North Korea: The Emperor’s New Clothes?
| published March 20, 2015 |
By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review contributor
The Kim Family have ruled the “Democratic Republic of Korea” (DPRK or North Korea) since 1948, when Kim Il Sung, a Korean guerrilla fighter in World War II, was installed by the USSR as the leader of that nation. Korea had been ruled as a Japanese colony from 1910-1945 and Kim Il-Sung fought in the anti-Japanese resistance under Soviet direction.
The Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel in 1945. The USSR immediately gained the upper hand in the north, with its capital of Pyongyang. The United States became the benefactor of the regime in the south, with its capital of Seoul. Elections were planned by the United Nations as a precursor to reunifying the peninsula. However, neither superpower wanted to relinquish control over its half, fearing the entire peninsula would fall under the sway of the other camp.
Shortly after being installed as dictator in 1948, upon recommendation by Lavrenti Beria, Kim Il-Sung approached Joseph Stalin about an invasion of the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). The Soviets were initially hesitant because they were unsure about the potential response from the United States to such a move. 1948 was an election year in the U.S. and Stalin wanted to wait and see if incumbent Harry Truman won the election. Stalin viewed Truman as a known quantity of sorts but he possessed less information about Thomas Dewey, Truman’s opponent. The Soviets wanted to feel confident about predicting an American response to an invasion of South Korea.
Ultimately, the invasion was given tacit Soviet approval and planning in Pyongyang began in earnest. The invasion was launched in June, 1950, and ignited a war that see-sawed across the peninsula for three years. The Korean War was costly for both sides: according to the U.S. Department of Defense, 33,739 Americans died in combat on the Korean peninsula; South Korea lost 217,010 soldiers in combat; North Korea lost approximate 400,000. An armistice, which is technically still in effect, was signed in June, 1953, leaving a scarred and battered peninsula still divided to this day.
In one of the great ironies of history, North Korean propaganda played up the result of the armistice as a huge victory for the country. Kim Il-Sung was painted as a genius who defeated the Americans almost single-handedly just as surely as he had done against the Japanese a few years earlier. Kim Il-Sung was portrayed as a one-man army.
Around that time, the propaganda machine in Pyongyang went into hyper-drive, where it has remained for sixty years. Thus began the most grotesque cult of personality on the planet, even more over-the-top than the glorification of Stalin. Everything in the DPRK which is regarded as important, everything built or accomplished, every technical achievement, is directly attributed to the Kim Family and its benevolent guidance. Every home is required to have portraits of the Kims displayed prominently on a wall. A cloth is even provided which is to be used solely for cleaning the portraits, as those portraits are expected to always be clean and in good repair.
North Korea is a highly stratified society and operates the most tightly regulated media in the world. The country has one television channel and one radio channel. New TVs and radios are set at the factory to receive only those channels. Police have been known to enter homes to check the electronic equipment for any signs of tampering. Propaganda about the Kims is broadcast regularly, mixed in with sports programming and musical productions. Most programs are at least indirectly tied into the Kim family leadership. The population is bombarded daily by praise for, and adulation of, the Kim’s leadership. North Korea is more 1984 than 2015.
Education is also focused on learning the accomplishments of the “Great Leader,” Kim Il-Sung, and his successors, son Kim Jong-Il and grandson Kim Jong-Un. Students are taught that Kim leadership is a form of omnipresent genius, and that the country cannot exist without them. If students want to advance to the next grade, they are required to recite by rote memory quotes and famous passages of the Kim family leaders.
The regime does not tolerate dissent on any level or in any form. North Korea has developed an extensive system of prisons designed to punish a wide range of transgressions, real or imagined. Merely being suspected of disloyalty can land one in a prison. One’s family—even the children—are subject to arrest, as well. Conditions in many of the prisons are among the worst in the world, and fitting for the most repressive government in the world. Pyongyang’s supposed aim is to prevent the outside world from “corrupting” North Korean society. In other words, the regime does not want the people of North Korea exposed to anything other than official state propaganda. All of that is done in the name of ideological purity and maintaining the Kim family in power.
One tool the regime uses to spread its propaganda on behalf of the Kims is computers, and it employs a very elite squad of people as hackers in a form of asymmetric warfare. In terms of private usage, only the elite, perhaps only a few thousand people, can regularly access the real internet. Even then, internet access is available primarily only in university labs, select government offices, and a few internet cafes in the capital of Pyongyang. The remainder of the population, classified somewhere just below the elite, are compelled to use the “intranet,” known as “Kwangmyong” (bright star) in North Korea. The intranet relies on pirated Japanese and Chinese software and provides email and access to a handful of sites selected and monitored by the government. Only about 1,000 IP addresses are available in North Korea, compared to billions in the United States. One company, Morning Panda, builds computers in North Korea, but manufactures only a few thousand units per year.
However, the wall of secrecy and repression which smothers the country is not impermeable. Cracks are appearing in the monolithic facade which the DPRK presents to the world. The rapid onslaught of technology is bringing outside influences to bear in the DPRK but it is not yet possible to measure the effect on the populace as a whole.
The widespread famine in the country during the 1990’s had deep, pervasive effects on North Korean society. One result of the suffering was a profusion of black market activity, especially on the border with China. The border is, in some places, no more than 20-30 yards wide at the Yalu River, although it is heavily guarded. In winter, when the surface of the river is sometimes frozen, black market trade increases, though North Korea attempts to counter with an even heavier border security presence. Perhaps as a response, the regime also began implementing free-trade areas in the country. These enclaves of limited capitalism were regulated, of course, by the state and produced mixed and limited results. They have been periodically shut down when they reached a level of success incompatible with the regime’s anti-capitalist rhetoric.
These free-market enclaves exposed North Koreans to outside ideas. They also fueled the black market by providing opportunities for corruption. Ironically, it is those persons controlling the levers of power who have become the most deeply involved in the surreptitious economy. A network has developed among the elite strata of the population. It largely consists of the upper-echelons of the military, guards at the border and the upper levels of the Korea Workers’ Party, the country’s sole political organ, among other elements.
DVD’s, DVD players, USB drives, CD’s, cell phones and computers are smuggled into the country from China, although some of the material originates in South Korea and many of the DVD’s contain downloaded American movies. Smugglers are recruited by the elites from among their own class and from among other, increasingly desperate elements of the populace. Goods are brought in across the Yalu River and the guards are paid off either to look the other way or as inducement to join the smuggling network. Recently, businessmen in China have become involved in the smuggling network. Among the contraband goods are copies of the movie “The Interview,” smuggled into North Korea a mere two days after its release. Nearly 75% of North Koreans have access to TV and nearly 50% access to DVD players. They often use these devices together in small groups so they are less likely to inform on one another.
Most of the smuggled technology ends up in the hands of the country’s elite, although people in less exalted positions are increasingly being brought into the network of smuggling. However, smuggling—typically across the Yalu River—is not the only means for bringing these items into the country. Numerous defectors, now residing in South Korea, have organized groups using balloons to float material such as bibles, political leaflets and even dollar bills over the border.
One result of the smuggling and development of the underground economy is that the population does not fear the police as much as they might have in the past. Police are often smugglers themselves, and an increasing number of them can be paid to look the other way when they find others violating the law. People are also beginning to question the country’s absurd propaganda. Take the example of the the current leader, Kim Jong-Un. He is often referred to as “Brilliant Comrade” even though the level of formal education he reached is not known. Another designation for him is “Great General.” He was made a general by his father, Kim Jong-Il, shortly before his death. No one knows if Kim Jong-Un ever had military training, or has ever served in the military, for that matter. And like his father and grandfather, he is frequently photographed in various scenes dispensing “field guidance” at factories, farms, schools, and markets. Whether or not his style of leadership represents genuine change is debatable.
The state media portray Kim Jong-Un as being everywhere, all the time. He is also described by the media as projecting a new, updated image for North Korea and is frequently seen in public with his attractive wife. Another result of the illegal economy is a widened perspective leading people to a growing skepticism. It may ultimately prove impossible for the regime to continue propping itself up by buying off the elite class and military. These are the very elements of the population which are now the instigators of change, unwittingly or not. They need to know how the outside world works in order to maintain the current system. Nevertheless, the knowledge and information gained may eventually act as a double-edged sword cutting off the head of the regime.
Knowledge of the outside world continues to seep into the cracks of North Korean society, permeating each level of the highly stratified society. Economic pressures also act on the population forcing them to find alternate means of gathering information. Human beings are inherently curious and our urge to inquire about the world around us can’t be permanently squashed by means of regimentation, propaganda or restricted access to media. Perhaps, eventually, the spread of knowledge and information will transform into a flood which will wash away the current system. Transformation, when it occurs, likely won’t come from the Kim leadership unless it is forced upon them from other strata of society.
The nature of the transition could be violent or relatively peaceful. No one knows if the regime would gradually yield to such changes or push back and establish a timeline for such events is impossible. The irony is that the Kim regime is slowly being undermined by the very forces which it is officially trying to suppress.
Related Thursday Review articles:
Military Exercises, Korean Waters; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; March 17, 2015.
North Korea’s Nuclear Offer; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; January 11, 2015.