Not a bad way to spend Halloween.
My buddy Tom very suddenly invited me to go see author Kang Cheol-hwan, who wrote* The Aquariums of Pyongyang (which I reviewed here, years ago). The Saturday-afternoon event was held at the Haechi Hall of a building in Myeongdong called the M Plaza. I'm not a fan of Myeongdong, with its constant crowds and obnoxious Chinese tourists; it's also not a neighborhood I know all that well, despite having lived close to it for a number of years. Tom and I managed to find our way to the building through a combination of reading a map, navigating by phone-based GPS, consulting with people on the street, and following two other Western dudes who were on their way to the same event. Once inside, I paid the W5,000 admission fee twice over for both of us, and we found seats right in the center of the room. A skinny, frail-looking bloke—Barry Welsh, I believe (he's not Welsh; he's actually Scottish)—took my payment and pointed us to the empty chairs. When the event began, he came to the front of the room and intro'ed our moderator, Kurt Achin; the lovely interpreter, whose name I don't recall; and Mr. Kang himself. All of them received polite applause.
(Apologies for the blurry photos; lighting was bad.)
Mr. Achin said he wanted to ask several questions of his own before allowing audience members to put forth their own questions. His questions ended up taking about an hour; the audience took about the same amount of time, as Barry Welsh moved back and forth to give the roaming mike to various audience members, some of whom posed questions in English, others of whom posed questions in Korean. Tom and I sat quietly through most of this, although Tom realized that he was sitting next to venerable news correspondent Donald Kirk. The two struck up a quiet conversation toward the end of the presentation and during the raffle period (neither Tom nor I won anything, alas).
Some of the back-and-forth dealt with Kang's book, which came out in the 1990s but is still relevant to today's discussions of North Korea. Other questions dealt with the larger political situation; one question, asked by an audience member, made Kang a bit uncomfortable, as it obliged him to talk about domestic politics in South Korea. Through it all, Kang's rather attractive interpreter switched competently back and forth between Korean and English, always making sure that everyone in the audience understood what was going on. Sometimes I caught Kang's meaning before the interpreter spoke, but for the most part, I had to rely on her English-language rendering to understand what Kang was talking about.
Kang had nothing good to say about Kim Jeong-eun, North Korea's current leader. He did, however, point out that North Korea is far better than South Korea when it comes to information warfare, although he also noted how terrified the North was of information penetration, hence the North's desperation when the South turned its loudspeakers back on in the aftermath of the recent land-mine incident that cost some soldiers their limbs.
When asked a hypothetical question about meeting President Obama after having actually met President George W. Bush, Kang wryly noted that Obama would be unlikely to want to meet with him (Kang has taken the true measure of our current president, I'm afraid to say). When asked about the effectiveness of the balloon campaign (the South routinely releases DMZ-crossing balloons filled with propaganda and supplies, much to the consternation of the North), Kang stressed the importance of getting information into North Korea, although he disagreed with the South's announcing when and where balloons were being released. He felt that such announcements have been made for political reasons.
Kang showed sympathy for the South Korean government regarding the question of government-sponsored textbooks. His feeling was that, up to now, privately run textbook publishers have done a poor job of presenting students with unvarnished history. The language in many textbooks, according to Kang, still sounds overly sympathetic to North Korea, even as it denigrates South Korean history (e.g., referring to early post-occupation leaders in South Korea as "dictators" while not using such a term to describe Northern leaders). So, Kang contended, it would be up to the government to set the record straight and to publish textbooks that are a more accurate reflection of history. This puts Kang on the opposite side of the fence vis-à-vis the demonstrators currently shouting about government meddling with textbooks.
Inevitably, two audience members spoke up on behalf of the leftists that Kang despises. One lady, ethnically Korean but an American citizen living in California, talked about how she had visited Pyongyang three times; she marveled at how much the city has changed over the years: where once everything had been drab and colorless, now there were citizens wearing all manner of colorful, fancy clothing—thus blithely glossing over the fact that Pyongyang is, effectively, an enormous Potemkin village: the elites might be wearing more colors, but how much has fashion evolved in the poorer hinterlands? She also effusively praised the Chinese, saying we should all be thankful to them for the work they've been doing along the North Korean border. Kang dourly countered by noting that Chinese repatriation of North Korean defectors continues to be a problem. Another audience member—yet another lefty—caused grumbling when he launched into a lengthy anti-American tirade ("the American government has funded al-Qaeda") before forcefully declaring that he felt North Korea had the right to keep its nuclear weapons, but only in exchange for transparency when it comes to humanitarian aid. Kang flatly disagreed with this numbskull, rightly pointing out that North Korea will never truly agree to the desired degree of transparency. Just a reminder that, while the right has its share of wild-eyed fruit loops, the left does, too.**
Barry Welsh wrapped up and asked us to lift up and stack our chairs in the area off to the side of the room. Tom continued to talk with the affable Donald Kirk; I made my way down to Mr. Kang to shake his hand. I told him in Korean that he'd been through a lot, and I thanked him for what he was now doing. I didn't ask for a photo or an autograph; Tom, meanwhile, had taken care of those things during the brief intermission before the audience Q&A. All I wanted was a chance to shake the man's hand; he'd been through hell, and he still has relatives back North, all of whom are doubtless in deep trouble because of Kang's defection. (Kang said, during the audience Q&A, that he hasn't been able to contact his sister since 2009.) I had also wanted to shake the interpreter's hand, but she was out of there like a shot, disappearing almost immediately after the session was finished.
And with that, Tom and I made our way back out to the crowded streets of Myeongdong, each of us then going our separate ways.
*Mr. Kang was originally interviewed in France by a French reporter—Pierre Rigoulot—who compiled the manuscript that became the book. This book was originally published in French before being translated into English. It's not quite right, then, to say that Mr. Kang wrote the book, but every word in the book is Mr. Kang's.
**I do admit, though, that I think the genie is out of the bottle (or the toothpaste is out of the tube—pick your metaphor) with regard to North Korean (and Iranian, by the way) nuclear arms. There's no walking this back; North Korea will never disarm, and no amount of diplomacy will lead to that result. I might even be willing to concede that North Korea has rational reasons for wanting to keep a nuclear stockpile; after all, its leaders haven't been as crazy as all that, and I believe every nation has a right to act in its own self-interest. Kang does think, however, that the current leader, Kim Jeong-eun, is by far the least competent, and the least rational, of the three generations of leaders to helm the state.