Kim Il-sung: “Invite the Pope to Pyongyang”
My first steps as a public official in North Korea came after returning from my second spell abroad studying in China. On October 25, 1988 I was officially appointed to the Foreign Office (at the time the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and placed in charge of affairs for the European division responsible for Britain and Ireland. While Seoul was still gripped by the fever and emotions of the 88 Olympics, the DPRK was preparing to host the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students. I was 27 years old at the time.
Having witnessed the festivities and change in the Mangyondae district, I vowed then and there to devote my passion and energies to my socialist homeland. However, I knew that the somewhat excessive preparations for this festival had damaged the country’s economy. What I did not know was that this economic struggle would coincide with the fall of the Eastern Bloc and result in an arduous march for our people.
At the time, Kim Yong-nam was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but it was around Kang Sok-ju, the first deputy (equivalent to South Korea’s First Vice Minister), that the power was truly centered. The Foreign Ministry’s rules were noticeably strict. While power always eventually resided in the military, because of the prevalence of many diplomats there was a reasonable amount of open-mindedness in the organization. Consequently, I received a lot of advice from my senior colleagues.
A deep impression of the atmosphere and life inside the Foreign Ministry remains with me today. Every Saturday morning, party members would engage in a “self-criticism meeting” during which they would criticize both themselves and the party rather actively. With publications of the works of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jung-il, the ‘Doksongsilgi’ (Records of Virtue), as well as other memoirs of anti-Japanese fighters, everyone participated in a discussion of these with great vigor and seriousness. Now it is possible for party members to come and copy sections of these works, but that would have been unthinkable at that time.
Every quarter, these “self-criticism” meetings would take place and we would have to reflect on own behavior in front of the group. Members would also stand up and take turns criticizing each other. Regardless of whether or not people had prepared or not, we all enthusiastically took part in the criticisms. People would often use these moments of criticism and reflection to demonstrate their own personal loyalty and obedience to the party. Around 1992, Kim Jong-il reviewed the behavior of vice deputy Kang Sok-ju through the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). While Kang was receiving his criticism, some women burst into tears and demanded that he be punished. Kang was sent for one month’s revolutionary training in an agricultural workplace as punishment.
These periods of self-criticism are at the core of maintaining a slave society in North Korea. Self-censorship and mutual censorship create human beings that conform unfalteringly to the system. But this was something I would only come to learn later in life; at the time, I believed these “self-criticism” systems to be the basis or a desirable party life. These quarterly “self-criticism” meetings at the Foreign Ministry have changed a great deal over the years. These days, there are many people that doze off during them. At the time, however, such things would have been completely inconceivable as the atmosphere was always far too stiff. People were far too seized by communist fervor to look anywhere else but straight ahead.
On January 9th, 1989, about a year after I had entered the Foreign Ministry, the Berlin Wall, a symbol of division between the East and West, was brought down. Around this time, North Korean diplomacy was in crisis. Eastern European countries collapsed one after the other and the Tiananmen Square protests reached the news in June of that year. The DPRK had hoped that the international system would be more accommodating following the World Festival of Youth and Students, however as the 1990s began there was a great reversal and the situation became far more pressing.
The Republic of Korea and the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations in September, 1990. German Unification began in October of that year and, in the same month, the Republic of Korea and China agreed to establish a bilateral trade agreement. The Roh Tae-woo administration’s Nordpolitik was beginning to pick up pace. It was seemingly only a matter of time before China and the Republic of Korea also solved the problem of establishing diplomatic relations. The North Korean Foreign Ministry could do little but look on aghast. A series of sleepless nights ensued with those inside the Ministry unsure how best to deal with the rapidly changing situation.
In December of the following year, the Soviet Union – which had served as a protective shield for the DPRK – finally fell. However, few people actually believed that socialism had been defeated. The prevailing thought was that little in terms of systemic or ideological ground had been lost in the confrontation with South Korea. It was merely seen as a temporary setback resulting from the sudden collapse of the USSR. However, the DPRK was now isolated. China would be the last remaining hill on which North Korea could lean, but they too established diplomatic relations with the ROK in August of 1992. Now, the DPRK and its foreign affairs had become surrounded on all sides. It would not be an overstatement to say that when China and the ROK entered into bilateral diplomatic relations, the Foreign Ministry could do little but look on and weep.
On particular anecdote will bring to light the sense of urgency felt by Kim Il-sung at that time. He made contact with the Pope in the Vatican City, Rome. Whenever Pope John Paul II visited foreign countries, it always made the news. Thus, it was hoped that if he were to visit Pyongyang it would surely help signal the end of the current diplomatic isolation. Kim Il-sung instructed Kim Yong-nam to begin taking the necessary measures to make this happen and the necessary committee was formed in 1991. I became a member of the committee tasked with this undertaking.