Learning from a rare friend

Before writing this, I had already received the permission from a colleague of mine, a native of the capital Pyongyang of North Korea, to write about my experience with her. In general, it would be strange to comment on your colleague in a public post, both on professional and personal grounds. But instead, my aim is to treat her only as a reference to reflect more thoughtfully about the discussions we’ve had together and the broader lessons that I have learned from her.

Usually, when writing about someone, I would start off by providing a brief introduction on her personal background and character. Nevertheless, in the age of social media, I would like to protect her identity as much as I can. This is not to re-affirm the stereotype of North Koreans as being “mystical”, which many people around the world tend to hold (for both logical yet also unfounded reasons). What I can disclose is that she is one of the most free-spirited individuals whom I’ve ever come across, with her subtle ability to remain equally open-minded, receptive of different viewpoints, and reflect critically about society while residing in a country that is fundamentally different to her motherland. Such abilities seemingly go well beyond the boundaries of nationality or statehood, which was the first humbling lesson that I learned from her.

We first meet each other during a UN security briefing session. There were only three of us in that particular session, including a male instructor, who has been working in various UN duty stations for 18 years, most of the time in North Africa and the Middle East. Hence, we had the chance to get to know each other more intimately despite being assigned to different UN agencies.

I remember quite vividly the moment that she introduced herself as coming from “DPRK”. Prior to our formal self-introductions, we were all discussing about recent developments in Indonesian politics, especially as Indonesia had just held its presidential and parliamentary elections. Judging from her neat professional appearance, eloquently spoken English and active engagements in those discussions, I presumed that she was from some highly educated background in either China or somewhere else in East Asia. Yet, realities are never that straightforward. To accommodate the rather expressive disbelief of myself and the instructor, for several times she had to repeat that the DPRK abbreviation stood for “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. I learned another lesson: never assume unless your assumptions lead to a broader understanding of a complex issue that necessitates simplicity. But in scenarios like the one depicted above, better avoid assuming.

At first, I had to force myself to maintain a ramrod posture as if nothing special had just been revealed to me. But for obvious reasons, as someone who was born, raised and educated in the more liberal West, I eventually couldn’t continue suppressing my genuine curiosity that had been building up underneath my face, especially after when the instructor himself, from a senior position point of view, splashed out the following:

“Korea – Do you mean ROK or DPRK? I’ve never in my career or life encountered anyone from DPRK. Welcome!”

As I shook my hands with her, I briefly introduced myself as coming from Norway, a country whose population of roughly 5.2 million amounts to 0.07% of the world’s total population. Similarly, as of October 2019 North Korea’s 25.5 million population accounts for merely 0.3% of the world’s total population. Both of us come from relatively small nations.

The ratio of a country’s exports and imports of goods and services to its gross domestic product (GDP), known as the ratio of trade openness, is often used as an entry-point indicator to determine a country’s degree of economic openness to the world. In the fiscal year of 2018, the Bank of Korea (central bank of the Republic of Korea) estimated that North Korea’s nominal GDP and trade volume were around US$25 billion and US$2.84 billion, respectively, which are quite conservative estimates compared to other external sources. This gives a trade openness ratio of a mere 11.4%. In the same year, trade accounted for a baffling 188% of the nominal GDP of Vietnam, another comparable communist state (but now essentially a capitalist country). Statistics on North Korea’s current account balance remain scarce (or outdated), but the country’s current economic conditions suggest that it remains an autuarky economy with marginal engagement with the world economy (excluding geopolitics).

Source: Wolf & Akramov (2005). The figure is however very likely to be affected by poor data quality (e.g. missing data), so it’s only meant to illustrate the broader developments and trends in North Korea’s trade balance. In addition, Wolf & Akramov highlights North Korea’s rather distinct (or somewhat politicized) classifications of certain foreign transactions recorded (or not) under its current account balance, thus presenting a challenge to determine the country’s actual current account balance.

Yet, beyond statistical stories, the world is small and made up of unforeseen conditions and luck for social relations to eventually establish themselves. As a positive surprise, she told me that one of her best friends, whom she met during middle school in Pakistan, also happens to be Norwegian.

Since our first meeting, we’ve been sharing many meals together. We have occasionally also been jogging outdoors together in central Jakarta during the weekly car free Sundays and “malling”, meaning strolling in shopping malls as a predominant mode of entertainment in urban Indonesia. Whenever we sit down for a meal, we always end up indulging ourselves in deep conversations about ideas, values and society. Our brains appear to be much older than our actual ages on record, both of us have conceded. But how much we love and enjoy it nonetheless. As she once asked me rhetorically:

“I love thinking all day like a philosopher. Is there any job available out there for a full-time philosopher?”

In the beginning of our friendship, I was consciously restraining myself as much as possible in terms of the range of appropriate questions to ask her. But I often let her set the limitations, for example by making her initiate and lead our conversations. To the contrary of my initial expectations, that our conversations were most likely to end up topically austere, the more I listened to her the more I discovered of how well-educated, reflective and mature person she is. I kept being taken aback by her grandiose, heavy-weighted and open-ended questions that I never really expected her to ask me. Through her questions, I also had the chance to learn more about her own country. Some of the most memorable have been:

Q1: What do you think about religion?

I was faced with this question from her as we were leaving the office building together. This provided me the opportunity to not just learn about North Korea, but also our shared host country, Indonesia. The two countries couldn’t be any more different in terms of the role of religion in society. From a recent survey conducted by PEW on people’s perceptions of the importance of religion, an overwhelming 83% of Indonesians believe that religion plays a bigger role in society today compared to 20 years ago. This may also bring us further into a much broader question of how democratization and globalization during the reformasi era have been enabling this trend, particularly the rise of conservative religiosity.

On the other skewed side of the scale (despite a lack of credible statistics), none of the five “major world religions” of today’s age play any significant role in North Korean society, according to my colleague. Instead, there’s a strong focus on science and STEM education in particular, she explained. “Socialism has taught us to believe in the power and judgements of human beings“, she further elaborated. I told her that I do not come from a religious family or country myself, hence that (doctrinal) religion has yet to really play an influential role in my life.

But both of us find the role of religion both fascinating and complex anyways, by displaying the issue beyond the usual for vs. against scale as often done by many public intellectuals. Admittedly, we wouldn’t be able to reach the “middle way” without the presence of some strongly opposed (or extreme) arguments on either side of the scale. During some days, I would get myself a dose of book chapters or video lectures featuring the biologist Richard Dawkins, whereas in other days, I may enjoy doses of wisdom from the zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.

What we both are fascinated about is ultimately the different purposes to which religions attempt to serve in society. While the natural sciences remain focused on understanding the creation and existence of the universe and living species, many religious leaders and practitioners today seem rather more concentrated on alleviating suffering inflicted on common people’s mental and spiritual health on a daily basis. Science and religion can co-exist in harmony if both sides can accept such “distribution of responsibilities” in society, rather than attempting to overclaim one another.

Whereas a typical Vietnamese factory worker in a foreign country would benefit greatly from higher education attainment and programs taught by scientists, the worker on the other hand would most likely benefit more from the spiritual comfort of a monk/nun from a local temple whenever faced with daily exploitation at the workplace. Given that time is getting more scarce in our (supposedly) modern age, then if praying provides people the precious space and time to leave aside all material responsibilities and pain for a moment, then let it be. This is not about belittling people’s ability to think rationally and independently, by claiming that some people are in greater need of religion more than others. Instead, it’s about confronting a reality of increasing moral void and human suffering in many parts of the world today. Scientists nor religious leaders cannot fill these voids alone by themselves.

We were exchanging our thoughts about religion in the middle of the holy Ramadan month. The timing was more or less perfect to observe how Indonesian society would evolve for this occasion. As people fasted, they seemingly also prayed more often during the day (not everyone prays five times a day, but more people certainly attempt during Ramadan). For me, in general Indonesians are extremely kind people no matter if they display their kind gestures during or outside Ramadan. On the day of Eid ul-Fitr (“Lebaran” in Bahasa Indonesia), my colleague gifted me with a box of ginger tea bags and instant noodles made in North Korea. These are export items of her country, she explained.

Q2: What do you think about money?

During an otherwise tasteful lunch inside the office building, she suddenly asked for my opinion about the encompassing role of money. For such an open-ended question, my arguments went in circle for some time to only conclude that, yes money is an essential source of happiness, but once incomes reach certain levels, an extra $ tend to not buy much more additional life satisfaction. On the contrary, after surpassing a certain level, more money as a form of modern addiction can even make you feel more miserable. A lot of societies in the developed world today are struggling with this brewing mental health problem, I explained to her. In general, it’s hard to determine the causal directions.

The late economist Alan Krueger (1962 – 2019) dedicated a great proportion of his research to the economics of happiness. His latest book “Rockonomics“, which was released in June 2019 and sadly only after his death, is also worth reading. Through the lenses of economics and psychology, the book challenges conventional dilemmas and myths between the pursuit of wealth versus personal passions among musicians. I recently finished reading the book and preparing to write a separate blog entry, where I shall review the book in terms of its broader relevance, lessons and ramifications to society today.

She revealed in an honest and humble manner that she (not her country, necessarily) has never experienced poverty before. Therefore, I concluded by also briefly sharing her about the role of money to my own life. As the eldest daughter of former boat refugees, I grew up not as materialistically fit and mobile as many of my Norwegian peers, especially during the early years of my family settling in a foreign country. I was already in my mum’s tummy when my parents were living in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, following their resettlement from another refugee camp in the Philippines. My sisters were much better off from birth compared to myself. But my childhood was overall a very happy and meaningful one, as I’ve always been aware of much hard work my parents pulled off in order to ensure my comfort.

When thinking back in time, I suddenly truly miss the 1990s. I still hold vivid memories of myself delivering milk and other grocery items to the doorstep of many Norwegian elders as a kid. In return, they would then often gift me with around 10 Norwegian kroner, which back then was enough for me to buy a lollipop ice cream. All the elders must have passed away by now.

Q3: What do you think about Das Kapital? How should I start reading it?

Responding to this question was a challenge. I tried to answer within my own capacity, as I must admit that I was not the right person to be addressed given my limited practical and scholarly knowledge of this subject. In addition, I was responding from a position of not being a Marxist myself.

I just scrambled everything that I could instantly come up with. I recommended her reading David Harvey’s work, perhaps by starting off with his YouTube series titled “Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey“, where he explains every volume and chapter of Das Kapital quite elaborately. She was hesitant at first, worried that she would have to rely on “external interpretations” rather than the actual words and phrasings of Marx and Engels. I didn’t know what else to say to her, other than explaining that relying too much on “puritanical” (supposedly authentic) versions also present their own dangers in policy implementation.

Her question was raised in the context of herself offering me with her own recommendations, ranging from news articles to books. She would occasionally ask me if I had read the latest issues of the magazines The Economist or Foreign Policy. Admittedly, in the beginning I was caught off surprised about the fact that she was reading these magazines. In terms of books, one of the books that I got to know through her was by the economist Joseph Stiglitz titled “People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent” (2019). She asked me to read and review the book for her once I was done, as she hasn’t read it herself.

I finished reading the book in June 2019. Upon reading this book, I certainly don’t expect its policy subscriptions, deemed necessary for rebuilding American capitalism and democracy from the consequential economic policies of the 1980-90s by subsequent Republican and Democratic administrations, to be embraced by any “principled Marxist” who’s not as much invested into saving capitalism from its own “contradictions”. The author himself clearly lays down the logic behind his book: advocating for reform as to prevent any “revolution” from taking place. But his concerns are not entirely unfounded: there are examples of past revolutionary leaders having gone from hero to zero in governance in the eyes of their own people.

Even among some of the few remaining communist states today, which all to various degrees have been experimenting theoretical revisionism to the point of tacitly approving capitalism as a pathway to achieve a “communist society” as an end goal, may not embrace the book’s overall message unless they admit that they themselves have become capitalist in nature and depend on the survival of America as a bastion of free global markets. Hence, I believe that other books might be more suitable to her, including the book “Capitalism: Competition, Conflict and Crises” by the economist Anwar Shaikh, where classical economics (including Karl Marx) earn much (empirically evidence-driven) respect from the author.

Until recently, I kept wondering about what directions or signs her above questions were leading me towards. For myself, I remained curious as to what she thought more directly about capitalism and the West. From the beginning of our friendship, I noticed that she had the tendency to formulate questions in delicate ways that did not necessarily put her own country in an oppositional position. For example, she would frame her questions in ways like: what do you think about socialism, as opposed to what do you think about capitalism? or how does the Nordic model work for making society more egalitarian? as opposed to how does the Nordic model work? How capitalist is it really? The subject of her questions were often centered on things that are either clearly or extremely remotely endorsed in North Korea. It’s quite skillful of her.

From my side, on the other hand, attempted to position my questions to be more centered around general life in Pyongyang or North Korea. My questions touched on the job market, work and social life, and later on, patriotism.

Q4: What are the predominant job occupations for young people in North Korea?

Lots of young people around the world are getting more involved in “start-ups” or other forms of entrepreneurship, especially in the private sector. This trend can be seen as a blessing, yet also a negative predicament of the public sector in many developing countries for failing to attract and inspire enough human talent. Hence, I was keen to know more anecdotally about the typical job market decisions of young people in North Korea today. Would the trend be at the opposite?

“For myself, working in government has always been the preferred option. Although government jobs remain a popular choice among many young people after they graduate from university, career choices are getting more and more diverse”, she said. She explained that the private sector has yet to play a significant role in job creation, at least at the macro level. I forgot to ask her about employment in the informal sector, especially in rural North Korea, where I expect most economic activities to be at the household rather than industrial level. And how is working in academia or humanitarian NGOs there?

Statistics on the labour market distribution in North Korea are difficult to access. In early 2016, I attended a book launch by Professor Hazel Smith, whose book titled “North Korea: Markets and Military Rule” apparently supplies with a rich amount of rare statistics on “the economic and social transformation of the country from below in recent times“, as described by the author. I have yet to dig into the book myself.

At first, I assumed that the main attributions behind why many young North Koreans opt for government jobs are due to 1) job security and 2) limited supply of jobs outside the government sector. Rather than challenging my hypotheses, she instead offered me with insights into the work life of a typical civil servant in Pyongyang that I had never thought enough about before. Her insights centered on values and social bonds at the workplace. A more socialized work environment, in other words. The conversation started with me having reacted with surprise to her revelation that civil servants, or North Koreans in general, work very long hours. How and why? I asked, since the hours per week in the public sector of many countries on average tend to be fewer than those in the private sector, especially within the increasingly gig-like services industries.

“In general, North Koreans are very hardworking. But still, for us working long hours cannot be seen in the same ways in which many people outside my country spend long hours at work. For us, the workplace is our extended family. Long work hours do not necessarily come at the expense of family time. Work is not just a transaction or dreadful. Quite often, we would cook meals, play games or go swimming together, and invite our ‘blood’ family members to join those social activities at the workplace. I miss this kind of environment from home very much.”

Her last sentence caught my attention. It made me more daring in terms of my follow-up questions, just to satisfy my own curiosity. I kept thinking of what other aspects from home she was being nostalgic about. Did the work environment in supposedly more modern countries influence, or perhaps strengthen, her sense of belonging to her motherland?

“I went to school in different countries. But nothing is as similar as it was at home. In my country, the social relations within the classroom are much stronger. Similar to the workplace, whenever someone had a birthday or other reasons to celebrate something, we would cook and share our food in the classroom. We would generally help each other for anything. In other countries, schoolmates seem to be more individualistic and less tied to each other”, she explained. She further highlighted some of the typical social activities outside the classroom that have ever since carried a deep meaning and memories for her:

“At least once a year, we would participate in school programs to help farmers in the countryside. We would live with the farmers and help them with the harvesting. Through these experiences, we were able to connect and relate ourselves to the farmers. Most importantly, we also grew more grateful to all the hardship that our farmers must go through in order to bring food to our tables”, she explained.

I grew so intrigued by her insights that I finally had the courage to ask if being overseas made her reflect more about the way in which other countries are being run compared to her own country. “As you notice, I emphasize the role of community and social relations to well-being a lot. I just think that I was born to be a socialist. Studying and working in different countries made me dislike capitalism even more. In this country, beside work there is nothing else to do but shopping. What joy and meaning does that bring? I have grown more proud of my own country. I am especially proud by the fact that we remain largely self-sufficient”, she emphasized.

I finally understood her position. It is an unwavering one, but not rare to my own experience. In fact, she reminds me of an uncle of mine, who was born and raised in the formerly Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). He used to enroll in Vietnam People’s Army and work as a public security guard for Vietnamese senior officials. After living for almost 15 years in the West, he remains proud of his own country’s socialist past. Whenever I visit him, he would not hesitate to put some loud “red music” in the background. While having to secure a livelihood far away from his own motherland, red music is among the things that make him so alive.

Going back to my colleague, she expressed nevertheless how much she appreciated our conversations. She said that our meals together were some of her most precious moments to discuss deep and existential questions. I find that to be a genuine compliment, and share the same sentiments toward her.

In this blog entry, I have not been interested in passing any judgements, as this has already been done by many people. I don’t need to show or explain my naivety or vigilance. I have learned what I need to learn: opening ourselves to each other with sincerity, and letting the hearts and minds melt into one during speaking. Thanks for the company, dear colleague and friend.


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