From a Bangkok schoolroom to the democratic farce of North Korea

opinion March 14, 2014 00:00

By Martin Vengadesan
The Star

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Almost unnoticed, North Korean democracy is at work. While most Malaysians are undergoing a collective soul-searching experience over the missing MH370 flight, citizens of the People's Democratic Republic of Korea have dutifully gone to the polls and vot

Let’s not be too impressed though.
The choice was stark: vote for Kim Jong-un & co or not vote for his party and run the risk of being “exposed” as a traitor.
By all accounts this means a swift execution or a lifetime of hard labour in brutal prison camps.
What most of the world takes for granted, even under many other iron-fisted regimes – a protest vote for the opposition – is simply not an option in North Korea for there is no opposition.
Voting is compulsory and there is only one state-approved candidate to vote for.
And so, as it has done for every election since 1948, the party of Kim Jong-un and his ancestors/predecessors has bagged 100 per cent of the vote.
Technically Kim’s Workers Party is the dominant one in a coalition government called the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland.
There are also a couple of smaller puppet parties and a few independents. But basically all real power is concentrated in the hands of the emperor and his acolytes, in the name of a workers’ paradise.
Hard as it is to believe, it was not always thus.
After the end of World War II and Korea’s liberation by the Allied powers, Kim Il-sung had to fight for supremacy with other factions in the North.
Korea’s Communists at the time included some from the South, those who had formed anti-Japanese resistance in the North, and others trained by the Chinese and by the Soviets.
Far from the obvious choice at first, Kim Il-sung succeeded in outmanoeuvring his rivals by the late 1940s and disposed of them in a round of purges a decade later.
By that time his all-powerful cult of personality was well established.
One of the quirkier experiences I had growing up was at the International School of Bangkok.
For three months in 1989, I sat in between a North Korean and a South Korean at study hall.
Oddly enough the North Korean Hong was a bubbly fellow while Kim the South Korean was taciturn and paranoid.
For two months I was in the rather awkward position of talking to each of them in turn.
Hong was eager to find out about the outside world, but he didn’t really tell me much about life in Kim Il-sung’s Korea.
He did expose me to an interesting point of view when I tried to tell him about religion, and he called it superstition, and I tried to debate the difference between the two, and couldn’t really provide an adequate explanation to him.
Kim on the other hand was quietly driven but very anxious that his words not be overheard by his countryman.
The ice in this mini Cold War finally thawed when Kim brought in a Korean-English dictionary and Hong just couldn’t fight his own curiosity.
Within minutes he was practically leaning over my desk and when he posed a question to Kim, the latter stared in shock into space for a few seconds before he decided to talk.
They started conversing haltingly and then a bit more animatedly, while I stepped back, feeling like I’d done my bit for world peace.
It didn’t last long though, as both left school during the summer holidays.
The world has taken divergent paths since then.
South Korea racing ahead economically and even socially with horror movies and Gangnam style (although I can’t always tell which is which).
It’s hard to tell how true reports are of North Korea being one big concentration camp, but there are little signs to indicate otherwise.
Perhaps one day, the people of North Korea can go to the polls and deliver a result which shows that perfection doesn’t always mean 100 per cent.