World view: Kim Jong-un’s purges betray the weakness that makes North Korea a growing danger
North Korean news has always had a credibility problem but since the accession of Kim Jong-un it has grown far, far worse
World view: Kim Jong-un’s purges betray the weakness that makes North Korea a growing danger
The secrets behind Kim Jong-un’s madness: Former North Korean intelligence officer reveals how attempts to assassinate his father turned dictator into a monster
North Korean official ‘executed by flame-thrower’
Flame-thrower reportedly used to carry out North Korea execution of official loyal to purged uncle Jang Song-taek
North Korean official ‘executed by flame-thrower’
Flame-thrower reportedly used to carry out North Korea execution of official loyal to purged uncle Jang Song-taek
Why Does China Coddle North Korea?
By JONATHAN D. POLLACKJAN. Jan. 12, 2014
WASHINGTON — A month after the execution of Jang Song-thaek, widely viewed as North Korea ’s second-most-powerful leader, China remains stymied in relations with its reclusive, defiant neighbor. This is not a new story. Though few in Beijing are prepared to admit it, China’s policies toward North Korea have long been a conspicuous failure.
China’s official reactions to the North’s internal power struggle have, thus far, been limited largely to formulaic calls for internal stability. But Mr. Jang’s ouster must be deeply disquieting to senior Chinese policy makers, who yet again find themselves on the outside looking in.
By nearly all indications, leaders in Beijing were blindsided by the latest events. By contrast, South Korean intelligence disclosed Mr. Jang’s fall from power a full five days before its stunning climax at a Politburo meeting on Dec. 8.
The Kim dynasty intends to keep China in the dark as fully as it can. Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, voice periodic frustration with North Korea, but none seems able or willing to translate Pyongyang’s ever increasing economic dependence on China into meaningful influence.
From the earliest years of China’s reforms, under Deng Xiaoping, Beijing has repeatedly sought to coax North Korea toward gradual economic change, normal relations with the outside world and increased attentiveness to Chinese interests. Yet North Korea continues to exhibit its characteristic mix of demands and defiance, including repeated threats aimed at South Korea and accelerated development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles opposed by all outside powers, including China. Other than some modest steps toward informal marketization in the North, China’s policy record on Pyongyang over three decades remains unblemished by success.
Mr. Jang was China’s primary channel into the North. This did not make him Beijing’s man, but he had far more extensive international experience than any other leader in Pyongyang. His control of various business interests in the North and responsibility for special economic zones along the Chinese border enabled him to amass substantial economic power.
Beijing probably calculated that Mr. Jang was prepared to open a limited window into the North. The Chinese may also have seen him as a potential advocate for stability — which they had long sought in North Korea but never found.
But Mr. Jang had undoubtedly acquired numerous enemies during decades of unforgiving political warfare in Pyongyang. There were mounting suspicions within ruling circles that he was too beholden to Chinese interests. Mr. Jang’s accumulation of wealth and his economic links with China proved his undoing once Kim Jong-un, the third leader of the Kim dynasty, demanded a redistribution of the spoils.
North Korean officials linked to Mr. Jang now find themselves under suspicion; reportedly, others have also been purged or executed. Advocates of cooperation with China face greater risks as Mr. Kim consolidates his power and demands unquestioning loyalty from all subordinates. Without reliable allies in North Korea, China must deal with an impetuous and grandiose young leader who pays China very little heed.
Mr. Jang’s fall from power is the latest in a long succession of Chinese policy failures in North Korea. Many analysts argue that North Korea is a buffer state for China, used by Beijing to insulate it from American pressure. But the reverse is more the case: China is a buffer state for North Korea, for Beijing continues to be Pyongyang’s primary enabler.
Chinese foreign policy currently appears bold and assertive, but on the peninsula China’s stance remains exceedingly risk-averse. The question is why Beijing continues to exhibit such caution, even outright timidity, toward the North.
Some argue that the legacy of the Korean War weighs heavily on the minds of more traditional constituencies within the Chinese Communist Party and army. But deeper, current anxieties also inhibit Beijing. China fears that extreme actions by an unpredictable, heavily armed neighbor with a xenophobic leadership could trigger a larger crisis on the peninsula that would quickly involve China. Lacking realistic options to control North Korean behavior, China prefers instead to avoid doing anything that might alienate Pyongyang.
While China insists that it wants normal state-to-state relations with North Korea, it is not prepared to impose conditions on its isolated, troublesome neighbor, much less undertake a larger reassessment of its policies. As a consequence, Mr. Kim sees little reason to follow China’s advice, and he will continue to zealously guard against Chinese influence on the North.
The one exception to China’s passivity toward the North is its promotion of closer ties with Seoul. South Korea’s trade with China now exceeds $250 billion, more than the South’s combined trade with Japan and the United States. (China’s two-way trade with North Korea is worth approximately $6 billion.) South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, has already been welcomed on a state visit to Beijing; there has been no equivalent welcome for Mr. Kim, and it is not even certain that he seeks one.
China exhibits ample unease about addressing the larger risks posed by North Korea’s actions and goals. The purge of Mr. Jang serves only to underscore Beijing’s lack of influence in Pyongyang. The United States and South Korea both hope for more from China, but Beijing seems paralyzed in policy indecision.
The failures of policy on the Korean Peninsula are not those of China alone, but Beijing’s risk aversion bespeaks a larger absence of will and imagination on China’s part. Without a more candid conversation among Beijing, Seoul and Washington, the latent risk of an acute threat on the peninsula remains uncomfortably high.
South Korea and the United States seem fully prepared for serious dialogue with China. Only Beijing seems unable to decide, leaving unaddressed the prospect of a severe crisis that cannot possibly be in China’s interest.
Jonathan D. Pollack is the director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution and the author of “No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security.”
Behind the curtain: Fascinating pictures from inside North Korea give a rare glimpse inside the secretive Communist state
Let the soldier be your guide: Welcome to North Korea, where all Western visitors are accompanied by at least two North Korean guides in military-style uniforms
Western influence? In a staunchly anti-Western nation, a bowling alley stands out as a rather American destination complete with balls made in the USA
Juche: This tower honors Kim Il Sung’s idea of Juche, or that man is the master of his own fate
The South acknowledges the three-year Korean War as a tragic draw in which 2 million people died after the North invaded on June 25, 1950. The demilitarized zone created by the armistice runs along nearly the same line as the border between the Koreas before the war.
In the North’s version of events, however, there was neither a draw nor a North Korean invasion. North Korean textbooks say the war — known as the Fatherland Liberation War — was started by “U.S. imperialists” who wanted to dominate Asia. Historians say this narrative is fabricated and contradicts the accounts provided by veterans, declassified documents and government officials from the more than 20 countries that became involved in the war.
An estimated 1.2 million people died in the 1950-53 Korean War, but since the armistice that ended it was not a formal peace treaty, the Korean peninsula has technically remained a war zone to this day.
In that time, South Korea has blossomed from a poor, agrarian nation of peasants into the world’s 15th largest economy while North Korea is struggling to find a way out of a Cold War chasm that has left it with a per-capita income on par with sub-Saharan Africa.
“We knew that South Korea was on a path to democracy and they had a good life and they had enough food. I had never eaten rice, and I cried the first time I smelled it cooking here in China,” he added.
‘I saw my first execution at SEVEN’: North Korean defector reveals ordeal of growing up in dictatorship where famine was so bad the streets were lined with dead bodies
2. Mythical leaders
North Korea’s ruling dynasty has always cast itself as somewhat supernatural. Founder Kim Il Sung was known as Korea’s “sun,” and claimed control of the weather. Along with his son Kim Jong Il’s birthday, Kim Il Sung’s birthday is a national holiday. After his death, Sung was embalmed and still lies in state in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Il’s mythology is no less extensive. His birth was hailed as “heaven sent” by propagandists, and state media has often touted impossible feats: He scored a perfect 300 the first time he tried bowling, and shot five holes-in-one the first time he played golf. Upon his death in 2011, the skies about the sacred mountain Paektu in North Korea allegedly glowed red. [Supernatural Powers? Tales of 10 Historical Predictions]
Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s son and successor has yet to have quite so many tall tales told about him, but the news media have described the new leader as “born of heaven” upon his ascension to head of state. In December 2012, North Korean state media declared the discovery of a lair supposedly belonging to a unicorn ridden by Tongmyong, the ancient mythical founder of Korea. The story wasn’t an indication that North Koreans believe in literal unicorns, experts said, but a way to shore up Kim Jong Un’s rule and North Korea’s cred as the “real” Korea.
There has been no shift in the confrontational policy since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as Supreme Leader in 2011 Photo: AP
Analysis: How do you solve a problem like Korea?
China’s previous leader, Jiang Zemin, was famous for his karaoke renditions of ‘Love Me Tender.’ Its next president Xi Jinping, who succeeds Hu Jintao next month, might adapt The Sound of Music to ask, in some exasperation: How do you solve a problem like Korea?
By Aidan Foster-Carter7:12PM GMT 12 Feb 2013
Nuclear and missile tests make North Korea everyone’s problem. Today, as thrice before, the UN Security Council will censure and sanction the Kim regime for its latest nuclear test. As before Pyongyang will stamp its feet, utter bloodcurdling threats, and carry on regardless.
Above all this is China’s problem. Beijing has all along sustained this errant and abhorrent regime, ever since Mao saved the young Kim Il-sung’s bacon in the 1950-53 Korean War. Kim went on to milk both China and the USSR for aid, until the latter’s collapse in 1991.
China is in a quandary. As a neighbour, it fears a nuclear North Korea as much as anyone. But it also opposes painting Pyongyang into a corner. So it votes for UN sanctions, but does little to enforce them because its own strategy is the opposite. In Beijing’s view, the way to defang the Kim regime is to show it that economic growth is a better bet than militarism.
China means business. In the four years 2007-2011 its trade with North Korea nearly tripled. Nor is this one-way aid: in that time Pyongyang’s exports to China — mostly minerals — more than quadrupled. Some in Seoul fear the North is becoming a fourth province of Manchuria. A new Chinese-built road links landlocked Jilin to Rajin, Asia’s most northerly ice-free port.
Beijing is doing this not for love of the Kims but for fear of the alternative. Its nightmare scenario is regime collapse, leading to massive refugee flows — and worse, incursions by the US and South Korea, whose contingency plans include hunting for the North’s loose nukes. Alarming though it is on days like this, the Korean status quo is seen as preferable to that.
Some were slow to grasp this. Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s hardline and now departing president, harboured two fatal delusions: that North Korea could be pressured into nuclear disarmament, while China would accept a Korea reunified under the South. Today’s test is two fingers to the former, while on the latter all evidence suggests the contrary: that Beijing prefers a rogue buffer state to US troops on its borders. Geopolitically too, by ending Seoul’s decade of ‘sunshine’ policy that engaged the North, Lee only strengthened China’s position. His moderate successor Park Geun-hye, who takes office on February 25, hoped to pursue ‘trustpolitik’ with Kim Jong-un but is in no position to do that now.
Two decades of outside pressure have failed to deflect North Korea, under three Kims, from its militant goals and methods. Rather than blame Chinese sabotage, the West should accept the realities of the regional and global balance of power. North Korea is China’s backyard. Unless it changes course and ditches the Kims, it is Beijing which in practice will decide the balance of stick and carrot to be applied to Pyongyang. The nuclear test will see more sticks in the mix for now, but it will take more than this to make China rethink its overall approach. Stood in their shoes and that neighbourhood, one can see why.
The author is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea at Leeds University and a freelance consultant on Korea. He has followed North Korean affairs for over 40 years.
HONG KONG — The state-controlled Bank of China said on Tuesday that it had halted all dealings with a key North Korean bank in what appeared to be the strongest public Chinese response yet to North Korea’s willingness to brush aside warnings from Beijing and push ahead with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
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North Korean cannibalism fears amid claims starving people forced to desperate measures
The reports come as sanctions against the country are tightened against the backdrop of angry rhetoric over missile testing
Shocking reports claim North Koreans are turning to cannibalism including details of one man who dug up his grandchild’s corpse to eat and another who boiled his child and ate the flesh.
Power play: Taken by North Korea’s official news agency shows leader Kim Jong-Un giving the final order for the launch of the Unha-3 rocket on a 1980s style phone sat in an office that looks equally dated
Threat: Kim Jong-Un defied warnings from across the world to launch an Unha-3 ballistic rocket on Wednesday. He is known as The Shining Son and it is said his face has been surgically altered to resemble his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, the first ruler of North Korea
Contrast: Young children are seen carrying mounds of hay on their backs in North Korea’s South Hwanghae province
New leader: The country’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un is seen smoking a cigarette at the General Satellite Control and Command Center following North Korea’s controversial rocket launch last month
Trapped: Two women appear to be praying inside a gated facility covered with barbed-wire
Uncertain future: Farmer O Yong Ae at her home in Sariwon. Under proposed changes farmers at the helm of the country’s collective farms would be able to keep a bigger share of their crops
Distinctive: A truck powered by a barrel of burning wood stops on a road in Hamhung, North Korea
Education: Students at the Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang work under the gaze of portraits of North Korea’s late leaders, Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, right
Every day life: Two North Korean woman work side by side in a Pyongyang book shop in December 2012
Murals: A man and a woman stand in front of colourful wall art depicting heroic North Korean soldiers on the road leading from the capital to Sariwon town in North Hwanghae province
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s trade with China surged more than 60 percent last year, a sign of deepening dependence on Pyongyang’s biggest ally.
South Korea’s Statistics Korea said Thursday in an annual report that North Korea’s exports and imports with China reached $5.63 billion in 2011, up 62 percent from $3.47 billion in the previous year.
Despite Risks, China Stays at North Korea’s Side to Keep the U.S. at Bay
By JANE PERLEZ
Published: December 13, 2012
BEIJING — Even though North Korea ignored China’s appeal not to test its new longer-range missile, the new leadership here appears intent on remaining a steadfast supporter of its wayward neighbor because it considers the North a necessary buffer against the United States and its allies.
Analysts said that China’s overriding fear was of a collapse of the hard-line Communist government in Pyongyang, which could lead to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under a government in Seoul allied with the United States. China, they said, would consider an American presence on its doorstep untenable.
But China’s unyielding support of Kim Jong-un has a serious downside, they added, because it may lead to a result nearly as unpalatable: efforts by the United States and its regional allies Japan and South Korea to contain China.
“It stirs up regional security,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University who favors reducing support for North Korea. Without naming the United States, he added that the missile launching “facilitates China-bashers to work on hard-line policies to contain China, or just balance China.”
Obama administration officials were clearly exasperated this week with China’s inability to rein in Mr. Kim, saying that they were considering a stronger military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Beneath the official tolerance of North Korea, a debate about the wisdom of remaining loyal to such a world outlier and its defiant young leader simmers among analysts who strive to influence China’s foreign policy.
China runs the risk, Dr. Zhu said, of being bunched together with North Korea as one of “the two bad guys.”
“I feel very frustrated,” Dr. Zhu added. “At least we should distance ourselves from North Korea. The reality is, as long as North Korea can’t change their behavior, then peace and stability on the peninsula will be increasingly vulnerable.”
Despite their displeasure, China’s leaders see little choice but to put up with such indignities.
The slight pique expressed by the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday was not a signal that China would alter its course, the analysts said, or back tougher sanctions at the United Nations.
The official reaction was “very hesitant,” said Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
After the missile test, Washington immediately started pushing for deeper sanctions at the United Nations and for a tightening of existing sanctions that China agreed to after earlier rocket launchings.
“China will not support a resolution; it will favor a president’s statement,” said Cai Jian, the deputy director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. A president’s statement at the United Nations is considered a much weaker form of condemnation than sanctions.
A major reason for not backing new sanctions is the fear that they would provoke North Korea to test another nuclear weapon, a far worse prospect than the launching of an unarmed rocket like the one on Wednesday, said Jonathan D. Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“The North Koreans demurred from a third nuclear test in April, very likely under major Chinese pressure,” Dr. Pollack said.
In 2006 and 2009, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon soon after launching missiles. Dr. Pollack said a repeat of that action would pose a major test to the Obama administration, as well as to the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.
“Pyongyang may have decided now is the time to put down a major marker as Obama’s second term approaches and as South Korea elects a new president,” he said.
Beyond the hard strategic questions for the new Chinese leadership, the concerns among ordinary Chinese about why China bankrolls such a ruthless government should be considered, several Chinese analysts said.
“Internally in China, many voices are questioning all this spending on rocket launches instead of on improving people’s livelihoods,” said Jia Qingguo, an expert at Peking University.
The South Korean government recently estimated that North Korea had spent $2.8 billion to $3.2 billion since 1998 on its missile program, said Stephan M. Haggard, a professor of Korea-Pacific studies at the University of California, San Diego. That amount of money would have bought enough corn to feed the country for about three years, Dr. Haggard said.
The debate within China about its relationship with North Korea stems from the unusual nature of the alliance. Fundamentally, the two governments do not like each other and harbor deep mutual suspicions, said Stephanie T. Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the China and Northeast Asia project director of the International Crisis Group in Beijing. When North Korean officials visited Singapore this year to get new ideas for Mr. Kim’s government, leaders in Beijing — who have sent teams of their own to Singapore to study its softer form of one-party leadership — became very nervous, she said.
The larger fear is that any fundamental change in North Korea could send waves of refugees into China, who would be considerably more difficult to absorb than people of other nationalities on China’s borders.
“For the Chinese,” Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt said, “there are fewer problems keeping North Korea the way it is than having a collapse.”
‘Ministry of truth’: Work on the world’s biggest hotel began in the late eighties but stalled when the Soviet Union fell and was not revived until 2008
Wretched lives: The city of Pyongyang, where the hotel is being built, is so poor that it cannot even maintain electricity for one day or light its streets and the population is starving on £7-a-week salaries
New face at the top but the same North Korea
By Blaine Harden, Published: December 14
Blaine Harden, a former Post reporter, is the author of “Escape From Camp 14.”
As a rule, nothing greases reform like the death of a dictator. After Stalin, the gulag faded away. After Mao, policies that starved millions were abandoned. So when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died a year ago, there was reason to expect meaningful change.
Yet North Korea, the world’s longest-lived totalitarian state, never seems to follow the rules. When its founding dictator, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, the state stumbled, but it did not collapse and it did not reform. For the first time in history, power in a communist state shifted from father to son, from Great Leader to Dear Leader. And Kim Jong Il was no reformer. He turned out to be even more repressive than his father was.
Now, the third generation of the Kim family dynasty, in the person of Kim Jong Eun, who is not yet 30, has cemented his absolute control by doing what daddy and granddaddy could not do: His engineers sent the payload of a three-stage rocket into orbit, defying U.N. Security Council resolutions and unnerving the world.
His government is believed to be trying to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a missile capable of striking the United States. To that end, Kim Jong Eun’s government completed a new tunnel this year for the test detonation of what would be the North’s third plutonium device and possibly for a bomb made from highly enriched uranium, according to an August report in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The young leader has also spent lavishly this year on the family cult, funding $40 millionworth of statues and paintings of his father and grandfather, according to a recent South Korean government report. Notably, imports of liquor, luxury cars and foreign appliances have spiked since 2009, when it became clear Kim Jong Eun was his father’s favored son, according to a South Korean parliamentary report in October.
In the months after his father died of a heart attack, there were tantalizing hints that Kim Jong Eun might move in a more moderate direction. Unlike his father and grandfather, he had lived in the West. He
reportedly spent a few teenage years in a private Swiss school, where he played basketball, wore expensive sneakers and admired Michael Jordan. He was untested and seemed callow to outsiders looking in, but after his father died, he proved with surprising speed that he was not a puppet of scheming relatives and headstrong generals. As surprising, he emerged in the first half of this year as a chubbily charismatic agent of change.
He sacked generals, sent bureaucrats to China to study capitalism and talked openly of using economic reform to improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans. His father had never talked this way. Indeed, his father had never delivered a speech in public.
Kim the younger smiled often (also unlike his dad) and seemed YouTube-savvy. As state television followed him around, he embraced small children, attended a “Mickey Mouse” performance and won global attention by showing off an attractive and well-dressed woman who
turned out to be his wife. He allowed her to touch his arm in public — a stunning change from the crabby behavior of his father, whose many wives were always hidden.
Still, Kim Jong Eun’s image-making and his reformist rhetoric have done little to change what his government actually does. North Korea’s treatment of its people remains singularly oppressive, and a third of the population is chronically malnourished. This fall, the United Nations found “no indications of any improvement” in the country’s wretched human rights record. On the contrary, its human rights rapporteur found information that “authorities had detained officials suspected of potentially challenging or questioning a smooth leadership transition.”
Without trial, North Korea continues to imprison an estimated 150,000 of its perceived political enemies in a 50-year-old gulag of labor camps that is clearly visible on Google Earth. More than 60 former inmates have given human rights investigators detailed accounts of how the camps operate — how the guards starve, rape and work inmates to death as slaves. North Korea has denied that the camps exist.
In some ways, repression has increased under the young dictator. He has tightened screws along North Korea’s border with China, which in the past 15 years had functioned as a kind of hunger-relief valve, allowing traders (and a trickle of defectors) out of the country and allowing in desperately needed food, clothing and household goods.
Kim Jong Eun has made it clear that he loathes defectors. He reportedly has
dispatched troops to the Chinese border to ensure that it is closed off. This year the number of defectors finding their way to South Korea has declined sharply.
A year after Kim Jong Il’s death, North Korea’s government has again defied history. The state has lost none of its appetite for being cruel to its own people. With a twenty-something dictator in charge, the entire country is a no-exit prison camp.
The View From Pyongyang
By CHARLES K. ARMSTRONG
Published: August 15, 2012
LIKE Havana, only more so, the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is bereft of commercial billboards but covered with propaganda posters. In recent years, however, one company has been allowed to advertise its products: Pyonghwa Motors, a joint venture between the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s South Korea-based Unification Church and North Korea’s state-run Ryonbong General Corporation. A few signs promoting the company’s Whistle sedan can be seen in Pyongyang and surrounding areas. Essentially a Hyundai, the Whistle is an increasingly common sight on Pyongyang streets, along with a growing number of BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, Nissan and other luxury and nonluxury vehicles, many privately owned.
Once notable for the absence of traffic (not to mention a lack of streetlights), Pyongyang is a much busier and visibly more affluent city than it was just a few years ago. The source of this new wealth is something of a mystery, but presumably Chinese trade and investment account for a good part of it. With its residents dressed mostly in Western-style clothing and clutching mobile phones, Pyongyang today looks more like a tidy Chinese provincial city than the spartan capital of the world’s last Stalinist state. Under its new ruler, “Respected Leader” Kim Jong-un, North Korea is clearly on the move.
But moving where, exactly? Some analysts say that North Korea is on the verge of collapse; others say it is on the verge of serious economic reform. To judge from what I saw during a trip to North Korea in July, the reality is less momentous: a change in the face of the leadership and of the capital city, but not of policy. The status quo remains and is unlikely to change any time soon.
There is no doubt, though, that this is Kim Jong-un’s regime. When I visited North Korea in 2011, before the death of Kim Jong-un’s father, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, the official propaganda only obliquely suggested that Kim Jong-un was the heir apparent. In my recent visit, I saw slogans extolling the new leader everywhere: “Long Live Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong-un!” “Long Live Kim Jong-un, Sun of Military-First Korea!” and more ominously, “Follow Great Leader Kim Jong-un to Final Victory!”
Kim Jong-un has already proven himself to be a much more visible and publicly engaged leader than his more reticent father; he appears a natural politician in the mold of his still-revered grandfather, Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founding leader. The regime is clearly trying to cultivate that image, as if to make the North Korean people forget the famine and other failures of the Kim Jong-il era and relive the hopeful and relatively well-off era of Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. Even Kim Jong-un’s appearance, including the Mao suit, paunch and short-sided haircut, seems deliberately designed to make him resemble Kim Il-sung when he came to power in the 1940s.
But Kim Jong-un’s public image gives little indication of the political and economic policies his regime will follow. He is distancing himself from his father’s power circle, especially the military old guard to whom Kim Jong-il was much beholden; it is possible that by reducing the influence of the military he is preparing the way for major economic reform, something the military has long resisted. But at the moment, there is scant evidence that serious reform is in the cards.
This is not say that the North Korean economy is unchanging. Pyongyang is more visibly affluent in part because of a tremendous effort to improve the city for the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth this past April. According to foreign diplomatic sources, universities were closed for the entire 2011-12 academic year as students were mobilized for construction. Impressively modern 45-story apartment blocks have just gone up; residents were still moving in during my visit. Kim Jong-un, apparently a big fan of amusement parks, has overseen the renovation of several fun fairs and the construction of a new water park, complete with a dolphin circus. While much of this change is a result of classic Stakhanovite labor mobilization, the market economy is increasingly visible as well, most literally in the form of the large and crowded public markets, where most consumer goods are now purchased.
On the other hand, the contrast between the relative affluence of the capital and the continuing poverty in the countryside is truly striking. On the bumpy six-hour bus ride from Pyongyang to the industrial city of Hamhung on the east coast, there were a fair number of Chinese-built trucks but hardly any private vehicles (and long stretches with no cars at all). Locally made vehicles consisted mostly of battered, slow-moving pickup trucks retrofitted to run by burning wood. Farm vehicles were almost entirely absent. Poorly dressed, unkempt children could occasionally be seen sleeping on the empty highway.
One wonders at what point a population increasingly connected by mobile phones and exposed, albeit clandestinely, to information from China and South Korea will question the regime’s claim to be a “Powerful and Prosperous Country.” But North Korea can most likely muddle through for some time to come.
Change in North Korea can feel like more of the same. Throughout the country, hundreds of “Eternal Life Monuments,” erected in 1997 on the third anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s death, once said “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung Will Always Be With Us.” Now sign-makers are busily altering the monuments’ stone facades to say “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung and Comrade Kim Jong-il Will Always Be With Us.” If nothing else, sign alteration in North Korea constitutes a public-works project of immense proportions. A 65-foot-tall bronze statue of Kim Jong-il now stands alongside the equally tall statue of his father in Pyongyang. Posters announce a new ideology, “Kim Il-sung-Kim Jong-il-ism.”
Kim Jong-un is said to be ruling according to the “last will and testament of Kim Jong-il.” How he interprets this legacy is the central question for the future of North Korea. But for now, there are few signs of change, even if the signs themselves are changing.
Charles K. Armstrong, a professor of history and the director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, is the author of a forthcoming book on North Korea in the cold war era.
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Shorter: North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong Un, second left, inspects food. While the country’s leaders have been fed plenty, its people have had their growth stunted by years of famine and bad diet
Starving peasants in a ‘land of plenty’: Defying the propaganda, a man sits on a cart carrying wood on a road outside the southern town of Kaesong, North Korea
This tractor is extremely high-tech by the standards of North Korean agriculture, however the low-tech farming methods have contributed to years of famine
The North Korea they want us to see… and the North Korea we saw when press bus took wrong turn
Towering: A large modern apartment block in Pyongyang, North Korea, which the regime is happy for foreigners to see
How life REALLY is: Poor North Koreans living in a run-down concrete residential compound in Pyongyang, North Korea
Grim: A North Korean man pushes a wheelbarrow past a pile of coal in Pyongyang
Manual labour: North Korean men at work close to the water on an industrial site. The images depict a world that North Korean officials try and hide
Real life for North Koreans: Two men stood by a concrete wall look up at a plane flying overhead yesterday. To many North Koreans these pictures likely depict a very middle class life as conditions in the countryside are far grimmer
Rundown highrise: A residential tower block seen in Pyongyang yesterday as a bus full of journalists took a wrong turn into an area that is normally hidden from them
Urban life: North Korean workers, left, repair a street in the city yesterday as a man rides past on a bicycle
Bizarre: Cartoon characters decorate the outside of the Dudan duck factory which employs 1,000 workers and produces 7,000 tons of duck products a year in Pyongyang
A military parade in Pyongyang last month marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder
Has North Korea Now Crossed China, Too?
View From Asia | By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW| May 18, 2012, 12:47 am
Whether restarting work on a nuclear reactor or (allegedly) kidnapping Chinese fishermen, trying to launch a satellite or to import banned tap-dancing shoes from Italy, North Korea continues to draw international attention a month after Kim Jong-un was declared its new leader.
China is North Korea’s closest ally. Yet for many Chinese, exasperated tolerance seems to be turning to anger as reports spread of the abduction last week of 29 Chinese fishermen in the Yellow Sea by unidentified North Koreans, with the kidnappers reported to have demanded payment for their return.
On Thursday, a Chinese-language report on The Southern Metropolis Daily’s Web site said Chinese mafia from the city of Dandong, on the North Korean border, might have been involved in the incident, possibly in cooperation with the North Korean military. So far, the Chinese Foreign Ministry is labeling the incident a “fisheries case” and saying it is “close contact” with its North Korean counterparts, according to Chinese news reports.
Many ordinary Chinese have tended to forgive North Korea’s erratic behavior in recent years, believing that the country should change but also seeing, to some extent, a mirror image of the China of four decades ago. But the abduction reports are stirring ire. A post on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, one of more than 250,000 on the topic, accuses Beijing of soft-pedaling the incident. “North Korean pirates kidnap Chinese fishing boats and lots of Chinese fishermen, isn’t that an attack on Chinese sovereignty?” asked Chuangwgewanren. “To lightly call that a ‘fisheries case’ is heartless for China’s international dignity.”
While the nature of the May 8 incident is unclear, China routinely issues strong protests over comparable altercations when they involve Japanese, South Korean, Vietnamese or Philippine fishing vessels.
In recent days, North Korea has drawn attention over other issues, too. It may have resumed construction of a nuclear reactor, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said, citing satellite imagery of the building site at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, which can be seen here. My colleague Choe Sang-hun’s report is here. Reuters reports that China is “quietly” trying to dissuade North Korea from conducting another nuclear test.
Earlier this week in Myanmar, President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea called on Pyongyang to learn from Myanmar’s moves toward democracy, the Christian Science Monitor reports.
Mr. Lee’s Myanmar trip had particular resonance because it was the first by a South Korean leader since North Korean agents tried, but failed, to assassinate then-President Chun Doo-hwan in the Burmese capital in 1983. The North Koreans did kill 17 other South Koreans, including cabinet ministers, as well as four Burmese.
President Lee promised South Korean assistance if Myanmar ended its military cooperation with Pyongyang. “We want to tell North Korea that it must learn a lesson from Myanmar to cooperate with the international community and receive aid for development,” The Monitor quoted Kim Tae-hyo, South Korea’s senior presidential secretary for national security strategy, as saying.
But the North is famous for its stubbornness, and analysts doubt that message is getting across. The Pyongyang Times in recent days has heaped invective on Mr. Lee, calling him an “unblushing impostor” and “brazen-faced devil,” a “bastard of unclear nationality” and an “unworldly puppy daring to challenge a tiger,” an “eel born in a ditch, lunatic, sub-standard human,” in commentary here.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang is busy evading a United Nations ban on luxury goods prompted by its previous nuclear tests, Reuters reports. Tobacco, cosmetics, luxury cars, watches and computers are getting in, almost all through China, although a recent attempt to import expensive tap-dancing shoes from Italy, price at nearly $200 a pair, was foiled, the report said.
China does not consider the items, which are sought after by North Korea’s growing middle class, to be “luxury” goods, Reuters reported.
“The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future” by Victor Cha
By Krys Lee, Published: May18
Victor Cha can’t easily forget the desolation he encountered on his first visit to North Korea. “As the plane taxied on the tarmac, there was no flight traffic to be seen,” he writes in “The Impossible State.” The fields were “barren and gray,” and during the long drive to his lodgings, he saw only one tractor; he soon discovered that there was no BlackBerry service to distract him from the diplomatic mission he was on for the George W. Bush White House. Officially he was in Pyongyang to press for the return of the remains of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action from the Korean War. While the elusive country reveals little of itself to visitors who are carefully monitored by minders, Cha delivers an up-close, insightful portrait of this “land of contradictions .”
Cha’s extensive years writing on U.S. policy in Asia for a variety of journals and his service on the National Security Council in the Bush administration give him a rare perspective on North Korea’s past and present. He draws upon this expertise to assert his central thesis that the state newly installed leader Kim Jong-Un has inherited is “not sustainable.”
In order to understand the future of North Korea, Cha begins with its relatively more prosperous past during the Cold War years when the country had reliable heating and electricity and a growing high-tech industry bolstered by the patronage of China and the Soviet Union. In contrast, South Korea struggled under a corrupt government and poverty, remaining primarily an agrarian society.
Cha explains how Korean social structures dating from the pre-colonial period and lingering effects of the Korean War influence both North and the South. He also traces how North Korea came to be a dynastic nation. Of note is Cha’s astute analysis of how the state, which is nearly a synonym for the ruling family, used a “loving mother” iconography to create an environment where citizens regard their leader with the reverence and respect accorded their own mothers. The state manipulated this filial piety, which is especially strong in Asian countries, to help pave the path for family succession.
For a reclusive nation, North Korea has garnered a lot of news coverage, largely for its failures and hardships: Its nuclear escapades, years of famine that killed more than a million and the constant stream of defectors have kept journalists busy for years. Cha outlines five bad decisions that have impaired North Korea’s development: valuing ideology over economics, losing Chinese and Soviet support, institutionalizing illegal arms sales and drug production and trade, doling out small freedoms to the people and then retracting them, and relying so heavily on aid from other countries that it has become permanently dependent on them.
In a section titled“The Worst Place on Earth,” Cha movingly documents the 1990s famine and the country’s appalling human-rights record. The horrors are staggering: surgeries and amputations conducted without any anesthesia in a collapsed health system, labor camps where prisoners are routinely tortured and reduced to foraging for bugs, bark and beetles. Cha also takes China to task for repatriating North Korean refugees who make it across the border, knowing that severe punishment and, in some cases, death, await them on their return. The fear of repatriation is great; a few North Korean teenagers I know tried to commit suicide when caught within the Chinese border.
Cha skillfully weaves personal stories into the larger narrative of North Korean life. The narrative doesn’t quite rise to the heights reached by Barbara Demick in “ Nothing to Envy,” her account of the lives of six North Koreans over 15 years, but it is more comprehensive and, in its quiet way, just as moving.
Less skillfully handled are the nuclear issue and North Korea’s relationship with its neighbors. Cha’s insider perspective betrays him here. Though he captures well the tightrope spectacle of diplomacy and North Korea’s determination to persist in its nuclear mission, he repeats incidents and details in overlapping, wordy chapters. In the same vein, he repeatedly praises Bush’s support of the North Korean human rights movement.
Unfortunately, beyond the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 and public gestures of sympathy, the United States has not provided as much economic and social support for defectors as South Korea and some other nations have. America is also well-known for providing little support to defectors upon their arrival to the United States, which leads to spiraling social problems and, in some cases, suicide. This wider view is absent from Cha’s account. Not even a passing nod goes to the NGOs and human rights activists who create international campaigns pressing for the release of captured refugees and activists in China, and who risk their lives to shelter refugees and bring them to freedom.
“The Impossible State” is a clearheaded, bold examination of North Korea and its future, even if Cha’s sycophantic admiration for and repeated defense of Bush and his administration diminish his achievement. What Cha predicts, in the end, does not bode well for the Orwellian nation of North Korea.
North Korean defectors parade themselves on South Korean talent show
North Korean women who fled from their communist homeland appear on a South Korean TV show in the hope of bringing the divided nations closer together.
5:02PM BST 21 Jun 2012
Less than a decade ago, Han Seo-hee was a member of an elite, secret performance unit for Kim Jong-il, the late leader of North Korea.
Now she is one of roughly a dozen North Korean women who fled their homeland and appear regularly on a weekly show that hopes to bring the two nations closer together by showing what North Koreans are really thinking about.
Now on My Way to Meet You, a hybrid talk and talent show, has grown increasingly popular over the last few months thanks to its mix of humour and tears, mingling serious discussions such as how the women escaped with lighter fare such as talk about which men make the best husbands.
“I still feel uncomfortable when I have to make people laugh, or perform. I am still wedded to North Korea’s stiff style,” said the 30-year-old Han, who for four years from 2002 played a stringed instrument as part of Kim Jong-il’s troupe.
The show features some the women singing and dancing too, whilst others perform comedy sketches, including several who mimic North Korea’s iconic, stern-faced female TV newsreader.
The emotional public response has taken them by surprise. One defector, Shin Eun-ha, 25, even has her own fan club.
“I have had a hard life so far, so honestly I have never imagined I would have this experience. However, I’m on TV like this and have my fanclub. Still it is a surprise and I don’t know how I am supposed to act. On the other hand, I want to do better in the show and have more fans,” she said.
The show’s producer says that not only does it show off little-known aspects of life in the North, it helps connect average North and South Koreans, many of whom find it difficult to bridge social and cultural gaps.
Though more than 23,000 North Koreans have made their way south since the 1990s, they find it hard to settle in, ending up in menial jobs and often shunned by their southern brethren.
North Korea Tests the Patience of Its Closest Ally
By JANE PERLEZ
Published: June 24, 2012
Since succeeding his father, Kim Jong-il, six months ago, Mr. Kim has quickly alienated the Obama administration and put North Korea on track to develop a nuclear warhead that could hit the United States within a few years, Chinese and Western analysts say.
Most surprising, though, is how Mr. Kim has thumbed his nose at China, whose economic largess keeps the government afloat. For example, shortly after Mr. Kim took over, a Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, Fu Ying, visited Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, and sternly warned him not to proceed with a ballistic missile test. The new leader went ahead anyway.
Now, the Obama administration and the Chinese government, who warily consult each other on North Korea, are waiting to see if Mr. Kim will follow in his father’s footsteps and carry out a nuclear test, which would be North Korea’s third. The previous tests were in 2006 and 2009.
This month, the North Korean news agency said there were no plans for a third test “at present,” a statement analysts said suggested Mr. Kim was just waiting for a moment that better suited him.
“We have made this absolutely clear to them; we are against any provocation,” Cui Tiankai, another Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, said in a recent interview when asked about a possible third nuclear test by North Korea. “We have told them in a very direct way, time and again, we are against it.”
Asked why China did not punish North Korea for its actions, Mr. Cui replied: “It’s not a question of punishment. They are a sovereign state.”
China backed sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council after the first two nuclear tests, he said. “If they refuse to listen to us,” he added, “we can’t force them.”
Mr. Kim’s erratic behavior unfolded early on. In late February, his government signed an agreement with the United States to freeze its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, giving hope that he would turn out to be more open to change than his father. But six weeks later, Mr. Kim ripped up the accord and, without informing China, ordered the missile test that Washington viewed as a test run for launching a nuclear weapon.
The missile test, in April, was a failure, but that did little to alleviate concerns within the Obama administration that Mr. Kim was intent on pushing ahead with its nuclear weapons program.
“The North is on track to build a warhead that could in a few years hit any regional target and eventually the United States,” said Evans J. R. Revere, a former United States principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Since the failed missile test, Mr. Kim has formalized North Korea as a “nuclear armed state” in the Constitution, another signal that the government has no intention of giving up its nuclear program, Mr. Revere said. With virtually no contact between the United States and North Korea, Mr. Revere argued, it is time for Washington to toughen its approach.
In a series of quick maneuvers, Mr. Kim, whose exact age is not known (he is believed to be 28 or 29), assumed the mantle of power immediately after his father’s death and cast aside early assumptions that his tenure would be a regency largely run by his elderly relatives.
The China News Service, a state-run agency, headlined an article last week: “Smooth transfer of power six months after Kim Jong-il’s death. North Korea enters era of Kim Jong-un.” The top North Korean Army generals, some of them in their 80s, have joined ranks around Mr. Kim, presenting a unified command, said Daniel A. Pinkston of the International Crisis Group in Seoul, who has written a forthcoming report by the group on North Korea.
At a congress of the ruling Communist Party in April, members of the Kim family were appointed to senior positions in the Politburo. The new appointees included Kim Kyong-hui, a younger sister of Mr. Kim’s father. Her husband, Chang Song-taek, also won a spot on the Politburo.
“There are no indications of any opposition to the transfer of power in the party, state or military,” Mr. Pinkston said. “Although many North Koreans are dissatisfied with the government, the barriers to collective action make it very risky and nearly impossible to organize any resistance.”
To recover from the embarrassment of the failed missile test, Mr. Kim unleashed a bellicose warning to South Korea in late April, threatening that a “special operations action” team would “reduce to ashes the rat-like” leadership of President Lee Myung-bak.
In contrast to his taciturn father, Mr. Kim has been seen more in public, particularly with students and children, a propaganda campaign intended to present a more benign image to an impoverished and embittered population.
On the basis of his years at a Swiss boarding school, Mr. Kim was thought by some analysts to be a potential economic reformer. These assumptions have turned out to be misplaced, and the new leader has shown no interest in following the advice of China to open up the economy, even in a modest way.
Despite Mr. Kim’s obstinacy, China keeps the economy from collapsing. Right after Mr. Kim assumed power, for example, China gave North Korea 500,000 tons of food and 250,000 tons of crude oil, according to the International Crisis Group report. That helped overcome what a German aid official, Wolfgang Jamann, said in Beijing on Friday was the worst drought in 60 years. His organization, Global Food Aid, has run a food program in North Korea since 1997.
“If it continues not to rain, it would be a problem,” said Mr. Jamann, who just returned from a trip to North Korea.
So far, though, the aid seems to have prevented disaster. According to South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, food shortages, while still grim in many rural areas, do not seem as serious as might be expected, given the drought.
China’s generosity has not bought it immunity against North Korean rancor. More than two dozen Chinese fishermen were held captive for two weeks by North Korea in May. After their release, one of the fishermen described how his boat was boarded by North Korean Navy men brandishing guns.
After “13 days in hell,” the fishermen were released, according to interviews in the Chinese news media. But not before the boats and men were stripped, the men to their underpants, the fisherman said.
Such behavior ignited protests on Chinese Web sites, and normally calm Chinese analysts who follow North Korea said they were infuriated by the indignities. “I was disappointed in our government’s soft line during the incident with the seized boats,” said a Chinese analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering his superiors.
Nonetheless, senior Chinese officials “dare not use China’s economic leverage” against North Korea, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. That is because a collapse of the North Korean government could result in a united Korea allied with the United States, which would be a nightmare scenario for China, Mr. Shi said.
Indeed, as China becomes more concerned about what it sees as the United States’ stepped-up containment efforts against China — including the positioning of more warships in the Pacific — the less inclined it is to help the United States on North Korea, said Yun Sun, a China analyst in Washington.
“China will not help the U.S. and South Korea solve the North Korea problem or speed up a China-unfriendly resolution, since China sees itself as ‘next-on-the-list,’ ” she wrote in an article last week for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Hawaii, where Pacific Command, the arm of the American military overseeing the increased United States naval presence in the Pacific, is located.
And over all, there are unyielding historical reasons for China’s protectiveness toward North Korea, said an experienced American diplomat and expert on China.
“Beijing disapproves of every aspect of North Korean policy,” J. Stapleton Roy, a former United States ambassador to China and now vice chairman of Kissinger Associates, wrote in an article this month, also for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But with long memories of both the Korean War and how Japan used the peninsula to launch its invasion and occupation of much of China from 1937 to 1945, “Beijing has an overriding security interest,” Mr. Roy wrote, “in maintaining influence in Pyongyang and in not permitting other powers to gain the upper hand there.”
The risk in reforming North Korea
By Andrei Lankov, Published: September4
Andrei Lankov is the author of five books on North Korean history and a professor at Kookmin University in South Korea.
Reports of unusual activity have been emerging from North Korea. Farmers were told in early July that going forward the state would take not their entire harvest but only 70 percent, and they would be allowed to keep the rest. The military’s economic role was partially curtailed last month when some military-managed companies were transferred to civilian control.
Meanwhile, the nation’s young hereditary dictator attended a concert of American pop music — something unthinkable until recently, as the Western mass culture was, for decades, officially considered an embodiment of decay and immorality.
All these actions reflect a dramatic shift from the policies of Kim Jong Il, the longtime dictator who died in December. It appears that Kim’s young heir, Kim Jong Eun, hopes to transform his destitute country into a “developmental dictatorship,” more or less similar to present-day China, where a market economy coexists with an authoritarian political system.
These changes should be welcomed, as such a regime, despite its numerous shortcomings, is still preferable to the dictatorship that North Korea has endured for several decades. Unfortunately, Kim Jong Eun has little chance of succeeding.
North Korean reformers face dual dangers. First, efforts toward change might be stopped by a conservative backlash. Second, reformers will soon discover the difficulties in containing popular expectations and restiveness.
Kim Jong Il was wary of imitating Chinese ways. He feared — with good reason — that reform could be destabilizing. The major challenge is the existence of a rich South Korea whose population speaks the same language and is officially considered part of the same nation. The difference in per capita income between the Korean states, based on United Nations statistics, is at least 15-to-1, the world’s largest gap between countries that share a land border.
North Korean authorities have gone to great lengths to keep their public isolated from the outside world, banning Internet access unconditionally for all but the most senior officials and making it a crime to own even a tunable radio. Their major goal has been to hide the scale of economic gap between the Korean states. In recent years, a growing number of North Koreans have begun to suspect that the South is affluent, but only a tiny minority realizes how much richer the South is.
If the North undertook reforms to become more of a Chinese-style state, social controls would need to be relaxed. This would create manifold opportunities for North Koreans to access uncensored information, and they would soon learn the extent of the South’s prosperity. Diminishing fear of the state — the unavoidable result of liberalization — will make North Koreans more willing to share these doubts among themselves.
North Korea’s leaders face a different dynamic than do China’s leaders. Chinese people are well aware of the prosperity of the modern developed world. For them, the success of, say, the United States, Japan or Germany is a success of foreign countries; it cannot be perceived as some sort of evidence of Communist Party inefficiency. And, critically, China obviously cannot unify with the United States or Japan.
But if North Koreans learn the extent of South Korean success, they are likely to see the hardships and deprivations they have endured as proof of the regime’s inefficiency, for which the current ruler’s father and grandfather are largely responsible. The North’s population is also likely to assume that all of its problems could be solved overnight through unification with the rich South.
This is a recipe for discontent and even a revolution, somewhat similar to the recent events in Tunisia or the events of 1989 in Romania and East Germany.
Alas, a North Korea in the throes of reform would not become immediately more stable but would become less stable than the ossified state of the Kim Jong Il era. It is possible, though unlikely, that the regime would find a balance of fear, economic incentives and propaganda that would allow it to keep the populace under control.
An implosion of the North Korean state is likely to be far from peaceful: If a revolution were to arise, the North’s elite, assuming that it stands to lose everything if its country is swallowed by the victorious South, would probably fight it. This means chaos and anarchy in a presumed nuclear state. Such a crisis also has potential to complicate the relations between the United States and China, as the latter would not remain idle when faced with such an eruption on its border.
It is good that changes are finally coming to North Korea. But no one should not entertain the simplistic notion that reforms would bring a painless and gradual solution of the North Korean problem.
The secret lives of North Korea
What is life like for the non-elite in this closed land? Do citizens really believe that mountains dance when a leader is born? Britain’s former ambassador describes the people he knew there
John Everard | Sunday 27 January 2013
I had the rare privilege of serving as the UK’s ambassador to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (usually referred to simply as North Korea) from February 2006 to July 2008, a tumultuous period that included missile launches and the country’s first nuclear test.
In between wrestling with these issues, and despite the efforts of the North Korean regime to block contacts between its citizens and foreigners, I managed to get to know some North Koreans reasonably well – at least to the extent that they were prepared to discuss with me their lives and how they saw the world. In particular, I realised that while many, even some experts, viewed North Koreans as identical automatons who obeyed unquestioningly every order of their leaders, this was simply wrong.
North Korea is not like that at all. It is a real country with real people, whose everyday concerns are often not so very different from our own: their friends, how their children are doing at school, their jobs, and making enough money to get by. Above all, North Koreans are sharply differentiated human beings, with a good sense of humour and are often fun to be with.
The North Koreans whom I got to know were from the outer elite of Pyongyang. These were not the inner elite of the regime, who live in some luxury and rarely if ever interact with foreigners. But neither were they from the impoverished countryside. None of my social contacts was a key decision maker, but many were involved in implementing decisions by the senior leadership. They were executives rather than leaders.
By and large, these people did not eat well, but at least they ate regularly. Their clothing was not smart, but adequate (although all of them had one special outfit for obligatory appearances at parades and other official events). And they lived not in the villas of the elite nor the hovels of the poor, but in cramped flats in respectable, if unprestigious, parts of Pyongyang. Above all, they talked among themselves – North Koreans always seem to have time to chatter, and to share the fragments of information they can gather about their country and the outside world.
Their lives would seem very dull to most Westerners. They revolved around daily rituals of carefully phased breakfasts in overcrowded flats, tedious journeys to work (often prolonged because Pyongyang’s rickety public transport so often broke down), and generally tedious work days. I had the impression that they worked at a relaxed pace. They all seemed to have a great deal of time to sit around talking with their colleagues – it was important to them to keep good relations with their workmates, both to create a pleasant working environment but also to make sure they had as many friends as possible if they got into trouble.
After work, they might have to attend a political meeting. When I asked my contacts what these meetings were about they told me that they did not remember. At first, I thought they were politely saying that they were not going to tell me, but I once came across an open-air political meeting at which the audience all appeared to have glazed eyes, despite the best efforts of the speaker. Perhaps my contacts were telling the truth – that they effectively entered a kind of catatonic state in these meetings, simply switching off, and genuinely could not remember what they were about.
Then they would face the commute home. Some told me that whenever possible they would walk – a longer journey but much less frustrating. Some of my contacts refused to use the Pyongyang metro because of the risk of a power cut while they were in a tunnel.
Evening life at home revolved around chatting with family members and watching TV. Sometimes there would be a film on. Even though North Korea had hardly produced any new films for some years before my time there, so that my contacts had seen almost all the national repertoire several times, they would still sometimes watch repeats. But the best time was the half-hour of (heavily edited and slanted) international news on Sunday evenings. Everyone watched that, and questioned me about what they had seen.
Although they did not go hungry, their diet was certainly monotonous. They ate more rice than most North Koreans, but meat was a rarity. Many meals seemed to consist of rice and boiled vegetables, with the inevitable bowl of kimchi, the spiced cabbage without which no Korean, North or South, can exist. Dinner at a diplomatic mission, with interesting new food and even exotic drinks like wine on the menu, was a real treat.
Family relationships were very traditional – they seemed much closer to those I had read about in 19th-century Korea than to those of modern South Korea. My contacts spoke of their parents with respect rather than affection, and chafed at the Confucian authority that they exercised. Visits to their homes seemed to be a duty rather than a pleasure, particularly when they involved dressing children up in their best and crossing Pyongyang (especially in autumn, when the city gets muddy – a difficult time to deliver clean children to grandparents). My contacts doted on their children and some lavished money on private lessons for them, especially English tuition. To get ahead in today’s North Korea, their children would need more than they learned in official state schools.
The economic problems of North Korea affected my contacts profoundly. Although they all had access to showers, none could remember when they had last had one with hot water. Taking a cold shower in the Pyongyang winter, when temperatures can fall to -20C, is not fun. Obtaining medicines – always in short supply – was a particular concern. In North Korea, the extended family is important, and when (as often happens) there are family members in the provinces, the Pyongyang branch of the family is expected to look out for their country cousins. This meant on occasion trying to get medicine for far-flung elderly relations. It also meant frequent requests for money or other help from relatives outside the capital. These requests were difficult to turn down and my contacts used to dread them.
I was often asked for medicines, but not as often as I was asked for DVDs of television soap operas, usually but not always from South Korea. These portrayed a world of which North Koreans can only dream – of people who eat well in smart restaurants, have their own cars and live in flats where the heating always works – and my contacts devoured them ravenously. I once lent one a set of DVDs of Desperate Housewives and met the same person the next day with big rings under their eyes. They had sat up all night and watched the entire series in one sitting.
Their reaction to the propaganda that was incessantly blared at them varied. Some of it they just ignored. Some of it they accepted – they had no trouble, for example, in believing that North Korea was a heroic country battling a United States-led conspiracy to overthrow it. To some of it they reacted rather as pious but informed believers might do in a religious community.
They did not necessarily believe that mountains actually danced for joy when Kim Il-sung was born, but regarded it as rather bad taste when I asked about such matters – I was spoiling a good story. They had been taught to hate Americans, but most of them did not. One of them told me that they had worked with Americans during one of the thaws in relations with that country, had liked them and hoped that they would return.
Perhaps because North Korea is so strange and different, life there occasionally offers magical moments. When I once chided a contact gently for coming late to our meeting – I had been afraid that something unpleasant had happened – they told me that they had been at a meeting singing songs about Kim Il-sung. I teased them, saying, having kept me waiting, that I thought they should at least sing me one of the songs. Without hesitation they stood, bowed, adopted the half-smile deemed appropriate for such occasions, and sang for me a lilting song of praise to their god-king, then gave a little bow and sat down as if nothing had happened. It was a moment I still cherish.
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