Image: Die Drei von der Datenschutztankstelle by greenoid on 2013-09-07 13:41:39
Travelers to North Korea routinely praise the clean streets of Pyongyang and the lack of pollution compared to its neighbor, China. While North Korea today suffers from its own environmental issues, Kim Il Sung once tried to capitalize on the DPRK’s apparent status as an untapped green space that had not been tainted by capitalist-fueled pollution. This soft power tactic used by the North Korean leadership in the 1980s resulted in an odd relationship with several members of the German Green Party.
As South Korea’s economy took off in the 1980s, it became clearer that the real “Korean Miracle” was centered in Seoul. Dealing with the harsh reality that the DPRK’s soft power abroad was slipping due to the South’s economic boom, the North Korean leadership searched for new allies and found one in Luise Rinser, a leading member of the German Green Party and a notable author who once wrote of her experiences in a Nazi prison. From 1980 to 1992, Rinser visited North Korea 11 times and met with Kim Il Sung 45 times.
She sees North Korea as a ‘farm-loving country owned by a farmer father’
In 1986, Rinser published a book, Nordkoreanisches Reisetagebuch (A North Korean Diary), based on her trips to North Korea. In the book, Rinsers says that North Korean socialism is “socialism with a human face” and that North Korea is a “model not just for the Third World.” She sees North Korea as a “farm-loving country owned by a farmer father.” Stating that she was not on vacation in North Korea, Rinser saw her trips as opportunities to learn about “a third way” of living that “helps reduce the blind faith in an inevitable struggle between the capitalist and the communist systems.”
Rinser describes North Korea as a land free of child abuse, murder, robbery and political prison camps. When she asks a mayor of a small village whether North Korea has camps like the ones in Siberia. The mayor says, “no … we are not in South Korea.” Rinser believes the mayor. She would later visit a “re-education home” and view North Korean prison life for herself.
While the “re-education home” that Rinser visited is certainly not representative of the average North Korean prison, Rinser’s experiences are unique as she is the first and only foreigner to ever visit a North Korean “re-education home.”
“It looks like a hostel,” she notes. “My Western notions of prison do not want to agree. No wall, no watchtowers, no barbed wire, no bars on the windows.” Rinser speaks to the manager of the prison, who says that the longest stay for any prisoner is one year but all prisoners decide for themselves when they have been rehabilitated. Prisoners who stayed at the home were sentenced for a variety of minor offenses such as theft, laziness, and repeated unexcused absences from work. Rinser comes away from this experience convinced that North Korean prison time primarily consists of manual labor in gardens and fields that requires no heavy lifting and is focused on education, community spirit and closeness to nature.
Perhaps seeing the benefits of a notable German politician schilling for his regime in the West, Kim Il Sung formed a close friendship with Rinser. Kim told Rinser, “I think you are an old comrade of mine because we both fought against fascism. I know you lost your husband to the fascists, and you were put in prison and even sentenced to death. That’s why I respect you and regard you as my comrade.” Despite uniting over their shared past of anti-fascist activities, Rinser was initially disenchanted with Kim’s pervasive personality cult. However, after visiting the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang, Rinser asked, “‘The great President Kim Il Sung has’ … It is annoying me already to hear this again and again. But is it not true? Who else but he has so taken care of the children? Who else but he gives large sums from the public treasury to the youth?” Both also formed a bond over their common concern for nature. Rinser told Kim that the trees, mountains and parks in North Korea are impressive. Kim said, “It is beautiful because the human is beautiful.”
As the driving force behind the German Green-North Korean alliance, Rinser introduced other prominent Greens to the wonders of North Korean socialism. Rudolf Bahro, a Marxist philosopher who was deported from East Germany in 1979 after he wrote a book criticizing East German socialism, visited North Korea in 1981 with Rinser. Bahro came back from this trip praising the exploits of Kim Il Sung. He said, “It is a lot of crap to put Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Il Sung in the same bag. I believe that (Kim) is, in fact, a great man.” Bahro lauded North Korea’s rapid postwar construction “without destroying nature” and that North Korea produces 95 percent of its energy without oil. Bahro was also impressed with the DPRK’s hydroelectric power plants.
‘Beginning in kindergarten, the children are educated to act in ways that take nature into account’
Rolf Stolz, a member of the German Green national executive committee, also visited North Korea in the early 1980s. With his wife and fellow Green Party member Reinhard Miller, Stolz visited North Korea in June 1981. After the trip, the trio lauded the DPRK’s “astonishing construction achievements … that are largely unknown in the Federal Republic.” Stolz also praised the environmentalism taught to North Korean schoolchildren. Stolz told the German newspaper Debatte, “Beginning in kindergarten, the children are educated to act in ways that take nature into account. Rather than killing insects with poison chemicals, they are attracted with oil lamps and then annihilated in a way that is friendly to the environment.”
The German Green-North Korean alliance demonstrates one of the tactics used by the North Korean propaganda apparatus: turning a negative into a positive. Decreased assistance from the Soviet Union and China and North Korea’s declining industrial output in the 1980s had positive ramifications for the environment, such as cleaner air, and forced North Koreans to use alternative fuel sources since oil was in short supply. While North Korea’s commitment to environmentalism was dubious, the DPRK’s leadership was able to entice German Greens who admired the North Korean state’s newfound nature-friendly ways.
However, North Korea never became a haven for Western environmentalists. The mid-1990s famine led North Koreans to exploit their forests for food and fuel, resulting in a variety of environmental problems and ruining the utopian vision of the DPRK as an eco-socialist paradise with bountiful fields, dense forests and benevolent cradle-to-grave state support. Today, North Koreans still suffer from fuel shortages and power outages. As a result, many use solar panels to generate electricity and use bicycles to travel to the markets. While most North Koreans are eco-friendly by necessity, the DPRK’s earlier historical moment as a supposed eco-socialist lodestar speaks to just how far the North Korean state can stretch its propaganda.
Travelers to North Korea routinely praise the clean streets of Pyongyang and the lack of pollution compared to its neighbor, China. While North Korea today suffers from its own environmental issues, Kim Il Sung once tried to capitalize on the DPRK’s apparent status as an untapped green space that had not been tainted by capitalist-fueled pollution. This soft power tactic used by the North Korean
Benjamin R. Young is an Assistant Professor at Dakota State University. He holds a Ph.D. from George Washington University, and focuses his research on modern Korea, Cold War international history, and Marxism in the Third World.