Andreas Engstrom, official delegate of the Korean Friendship Association Ireland, talks with Billy Vaughan about the realities of life as a supporter of North Korea, and gives his views on the Korean Question.
NO one can deny that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or North Korea) is a unique society. Its leaders, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, are revered as near deities. It is the only remaining “communist” country in the world, insofar that it does not have any form of official market economy. It is also fiercely nationalistic, and wary of outside influences. These elements are together bound up in the all-encompassing philosophy of “Juche”.
The ideology of “Juche” can be seen as the DPRK’s uniquely “Korean” brand of socialism. It holds that national unity is paramount, and that the individual is the master of their destiny; but its precise definition has changed over time.
While it has proven to be a vague concept, its power and importance in North Korean society cannot be underestimated. It is not only a central tenet of the DPRK’s political system, but is supposed to provide a framework within which every Korean lives, thinks, works, and dies.
“The juche idea … is based in the anti-Japanese resistance struggle”
Some critics have merely defined Juche as communism with nationalist elements, but Andreas Engstrom, official delegate of Korean Friendship Association Ireland, disagrees with this, seeing it as an over-simplification. To explain the differences, he draws on Korea’s long history of occupations by foreign powers.
“If you actually look at the Juche idea, there are lots of original ideas there” he says. “It is based in the anti-Japanese resistance struggle. If you look at Russia, it was a case of one class overthrowing another, but in Korea the whole people were fighting a foreign power together”.
There are questions over the DPRK’s refusal to work with international authorities, such as the UN Commission on Human Rights, on many issues such as the labour camps that exist within the country. Critics have pointed out that if North Korea respects human rights like it claims, then there should be no problem with showcasing that to the international community.
While acknowledging that labour camps do indeed exist, Engstrom insists that the penal system is only aimed at non-political offenders. “If you look at the so-called ‘human rights’ issue, you can see that they do have labour camps, but they don’t have prisons. If you commit a less serious crime, you do community service, but for more serious crimes you are sent to a labour camp”.
“Shin is well paid by the South Korean National Intelligence Service”
Engstrom mentions the case of Shin Dong-hyuk, a defector from an internment camp in North Korea upon whose story the book Escape from Camp 14 is based. He alleges that Shin is “well paid by the South Korean National Intelligence Service”. He also points out that Shin later recanted certain elements of his story about his experiences, and that his father (who still lives in North Korea) alleged that he was in the camp because he had raped a 13-year-old girl. Shin denies the allegations as propaganda.
The KFA, or “Korean Friendship Association”, is an organisation that was founded by Alejandro Cao de Benós in 2000. He features heavily in The Propaganda Game, a 2015 documentary film about North Korea. It has members in 120 countries, and its stated aim is to “show the reality of the DPRK to the world, defend the independence and socialist construction in the DPR of Korea, and work for the peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula”. In simple terms, it works to promote friendship and goodwill in the international community towards North Korea.
“The constitution guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and demonstrations”
It has an Irish branch, KFA Ireland, in which Engstrom is heavily involved as an Official Delegate. In this capacity, Engstrom attended the Annual Conference in Madrid, which was held at the DPRK Embassy there. There he met the founder of the organisation, Mr. de Benós. “He’s a really cool guy, he is a very well organised person and doing a great job organising everything. He also has dual citizenship with Spain and North Korea”.
Engstrom points out that the KFA “is officially recognised by DPRK government, so we do have very close connections”. He is an ardent advocate of the organisation, and would defend the organisation against criticism that it is merely a projection of North Korean “soft power”, akin to the Confucius Institute or the Alliance Française. “It’s not our job to influence anyone, we are working on behalf of the DPRK. We are working for the peaceful reunification of Korea”.
The Washington D.C.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), in their 2012 report entitled “The Hidden Gulag”, allege that the North Korean authorities have not acted to refute the claims of North Korean defectors about prison camps and political prisoners. They infer from this that the DPRK is implicitly admitting to human rights violations.
Engstrom denies that there are political prisoners in the DPRK, calling it “a fabrication”. He points out that in North Korea, “the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and demonstrations, and freeform of religion” so that the population are protected from such human rights abuses.
The international community remains sceptical, to say the least, and doubts are not helped by the fact that North Korean authorities refuse to engage with international monitoring missions and organisations. Engstrom says, however, that the history of Korea means that the DPRK is very reluctant and cautious about engaging with outside institutions. “If you look at the Korean War, the US used the UN as puppets to invade the DPRK. Why would the DPRK let in soldiers who once invaded them and are still occupying half the country?”
There has been a marked increase in defectors from North Korea in recent years, and some have attributed to this to the increasing influence of the black market. Bootleg DVDs of South Korean soap operas and films are smuggled into North Korea from China, and some North Koreans are tempted to leave by what they see. Engstrom agrees with this: “there are lots of defectors to South Korea after they have seen South Korean soap operas and they think that everyone is living in luxury, but when they get there they realise that this is not the case and they have to work very hard”.
“If they get sick, they have free healthcare in the DPRK. They are protected there, but not when they go to the South”
He suggests that many defectors are not prepared for living in a non-socialist system when they leave North Korea. “There are lots of people who defected because they wanted a better life, but they have to pay for rent. They don’t have to pay for accommodation in the DPRK. If they get sick, they have free healthcare in the DPRK. They are protected there, but not when they go to the South”. He says that there are many defectors who later want to return to the DPRK, but are unable to because of the permit system that South Korea has in place to regulate cross-border movement.
It is safe to say that many of North Korea’s problems, such as its economic troubles and international sanctions, are blamed by the DPRK government on malevolent US influence. But does the leadership of North Korea themselves acknowledge that at least some of their problems are caused by internal factors? Engstrom claims that all of these woes can trace their roots back to the division of Korea, and points to the DPRK’s plan to set up a “Federal Republic of Koryo”, which would afford large levels of autonomy to both states within one Federal framework. But he says that the US presents an obstacle to these plans. “They are always trying to ruin reconciliation moves,” he says.
“It’s not our job to influence anyone. We are working for the peaceful reunification of Korea”
There are some who say that the two Koreas should try to cooperate with each other more on a bilateral level, without (or with minimal) US involvement. This would seem to suit both sides, as US presence in South Korea, both militarily and diplomatically, is the DPRK’s main sticking point. Engstrom echoes this, and emphasises that “there are discussions at governmental level”. He says that “[The DPRK leadership] are always open to discussion, but not if the US are at the table”. This has perennially been a red line issue for inter-Korea negotiations.
Engstrom contends that the South Korean government is also no stranger to political repression, referring to the South Korean United Progressive Party, which was banned in 2014 because of its policies of reunification and ending co-operation with the US, which were seen as “Pro-North”. “They jailed the leaders of the party”, he says, referring to the alleged involvement of some party members in a 2013 sabotage plot. The ban was criticised by Amnesty International at the time.
In terms of how the whole Korean situation eventually plays out, it seems that anything is possible, especially with the recent breakdown of inter-Korean relations. The election of Trump is also a major destabilising factor, considering his vague and contradictory rhetoric on the issue during the campaign.
Engstrom hopes that despite the gloomy outlook, common ground can eventually be found, and Korea can once again be united, but on one condition: “only if the US pull out of South Korea”. While the KFA, South Korea, and the US all hope for a peaceful resolution in the long term, it remains difficult to deny that in this decades-long icy standoff, at least one party must eventually emerge bruised and bloodied.
This interview was conducted in November 2015 by Billy Vaughan and Gerard Maguire.