Part 1 excerpt
Following the Second World War, Korea was cut from the carcass of the Japanese Empire, and immediately became a theatre for Cold War confrontation. North Korea was the Soviet-inspired outcome of this geopolitics in the Korean peninsula, a putatively Marxist state, broadly analogous to the position of East Germany in central Europe, and North Vietnam after the crumbling of French rule in Indochina. Historians have noted that in North Korea, three authoritarian streams of history converged: Korea’s own monarchical tradition, Japanese militarism, and Soviet (Stalinist) Marxist-Leninism.
Juche, the official ideology of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the concept of “autonomy” and”self-reliance”.
More than this, Juche taps into the idea of nation-as-family, a concept with some roots in cultural thought. This implied strict duties on the part of all (not a social contract) and legitimated the family dynasty. Darren Zook, Asia specialist at the University of California Berkeley, explains: ‘The Juche-infused state was referred to as the “most superior state and social system” as designed by Kim Il-sung, and the citizens of the Juche state were collectively seen as a peculiar society-family hybrid united through Juche. By blurring the lines between society and family, it no longer appeared exceptional or unusual that leadership would pass from Kim Il-sung to his son Kim Jong-Il, and from Kim Jong-Il to his son Kim Jong-un.’
Juche may define and justify the operation of the state, but another concept looms over the lives of North Korea’s people. This is Songbun.
Dating from the 1950s, Songbun is a system of official status in North Korean society. Based on one’s family heritage (something the state has obsessively studied), individuals are placed in one of three broad classes, within which exist numerous subdivisions. A ‘core’ or ‘revolutionary’ class consists of those trusted by the state, for example, those with families connected to the struggle against Japan or the establishment of the Kim dynasty, or who were factory workers of peasants in the 1940s. A ‘wavering’ class accommodates most ordinary people, whose pedigree fails to distinguish or damn them. The ‘hostile’ class is reserved for those actively distrusted by the state, for example, those linked to erstwhile landowners, businesspeople, Christians and those who assisted the Japanese or US.
This classification affects life chances – opportunities for education and employment, for example, and crucially whether one can join the Korean Workers’ Party – and even access to such basics as food. While it is possible to change one’s Songbun, doing so is extremely difficult and rare and reclassification invariably pushes one downwards; Songbun is something more easily wielded as a form of punishment rather than incentive. It is a system that has been likened to apartheid or to the Hindu caste system.
Journalist Barbara Demick described it in these terms: ‘This process was akin to an updating of the feudal system that had stifled Koreans in past centuries. In the past, Koreans were bound by a caste system nearly as rigid as that of India. Noblemen wore white shirts and high black horsehair hats, while slaves wore wooden tags around their necks. The old class structure drew heavily on the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who believed that humans fit strictly into a social pyramid. Kim Il-sung took the least humane elements of Confucianism and combined them with Stalinism. At the top of the pyramid, instead of an emperor, resided Kim Il-sung and his family.’
To have poor Songbun, is to be an outcast. Demick remarked that those at the very bottom of the Songbun order are invariably interned in labour camps. For others, they carry a near indelible stigma, and are described with the word buelsun, or ‘tainted blood’. Taking all this further, Brian Reynolds Myers, a South Korea-based American academic, has argued – controversially, to be sure, since he dismisses Juche as a largely meaningless concept – that North Korean governance actually draws its inspiration from Japanese military fascism. In his interpretation, it rests on a notion of racial purity. His book on the matter is entitled The Cleanest Race.
An enduring question is how the North Korean regime and its social order have been able to survive intact, even as the East European communist societies democratised (and largely threw their lot in with the West), the Soviet Union collapsed, and its Asian counterparts pushed successful economic reform programmes. Indeed, its own counterpart on the peninsula shed its authoritarian straightjacket and has become a rambunctious democracy.
One answer is that it has been able to leverage its unique cultural and linguistic traditions along with relentless ideological pressure, state repression and control of information and influence to create a sort of contained reality for its people.
The starting point is ideology. Indoctrination is relentless and pervasive. This starts in early childhood, as children enter school. They are taught explicitly to idolise the Kim dynasty, to rote learn and internalise the regime’s position of history while fostering a militaristic outlook. This is across all subject matter, from history to the formulation of mathematics exercises. A 2013 study of North Korean education found that some 80% of content in Korean language textbooks was geared towards praise of the Kims, along with relentless lambasting of the country’s enemies, particularly the US and Japan. Enactments of killing Americans are common in cultural and sporting activities. South Korea is depicted as poverty stricken.
Extreme even by the standards of authoritarian countries, the extent to which North Korea has been successful in this indoctrination is remarkable. It has been the invariable frustration of authoritarian countries that information and countervailing narratives about the outside world can and does seep in (there are amusing stories about how the popularity of Abba and bootlegged American action movies influenced attitudes in the former Soviet Union). This is something that North Korea has assiduously sought to prevent, and has had few peers in its approach.
Within North Korea, extraordinary measures are taken to ensure that the state is a constant part of people’s lives. Fealty to the regime is obsessively demanded, and closely monitored. North Korean urban life is monitored by the inminban, the state-mandated neighbourhood associations whose heads work closely with security officials and also carry put ‘mobilisation’ work, street cleaning and so on. Besides this, every adult North Korean who does not belong to the Korean Workers’ Party is required to be a member of an official ‘mass organisation’. These not only attempt to direct people’s lives and consciousness and surveil them and their conduct, but consume their time. This makes it exceedingly difficult to even attempt to organise outside state approved boundaries.
Engagements with outside countries – it has a surprisingly large presence in Africa, not least in some southern African countries such as Namibia and Zimbabwe – must take place on its terms, with minimal influence on its national life. Only the most trusted will have official sanction to engage with foreigners, and then within very narrow limits as determined by state policy.
Foreign news is rigidly controlled. Internet access barely exists (a North Korean intranet is available to some), there is no independent media to speak of, news from the outside is tightly restricted and contacts with foreigners generally legally impermissible.
One way to understand what this means is to watch one of the numerous online videos chronicling Western travellers’ experience of North Korea. What the perceptive viewer cannot but be aware of is just how contrived and unsure so much of the interaction by the North Korean hosts with their visitors is. A faux reality is constructed for the benefit of guests, and this is exposed when some sort of behaviour occurs that the local population cannot understand – the cultural reference points are just too far removed.
Indeed, the control exercised on North Korean consciousness extends beyond the borders of the country. North Korean workers have at times been dispatched abroad on official projects – such as lumberjacking in Siberia. The compounds in which they work, and the discipline under which they live, are designed to retain as much of their homeland as possible, with no let up on the propaganda. (An aside: Kim Jong-un was famously educated in Switzerland, leading to some speculation that this experience might incline him towards greater openness than his predecessors towards outside engagement. By all accounts, he received an academic education, but with as much of North Korea surrounding and influencing him as his minders could manage.)
Authority over psychology is matched by a sinister authority over the physical. Outright repression is a feature of life. An internal pass system (something South Africans might recognise) restricts legal movement. One’s Songbun determines opportunities – and at times, such as when famine hit the country in the 1990s, whether adequate food is available. Transgressors can expect not just to be punished, but perhaps to have their families punished too.
One of the more grizzly aspects of the North Korean system is the ‘purging’ of suspected political opponents of the Kims among the country’s elite. Much international attention was drawn to this in 2017 when Kim Jong-nam – half-brother to Kim Jong-un – was murdered in Malaysia with a nerve agent. It was widely believed that this was an officially-sanctioned assassination (private apologies reportedly extended by North Korea to Vietnam, for having recruited one of the latter’s citizens into the plot would seem to confirm this). Numerically, Kim Jong-nam’s fate is overshadowed by those eliminated within the country, sometimes (reportedly) by very innovative means, such as death by mortar bombardment and dog attacks.
Besides this, the country runs a system of kwanliso, penal camps – to use a more common descriptor, its gulags. It is into these that presumed enemies of the state – men, women and children alike – are deposited; credible accounts speak of constant physical abuse, routine torture, forced abortions, murder and death-by-overwork. A report by the International Bar Association claimed that the camps perpetrated ten out of eleven of the crimes against humanity listed in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Former ICC justice Thomas Buergenthal, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, told the Washington Post: ‘Conditions in the Korean prison camps are as terrible, or even worse, than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps and in my long professional career in the human rights field.’