No oil, no elites outside the country, no voice in the world. North Korea is today’s last Stalinist state, encapsulating its people like no other. The state is the most impressive example that foreign policy is mostly driven by material interests. And no one seems to have interest in the North Korean people.
I am working on this article for some weeks now and have a hard time editing along the daily news coming from the country. A speech about the opening of economy is followed by the announcement of new nuclear weapon tests. On top, google publishes the first map of North Korea including what seems to be incarnation camps and weapon factories. I don’t want to run after the next news. My questions are different: How do North Korean people think and feel about their country and life? How do they manage to cope with scarcity and oppression and do they struggle to find a way out? Is there the possibility of uprising and revolution from the middle of the population?
North Korea – The isolated country
Since the Korean War between the North and the South ended with a cease-fire in 1953, the “Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea” established Stalinism in a grotesque and consequent way, Stalin never managed himself. North Korea is small and geographically closed on the peninsula. For centuries, Koreans where isolated, either by their own authorities or foreign occupation. No elites, students or business people ever really could root throughout the world and no foreign companies came to the country. The Northern regime called all their students in foreign countries home after they learned of the dangerous effects of new ideas to closed systems. Moreover, the country doesn’t have significant wealth in form of resources or fertile soils. The presence of American troops in the South seems to satisfy the geo-strategic interests of the West in the region.
Humanitarian aid is blocked in North Korea
All that leads to a pretty low interest in North Korea from the outside world. Once in a while, the leaders declare having a nuclear missile, which could potentially hit Los Angeles or at least Seoul. That is enough to oppress some humanitarian or economic aid. UN monitors come in the country but are sent away pretty soon. Humanitarian aid organizations are only allowed to ship goods to the borders. North Korea is the only state in the world that doesn’t allow foreign aid organizations to monitor their programs inside the country. The leadership plays the game of trading nuclear weapon threat against humanitarian aid – only as much as needed to keep the system alive. The West always joins the game to keep the country quiet, at least for our ears.
North Korea is the only state
in the world that doesn’t allow
foreign aid organizations to monitor
their programs inside the country.
That’s how it goes for decades now whereas the situation of the people is steadily worsening. In the early nineties, up to one million people died from starvation, the economic system broke down and the regime does it’s best to oppress initiatives of the people to help themselves. Growing their own vegetables in the poor green spots in front of their houses was long forbidden. People where sent to public soup kitchens to strengthen public spirit. A sarcastic measure regarding the poor situation of the people. From outside, real interest in change is not to see. Even the South seemed to have softened their “Sunshine Policy” (a program striving for good relations and final reunification with the North) and only install some visitor programs of families being harshly divided for 50 years now. To me this is nothing more than alibi policy. The highly developed South has something to lose if they would suddenly be economically responsible for 20 million starving people with a not existing economic system.
6 years ago I made some research about the regime. I wanted to find out if it is probable to fall down in the near future. Compared to other socialist countries whose systems broke, mainly due to collapsed economy, ideologic oppression and crusted bureaucracy, North Korea had all symptoms not to function anymore. The country has in fact stopped to function decades ago but the leadership always managed to keep the borders close. The mix of ideology, oppression and no real interest from outside keeps the state going. Back in 2007, I assumed that only the death of the leader would initiate any change. Kim Jong-Il died, but the succession by his son was planned well and now nothing really seems to change. Is there hope that the North Korean people find the power to raise against their leaders? Although you hear of protests from time to time, I doubt that the power of the people is enough. The daily fight to survive and harsh oppression simply lets no space or resources to think about regime change or organize a movement. The life in this country is about surviving on a short term. It is about finding the next meal for you and your family and not getting involved in some criminal oppression, which is always spread randomly, as usual in such systems.
How do people in North Korea think about their life?
That’s the question occupying me the most. What does the population think about their leader, about their miserable life and how do they cope with it? Being born in the former GDR, I was witnessing the breakdown of the country and the tendencies leading to that. Even as a child, I was fascinated by the pictures from the West and the promising colorful things you could get there. Having information from the outside was one of the main motivations of the people in the Socialist block to raise their voices and eventually gave the regime no choice but to open the borders. In the completely closed North Korea things seem to be different. It is assumed that up to 40% of the population is forced into an information system, where neighbors, partners and friends are betrayed to the state authorities for acting against the regime. Three points make a successful revolution from the people unlikely for me:
No information from outside, therefore no daily motivation. People seem to somehow take their destiny and start to experience it as normality, as cruel as it might be.
Harsh regime: If people start an opposition or organize in little groups, it is likely that they are not just thrown into prison, but banned in concentration camps or killed right away.
Mentality: The question of “Me” is the highest good in the Western world. It is not in Confucian societies as the Korean. The group is more important than the individual and people tend to accept their place in life as it is given to them.
The group is more important
than the individual
and people tend to accept
their place in life
as it is given to them.
Of course I cannot explain how people feel in North Korea. I only can assume from literature and reports of people who managed to flew the country. Many reports and interviews are known and report from oppression, grotesque regulations and people who never (!) see the light of day because they spend their entire life in work camps underground. Seems unbelievable and sadly, many scientists and politicians actually consider those reports as exaggeration by refugees only wanting some attention. This is in my eyes sarcastic. We tend to excuse our passivity with claims of those reports being not true, simply because we cannot believe that such cruelty is possible today and over such a long time. Well, I like to follow the advice of Hannah Arendt here, who said in her standard work The origins of totalitarianism regarding the reports from victims in Nazi concentration camps: We better believe the stories that exceed our imagination of cruelty. History has shown that they are mostly true. And I want to add: Even if only half of it is true, it is still more than time to act.
Camp 14 – a movie about a refugee from a North Korean camp who flew to the South. The life there is so different and disturbing that he even considers to go back to the camp. Trailer:
Kim Jong-Un for change?
We still don’t know if the young successor will simply proceed the way of his father or stand for a new and more open style of leading the country. Kim Jong-Un appears to be more open or at least creates a more modern image. He goes to pop concerts, smiles in public and talks about economic reforms. In his broadly recognized new years address he talked about economic reforms and raising wealth of the people. German consultants already signaled they interest in helping with concepts to reform the country. If this is just a promising business or the real start for change is still to see. For now, the latest UN human rights report a few days ago takes us back to reality: Nothing has changed. In harsh contrast to the report, the North Korean UN representatives praise their own system to protect and support human rights.
This is the basic North Korean ambivalence: It is the most closed country in the world with the highest military and secret service quotes and oppressing their people like no other. In contrast, the leadership declares a blooming country of happiness and wealth in a way that it could be ridiculous if it wouldn’t be so sad. The administered public mourning for the dead Kim Jong-Il was another example. People were shown crying in the streets like it was a competition. One heard rumors that the ones losing the mourning competition and not showing enough grief where punished harshly.
Whereas the old Kim just focused on staying in power for the limited time of his life, the new leader is not even 30 years old. If he wants to stay in power for the next decades, he needs to show some action. Only relying on military power and oppression will not carry the regime for another 50 years. If the opening really happens, no matter how far, this can be a starting point for true change. In the Soviet Union, Gorbachevs Glasnost and Perestroika also had the economic dimension. In the former GDR, longing for economic wealth and freedom of choice in every dimension was an important offspring of the regime breakdown. If people can choose which products to buy they are consequently lead to the question of choosing which people are governing. Slight opening can be, and often was in history, the little stone that made the whole thing rolling. Kim Jong-Un could have called the ghosts bringing him and his regime down in the end.
Real change or never-ending game of power?
that exceed our imagination of cruelty.
History has shown that
they are mostly true.
But the military rhetoric remains along with new statements about nuclear weapons. One of the main goals of the country still is the reunification of the peninsula under Northern conditions. We will see if the economic reforms will also bring other change. Even if the interest from the outside is for now a purely economic one, at least something is happening. If North Korean people get to grab the little finger, they might develop the power to go for the whole hand and in the end stand up for their rights on living humanly. A start is made by not forgetting. The people there deserve our attention as we are the only ones who can do something to change their life.
Axel Kunz (M.A.) studied political science at the University of Jena and wrote his master thesis about North Korea and the likelihood of regime change.