A Political Observation on the world’s pariah state
It is April 2013 in a Pyonyang suburb. Or more accurately, April 102: the year itself denotes the number of years since the birth of the Great Leader, the late Kim Il-Sung. Except instead of carrying out the normal duties of the God-like ‘Eternal President’ he is portrayed as by the state-controlled media, he in fact lies in state at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in central Pyonyang. A factory worker sat in one of the few parks in the city, a rare green space dominated by a gargantuan image of the dead leader, sits uncomfortably on a park bench. He earns, on average, about $2 per month, which is spent almost entirely on heating and powering his ramshackle house on the outskirts of Pyonyang, as well as providing running water for his wife and two young sons. He begins to roll some marijuana in a discarded sheet of newspaper and begins smoking it.
Before long the man is arrested by officers of the Ministry of People’s Security. Not for smoking a substance which in some Western states is outlawed; but in a disgusting display of contempt for the leadership, the smouldering newspaper had featured an image of Kim Il-Sung. The man is imprisoned without a fair trial.
Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
North Korea came into existence as a separate nation in February 1946, following the establishment of the People’s Provisional Committee for North Korea by the Soviet Union. Headed by Kim Il-Sung, the Committee introduced sweeping reforms, concentrating on nationalising key industries. By 1950 the South had tried to re-negotiate the border with the North, which had originally been set at the 38th Parallel. Soon the sides were at war, until a brief armistice agreement was reached in June 1953. The two countries are still technically at war, having never signed a peace treaty. Both sides remained vigilant and suspicious of each other until March 2013, when the North reaffirmed a ‘state of war’ with the South. Many international observers saw this as current leader, Kim Il-Sung’s grandson Kim Jong-un, asserting his authority over the nuclear-supported military. The DPRK boasts the world’s most militarised nation, with some 1.21 million troops serving in five branches of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces – the Ground Force, Naval Force, Air Force, Special Force and Rocket Force.
North Korea’s prominence on the international stage resurfaced following the death of Kim Jong-Il. Scenes of mass public weeping, the subject of much observation and comment by the Western media, bore little – if any – surprise to onlookers. It was assumed by the West that two distinct camps arose from the public showing of grief: it was either that citizens faced threats of torture and further punishment for not weeping loudly enough, or that, over time, the entire population had unwittingly endured many years of isolationist brainwashing, and had become convinced that the death of the Dear Leader represented the end of the DPRK as they knew it. Again, both such ideas (and probably the merging of both) were unsurprising for a country which features just one television channel and was in the process of burying a leader whose official biography claimed that he was ‘born on Mount Paekdu under a double rainbow’, ‘began walking at three weeks old’, and ‘can control the weather with his moods’. The outpouring of public grief was quickly replaced with the announcement that Kim’s youngest son, Jong-un, was to inherit the position of Supreme Leader. Many Westerners had hoped that Jong-un would attempt to modernize the country, itself one of the world’s poorest, and allow for greater international links. Just like his father however, it took a short while for Kim III to fully establish his leadership, as there were concerned predictions of a military coup by some long-serving Generals.
But the status quo remained, and Jong-Un continued his father’s 1995 policy of Songun, or ‘military first’. Upon the introduction of the military first policy in 1995, inflation rose immediately and left millions of families starving. The songun policy had huge ramifications for the country, as it began to assert its self-assumed dominance over the Korean Peninsula.
Political technicality confirms that, despite its claims of its politics taking place in a ‘nominally democratic multi-party system’ the DPRK is a single-party state under a totalitarian family dictatorship. The ruling party is the WPK, the Workers’ Party of North Korea. The country does have two other parties, but both are politically inferior to the WPK because the ruling party commands a constitutional monopoly. The three parties, as well as some independents, sit in what is perhaps the most inactive rubberstamping legislature in the world. The Supreme People’s Assembly meets just twice per year; all of the 687 members, whether WPK or not, are selected by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, which is chaired by Kim Jong-un himself. The country has only ever had, and will continue to have, one president – now deceased.
Historically the country has been associated with a strict Marxist-rule framework, although the official state philosophy is now known as Juche, a thesis coined by Kim Il-Sung stating that ‘man is the master of everything and decides everything’. Juche encompasses Marxist ideals, such as dictating policy that reflects the will and aspirations of the masses, but appears to withhold certain freedoms with clearly benefit the authoritarian ruling elite – ‘Methods of revolution and construction must be suitable to the situation of the country’. It further adds that the juche outlook demands loyalty to the state-controlled revolutionary party and its leader.
Il-Sung’s legacy as the Eternal President is likely to have been conceived through his cult of personality, a demagogue in the same league as Adolf Hitler or infamous anti-Communist US Senator Joseph McCarthy. It is widely rumoured that the current leader, Kim Jong-un, has had cosmetic surgery to enhance his facial features and make him look more like his grandfather, hence become more accepted by officials within his government and military. If this is true then the cult of personality has evidently wormed itself into the family psyche as well: a worrying thought for a leader with the proverbial ‘nuclear button’ within a metaphoric arm’s reach and at the beck and call of over one million soldiers.
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic to the outside world is the DPRK’s secrecy and strict isolationist policy. This has not only gained global notoriety, but also attracted suspicion from other countries. Being a communist, albeit totalitarian state, every aspect of daily life in North Korea is state-controlled, meaning journalists attempting to garner any true scope of the country’s socio-economic welfare will find it intrinsically impossible. Most international journalists pose as tourists, a practice most recently displayed by BBC reporter John Sweeney for Panorama. All visits by tourists to North Korea are state-controlled. Each group is accompanied by at least two tour guides who speak the tourists’ language. Much of the tour involves visiting sites of great national importance and emphasis is quietly placed upon ensuring that the international visitors do not have the whole story of the country’s somewhat embarrassing human rights record and ill-fated society revealed to them. The tour guides will continue to pressure the tourists to refrain taking photos when travelling through certain areas. They will monitor which photos the visitors do take, illustrating the first bastion of the front line of the DPRK’s secretive nature.
Government secrecy shields both outside visitors and much of its population from the truth. It was therefore a surprising April 15th parade in 2012, when, during the celebrations of the Anniversary of Kim I’s birthday and Kim Jong-un’s first as the new Leader, the 29-year-old ruler spoke to the nation directly (a somewhat unprecedented move in comparison with his father) and admitted, in front of the invited global press, that a project to put a satellite into space to honour his grandfather had failed. Experts immediately began musing that this signalled a change to the secret regime that had suffocated the truth in North Korea for so long. Unfortunately this was not so; less than a year later the nuclear rhetoric is now stronger than ever before.
As will become immediately evident, the DPRK’s darkest secret is its network of political gulags. Political dissenters, as well as retired guards who speak out, can expect to be sent to one of six national high-security prisons – Pukchang, Kaechon, Yodok, Hwasong, Chongjin and Hoeryong. Prisoners will have been denounced as ‘politically unreliable’ by the State security Department. Akin to the old Soviet show trials, no lawsuit or conviction takes place and prisoners are usually subjected to the punishment of ‘guilt of association’, where all family members are moved with the prisoner and treated in the same way. A new book, ‘Escape from Camp 14’ by Blaine Harden, features the testimony of a young escapee named Shin Dong-hyuk. His account reveals that he was born in a prison, conceived as a result of a ‘reward marriage’ and bought up not by his state-unified parents, but by those working on a collective farm. In addition to the gulags, the Ministry of People’s Security runs Re-education Camps, forcing prisoners into forced confessions and associated torture and brainwashing techniques. The sorrowful truth is that the bulk of the stories of the treatment of dissenters by the North Korean government will never be discovered. The institutional process is thought to be worse than conditions found in the Soviet Union in the mid twentieth century.
The grip that the North Korean political elite hold on the ordinary people makes propaganda far easier than for true democratic and capitalist societies. They continue to be successful in convincing the public that the dire socio-economic conditions are a result of the ongoing actions of South Korea and the United States. Indeed, the DPRK has identified the US as the country’s absolute enemy. The threat posed by North Korea became more apparent from 2006, when it announced to the world that it had successfully carried out its first nuclear testing programme, and again in 2009. Recently its rhetoric has reached alarming levels, commensurate with its third successful nuclear test in early 2013. North Korea now not only has the nuclear material available, but it now has the means to deliver it as a comprehensive weapon system.
By continuing the military first policy, Kim Jong-un places his country on a path with only one clear destination – that of one with ever-increasing poverty for all non-military personnel. The vast parades held regularly in Pyonyang may be for internal propaganda purposes, but they illustrate the misguided policies adopted very early on by the regime leaders. It was because of the power of the military and its Generals that onlookers predicted a mini power-struggle upon the ascension of Jon-un to the position of Leader. Within weeks however, the new leader was observed to be continuing preparations for war.
The international response to Kim’s ‘state of war’ re-affirmation with the South was mixed. High profile talks with the United Nations have proved futile. The DPRK only has one true ally – China.
The two countries appear only allied on the basis of their similar political systems, but further parallels are scarce. China clearly has an ambition to rival the US economically, but recognising the struggles it has yet to face on the global stage mean that it must tread carefully within its rightful place in the United Nations and maintain its coveted seat on the UN Security Council. Harsh sanctions imposed by the global community, through the UN, may be harming economic progress. But its perseverance has lost the country’s credibility as a serious international trading partner. The result of this has been that China has warned its provocative ally that the nuclear rhetoric will only widen the gap between its outlandish ambitions and reality. Beijing has openly expressed displeasure, but according to some analysts, ‘wriggle-room’ remains for Kim: China will not economically strangle a ‘buffer state’ that borders a country hosting American military bases, i.e. South Korea. The last remaining trade support programme with the South is the arrangement surrounding the Kaesong industrial complex, the only place where the two countries openly conduct joint manufacturing operations. However in the run-up of its all-out nuclear war threats it closed Kaesong while recommending to all foreign missions to depart the country in anticipation of military action.
The stream of threats posed by North Korea during February and March 2013 died out quickly; the probable explanation for this is that the next ‘level’ up from its amplified rhetoric is surely to carry out the threats. But the recent silence is unsettling; the people are told that the country is preparing for war, yet its cold retreat leaves the situation tense. By 23 April 2013 North Korea had insisted that it be recognised as a nuclear state by the United Nations. Pyonyang says that its weapons, both conventional and nuclear, are like a ‘treasured sword’ that it will ‘never give up’. This is in line with its disregard for UN sanctions.
What of the future? While the rest of the world has been spared an all-out war this time, the people of North Korea remain convinced that they really are ready to take on the combined efforts of South Korea and the United States and, if 20th Century legacy treaties are to be observed, a NATO coalition – pulling in the UK (justifying the maintenance of the Trident programme). It is predicted that the poverty will see no end, so in our lifetime we will either see North Korea starve itself as a result of the Songun policy, or we will see it annihilated by the West, possibly even as a pre-emptive strike on behalf of a concerned South Korea. International relations could decay even more: human rights charities have not yet stood up to the regime, and as already mentioned, much of the truth will never be known.
Perhaps the most concerning issue is that it is highly unlikely that North Korea will ever experience an uprising as seen in the Middle East, such is the strength of the government’s propaganda and integration of the military into society (it is more militarised than Nazi Germany or Italy under Mussolini). And even if this does happen, the people have been brainwashed to the extent that they will not be able to grasp the concept of a free democracy. North Korea is not a basket case; it is a petulant child with a totally misguided idea about life and liberty.
Adam Deacon, A2 Politics Student.