As a member of the European parliament’s delegation to Korea, I was able today to attend a meeting with members of the Delegation of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea. I have attended such meetings many times before, and we usually find ourselves talking past each other’s heads, with no meeting of minds. We know what’s going on in NK. They know what’s going on in NK. But they’re not allowed to admit what they know.
We had an “incident”. An MEP, Lucas Hartong (Non Inscrit, Netherlands), jumped up early in the proceedings with a pre-prepared banner reading “Freedom for North Korea”, and shouting the same slogan he paraded in front of the visitors. I understand his strength of feeling, but it was rather unparliamentary behaviour. He’d brought his own photographer with him, so I suppose we should have guessed that something was afoot.
For those who don’t follow these matters, NK is dirt-poor and the people are close to starving. They rely on gifts of food aid from the USA, EU, South Korea, China and so on. They also rely on energy supplies from China and elsewhere. Dependent on charity from their neighbours, they are a mendicant state. Their South Korean neighbours, facing generally the same sort of challenges, have a per capita GDP twenty times higher. That’s such a huge figure that I’ll repeat it. Not 20% higher. Twenty times higher. And the reason for the difference is that NK has a totally dysfunctional economy — or you could say, no economy at all.
And no human rights. The country is run by and for the ruling Kim family and the small clique who surround them. They get imported Hennessey brandy, Cuban cigars and caviar, while the people starve. Credible estimates from respected NGOs suggest that some 200,000 North Koreans are actually in prison camps — something like 1% of the population. But it would not be stretching the point too far to say that the whole country is a prison camp, where everyone lives in fear of denunciation from their neighbours, denied basic freedoms and information, in dread of the midnight knock on the door.
I asked a question about the food situation, and they listed all the exciting things they were doing to improve food production, including new types of seeds — “We call it Seed Revolution”. I scribbled a note to my neighbour, a Slovene MEP. “Let Them Eat Slogans”.
But I also asked a question which you may find amusing — it certainly amused me. A couple of years back, the NKs undertook a “currency reform”. It was designed to undermine the thriving black market in food, which was a lifeline for many Koreans. In the process it also devalued what pitiful savings they might have. In retrospect, it was an all-round disaster.
So I asked: “A couple of years back, you undertook a process of currency reform, which resulted in very significant problems. Could you tell us how that is going now? You will be aware that we in Europe have also spent the last ten years undertaking our own currency reform, the euro, which is now facing very serious problems indeed. Would you agree with me that major currency reforms based on political or ideological principles are fraught with very serious risks?”.
Collapse of stout party.