A night of perspective

On the night of Oct. 11, the Portland State Center for Japanese Studies gave students and faculty the opportunity to hear esteemed professor Toshimitsu Shigemura speak on the developing state of affairs in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known to the rest of the world as North Korea.

Shigemura, professor of media and Korean studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, has been studying Korean history and politics since 1979, when he also served as the Korean correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun. After decades of research and the publication of over twenty books, Shigemura had much light to shed on the Japanese perspective of North Korea and what he believes to be its approaching collapse.

“What is their history?” Shigemura asked, stating that the only way to understand the international relations and rationale of North Korea is to learn from its past.

Historically, Korea has only been unified while a superpower nation or hegemonic country existed in East Asia. Korea was divided into three countries until 668 A.D., when China helped unify them. This lasted until the establishment of the North and South Korean borders in 1948. It is Shigemura’s belief that the Koreas will never unite again unless another superpower country is established in East Asia to force them together.

Culturally, North Korea is often misunderstood, its way of thinking waylaid through what Shigemura calls “cultural ignorance.” North Korea is firmly rooted in Confucian socialism, and everything from culture to government policy stems from these beliefs. The treatment of the country’s leader as an omnipotent father figure is also the result of this, Shigemura said.

In Confucian values, the elderly are given more power and hold clout over younger people. Because of this, Kim Jong-Un, barely 30 years old, is making major changes to North Korean policy and its infrastructure. A vast majority of military leaders have been excised from their positions due to them being in the age range of 60-80. A generational shift is now taking place in the North Korean government as faces are growing younger and younger. As a result of a morphing of policy and the struggle to enforce power both in and out of the country, Kim is performing a vast show of bravado through his refusal to stop nuclear development, Shigemura said.

The lecture focused on context and point of views, with Shigemura sharing insights on a country whose ideas and ideals might be foreign to many in the U.S. The perspectives shared came as both shocking and enlightening to many in attendance.

“I learned a lot about Chinese and Korean history,” said Wyatt Foggia, a prospective PSU student. “It was interesting to see how things have changed over time and how that affects the current situation in both of these countries. I never really thought about the North Korean perspective before. I’d never been exposed to it.”

“[Shigemura] was really knowledgeable and impressive,” said Daniel Lindsay, a senior majoring in Chinese. “I learned that the situation with North Korea is really complicated. Not everyone agrees on everything. In America it can seem like a one-sided issue.”

Suwako Watanabe, interim director of the Institute of Asian Studies and professor of Japanese at PSU, also found the event illuminating.

“Being Japanese, I wanted to learn about other countries near Japan. It was interesting to hear facts and information I’ve gained from media confirmed and also interpreted by another Japanese person. That adds more dimension to my knowledge,” Watanabe said.

With an understanding of the past and how it informs the present, Shigemura is looking toward the future. Shigemura closed his lecture with the forecast that North Korea will inevitably collapse.

Because of the country’s small annual budget (the equivalent of $500 million) and their consumption of approximately 500,000 tons of crude oil (compared to the 3.5 million tons the state of Oregon consumes per year), North Korea has boxed itself into a corner they cannot get out of, even with aid from neighboring China, Shigemura said. Even through this pseudo-alliance, Shigemura assured the audience that China is acting only out of their desire to keep Korea from uniting and becoming a more powerful country. It is Shigemura’s belief that the future for North Korea is likely to be grim.

“China and North Korea don’t like each other,” said Shigemura. “North Korea doesn’t have a friend in the world.”