According to his official biography, the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il shot a 38-under-par round that included no fewer than 11 holes in one, and all that on the first time he picked up a golf club.
North Korean propaganda is well known for claiming such outlandish feats for its leaders ― apparently, despotic scion Kim Jong-un was driving a car at age 3.
Whereas the cult of personality in North Korea appears off-the-wall to most Western observers, for the Romanian ambassador in South Korea, it is eerily familiar.
“For the outsider never experiencing this it is ridiculous,” explained Romanian Ambassador to South Korea Calin Fabian in an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Itaewon-dong in Seoul on Monday.
|Romanian Ambassador to South Korea Calin Fabian speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Itaewon, Seoul, Monday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)|
“But just think about it. This propaganda starts from the very first breath of your life. You are drop by drop indoctrinated with this kind of model. You will end by deeply believing it. It is like a sort of religion,” he said.
Fabian experienced the idolatry of authoritarian rule firsthand, its “cult of personality.” He grew up under the iron-fisted rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, who controlled the southeastern European country for 24 years until 1989, when a democratic revolution toppled him.
The revolution erupted when Fabian was a young professor of geology at the University of Bucharest, where much of the violence took place.
While other former socialist countries managed a peaceful transition to democracy, change in Romania was as sudden as it was violent. Roughly 1,000 people were killed in riots and street protests in December 1989.
Romania has spent the last 20 years establishing democratic institutions and a market economy. Now a member of the EU and NATO, the country is firmly within the European orbit.
“The experience of the transition from communism to a free market economy ― we can contribute significantly in this respect. We can share our experience and knowledge about this,” Fabian said. (On the reunification of the Korean Peninsula), “we can help Korea avoid the mistake we made in this very long transition from communism to democracy and a market economy.”
Ceausescu’s Romania is particularly relevant for North Korea watchers, because he modeled his regime after North Korea’s peculiar brand of Marxism-Leninism, but today Romania maintains an embassy in Pyongyang at the charge d’affaires level of diplomatic ties.
Fabian said he uses every opportunity available to speak with government officials, policy makers and other experts about the Romanian experience with communism and its democratic transition.
On the prospect of a similar sudden collapse of the government in North Korea, he cautioned against predictions of regime change.
“It is difficult to imagine how to remove such a dynasty,” he said. “You have to fulfill some special conditions which, from where we are now, will be difficult to fulfill.”
“But never say never. Who believed five months ago that the current situation in Ukraine would have happened? So conditions on the ground can change very rapidly,” he added.
He described his life in Bucharest in 1989: “(The system) seemed to be so solid. No one would have imagined even as late as August 1989 that in just four months everything would change.”
But visiting North Korea to see conditions there is out of the question for him, which is unusual for an envoy from one of the seven European countries with an embassy in Pyongyang. Many of them travel to Pyongyang once or twice a year.
Although he began his posting here in March 2012, he has not once visited the North. Fabian said he has no intention of ever visiting North Korea.
The regime there is too reminiscent of life in Romania under Ceausescu, and evokes painful memories. Fabian carries memories of life under the brutal Ceausescu regime with him to this day.
He said he is content focusing exclusively on strengthening the diplomatic ties between Romania and South Korea.
The two countries wrapped up bilateral consultations and a business forum in Bucharest in January. Two-way trade was almost $1 billion in 2013 and Romania’s Economy Minister Radu Zaharia said that figure could double by 2016.
Fabian said public diplomacy is an important component of his job here. Seoul saw its first Romanian restaurant open recently.
Though its name borders on kitsch ― dubbed “Dracula,” after Bram Stoker’s famous fictional resident of Transylvania ― Fabian promises the menu includes authentic and delicious Romanian dishes.
Raising awareness of Romania among the South Korean public is a major goal for the career diplomat. That is difficult when Romania is both geographically far away and distant in the minds of most Koreans. Few Romanian expatriates reside here, just 200, 35 of whom are students.
“It is worthwhile to teach the public something about Romania, traditions, values, how we live. The more we can learn about each other in this way, the better partners we will become, the better we can work together in the future,” he said.
By Philip Iglauer (firstname.lastname@example.org)