When UR Ananthamurthy visited North Korea: 'Our great leader Kim is creating his age. He has gone beyond Buddha, Marx, and Lenin'

[Book excerpt] Ambition had turned it into a disturbed nation.

 |  11-minute read |   08-01-2018
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I went on a tour of North Korea in July 1989, when I was in Kerala. We couldn’t travel directly to its capital Pyongyang. We got off at Beijing in China, took help from our embassy, and boarded a train to Pyongyang.

I was already sick of the huge advertisements appearing in The Hindu, praising Kim as a great leader. I was hosted at a five-star hotel. It was five-star only in name; the food and amenities were ordinary. Like in the Moscow of Stalin’s time, huge palaces loomed everywhere. You bought daily use products at these palaces. At one such palace, beneath a glittering chandelier, I saw people queueing up for bread. Like all countries in Europe, Russia dreamed of building an empire like Rome, and was not able to build a socialist society finding comfort and happiness in its everyday ordinariness. It was evident in Pyongyang that a similar ambition — to become a great nation — had turned North Korea into a disturbed nation. Anxious that the world was not recognising it, the country was advertising aggressively.

The paradox is that North Korea does not need all this anymore. After it made it known to the world that it could produce a nuclear bomb, it is featured regularly on CNN and BBC. The country has achieved its objective; it has found an identity. All nations that depend on nuclear power to establish their greatness keep their citizens hungry and impoverished. Even Stalin, who embalmed and preserved Lenin’s body, destroyed Lenin’s ideals, and did something similar. The Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight: it had grown into a dinosaur nation.

India has now caught the attention of the world with its nuclear capability. It is dreaming of joining the great nations of the world. As it dreams, farmers unable to deal with their debt are committing suicide. Capitalism and communism, both developed by the West, are ultimately anti-people. In their technological naiveté, they are anti-life.

suragi_010818044654.jpgSuragi, by UR Ananthamurthy; Translated from Kannada by SR Ramakrishna; Oxford University Press

I ate bland, tasteless Korean food at the hotel, and saw everything I was expected to see to understand the might of Korea. I travelled with two interpreters. Kim Sang’s face was everywhere, at every elevation. His new name Kim means the sun. We saw his village and his humble home. After the Second World War, when America and the Soviet Union were trying to polarise the nations of the world, Kim was on the Soviet side. This hero had fought against Japan in the Red Army and became a leader in North Korea. He was thirty-three in 1945. The consensus seemed to be that he was a true people’s leader. He had taken part in a guerrilla war against the Japanese who had occupied Korea. There was no comparable leader in South Korea. I didn’t see a single person in North Korea who wasn’t wearing a badge with his picture. They say a ruler must be loved and feared by his people. Even if he is not loved, he must be feared.

People forced to live in fear may deceive themselves into believing they love what they fear. All evil people who want to build nations know this. Ashoka was perhaps the only exception.

My interpreter friends said Kim was a greater thinker than Lenin, Marx, and Mao. Going against the belief that Mao had added a new dimension to communism, they believed Kim had taken a bigger stride. Not only had he added a new dimension but he had also fathered a son who could continue his work. Kim, in power now, used to be called the Dear Leader. He is still called that.

mt-my_010818043412.jpgAnother unforgettable memory is from my trip to a peak in North Korea. It goes by the name of Summit Myohyangsan, meaning "mysterious fragrant mountain". Photo: Juche Travels

Initially, in terms of its economy, North Korea was ahead of South Korea. Although North Korea had taken help from the Soviet Union and China, Kim’s followers went about saying he was no flunkey. They used a word to describe this: juche. It means self-reliance. In this idea of self-reliance, the Soviet Union and China had played a significant role. When those two countries were in conflict, Kim was inclined in favour of China, and that had affected the North Korean economy. I saw many impressive schools, factories, and military units. No truth can be gleaned from such a tour. These are meant to impress visitors. I will not write about them but will record two unusual experiences.

A girl from South Korea, called Rim, had come to North Korea to take part in a tournament. She had defied her government and arrived in North Korea without her country’s permission. The day after I landed there, she had turned into a hero in North Korea. With her as the focus a movement began to unify the two Koreas. Several Palestinians, besides a Gandhian from America, took part in this movement. I was one of those who believed the two countries should come together, and joined the demonstration. Being a foreigner supporting the cause, I made news. I marched in the procession, and made a speech. My interpreters were delighted. I used to ask every day, "Take me to a restaurant where common Koreans eat."

They finally gathered the courage to heed my request. When they tried to usher me in as a VIP, I objected. I stood in a queue, waited like the others, and ate authentic Korean fare. Each of those I saw there wore a Kim badge. Many people identified me as a participant in the movement, and shook hands.

As I write, I recall something from the past. When the two Koreas were at war — that is, when America and the Soviet Union were at war — Aurobindo, one of the great seers of our country, took a stand. He broke his silence and said we should side with the Americans in this war. I regard him highly for his scholarship, and I am still perplexed by his position. Why just Aurobindo, even Karanth, Adiga, and Shah, the editor of Quest magazine, were in favour of America. Their rivals, such as Bhisham Sahni, had seen the cruelty of the Soviet Union, but closed their eyes to it. The great nations conspired to stop these two nations from uniting, a desire in the hearts of all Koreans. The origins of all problems in today’s world can be traced to the sins of these two nations.

Does Korea love its culture? Is it searching for an identity? A South Korean writer told me, "Few read what we write in Korean. All American books, even the awful ones, get translated instantly into Korean, writer Saul Bellow included. Translation is a curse." In Washington, once, I met an adventurous businessman from Udupi. He knew Shivarama Karanth, and had a rich inner life. He used to frequent South Korea for business. He once wished to see historical places there. His friends and fellow businessmen there told him, "We don’t want our past. We are trying to erase it completely, and become new. We have never been to these historical places." North Koreans, who have gained independence from their Japanese colonisers, think of themselves as the true Koreans. I asked my companions, "Is there an ancient Buddhist temple I can see?" They said they had banned all faiths but those who wished to retain their shrines had been allowed to do so. They took me to a Buddhist temple that had survived this way.

16825087_401_010818043618.jpg They say a ruler must be loved and feared by his people. Even if he is not loved, he must be feared. Photo: Reuters

I saw an emaciated monk. His upper garment didn’t have a badge of Kim, the country’s supreme leader. Perhaps we could say he was free to that extent. He showed me the old books in the shrine. He got little by way of honorarium from the villages around, as he might have in an earlier age. A couple of elderly people were walking in and out for their prayers. He answered my questions in a manner that would please my companions. I asked them, "Isn’t Buddhism important to you?" What they said in reply was not too different from what the South Koreans had told me. "We live in a new age. Our great leader Kim is creating his age. He has gone beyond Buddha, Marx, and Lenin, and presented his ideas." I didn’t let them go at that. "Isn’t Buddha important in your cultural history for any reason?" One of my companions pondered. He stopped me, and gave me an astonishing answer. "Buddha is important from the perspective of printing technology. His disciples were the first to print books." I was stupefied by his reply.

I must add another observation here. I started thinking about the life of the emaciated, pathetic monk and his ancestors. People in the villages were probably sharecroppers. These monks must have had the power to punish those who didn’t hand them their shares. As one who had come from a religious order, I knew how, as part of the daily ritual of worship, property was routinely confiscated. Yet I need all of them — Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Shankara, Madhwa, Ramanuja, Ramana, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. I need them without their materialist critics, and without their fake acolytes. I need them as themselves. I need them as people of their time, and also as people relevant to our times.

Another unforgettable memory is from my trip to a peak in North Korea. It goes by the name of Summit Myohyangsan, meaning "mysterious fragrant mountain". At 57, forgetting my diabetic problems, I climbed it with my companions. Hundreds of others were also climbing it. They were strong. Some were Korean soldiers. We stopped when we felt tired. I climbed on in anticipation of reaching the summit. Suddenly my blood sugar plummeted, and I started shivering. I felt giddy, and blacked out for a moment. I slumped to the ground. I didn’t have any candy in my pocket. My companions, who loved American chocolate, didn’t have any sweet on them either. I saw soldiers marching on, carrying food on their shoulders. I pointed at the packets. A soldier came to me and opened his packet. It had some stale rice, cooked long ago. He lovingly gave me what he would have eaten for lunch. He told me, in humility and in a language I couldn’t follow, to eat it. I devoured it as if at a feast, and recovered. I felt the energy slowly returning to my body, and enjoyed the experience.

A woman was taking a child to the peak. I had been in the news in Korea, and she identified me. She carried some toffee for her child. She offered me some. Disgusted with Kim and his intoxicated self-praise, I was suddenly struck by the goodness of the people and forgot all my political thoughts. I felt better, and climbed all the way to the summit. A palace stands there. It is grand beyond description. It is meant to proclaim the splendour of their supreme leader Kim. It is filled with aircraft and cars — gifted to him by Stalin and the Chinese premier — and stunning statuettes and plaques made of gold and silver, gifted by other countries. They ushered me in to look at the books. It had books on Kim, written by writers from across the world. Surprisingly, I found hundreds of books written by Indians. I could not recognise even one of those authors. They were slim books but produced lavishly and bound in leather.

We came down the mountain and reached a pond. I was so exhausted I flopped down on a bench. My two companions took off their suits. They stripped me down to my underwear and began to massage my body. Their fingers had a miraculous power. They had a mischievous twinkle in their eyes that helped me overcome my inhibitions. My body was gradually rejuvenated. They fetched tea from somewhere, made me sip it, and escorted me to the car.

My companions, who had been so loving, began to trouble me from the next day. "Our great leader Kim is getting old. You must write a book on him," one of them said. They wanted me, as vice-chancellor of a university, to get him a DLitt. "Please, please..." I assumed they were trying to get promotions, and said regretfully, "I have no authority to grant a DLitt to a political leader.’ ‘But a book?" "I don’t write such books," I said. They offered to fund the writing. I declined. My companions thought I was just being modest, and continued to take good care of me for the rest of my stay in their capital.

After I reached Kerala they got people to call me from the Korean embassy, and continued to pressure me. All that is past now. North Korea has armed itself with nuclear weapons, and is on the path of self-destruction, like many other countries.

They no longer need writers like me. While talking to an official about Korean agriculture, I had told him about ragi, the millet we grow with little rainfall. He asked me to send him some seeds. I didn’t write a book or give Kim a doctorate. But I did send the official some ragi.

(Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press.)

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UR Ananthamurthy UR Ananthamurthy

The author is an acclaimed Kannada writer and critic. He was one of the pioneers of the Navya movement.

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