Can North Korea Escape Its Misery?

I had recently been watching a documentary about North Korea, and it showed how many people were celebrating their great leader Kim Jong-Un and his dead father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, who have heroically done everything to build the country, and establish all the buildings, and provide the Koreans with a stable form of existence. The 20 million North Koreans would never get the idea that they themselves are responsible for those buildings, the farming and all the rest of it. Or at least that is not the impression that one would get after having watched a documentary.

It is hard for outsiders to speculate how life is like inside the border of North Korea, but there is absolutely no doubt that a despotic regime had been in place for over 60 years, and has provided only very little progress for the country. During the early years, North Koreans surprisingly had a higher standard of living than the South. The South was really poor until the strongman Park Chung-hee enforced development, and attracted Western, mainly American, investors into the country. There was not much interest in free market, but the American government was expected to provide the funds for development, such that the South could then go on to become full-scale capitalist. It was different with the North. The northern economy set itself up as strictly anti-capitalist, and built a largely autarkic industrial economy with virtually no international trade (Cumings 2005, p.419).

The central command industrial economy was focused on steel/iron production and the heavy industry (ibid., p.420). Just like most central command economies, the North Korean leadership did not much care for the development of consumer goods. It received huge subsidies from the Soviet Union and experienced breath-taking growth rates in the 1960s and 1970s (p.423). While we now talk about the North as an economic basket case, it was not such until the mid-1980s that the South overtook the North in economic performance (p.424). It was in the 1990s, that the North fell very clearly behind (p.425).

The Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia no longer provided any economic aid to the North. In addition a flooding in the mid-1990s created a huge famine, since the country became very much autark after trade with the Soviet Union declined . The North had to set up close bilateral relations with China, and it imported grains in order to cope with the worst of the crisis. There was some privatization scheme in 1998, but it has been fairly limited with most of the economy still in heavy state-control. Health care and education are still completely free, while food and housing are subsidized (Wikipedia, “North Korea”). Throughout the 2000s, the economy grew by a total of 25% in part due to privatization schemes and huge subsidies from China (Bennett 2013, p.27)

Farmers were very poor off, because a lot of the rice that is produced is used for export to earn foreign exchange, and a lot of the remainder goes to the huge military apparatus, with most of the farmers having to resort to coarse grains like millet and barley (Cummings, p.428). Many village farmers, work in teams of 50 to a 100 people, and use very few tractors and machines. They rely mostly on human labor, and, therefore, achieve very low productivity, which might explain some of the people starving (p.430). The government admitted that 220,000 North Koreans died of starvation between 1995 and 1998 (Bennett, p.33).

Some conservative critics portray North Korea as the paradigm for left-wing socialist ideals, and that any yearning for socialism in the West needs to be buried underneath the gruesome reality of North Korean life. But this view strikes me as very simplistic. There have, of course, been Western writers, who have strongly supported the Soviet Union, like H.G. Wells, Doris Lessing, and George Bernard Shaw, but these people’s views can not be seen as representative of the views of all left-wing people. One can be on the left, and yet condemn any previously existing socialist regime for having failed its purpose, which is to create a general paradise on earth. The German politician Gregor Gysi, who grew up in East Germany, tries to distance himself from the “socialism” that has existed in East Germany, but still draws on its ideals in order to pursue more desirable policies. He calls it “democratic socialism” (Gysi 2011 in a TV interview).

I should perhaps also add how difficult it really is to maintain a socialist stature if one is the only kid in the block that is left. It is relatively easy to experiment with socialism if there is a big country that backs up one’s country. That role was filled by the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991. Since then, the primary socialist countries like North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba have come under significant pressure to liberalize, and that is precisely what we see in the latter two countries. We could say that Venezuela still maintains some form of socialism, but that rests fairly heavily on the petroleum that they export, and from which they gain foreign exchange. And foreign speculators are naturally not too happy to keep a left-wing government in charge, so there is a rampant black market, huge inflation, and frantic government price controls.

Returning to North Korea: A watershed moment was in 1994, when Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack after being the undisputed leader for the past 50 years. His son Kim Jong-il took over, and used the death of his father as a cover to institute three years of national mourning. Korean television channels were showing a large number of people mourning, shouting and crying on the street. There was a mass hysteria, surrounding the death of Kim Il-sung (see video footage: “Death of the Father” ). I am asking myself what would have happened to the people, who were caught clearly not weeping?

Kim Jong-il’s priority was not to open up to the world, but to stay a closed country, build up military capacity (it has over 1 million soldiers in a population of about 20 million people), especially a nuclear arsenal, and then blackmail other countries, like the South and the US to donate grains and funds to the North. This might not have even the wish of Kim, because it was 9/11 in the US, which radically shifted the situation for the North. George W. Bush treated North Korea as one of the rogue states that have to be fought in the war against terror, even though it was not clear how North Korea was connected to the al-Qaeda. It was only then that the North went ahead and acquired nuclear capacity by 2006. Under president Barack Obama, the aggressive language of the US has been toned down, but they were not open to negotiate better relations either, and so relations soured with the Northern military shelling southern positions. In 2011, Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack, and left the reins to his son, Kim Jong-un, a young guy in his late 20s. Jong-un continued on the policy of escalation (Wikipedia, “North Korea”).

The North and South are still divided by a highly fortified border with barbed wire and soldiers stationed on both sides. Though the North has more troops than the South, the South is by far technologically superior, and any war would first flatten the North before it does the South. (Given that the North has nuclear weapons, and the fact that half of the population of the South live close to the border around Seoul makes the war path however very unlikely.) From time to time, there are humanitarian aid convoys that cross the border to send aid to the north, which really needs it due to the irregular famines that happen there. The famines also cause refugees to cross the border, mostly into China. Human rights abuses probably encourage more people to leave the country too. We have also seen occasional shelling of rockets that happen on both sides.

Most recently, a UN appointed commission has condemned the many human rights violations in North Korea, and the country promptly responded with protests. A mass of soldiers and local people gather on the streets of Pyongyang in order to denounce the UN resolution (The Guardian 2014). I doubt that the resolution will alter the political situation on the ground in any way, because the UN rarely has the teeth to do anything unless the big powers really wanted to get something done. When UN troops rolled into Incheon to defend the South against the invasion from the North in 1950, it happened under the banner of the US. The Soviet Union would never have approved of the resolution to punish the North, but the Soviet Union was involved in another dispute with the UN, and decided to leave the room, leaving the other Western members to vote for a mandate to protect the South.

The big question revolving around North Korea is what its future will hold. Much of the regime’s viability is built on the direct support of China. In the Korean War, it were the Chinese, who sent their troops to push back against the South and the Americans. Today China plays the role in backing up the North. As I hear, China wants to have a stable Kim regime continue into the indefinite future, because a regime collapse could mean that an even larger number of refugees will flock across the Yalu river into China, since it would be much harder to get across the fortified border to the South. If one thinks that the despotic rule and the constant brainwashing of the North Korean people, which starts as early as kindergarten, are a big problem, then it would indeed be desirable to get rid of the regime, and try some other political arrangement. Though changing the political arrangement is by no means certain, nor is the shape of the outcome.

Some people fear that if we see the regime collapse, there is going to be a war between the North and South, because the North wants to divert attention away from its own failing (see Bennett p.69). But I doubt that such outcome would be likely. It presumes that the leaders in the North are so well calculating, and can predict their imminent collapse. But usually a regime collapse happens often very unexpectedly, and before the regime will be able to start a war, it will be swept from power. The increase in human suffering and hunger, the mass exodus, looting, shooting and anarchy that follows the regime collapse is really the outcome that would be the most concerning.

Another thing that needs to be clarified is whether the North and the South will eventually merge into one country like West and East Germany. In that case, the artificial boundaries that separated both halves of the country would disappear, and a united Korea can develop to become a potential powerhouse.

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