I saw exactly one picture of Marx and one of Lenin in my whole stay, but it's been a long time since ideology had anything to do with it. Not without cunning, Fat Man and Little Boy gradually mutated the whole state belief system into a debased form of Confucianism, in which traditional ancestor worship and respect for order become blended with extreme nationalism and xenophobia. Near the southernmost city of Kaesong, captured by the North in 1951, I was taken to see the beautifully preserved tombs of King and Queen Kongmin. Their significance in F.M.-L.B. Cosmology is that they reigned over a then unified Korea in the 14th century, and that they were Confucian and dynastic and left many lavish memorials to themselves. The tombs are built on one hillside, and legend has it that the king sent one of his courtiers to pick the site. Second-guessing his underling, he then climbed the opposite hill. He gave instructions that if the chosen site did not please him he would wave his white handkerchief. On this signal, the courtier was to be slain. The king actually found that the site was ideal. But it was a warm day and he forgetfully mopped his brow with the white handkerchief. On coming downhill he was confronted with the courtier's fresh cadaver and exclaimed, 'Oh dear.' And ever since, my escorts told me, the opposite peak has been known as 'Oh Dear Hill.'I thought this was a perfect illustration of the caprice and cruelty of absolute leadership, and began to phrase a little pun about Kim Jong Il being the 'Oh Dear Leader,' but it died on my lips.
Every day the same things came up; the work was never done, and the tedium of it began to weigh on me. Part of what made English a difficult subject for Korean students was the lack of a more active principle in their learning. They were accustomed to receiving, recording, and memorizing. That's the Confucian mode. As a student, you're not supposed to question a teacher; you should avoid asking for explanations because that might reveal a lack of knowledge, which can be seen as an insult to the teacher's efforts. You don't have an open, free exchange with teachers as we often have here in the West. And further, under this design, a student doesn't do much in the way of improvisation or interpretation. This approach might work well for some pursuits, may even be preferred--indeed, I was often amazed by the way Koreans learned crafts and skills, everything from basketball to calligraphy, for example, by methodically studying and reproducing a defined set of steps (a BBC report explained how the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had his minions rigorously study the pizza-making techniques used by Italian chefs so that he could get a good pie at home, even as thousands of his subjects starved)--but foreign-language learning, the actual speaking component most of all, has to be more spontaneous and less rigid. We all saw this played out before our eyes and quickly discerned the problem. A student cannot hope to sit in a class and have a language handed over to him on sheets of paper.
Even in former days, Korea was known as the 'hermit kingdom' for its stubborn resistance to outsiders. And if you wanted to create a totally isolated and hermetic society, northern Korea in the years after the 1953 'armistice' would have been the place to start. It was bounded on two sides by the sea, and to the south by the impregnable and uncrossable DMZ, which divided it from South Korea. Its northern frontier consisted of a long stretch of China and a short stretch of Siberia; in other words its only contiguous neighbors were Mao and Stalin. (The next-nearest neighbor was Japan, historic enemy of the Koreans and the cruel colonial occupier until 1945.) Add to that the fact that almost every work of man had been reduced to shards by the Korean War. Air-force general Curtis LeMay later boasted that 'we burned down town in North Korea,' and that he grounded his bombers only when there were no more targets to hit anywhere north of the 38th parallel. Pyongyang was an ashen moonscape. It was Year Zero. Kim Il Sung could create a laboratory, with controlled conditions, where he alone would be the engineer of the human soul.