How 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 …

Pyongyang Watch column for Asia Times Online
23 July 2001

I was a teenage great leader groupie: a Pyongyang-watcher confesses

It 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, self-evidently.

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 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 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 knows

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.