His name appears in almost 100 pieces of English-language propaganda for the regime. In his official capacity as chairman of the Finland-Korea Society between 2009 and 2014 and as vice-chairman of the Finnish Society for the Study of the Juche Idea between 2003 and 2014, Antti Siika-aho was Pyongyang’s man in Helsinki.
But in December 2013, as the news of the dramatic purge of Jang Song Thaek by Kim Jong Un broke, he lost the last bit of solidarity he felt for Pyongyang.
Through his cultural exchange and ideological work with North Korea, he’d come to know the DPRK Ambassador to Sweden – Pak Kwang Chol – and they’d become, as he puts it, “not friends, but good companions.”
“In Helsinki we had beers and talked about everyday life,” he tells NK News. “He was very talkative and not a ‘diplomatically-behaved’ person.”
But then the news came from Pyongyang: the leader’s uncle had been executed, and diplomats were to return to the capital. Pak, reportedly a close ally of Jang, did not return and by the end of the year he had been replaced. At the time, NK News reported that he “was likely imprisoned or, perhaps, even executed.”
“The last time he was seen was at the Beijing International Airport,” says Siika. “It was truly shocking for me. I just hope he is alive and in good shape. But there have been moments when I have been very worried.”
When he next met his comrades from the North Korean embassy in Stockholm, he says, Pak’s absence was clearly on their minds – but no-one mentioned it.
“I didn’t dare ask and they didn’t dare to tell. But when we looked into each other’s eyes, I think both of us knew what we were thinking.”
North Korea hardly has a reputation for treating political opponents to a fair trial or affording them human rights, of course, and a cursory browse of international media covering the country would make this obvious.
Antti Siika-aho was Pyongyang’s man in Helsinki
But, he says, sympathizers of the regime, organized internationally through the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), and the more theoretically-orientated International Juche Study Group, block this all out.
“Of course I explained to myself that this must be some kind of fabrication of the South Korean intelligence officials or something like that,” he says. “That gave me some relief – explaining to myself that those are scraps and there is no problem.”
“But when you, as a western-born and western-raised person, when you realize that a person who has been in contact with you is dead, it is shocking. It’s really really shocking,” Siika says, assuming that the worst has happened to Pak.
Siika came into the niche world of pro-Pyongyang politics during one of the most turbulent and troubled periods in North Korea’s recent history. In 1998, as hundreds of thousands were dying from starvation in what the regime describes as the “Arduous March,” the DPRK claimed to have launched the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 satellite into orbit.
“I was twelve then,” he says in an email. “I think I was quite mature for my age.”
He doesn’t remember any specific moment that sparked his interest, but he was generally becoming interested in global politics and, as a socialist, saw North Korea as a socialist country working for reunification and under attack from the U.S.
His interest paid off: in five years, he was vice-chairman of the Finnish Society for the Study of the Juche Idea – a position he would hold until 2014. The Finland-Korea-Society is larger than many of its international counterparts, he says, with some 200 members and up to 100 active participants at events and trips to North Korea. Not all these members are die-hard Marxists, either.
“The chairman was a Member of Parliament who represented the left-wing party,” he says. “But the General Secretary of the society was an old active member of the right-wing party of Finland – the National Coalition Party.”
“Communists were a very small minority of the friendship association.”
This is what separated the Finnish group from their more outspoken comrades in other organizations: unlike, say, the more political “maniacs” (his words) in the Western European groups, his was focused on diplomatic and cultural exchanges rather than outright praise for the regime.
“Communists were a very small minority of the friendship association”
Siika is keen to insist, for example, that he and his comrades did not seek a North Korean-style government for Finland. While he was a socialist, there was never any idea of a Finnish “Great Leader” or even that the country would become a one-party state.
Rather, it was about exploring the country’s allegedly unique Juche philosophy, developed in the 1950s as a uniquely Korean form of Marxism-Leninism, blending communism with notions of national self-reliance, self-determination and, some have argued, ethnic chauvinism.
“Some philosophical aspects of the Juche idea like independence and creativity – those are quite universal,” he says. “In Finland, there are old national romantic philosophers who had quite similar ideas, even non-socialist ideas… there were some aspects that maybe we admired, but never thought that it would be a reality in Finland.”
So what objective does North Korea have for maintaining an international network, from Africa to South Asia, to India, Bangladesh, the Nordic countries and Latin America, for the study of the Juche idea?
Thinking “creatively” about the idea that Kim Il Sung originally intended to be an international ideology to rival Maoism or Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism was out of the question, says Siika: what Pyongyang really wanted was to fill columns in state media.
“The North Korean embassy or their Foreign Cultural Committee via email would ask us to hold an event or at least send a congratulatory message to the Supreme Leader,” he says. “We sent those boring messages so many times to Pyongyang that even today, in my head, I could write an official congratulatory message to Kim Jong Il or to Kim Jong Un because it was always the same style and the same phrases.”
One summer in particular sticks in his mind. With the organization’s chairman on holiday, Siika spent much of his time off university writing congratulatory messages to North Korean leadership – not a conventional summer holiday for a student. These messages were relayed in two ways: either in a fax or an email to the Embassy in Stockholm, or via an email to Pyongyang itself.
The Dear Leader occasionally wrote back
For years he assumed no-one read these messages, that they were simply filler for state propaganda. But through developing relationships with diplomats, many of whom eventually began to talk quite frankly about their work, he learned that some went right to the top.
“I learned that they actually sent those messages to the Foreign Ministry of North Korea and there they are translated into Korean very carefully,” he says. “They are then sent to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and then a list is sent to the Leader himself.
An event at the North Korean embassy in Stockholm in 2010
“He doesn’t read those messages but he gets reports of which countries and which organizations have sent them.”
The Dear Leader occasionally wrote back, too.
“I always received the same letter which read that ‘On behalf of the Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Kim Jong Il, we thank you for the letter’. I once learned that that kind of message can’t be sent if there is no authority from the actual person himself.”
“I occasionally wondered that they might have some kind of competition among the North Korean institutions (for) which one collects the most of those kinds of solidarity messages and congratulatory letters,” he says. “That’s why I stopped sending those messages directly to Pyongyang but they always had to go via the embassy.”
One benefit to this drudging work were the trips to North Korea. Paid for out of the members’ own pockets, usually, Siika and his comrades visited Pyongyang six times during his time running the two organizations – with the last time he visited being in April 2012, as the country mourned the death of Kim Jong Il.
“My first visit to North Korea was in 2002 when North Korea celebrated the 90th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung,” he says. “Within those ten years, I never visited as a tourist in North Korea.”
One benefit to this drudging work were the trips to North Korea
He was usually invited by organs of the North Korean state: the Foreign Cultural Committee of North Korea, which is part of the Foreign Ministry, or by the Korean Association of Social Scientists, to name two, and often traveled by train from Helsinki. When Kim Jong Il was still alive, they also visited as guests of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
The key difference between these trips and the usual tourist trips to North Korea, apart from participation in official ceremonies and conferences, was the amount of freedom Siika and his colleagues were granted in return for their solidarity.
“I always stayed in the Koryo Hotel and therefore I had the opportunity to walk around – just leave the hotel and walk,” he says. “For example in the morning if I woke up and I couldn’t see… my translator, if I didn’t see him, I’d just walk out and go to shops and things like that. It was quite easy to do.”
“I had the opportunity to meet family members of some officials and once even to sneak myself into one apartment, to visit in their home.”
These frequent trips meant that Siika could see North Korea change, incrementally, on each visit. In 2009, when he led a Finnish delegation to Pyongyang, some reform was beginning to be obvious.
“There had been the money reform as you remember and the rise of the ‘donju’ – the middle class in Pyongyang, it was quite vivid,” he says.
The Koryo Hotel, for example, with its once almost-deserted revolving restaurant, was now packed with young couples eating and drinking.
“I was surprised at how this can be possible – that someone has the money to come here, because even in restaurant standards, the Koryo Hotel restaurants were quite expensive.”
“I’d just walk out and go to shops and things like that. It was quite easy to do”
SPEAKING WITH OFFICIALS
In between the endless events praising the North Korean leadership and studying the Juche idea, there were opportunities for more frank discussions about politics. Occasionally, more contentious subjects were brought up.
“We, the Finnish, never swallowed everything that the North Koreans told us,” says Siika. “Partially jokingly, but partially seriously, we asked some difficult questions.”
In one memorable exchange, the more liberal attitudes of the Scandinavian delegation clashed with the views of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party: Siika asked Kim Yong Il, a former Vice Prime Minister under Kim Jong Il, about the death penalty.
“‘In Finland and other Nordic countries there is no such thing and we never can accept the death penalty,'” he told the politician. “They always had the same explanation: ‘because of the ceasefire, because of the US presence in South Korea, we have to do this, the situation is not normal.'”
“These kinds of questions we occasionally asked but of course we never argued with them about their reply.”
It was the friendships he forged with North Korean diplomats which ultimately led to his decision to come forward and talk to NK News. There were three or four diplomats, who he can’t name, who he says became good friends with: they visited his home and he heard their stories about the difficulties of life as a representative of Pyongyang abroad. The testimony of Thae Yong-ho, the former North Korean deputy ambassador in London, reminded him of his old friends.
“Their payments were very low and it was only a few hundred euros a few years ago,” he says. “I think many of us became their only friends since the official Swedish government didn’t want to communicate with them so much and that’s why many of them were quite lonely, I think.”
“My worldview has changed”
When Kim Jong Il died in 2011, Siika was already thinking about leaving. The issue of human rights which, he admits, he had preferred to ignore, was too overwhelming to avoid. He gave Kim Jong Un “half a year” to kickstart reforms which, as we know, didn’t happen.
On the campaign trail for the Centre Party
In 2014, he resigned his position and underwent a political change of heart. In 2015, he was elected General-Secretary of the youth wing of Finland’s ruling party, the Centre Party, and his previous political leanings were widely publicized in his home country.
“My worldview has changed,” he told local media at the time, and says that while he still wants to work towards helping Korea achieve reunification, his message to his former comrades is “wake up and get real”.
So what drives people in the Western world to seek friendship with North Korea, widely regarded as one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights?
“They are people who are seeking authority for themselves or they have a situation where they don’t have anything to lose,” Siika says. “Maybe for some people, North Korea is even a psychological way to make their lives more meaningful – maybe that’s the case with some of those KFA members.”
“I sincerely hope that all the friends of North Korea around the world would see the reality for example when it comes to nuclear weapons and human rights.”
After over ten years in pro-North Korean circles, Siika knows this better than most. It was a time in his life he can never deny or escape from, and the country still dwells on his mind every day.
“I cannot wash away those memories,” he says. “Of course my main field of work is in domestic policies but as you can imagine, with such a long history with North Korea, it is also something that is in my life every day.”
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