than handing over their role to a set of party bureaucrats to run society merely in their name. This will not happen automatically. The masses had to be educated, organised and involved in building socialism in a concrete manner. This had been done in the DPRK through the institutions of the system of education, the structure of the Workers' Party and the mass activity of the Korean People's Army, which is essential to defend the state against premeditated attacks by U.S. imperialism.

The success of this is evident in the way in which the Korean people have become an active element in the development of socialism. The existing sense of sharing with others has been kept up even in urbanised Pyongyang. Group dancing, so much a part of peasant society, is very much a part of the life of the city, with different public dances being held in different squares in the city on different days of the week. Here, young people meet each other and get married. What is more, marriages are enduring, with not many divorces. Also, in Korea, women, like Indian women, prefer to wear their national dress rather than mini-skirts and the like.

These collective traditions of the past are not merely revived, but interwoven with powerful elements of the new. For example, the 90th birthday of Kim Il Sung was celebrated on April 15 with a performance involving well over 50,000 people and employing lasers, fireworks, hand boards, trapeze acts and even parajumping. Such a massive collective arts performance is unthinkable in a peasant society. But the theme was a song of separation, the arirang (much like the birha of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), linked with the hope of the political reunification of the North and the South. So the best of the past is given the new strength of the present with a hope for a better future.

I have seldom seen a people as active as the Koreans. Everyone on the street and in the subways is getting ahead, going somewhere. And it is not only to work. Koreans live active cultural and political lives as well. Every Korean plays at least one musical instrument, is able to defend himself or herself physically, and many are accomplished artists, acrobats, magicians and sportsmen, with football being a passion with them, as are trekking and mountaineering.

This concern with making each individual a beneficiary of socialism and a force to carry it forward is very important for backward countries, many of whom will break away from capitalism but may not have a powerful enough material base to progress smoothly along the path of socialism. For that, an effort must be made to create the new men and women of the future, committed to socialism and to the rooting out of the exploitation and injustice heaped on the vast majority of the world by imperialism. That is what Che Guevara and Fidel Castro gifted as a vision to revolutionary Cuba. It is what the revolutionary people of Korea are fighting to achieve today under the leadership of Kim Jong Il. And they have succeeded in their effort as the demonstrations supporting reunification that confronted President Bush in South Korea (propped up by U.S. armed forces and installations) showed. That the message got to him was also clear as he departed from the speech scripted for the occasion and ranted about the "axis of evil". My impression of its impact in the North was that it made the people of the DPRK even more determined to fight back.

Four-year-old Kim Ryo Myaong painting, at the Palace of Culture.-

As Choi Te Bok stated at an international gathering, under its present leadership the Korean Workers' Party had not only developed into "an invincible revolutionary party filled with the juche idea, a militant party with strong organisation and discipline, and a mother party integrated as a whole with the popular masses," but had also developed its leadership in every possible way. He noted that even this was not enough. The confrontation imposed by the arbitrary attempts of imperialism to destroy socialism all over the world required "the original way of Army-first politics" so that every individual physically becomes a defence-outpost of socialism. So, recognising how, at present, "abandoning the anti-imperialist struggle, the natural requirement of the independent cause of the popular masses, is tantamount to yielding to the policy of domination of the imperialists and betraying the cause of socialism," and calling for closer coordination between revolutionary parties the world over, Choi promised that "our stand towards the imperialist aggressors is resolute and our answer is merciless. All the officers and soldiers of our People's Army and the people will wipe out the enemy to the last man and achieve the historic cause of the country's reunification if the U.S. imperialists provoke war in Korea."

These are not empty words. My interpreter, a university lecturer who was the son of a liberation fighter-turned-architect, who played the guitar and the piano and was deeply involved with computers too, told me: "If we are attacked, every Korean will become a human bomb and a human bullet." It is curious how I heard almost the same thing from the mouths of the Al Fatah fighters in the refugee camps in Jordan in the late 1960s and from a young Cuban engineer teaching his son to skate down the steps of the Capitolio in Havana in the mid-1990s. "I am not a party member," he told me, "But I am a revolutionary. The Cuban education system makes everyone a revolutionary."

Indeed, the stress a socialist society lays on free and compulsory all-round education with an integrated network of kindergartens, schools and palaces of culture to develop a population fit in body and mind, in culture and science, as well as with respect for what is worth preserving of the past in order to build a better future, is the essential feature of its success. This is evident from the restoration of old city gates such as the one at Pyongyang (which suffered more tonnes of U.S. bombing than its population at the time), the Hwangryong fortress wall and of the Pohyon temple (built in A.D. 1072) in the beautiful Sangwon valley under the shadow of Mount Myohyang. But they also have an eye for the future, as is evident from buildings like that of Hyangsan Hotel near Myohyang mountain, or the beautiful underground stations of Pyongyang and the monumental sites extolling the revolutionary struggles of the people of Korea that the country is filled with, the excellent roads, or the massive barrage across the 8-km-wide mouth of the Taedong river, which was completed in four years by the Korean People's Army, and a satellite launched recently by the DPRK.

The socialist world is building a society based on people who share with one another things that they have produced in common, who show the sense of responsibility and discipline that masters of a country must have, and who are equipped to defend socialism from the most savage of attacks. This is so different from those societies that breed consumers like battery-chickens glued to their television sets or cutting each other's throats to buy the next fix, or rolling down the street when the pubs close, dead drunk. Indeed, a visit to a country like the DPRK or Cuba, or even war-torn Palestine, today strengthens one's hope for the future of the world that came into being with the setting up of the Soviet Union in 1917 and the defeat of fascism in 1945.

Korea has the rare distinction of having defeated fascist Japan in a 21-year war in 1945 and of then proceeding to force the U.S. invaders to sign their first ever "armistice without a victory" (in the words of Mark Clark, the commander of the U.S. forces in Korea) in 1953. And that too, after they suffered more than double the losses they had suffered in the Pacific War against Japan. No wonder, the former Chairman of the U.S. Chiefs of Staff, Omar Nelson Bradley, stated that his country waged "the wrong war at the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy".

That they persist in this shows that imperialism, like the proverbial leopard, will not change its spots. It must be rooted out in our time. The 21st century should not be turned into one of new dark ages. The people of Korea, of Cuba, of Palestine, of China, and of Vietnam, to name only a few, are proof that an enormous fund of human strength is behind socialism even today. And unitedly they offer humanity a future of peace, brotherhood and progress for all, and an end to exploitation and oppression. They reflect the collective stake we all have in a future that generations of humanity have yearned for. The people of Korea are working towards it and have succeeded to a great extent. One can only hope that the zest for sharing collectively what our environment offers us and for investing selflessly in the future of mankind will catch up with other populations around the world as well.

The zeal that the Koreans, the Cubans, the Vietnamese, the Chinese and others striving for socialism show in defending its future and carrying it forward in the adverse conditions today is something to be seen, to be understood and emulated, if we are not to lose yet another century to greed, pettiness, oppression and exploitation after the promising start humanity made with the Russian Revolution of 1917, the defeat of fascism in 1945, and that of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam in 1975. This impetus can visibly be seen to be carried forward in the DPRK today and any threats to its stability and progress ought to be seen as threats to the civilised and peaceful future of mankind and ought to be opposed as such.

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