The title of this article is, I hope to show, a justified variation on the book title, Our Socialism Centered on the Masses Shall Not Perish, by North Korea’s recently deceased supreme leader, Kim Jong-il (who, like his father, will be worshipped like a God for years to come). The book is based on his delusional speech (available online if you Google the title) delivered in 1991 to the Central Committee of the Workers Party, who have been in power since they were established in 1912.
Throughout the twentieth century the same militarized dynasty has presided over “Juche”, an oppressive form of Socialism that has led many commentators to the same conclusion: North Korea is a hermit state with a dismal human rights record, acute social problems and food shortages that it has long failed to hide from the concerned outside world.
In his book about Kim Jong-il, Michael Breen writes:
“Welcome to North Korea, a mysterious state with a remarkable ability to run rings around the outside world, a country where information and mobility are so restricted that citizens don’t know what’s going on outside and no-one knows what’s going on inside.”
In his recent treatise of the country’s internal and foreign policies Bill Myers concluded that, North Korea – officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – is a “paranoid nationalist, ‘military-first’ far-right state whose popular support now derives mostly from pride in its military might.” It is not an exaggeration to say that this situation will continue under Kim Jong-Il’s son, Kim Jong-un, since those controlling the fourth largest army in the world (around one million soldiers) have been wont to say that they will protect him the way that they protected his father.“Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un is our party, military and country’s supreme leader who inherits great comrade Kim Jong il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit and courage”, said Kim Yong Nam, considered to be North Korea’s ceremonial head of state. His statement should be taken as more than a rasping throat clearing since the army has a talent for shooting those who disobey or criticise their leader. This “military first policy” will undoubtedly be used, as George Orwell understood, to keep people in constant fear of an enemy: the US in Kim Jong-il’s case at least.
Those who scrutinize North Korean affairs are also preoccupied with the following question: Were so many people really in such awe of their leader? That depends on whether one believes if the TV images of the nation mourning at Jong-il’s state funeral were genuine or not. As the funeral cortege passed through the Pyongyang streets last month anyone in the large crowds who did not look sorry would have been asking for trouble. One could argue that the millions of tears shed were testament to the extraordinary lengths that a regime will go to to choreograph what they want the outside world to see. Crocodile tears are hardly uncommon upon the deaths of dictators, especially where the dynasty is to continue. In North Korea, those who decide not to display tremendous, extreme obedience find themselves stunted off to concentration camps, like Sŭnghori or Yodok, to have their labour wrung out of them to serve the Kims.
Picture the biopic: a slave and famine state run by a personality cult who succeeded his father, Kim Il-Sung, to rule from 1994 to 2011 in an egotistical manner that put the Ceauşescus in Romania to shame. Not since the Third Reich, the Gulag, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward has there been such a brutal and sustained attempt to enslave an entire population. Kim Jong-il was not so much a Communist leader as a personification of the very extreme pathological right and driven by an unapologetic and narrow minded nationalism.
There was some odd propaganda, too. The man dubbed “Dear Leader” starred in films, watching his army of personal body guards showing off their strength to protect him by whacking each other hard across the chest with what looked like solid wooden oars. His official biography claims that he graduated from the Kim Sung Il University where legend has it he wrote 1,500 books, that are available from the state’s library. It is also said that he wrote six operas, all of which are better than any in the history of music. Such bombastic claims surely support Narcissistic Personality Disorder. According DSM IV TR – the 886 page text book published by the American Psychiatric Association – sufferers have “a grandiose sense of self importance and entitlement”, are “preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success”, and are “exploitative”, “lack empathy” and require “excessive admiration.”
Visitors and defectors have confirmed some of the horrors of everyday life in North Korea. Despite his best attempts to avoid cliché, Hitchens couldn’t help but wonder if Kim Jong-il had acquired an early copy of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and used it as a blueprint to set up his indentured servitude. After his visit in 2000 Hitchens was struck by the non-existence of private life:
“In North Korea, every person is property and is owned by a small and mad family with hereditary power. Every minute of every day, as far as regimentation can assure the fact, is spent in absolute subjection and serfdom. The private life has been entirely abolished. “
There is no internet, only intranet since the “Dear Leader” has arranged for all the information that people need to know to be made available on a closed system. Mobile phones are only for the elite. At Pyongyang University, in the country’s capital city, one can find students who have never heard of other world leaders like Nelson Mandela, let alone Google. It all depends on what you are told. In schools children are taught to sing songs that tell them they have nothing to envy about the outside world and that they are the happiest people on earth. Musical consumption and daily shopping is also controlled. Listening to South Korean music will get you arrested. Private markets are an embarrassment to the Communist government and those who appear to be returning from them, loaded with goods are treated like they have committed a crime against the state. The government is determined to make private markets disappear forever, like returnees from Japan and Christians into concentration camps.
Defectors carry poison so that, if they get caught escaping, they can swallow it and kill themselves, rather than be made to go back living like animals. Defectors in South Korea have confirmed the worst and what has long been suspected about North Korea: Kim Jong-il and his fellow slave masters operated a system of concentration camps as evidenced by Kang-Chol Hwan’s sobering book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang. In one of the first accounts of its kind he describes how his family became the victims of propaganda when they returned to their home in Pyongyang after having lived in Japan for some years. In a scene not dissimialar to that from a certain Franz Kafka novel, Hwan’s grandfather, the original ‘offender’ aganist the regime, was pulled from his bed in the middle of the night, accused of treason and imprisoned in the notorious Sŭnghori concentration camp. These camps were built to isolate people deemed as hostile to the regime from society (returnees from Japan and Christians are confined to the “total control zones” and never released), punish them for political misdemeanours and exploit them with hard labour. At the tender age of nine Hwan and his sister, who was seven, were sent to a similar camp in Yodok of which he said: “It was a life of hard labour, thirty per cent of new prisoners would die. And we were so malnourished, we would eat rats and earthworms to survive.” After ten brutal years Hwan’s family was released, presumably upon the death of his grandfather, and he escaped to China before eventually ending up in South Korea where he has since become a respected journalist.
Hwan’s book confirms the more general view of North Korea: It is all much easier to bear if you manage to escape. However, one doesn’t need to see the inside of a concentration camp to experience the brutality of the regime. On his travels through both urban and rural areas, Hitchens saw destitute people drinking from sewers and families sleeping on the grass along country roads. According to the author and journalist Barbara Denick, it is not uncommon to see boys as young as ten walking around barefoot in mud-stained uniforms hanging from their thin, malnourished bodies. These anecdotal observations are further confirmed by a 2008 UN World Programme Survey of 250 households. It found that two thirds were supplementing their diets by picking grass and weeds in the countryside. Furthermore, the World Food Programme is still having to feed people in a country where daily government rations are not enough and, to make matters worse, the military gets priority.
The regime’s attempts to pamper foreigners for the sole purpose of distracting them from what is really going on outside their hotel, is all too obvious. Of her visit to Pyongyang in 2008 Denick wrote:
“Floodlights bathed Kim Il-sung Square and garlands of tiny white lights were draped over the main streets. The delegation of more than 300 people, including musicians and journalists, stayed in the Yanggakdo Hotel (often nicknamed “Alcatraz” for its location on an island in the river that prevents tourists from wandering off). It had been outfitted for the occasion with broadband internet access for journalists. When we checked in, the rooms were so overheated that many of us stripped down to T-shirts. At each meal, we were feted to excess. Dinner was a multicourse banquet of salmon, crab gratin, lamb, sliced pheasant, and Viennese-style chocolate cakes. Our breakfast buffet table was decorated with ice sculptures and carved melons.”
Shortly after the delegates left, a satellite image showed North Korea as an area of unrelieved darkness again with barely a scintilla of light visible in Pyongyang, except, of course, for The Tower of the Juche Idea – the official monument to the Kims and a constant warning to those with different ideas to the supreme leader’s – on the banks of the River Taedong.
Kim Jong-il’s death will no doubt continue to have a gelding effect on his son, who has been thrust into the political limelight. One couldn’t help notice that Kim Jong-un looked like he was suffering from a surfeit of anxiety, perhaps at being pronounced the world’s youngest head of state at 28 years old at his father’s funeral. To paraphrase the nineteenth century British cultural critic Matthew Arnold, regime change would be a good horse to ride, but to ride where? It is a great deal easier to set up a dictatorship than to change the way it operates. Before a new destination is decided upon, the best course of action may be to firstly unhorse the current regime. Until then the Kim dynastic house will likely stay in much the same order for many more years to come and Socialism Centered on the Masses Shall Perish.
Gareth Rice is a political economist and regular contributor to Global Politics, Helsinki Times – Finland’s biggest expat newspaper – and Bestthinking.com.