On March 4, 2015, the International Affairs Society hosted a trip to the Korean Cultural Center in Washington, DC. Although it was made clear that this was not the official embassy of Korea, it was an informative visit nonetheless (and apparently the two were still affiliated). Upon arrival, we were greeted by our guide, Adam, who began the presentation by asking what we knew about Korea. Although at that point, my knowledge was limited to what I had learned in class, I still identified major companies like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai as being of economic significance in Korea. We were shown a brief video that promoted tourism in Korea, pointing out the phenomenal growth South Korea’s economy has experienced during the post-war period, as well as showing us a glimpse of the country’s landmarks. We were then schooled on the various highlights of Korean culture, going back as far as the Joseon Dynasty. We learned a few words such as ‘hanbok’ which refers to traditional Korean dress, as well as ‘hangul’ which refers to the Korean alphabet. We were also shown the various types of Korean cuisine we could expect to try. Adam was particularly entranced by Korean pop culture, so there was a lot of emphasis on what’s known as the ‘Korean wave,’ a mix of popular TV dramas and K-pop that has only recently taken the world by storm.
Additionally, we had the privilege of meeting two Korean interns currently studying in the United States, and were able to explore a room that was styled as one during the Joseon Dynasty might have been. Overall, it was an excellent introduction to the basics of Korean culture, and a great preliminary to our trip to Seoul.
On February 4, 2015, I visited the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC to listen to a lecture and Q&A with Jang Jin-sung. A former propaganda poet for Kim Jong-il, he defected from North Korea to the South in 2004. It is widely known that Jin-sung was a particular favorite of the late dictator. The lecture consisted of Jin-sung describing the mechanisms through which the North Korean leadership (specifically, the omnipotent Kim dynasty) exact power and inspire fear, all of which was translated by Oxford graduate Shirley Lee. The discussion commenced with particular emphasis on how North Korea has managed to stay intact despite its wildly oppressive ruling ideology. Strategically, they use “theoretical restrictive and agitation” as primary strategies of preventing rebellion and uprising. They prevent revolution in exacting guilt by association, imposing the fear of not only individual punishment, but inflictions upon multiple generations of family members.
Jin-sung described the Workers’ Party as the central power of control – the supreme leader’s dogmatic authority is the only reality that the citizens of North Korea know. This mindset is reflected everywhere; the three leaders (the Kim family) are considered the sole protagonists in a world they are taught is full of evil and endless plots against the state, thrusting them into a Godlike savior status of sorts. Citizens are highly brainwashed and restricted from searching for the truth. Most alarmingly, Jin-sung described his memory of meeting the supreme leader in person. He truly believed him to be a divine being, and described the process of meeting him as being particularly drawn out and security-laden. He was told not to make eye contact, but instead to stare just below the leader’s face – anything higher would be considered far too presumptuous and warrant certain punishment.
Later, the audience was given a chance to ask questions. Among them were proposed comparisons of Joseph Stalin (of the USSR) to the leadership style of the Kim family. In fact, Jin-sung did not hesitate to make a distinction between the two: Kim Jong-il and his accompanying personality cult were notably worse than any associated with Stalin. Also, much of history in North Korea is fabricated by the regime. Textbooks begin in 1912 with the birth of Kim Il-sung, and teach students exactly what the leader had accomplished by the same age. Although, Jin-sung pointed out that many of the authorities in North Korea assigned to regulate incoming media from the South remain interested in infiltrating the very materials they are working to void. The event ended after about an hour and a half of talk. Jin-sung was available to sign copies of his book, Dear Leader, afterward.