North Korea: Orwell Lives
Wednesday, May 23 2012
North Korea has been hitting headlines frequently in recent months. Since the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2010, the international community has keenly observed the progress of his son, Kim Jong-un, and attempted to gauge his plans for the nation.
Despite agreeing to suspend long-range missile tests in order to receive US food aid in February 2012, the country’s ongoing commitment to its nuclear ambitions prompted an attempt to launch a long-range rocket on the morning of Friday 13 April.
Despite its recent prominence in Western media, North Korea has been one of the world’s most secretive societies for decades. Media rights body Reporters Without Borders has named it the worst violator of press freedom in the world. Newspaper outlets and media broadcasters are under direct state control and do not report any realities of North Korean life, such as the country’s ongoing economic hardships and famine. This tight control of the media allows North Korea’s totalitarian regime to both keep its people in a state of ignorance and maintain its stranglehold on power. Citizens caught listening to foreign broadcasts risk harsh punishments, such as forced labour in one of the country’s notorious camps, or even execution.
North Korea emerged in 1948 amid the chaos following WWII. With neither of the world’s superpowers, America and Russia, prepared to cede ground to allow for an independent Korea, the country splintered. As each side proclaimed to be the legitimate government of Korea, war broke out in June 1950 and lasted for over three years. To this day, these countries officially remain at war, as a ceasefire or armistice has never been declared.
North Korea’s first leader Kim Il-sung was an extreme advocate of Korean nationalism. He instructed his citizens in his own philosophical system, juche, which translates as “self-reliance”; North Koreans were a special people who did not depend on assistance from their more powerful neighbours. This was intended to contrast sharply with South Korea, which was declared a disgrace for its heavy reliance on US aid.
Kim Il-sung went even further in compelling North Koreans to loyalty with an extremely powerful caste system, with each person having their own rating, or songbun. An individual’s songbun was determined through a range of background checks that tested their loyalty. These loyalty surveys masqueraded under inspiring names such as “Intensive Guidance by the Central Party” and the “Understanding People Project”. Loyalty was also monitored within communities by an elected leader, whose job it was to report any misdeed to the authorities. Anyone reported would face being transported, often along with their entire extended family, to one of the country’s notorious labour camps.
Dictatorial regimes throughout the world largely demonstrate the same trappings when it comes to their leaders; from the portraits hung in every building, to the statues rising above every town square, the ruler’s presence permeates the daily lives of their citizens. However, Kim Il-sung took the cult of personality to a new level. After closing churches and banning the Bible, he appropriated Christian imagery and dogma to elevate his own status amongst the Korean people. The media reported supernatural phenomenon, such as stormy seas calmed by songs of the “Dear Leader”, as Kim Il-sung came to be known. Kim Jong-il’s birth was said to have been heralded by a star in the sky and the appearance of a double rainbow. Harnessing the power of religion enabled the North Korean dictatorship to inspire love and awe in its citizens on top of obedience.
While this seeming gullibility invites mockery and parody, it is important to remember that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out any information not produced by the state. Furthermore, indoctrination begins at infancy, with children taught tales and songs of the divinity and benevolence of their leader. The death of Kim Il-sung prompted genuine shock and disbelief amongst people who could barely comprehend the idea of his mortality.
Before Kim Il-sung died on 8 July 1994, the situation for North Koreans was already dire. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which had propped up the country with provisions of cheap fuel oil, the economy of North Korea collapsed. Power stations ceased to operate and rusted into ruin. The hours of electricity and running water became increasingly sporadic. Even more crucially, the rations given out at the food distribution centres were growing smaller and smaller.
As food shortages became commonplace, North Korea’s propaganda machine churned out the message that enduring hunger was part of an individual’s patriotic duty. Billboards touted slogans such as “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day”. With many left jobless after the collapse of the economy, finding food became their new daily objective. City dwellers headed on countryside excursions to forage for food. Cafeterias in schools and offices closed for lack of food. Minor illnesses, such as coughs, colds or diarrhoea, became fatal. Emaciated corpses on the streets, particular in poorer cities such as northern Chongjin, became a common sight.
By 1998, an estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans had died as a result of the famine – as much as 10% of the population. Exact figures are impossible to tally as hospitals could not report starvation as a cause of death and bodies on the street were frequently buried, uncounted and unidentified, in mass graves. This period of severe famine during the 1990s came to be known as the Arduous March, a term that fit well with the message of endurance churned out by the country’s propaganda machine. To this day, North Korea remains reliant on foreign aid to feed its people.
While its citizens starved during the famine, the North Korean regime continued to squander what resources it had on funding its military. Despite no conflict having taken place since the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea spends 25% of its gross national budget keeping one million men in arms. This gives this tiny country the fourth-largest military in the world.
The failed rocket launch of Friday 13 April this year is estimated to have cost $US 850 million ($AUD 818 million). It received international condemnation from the United Nations Security Council, which included North Korea’s sole ally, China. The US has suspended plans to ship 240,000 tonnes of food aid to the country China has also demonstrated its displeasure by suspending its longstanding policy of returning North Koreans who are caught crossing the border to face harsh punishment by the regime.
North Korea has responded to the international community’s condemnation with defiance. In a recent statement the regime warned of dire consequences after Washington’s suspension of a planned delivery of food aid, declaring: “The US will be held wholly accountable for all the ensuing consequences.” However, this aggressive rhetoric typical of the regime comes in the face of increasing isolation on the world stage as China, its only ally, appears to have tired of its neighbour’s behaviour.
Kim Jong-un has inherited an archaic, totalitarian regime that secures the obedience and loyalty of its citizens through indoctrination, surveillance and control. The country lies in economic ruin and finding food remains an everyday struggle for citizens. The international community has keenly observed Kim Jong-un’s succession and early days of rule to watch for any changes to North Korea’s policies. However, after the failure of their rocket launch, Kim Jong-un swore to the assembled throngs in Pyongyang to persist with the policies of his father “to ensure that the people…enjoy the riches and affluence of socialism to their heart’s content”.
Satellite images of North Korea at night show nothing but a large dark abyss surrounded by the brightness of the thriving economies of neighbouring China, South Korea and Japan. Kim Jong-un’s ludicrous assertion suggests that the lights won’t be turning on any time soon.