29 Apr - 5 May 2016 #806

Bhaktapur’s Dear Leader

Bikram Rai

For Gopal Lachmashu, a 40-year-old tea shop owner next to the Dattareya temple in Bhaktapur, the Korean peninsula is not 4,000km away but just next door.

The rest of Nepal may be in the grip of a South Korean pop culture fever, but here in Bhaktapur it is Juche Idea of North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-Sung that is the dominant ideology.

“DPRK’s political system is similar to Nepal’s Panchayat,” explains Lachmashu, “for less developed countries, this tight system helps development and social unity because there is discipline.”

To outsiders Bhaktapur may look like it is in a time warp given its affinity to the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),](Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) ) but for its fifth-time elected lawmaker, Narayan Man Bijukchhe of the communist Nepal Workers Peasants’ Party (NWPP) which has led Bhaktapur for three decades, it makes perfect sense. 

“Just as the Korean people are dominated by the American and Japanese ruling class, India is doing the same to Nepal and the Nepalis, there are similarities between Korea and Nepal,” Bijukchhe told Nepali Times. (See interview overleaf).

Bijukchhe finds nothing incongruous about North Korea’s defiance of the West and its missile and nuclear weapons policy, saying it represents the country’s ideology of Juche (self-reliance) which itself is a consequence of geopolitics in the Korean peninsula that involves China, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

“Kim Il-sung is one of the great teachers for Nepal together with Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Rosa Luxembourg to learn communism lessons,” explains 31-year-old NWPP member, Ramesh Suwal, “the Juche Idea is a directional ideology of our party, we read and study a lot of literature from North Korea.”

That the Juche Idea, shaped by the DPRK’s first president (1972-1994) Kim Il-sung to safeguard the North’s political independence and economic self-reliance, is taken so seriously as the governing ideology of a town in Nepal is puzzling to many – especially because the ideology is seen as a justification for the totalitarianism of the ‘Kim Dynasty’. 

Bhaktapur’s extraordinary respect for Kim Il-sung and the Juche Idea is based on the vision that Bijukchhe has for his town to be self-reliant, pro-people and propel development through tourism and its famous handicrafts. Many visitors find it incongruous that Bhaktapur, which translates as ‘town of devotees’, is actually devoted to a Stalinist from the Korean peninsula.

After three decades, Bijukchhe is a leader who most here regard as a true nationalist, and a scrupulously honest man of the people. Says Lachmashu: “He is far-sighted, and more mature and astute than most other leaders in Nepal. For example as far back as 2005 after the Maoists signed the 12-point agreement in New Delhi, he had predicted that India would ultimately blockade Nepal."

But Bijukchhe has his detractors. Bhaktapur residents living in neighbourhoods flattened by last year’s earthquake say he hasn’t done enough to expedite relief and rehabilitation. They also question the relevance of an ideology imported from North Korea into a country like Nepal.

But among Bijukchhe’s many admirers is German architect Götz Hagmüller who has been involved in Bhaktapur’s restoration since 1979, when the city was declared a World Heritage Site, and has settled down here. He says: “He is the only politician I know who has a vision for his historic town and for the upliftment of his people.”  

Seulki Lee