The White Queen in “Alice Through the Looking Glass” boasted that she could believe six impossible things before breakfast. This would be an amazingly useful skill in North Korea — though its repressive régime is more Kafka than Carroll.
I have just enjoyed a series of meetings with senior North Korean officials, during which I had the surreal impression that they were telling me things that I knew to be either contradictory or simply untrue, and they knew them to be untrue, and they knew that we knew. Yet the system obliged them to say these things. Often a reply to a question sounded more like a quotation from a party briefing than a reasoned response. Some examples:
“Juche”: The political philosophy of North Korea — almost a quasi-religion — is “Juche”, which translates roughly as “self-reliance”. They even have an alternative year-numbering system named for it (2013 is Juche 102). Yet North Korea is arguably the least self-reliant country in the world. It cannot feed its people, nor keep its lights on, nor provide adequate health-care. It is utterly dependent on charity — or international aid. It receives food aid from China, from South Korea, from the UN. It receives energy from China. Juche is an impossible and false proposition, yet all North Koreans believe in it (or at least claim to do so).
“The External Threat”: The NKs talk constantly about the threat from “the American Imperialists”, and their need to defend themselves. Yet the idea that the USA would reach out across the Pacific to attack an impoverished country on the border of China is simply fanciful. The American objective in the region is simply to seek to neutralise the NK nuclear threat to regional stability, and to be prepared to help defend the South against any intemperate provocation by the North.
So why do they do it? Firstly, they like to be recognised, and seen as significant. They like headlines. Secondly, the “threat” is an excuse to spend a disproportionate amount on the military, and so keep the Generals on-side with the régime. Third, bigging-up an external threat is a time-honoured way for despots to promote loyalty amongst the populace. And fourth, it fits well with their cyclical provoke-and-retreat strategy, which they use to squeeze concessions out of donor countries. Absurd as it is, there is a kind of internal logic.
“Victory”: The NKs are currently celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of their “victory” in the Korean War. I brought home with me their celebratory DVD of their “Moranbong” army-girl band (surprisingly easy listening, if you can stomach the images of warfare and mayhem projected behind the performers). In their eyes, it was a David and Goliath battle, with plucky little North Korea, inspired by the philosophy of their Great Leader, inflicting the first defeat in history on the American Imperialists.
But it wasn’t NK vs. America, and it was scarcely a victory. In the Northern corner you had the Chinese Red Army, in overwhelming numbers, using their “human wave” tactics, and backing the much smaller North Korean forces. In the South, you had the UN allies backing the democratic forces of South Korea. The UN forces were largely American, but other countries including the UK played a major rôle. Nowhere could I find any admission that the Americans were not alone, except for a brief reference to “the US vassal states”. And victory? The two sides fought themselves to a standstill, leading to an Armistice (not a Peace Treaty), and a divided country. Some victory.
A few years ago I stood on a hill-top just south of the ImjinRiver, where the Gloucesters fought their heroic battle, vastly outnumbered by the Chinese. In the end they were overwhelmed and most captured, but they held up the Chinese advance long enough to allow UN forces to re-group for the successful defence of Seoul. It was a privilege to stand there on the anniversary of the battle, with British veterans of that engagement describing blow-by-blow how the action unfolded. But neither the Chinese human waves, nor the Gloucesters, feature in the NK narrative.
Prosperous and happy: The North Korean people are prosperous and happy, and united behind their new and youthful leader Kim Jong Un. Yet we know that in the last twenty years hundreds of thousands have died of starvation. According to the WHO, a significant proportion of children are stunted by malnutrition. Levels of peri-natal deaths are high — about five times the level in the South: And of course both NGOs like Amnesty International, as well as NK refugees, tell desperate stories of the concentration camps where an estimated 200,000 citizens are held in appalling conditions.
South Korea is “A Puppet Régime”: The NKs like to believe that they are the rightful government of Korea, while the South is merely a “puppet régime”. Yet while the North languishes in isolation and poverty, South Korea is earning a respected place amongst the world’s major industrial nations. According to a CIA report (other widely accepted GDP analyses simply fail to mention NK at all), the North comes in at #163 out of 185 countries in terms of per capita GDP, at $1800 p.a. Meantime South Korea is at #29, at $32,800. The South’s per capita GDP is 18 times that of the North (though the North was ahead fifty years ago). And South Korea has a functioning democracy, whereas the North is a brutal and oppressive régime. Funny how the least democratic countries feel obliged to put the word “democratic” in their name. The Democratic Republic of North Korea … Congo …
While visiting the North earlier in July, I saw a copy of the Pyongyang Times, an English language newspaper, with the headline “Kim Jong Un inspects various sectors”. Not a headline that would get past a sub-editor anywhere else in the world, but let that pass. I was interested to learn that the new Leader had been giving “on-the-spot advice” and “field guidance”. North Korea is fortunate indeed to have a leader who, despite his youth, seems to know more about industry and agriculture and healthcare and the military than seasoned professionals who have worked in these sectors for decades. But I’m sure that the seasoned professionals are grateful for the on-the-spot advice and field guidance.
The depth of the Beloved Leader’s strategic thinking is clear from his new “two-track” strategy. This is based on building NK’s nuclear weapons capability while also developing the economy. The only rationale I have heard is that a strong nuclear force would enable NK to prune its bloated military manpower, releasing resources for the economy. And how will they approach economic development? Why “The nation will rise up as one to back the Leader’s policy”. They will call for a “supreme effort” from the population. But sadly slogans do not constitute a policy, and they have little practical idea how to proceed. I told them bluntly that their two objectives were just plain incompatible. For economic growth, they need trade and inward investment, and they will get neither as long as they continue their nuclear sabre-rattling.
I will write later about the way they have screwed up their Kaesong joint industrial zone, which could have offered some hope for the future.