‘‘We are much saddened by the death of our comrade Kim Jong-il”
It’s the day before the day before Christmas and we are observing two minutes’ silence in honour of our fallen comrade in Pyongyang. In such unusual circumstances, a quiet cough can feel like a moral obligation.
Britain’s least orthodox response to Kim Jong-il’s death is taking place in the backstreets of Southall, West London, in a hall named after Shapurji Saklatvala, an early communist member of parliament.
An ideologically authentic approach to interior design sees the speakers stand in front of a hammer and sickle, a North Korean flag and a picture of the dearly departed Dear Leader.
There are several communist parties in Britain and – due to a lack of creativity when it comes to naming – they’re easily confused. There’s the Communist Party of Britain, the New Communist Party of Britain, the Communist Party of Great Britain, the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist).
It’s important to put this in context. There are not very many card-carrying communists in Britain, and not all communists support the regime in Pyongyang. But the group hosting tonight’s memorial, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), usually shortened to CPGB-ML, stands firmly by the side of their Korean comrades.
“I was very pleased with what I saw in North Korea – a country where people were warm, friendly, well-educated, well-fed…”
The evening begins with a speech by Harpal Brar, the Indian-born chairman of the party. He founded CPGB-ML in 2004 after being purged from Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party along with other hardline Stalinites. Apparently one of the reasons for the split was the Stalinites’ support of North Korea, along with its praise for the 9/11 attacks on America and its solidarity – at various times over the past decade – with Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
“We are much saddened by the death of our comrade Kim Jong-il, the former General Secretary of the Workers Party of Korea and the Supreme Commander of the Korean armed forces,” says Brar. He tells the audience that Jong-il has “performed meritoriously the job he was given” and that “imperialism in crisis is constantly looking out for victims so it can conduct its aggressive and predatory war.” His speech is followed by a reading of condolence messages from countries including Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Finally, a young man in a suit makes an impassioned call for solidarity with North Korea and all groups fighting imperialism. He’s Ranjeet Brar, son of the leader, a hospital surgeon, and one of the CPGB-ML members who visited North Korea as part of a party delegation.
“I was anxious before I went to North Korea,” he tells me by phone after the event. “One cannot help but almost be overwhelmed by the level of propaganda you get from the British press – ‘they’re all starving, they don’t have any rights’… So there was a level of anxiety because my very dearly held ideas were being put to the test. And I was very pleased with what I saw – a country where people were warm, friendly, well-educated, well-fed, disciplined, organised and self-assured.”
I ask whether Brar was able to see the real North Korea on what was surely a stage-managed tour. “Stage-managed is another way of saying ‘organised’, and yes, of course it was an organised trip. But can they wheel out a city of two million people just for my benefit? No. And I could walk round freely, I went to the countryside and the villages. It was organised but I got a realistic picture of the country.”
So you don’t believe there is a human rights problem in North Korea? “There’s astoundingly little evidence to back up these accusations,” he replies. “You have to ask who’s raising these issues and it’s the powers who have no respect for human rights. It’s farcical when imperialism talks about freedom, democracy and human rights, which is a cover for its real interests which are domination, exploiting its own workers, its ability to exploit other nations and get one over on its imperialist competitors.”
Surely the North Korean refugees who have risked their lives to escape the country aren’t propaganda tools of the west? “Of course there are a few dissenters,” Brar says. “There will be elements who are disenfranchised as there are in any country. Nowhere is totally homogeneous but there’s a tremendous amount of unity and support for the Workers Party of Korea and for the socialist model of development.”
Brar contends that the images shown on TV of North Korean people crying hysterically after hearing about their leader’s death were absolutely genuine and shouldn’t be treated with disdain by the mainstream media, which he regards as imperialist, bourgeois and therefore biased : “Compare the way the BBC handled Lady Diana’s funeral and the sadness in this country to the way it handled the genuine outpourings of grief from the Korean people for a leader who was very dear to them,” he says.
There may only have been 40 or so people at London’s Kim Jong-il memorial, several of whom drifted asleep well before the end of the evening. But the grief here certainly appears to be genuine.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.