Surreal Korea

North Korea is even stranger than the picture painted of it, as Mark Seddon found out after a close

Astonishingly, General Ri Chan-bok, North Korean commander of border forces at the heavily fortified Panmunjom armistice line between the communist North and the freewheeling, capitalist South, agreed that I could leave my camera running. I was with my old friend and veteran Korean shuttle diplomat, Glyn Ford MEP, on one of the now numerous trips I have made to the hermit state. It had been a bumpy few days for me, however, and as the general waxed lyrical on the threat posed by the US, and talked of his country's readiness to use all means necessary, I reflected on the close shave I had had earlier.

Wandering past the main railway terminus in the capital, Pyongyang, I'd been arrested by a very angry female soldier who had spotted me filming lines of women waving red plastic flowers at the departure of some dignitary. Being marched off to a room where we were joined by another irate female soldier, with my passport back at the hotel, was not the best introduction to the country. When my guards stopped shouting and left the corridor clear momentarily, I saw my chance, and ran as fast as my legs would take me.

This was the first ever "interview" to camera - though more like a monologue - with a member of North Korea's military. And it was my friendship with Glyn, coupled with my being at the time on Labour's National Executive Committee and a journalist, that was to give me the most remarkable access over the next four trips.

"Mr Seddon! What do you think of Korean goals?" asked Mr Kim, our minder, as we munched our way through hand-picked fungi at a completely deserted mountain resort, north of the capital. "Well," I said, on-message, "Korea is making much progress towards modernisation and electrification!" "No, Mr Seddon, what do you think of Korean goals?" Off I went again: "Soon everyone will have mobile phones." (In fact, the few thousand handsets that had been given to trusty officials were soon to be confiscated by Kim Jong-il, because, er, they could not be trusted.) "No, no, Mr Seddon! Korean goals!" At this point, the bewildered Mr Kim pointed towards the shy, prim, kimono-clad Korean girls who had been serving us the fungi they had picked earlier.

North Korea, or "the land of eternal happiness", as I prefer to call it, is even more surreal than the lurid picture painted of it. Its inhabitants live in a time warp, cut off from the rest of the world, with no phones, no internet, no satellite television and (as the old Soviet Politburo would have described it) no noise pollution - meaning pop music. Curiosity has been replaced with the certainties of Juche, North Korea's ideology of self-reliance couched in Marxism-Leninism and, through the two Kims (Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader and father of Kim Jong-il, Dear Leader), old-style emperor worship.

I witnessed this emperor worship at first hand, from the VIP box at the staggering display that is North Korea's mass Arirang games. The North Koreans are quite rightly proud of this astonishing ensemble of 20,000 gymnasts, as only a state so thoroughly centrally planned and organised could manage such a feat. As the music built to a crescendo, the bouffant-haired figure of Kim Jong-il emerged from the recesses of the huge stadium. Clad in his olive-green zipped Mao jacket, the Dear Leader took the massed applause and salute. Most surreal of all was the walk back through Pyongyang's dark and silent streets as the 100,000-strong crowd dispersed. I had been in the military section, surrounded by thousands of North Korea's fearsome top brass. The sound of all those clinking medals will stay with me for a long time.

I had a second chance to view the Dear Leader at close quarters when, placed on a dais overlooking Kim Il-sung Square, I witnessed a rally to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the communist Workers' Party of Korea. On this occasion, as the crowd roared its approval, I could make out only the Dear Leader's dark glasses and raised arm.

Leaving aside emperor worship and worrying tangles with the military, I have good impressions of the country. One of my happiest memories was our picnic at a state trout farm on the way back from Namp'o. A county chairwoman, Madam Hu, was our host, together with officials from the party and our ever-present minders. Madam Hu had taken a particular liking to my Chairman Mao lighter, which played "The East Is Red" when you flipped the lid open. Even in my inebriated state, as toast followed toast, I noticed it disappearing into her voluminous skirts.

Madam Hu insisted that all the delegations continue with the toasting and singing, but I couldn't help noticing that Glyn was a bit further gone than me - and we had already done "The Red Flag" and "The Internationale" twice. It fell to me to sing "God Save the Queen", accompanied by our tired and emotional North Korean comrades. Mr Kim was busy throwing up.

"Mr Seddon! In Korea, this means you live," Mr Kim said, giving me the thumbs-up, "and this means you die." Whereupon he gave me the thumbs-down. As the train slowly started clanking out of Pyongyang on the long journey to the Chinese border, Mr Kim looked at me and turned his thumb down. Then, smiling, he turned it up. But I couldn't help wondering: What was he really thinking?

Mark Seddon is diplomatic correspondent for al-Jazeera English

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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