The discovery of truth and freedom, North Korean style

Kim-Il Sung and Harry Rolnick.

Unlike a certain monarchy I know of (hint: it’s just north of New York), we Americans have democracy, and the first week of November, we will have voted for somebody to be our leader. But not our Dear Leader or Beloved Leader. Just a plain ordinary Leader.

Which brings me to the heartland of Unending Beloved, Great and Really Terrific Great Leaders of Freedom. Specifically, the People’s Democratic Republic of (North) Korea (DRK), a country in which I spent 10 days 18 years ago.

Unaware of the desperate economic situation at that time, I intended to pursue some mano-on-mano conversations. My guide, a garrulous, perfectly bilingual guy named Kim, was happy to provide me verbal stimulation. Whatever the challenges, Koreans have grown up in a universe that could have been created by Gilbert and Sullivan or Franz Kafka.

Let us return to democracy—American democracy vs. North Korean democracy. Kim assured me I didn’t have the foggiest idea about freedom.

“How can you Americans say you have democracy?” Kim asked. “Next to our country, you have no freedom at all.”

“Wait a sec,” I said. “Our leaders might not be Great or Dear or even Adorable. But at least they’re ours. We choose them. We’re stuck with them.”

Kim glared at me, and gave his mantra. “No. You are free one day a year, in November. For 364 days, you are ruled by corrupt, rich, terrible people.

“We Koreans, on the other hand, have freedom 365 days a year. They represent our every wish, every desire. That is why we are the real democracy-lovers.”

We were dong a little after-dinner drinking. He was sipping from smuggled Red Label Scotch. I was drinking the local so-jiu. We became more animated, but it was never personally hostile. At one point, Kim became downright metaphysical in his reasoning. In sum, it was his crumbs of Hegel-Thought vs. my crumbs of Bagel-Thought.

“You say you’re free,” I said. “But you all have to join the military.”

“We do not have to fight in the military,” he said. “That is part of your capitalist propaganda. The truth is that we all wish to fight in our military to save our country. Nobody has to do anything at all in our country. Our freedom is pure, not dirty and corrupt like your so-called American freedom.”

“Oh, c’mon,” I said, “you’re telling me that if some Buddhist monk wanted to plead pacifism and wouldn’t fight, you wouldn’t throw him in prison?”

“Your premise is wrong. We don’t have monks.”

“Aha! You don’t allow freedom of religion.”

“Ha!” said Kim, guzzling his third smuggled glass of Red Label. “We have more freedom of religion than you ever had in America. But we choose not to join a religion.” He paused for breath. “Because religion is not true. So why should we choose falsehood?”

He was using Oxford Union logic against my instinctive feeling that I knew what was correct.

“Well, what about the news you listen to? I notice that my hotel radio blocks Voice of America and BBC. If you’re so free, tell me why I can’t listen. And tell me why the people of Korea can’t listen.”

He squinted, shook his head and smiled at my naiveté.

“We go back to the beginning, Harry. If we wanted to, we could waste our time and listen to BBC lies and VOA lies. But our lives are more valuable than that. If I wanted to, I could listen to the Voice of America and BBC all day long, all night long”—again he paused for the breath of the True Believer—“but what would be the point or listening to lies? Therefore the people of Korea …”

I finished his sentence for him: “Choose not to listen to lies.”

This time he smiled without disdain, but because I finally had gotten the point.

I started to chide him, that capitalist Korea (“the one in the south”) had many, many roads, while his Korea had only a single highway.

“That is true,” he said. “But what is on those roads? I’ll tell you. Cars that were invented by capitalists in your country. When we in the Democratic Republic invent our own cars, then we will build the roads for them to go on.” His consistency was infallible. “Exactly. Now if you don’t mind, let us return to our singing.”

The only American film he had seen was Casablanca, and he knew only one song: As Time Goes By. The rickety piano in the hotel was just rickety enough for too wobbly people like us, me on the 63 keys (the rest were broken) and he on a flutey, broken voice, singing, “Ae kees is not ae keeeees …”

Several days later, in a girls’ school, Kim introduced me as a “famous American accordion player” (I had confessed this sin to him), and I entertained them with ditties I had learned in Pyongyang. Later, Kim told me, “Harry, I hope you know that our Dear Leader is the Father of Ballet Notation.”

He was pleased to tell me how the DRK could make the world a merrier place.

“Tonight,” he said, “we shall drink to your enlightenment.”

I needed some potent Korean rice wine, he had a new illegal shipment of capitalist bourbon. And the two of us spent the evening in mutual silliness.

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