My Korean Experience
It is understandable why a Nigerian would find it strange for citizens to revere their leaders with godly respect, awe and administration like the people of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would do. But then, the people of DPRK, otherwise known as North Korea, have all the motivation they need to revere their leaders, especially those that sacrificed their enjoyment to bring freedom to the doorsteps of the people. Kim Il Sung was one soldier that left the comfort and warmth of his family and home for 20 years alongside his parents and other family members to fight Japan and restore the dignity of his people.
Even though he was able to return alive, his parents were not so lucky, they didn’t. Visiting Mangyondae, the birth Place of Kim Il Sung, brings back the humility, modesty and the simplicity, which Korean people lived, tending their farms and fending for themselves. Citizens with such self-sustenance have little interest in national consciousness and politics. It was therefore significant that Kim Il Sung embraced this consciousness and tore himself out of this comfort to seek freedom for the people of his country, sacrificing 20 years out of his life.
Viewing a 3D panoramic recreation of the liberation war at the Fatherland War Liberation Museum, which I was opportune to visit, one becomes mentally absorbed into the war. A revolving platform takes one through a scenic display of a well-choreographed storyline with the amazing ambience, sights and sounds of gunshots, mortar explosions, embellished with monumental oil paintings of the theater of war, interspersed with motifs, real weapons, sculptures and other props. That sight was indeed an amazing experience and goes to portray the history from the beginning of the war to its end.
Korea became liberated with the fall of Japan in the Second World War. Kim Il Sung became the hero of the struggle, and led the establishment of the DPRK encompassing both North and South Korea with the election of 572 members to the Supreme People’s Assembly from both sides, in 1948. He became its first Premier and Head of State. Fearing his leftist tendencies, the US occupied the southern part of the peninsula up to the 38th parallel, restraining Kim Il Sung, to the north. In 1950, the US started a “Korean” war, which led to thousands of casualties and eventually an armistice that spelt out territorial restrictions between the two parts of the peninsula. The people acknowledge the performance, vision as well as doggedness and resistance of their leader and therefore hold him in high esteem.
The victory exposed the nation to a barrage of new challenges – challenges of nation building, stability, development and a sustainable economy. A three-year plan was put in place, and was over-fulfilled, for the postwar rehabilitation and development of the national economy, whose basic task was to achieve prewar levels in all spheres of the national economy. Being a leftist himself, it would have been easy to implement a variant of Leninism or Maoism, but Kim Il Sung developed an in-house roadmap by coming up with and instituting the Juche Idea.
The Juche idea is pegged on three concepts; Chaju, charip and chawi, independence, self-reliance and self-defense, reflecting political sovereignty, a strong, viable and stable economy and protection of the nation from within and without. These are key for any nation that wants to stay focused and attend to the needs of its people. The idea also espouses that the success of any leader in pursuing the well-being of his people, is dependent upon the extent to which the people themselves are ready to support him.
The crowning highlight of the foundation celebration every year is the national parade; it did not hold this year. But other activities, especially cultural ones did take place. I joined other Koreans to enjoy fascinating theatre, circus performances including chilling trapeze acts. I also visited the Pyongyang zoo and enjoyed some games reminiscent of the German “Telematch” at the polo grounds.
I was in Korea when on September 9, the national day, President Kim Jong Un launched the 10 kiloton nuclear bomb as the 5th in the series of tests to show his military might. He had also been testing missiles that could transport the warhead. I followed the international backlash that greeted the launch; the citizens seems overjoyed at what they see as a huge feat. The launches were an important part of the Juche Idea, which theorize that nations must have peace for them to attain development and peace is only secured when a nation’s military strength is not in doubt before other nations.
I remember watching Aljazeera two days later on the anniversary of September 11 attacks in the US, an American asked the question “why do they hate us so much?” and I realized that the answer rests on the activities of America in other countries, which have earned for it the label of “imperialist”. In the process of having its hands in every pie, the US creates enemies by the day, forcing nations to prepare for their protection. Many countries have sad stories to tell.
My visit to Pyongyang has changed a lot of perceptions, I used to imagine that the place was swarming with arms-wielding soldiers, that the life of the citizens is regimented, and that they live with the fear of being executed the next minute for the slightest offences. These are untrue, as none of the soldiers I saw carried guns, or even Tasers. These stories were exacerbated by news that a Minister had been shot for sleeping at an official function. The story proved to be untrue because the same Minister that was pronounced dead by western media was on TV during worker’s day celebrations. I will now take such stories with a pinch of salt.
The name of the DPRK depicts a democracy, the general conception is that democracy has to be electoral. Being a development communicator however, I know that democracy goes beyond just election, it transcends into the realm of participation. In Korea, the people participate in their country’s economy, its protection and its independence at individual levels.
Sense of honesty among the people is pronounced. I was able to confirm this from a staff of the embassy who lost some money while shopping in a remote town. When he reported to the police in the capital, the money found its way back to him. The country is also crime-free; no robberies, no kidnaps, no sleazes, no pickpockets, no rapists.
The country has 5 million regular soldiers, supported by university graduates that have to undergo military service for a year immediately after graduation. Since soldiers are considered builders of the nation, most construction work in the country is done by them. I saw many of them at work on many sites. During the recent floods in the north of the country, most of them were directed to abandon whatever work they were doing to help victims of flood, where 133 people were killed, over 350 injured and thousands were displaced. Only last year, when the floods washed away many houses in the same north, the nation rallied round with thousands of workers to redesign, reconstruct and furnish over 1000 new houses for the victims within one month! Yes, one month. Thus, a disaster turned out to be a blessing for the victims.
I am confident that the Juche Idea has something for every segment of the Nigerian society; from communities, local governments, states to the nation. When each of these political structures takes their economy, security and sovereignty seriously, the chances favour sustainable development. None would depend on another and be treated like a beggar. This brings a cogent point home that political structures in Nigeria at all levels must cultivate internally generated revenue beyond the central largesse they enjoy.
Another thing that dawned on me was the explanation as to why Nigerian leaders do not get the respect that Korean leaders get. Also important is why the levels of patriotism differ between citizens of the two countries. While Korea got its independence through war and suffering, Nigeria got its own on a platter. Had Nigerians of different tribes fought and died alongside each other, they would have appreciated each other more and held eternal memories of the shared griefs. Unfortunately, we earned our independence on the basis of differences and the need to grab opportunities for citizens of our ethnic stock. Politicians were continuously ferried to distant lands to beg them to unite and build a nation, to no avail. This remains the reason for our division and our poor national patriotism.
Lessons for Nigeria, we have to support any leader we agree to elect; that way, only constructive criticism will be the weapon of his supporters and even the opposition. Another is the need for unity and the entrenchment of meritocracy; whatever we do, if everyone thinks that only someone from their ethnic stock should be given opportunities, we may never make progress. Again, there is the need for leaders and other officials to shy away from the mindset of public office for personal gain. There can only be enough for our need, not greed. Our soldiers should also join in nation building and not only defence. The culture of outsourcing or contracting is too costly and is responsible for the poorly executed jobs we have all over the place. There may be need for a rethink. I do believe that with better governance, will come confidence in leaders, and with this confidence, citizens will begin to fall in line and do the right thing; and then, we can begin to think of development.
Suleiman Haruna is a doctoral candidate at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria