Weeping for monsters: North Korea’s dynastic dues

I’ve been thinking all week about the hysterical sobbing in those images of North Koreans mourning Kim Jong-il. Was it group hysteria? Was it pretend-crying just to avoid looking different to everyone else? Was it stage-managed or was it genuine for a leader who was a daily presence? Maybe it was grief for loved ones dead in famines or just their own miserable luck to live in such an accursed place? Was it fear that things could get worse under Kim Jong-un? Was it simply just a great chance to cry uncontrollably and not look out of place?
Whatever it was, the ambiguities in the tears have defined North Korea since the end of World War II. When the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea began in the northern part of the peninsula in 1946 it was faced with two big problems. The North had always been more remote and less developed and two million more fled south to avoid the Communist DPRK. The three-year war that followed left the new country in tatters.
North Korea became a centrally planned economy which strangled small business. Dissent was not tolerated and all good was embodied in leader Kim Il-sung. Il-Sung promoted “Juche” as a concept of self-reliance to make do in difficult times. He said Juche meant man was the master of everything and decided everything. That man was him and he mobilised the entire workforce to industrialise North Korea rapidly after the civil war.

Suspicious of the South, they built up their military might to deter invasion. They ran up massive debts to the USSR, China and Japan. By 1980 they defaulted on loans and the economy has been contracting ever since. The collapse of Soviet Communism left Russia unimpressed with its poverty-stricken debtor. DPRK increasingly relied on China as its only open border. Il-sung refused to consider Gorbachev’s perestroika because he knew it led to glasnost. He died in 1994 and first son and heir apparent Kim Jong-il took over.

Born in 1942, Jong-il spent his first years in Siberia with his parents. His father commanded the 1st battalion of the 88th Brigade, a Red Army unit of Chinese and Korean exiles. Jong-il was born in Vyatskoye, a fishing village near Khabarovsk where the railway turns south to Vladivostok. As a schoolboy, Jong-il was interested in politics and Marxist literature. He learned English in Malta and in 1980, was effectively head of the politburo with only his father above him. He inherited his father’s personality cult and was named head of the armed forces in 1991. With Jong-il making all the decisions since they defaulted on their debts, North Korea’s economy collapsed.

When Il-Sung finally collapsed in 1994 aged 82, Jong-il was undisputed leader. The US were worried by his nuclear ambitions and threats to leave the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. The countries signed an Agreed Framework as one of Jong-il’s first achievements in office. It allowed the DPRK to continue developing nuclear technology at foreign expense but with light water reactors rather than the nuclear proliferating graphite reactors they already had.

The US overplayed its hand. President Clinton rashly assumed North Korea was on the verge of collapse. Congress would not pass a bill to end the trade embargo in place since the Korean War and the US dragged its feet in calling for tenders to build the new reactors. By October 2002, the US believed North Korea had an enrichment program and confronted them with their evidence. Three months later North Korea left the NNPT. The subsequent Six Party talks were fruitless. North Korea had gone rogue.

While nuclear testing proceeded with Iranian and Pakistani know-how, the fate of the North Korean people worsened. Jong-il oversaw a collapse in industry and technology while floods and storms in 1995 wrecked electricity and health infrastructure and destroyed harvests. Hungry peasants ate what undeveloped crops survived and the country could no longer feed itself. Women and children bore the brunt of the death toll of a million or more in three years.

Food from China, South Korea and the US eased the situation until Jong-il refused overseas aid in 2002. Inclusion in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union “Axis of Evil” heightened North Korea’s isolation. Famine conditions worsened again. Escapees told the BBC starvation was common with homeless people dying in railway stations, and others too weak to beg. Complaining about this would lead to instant imprisonment.

Imagine the logical leaps of doublethink North Koreans must take in order to make sense of their world. Death is all around them but so is a regime that demands obedience and Juche. Even when people were confronted by evidence of the regime’s failures, their total reliance on state media meant foreign powers and the evil South were made scapegoats. The scenes in Pyongyang after Jong-il’s death are not without precedent. The public lamentation resembles the carefully choreographed mourning after Kim Il-sung died. Life seemed almost too unbearable to go on without Dear Leader. But just as in 1994, the state machinery will swing into action after a decent interval and the leadership cult will shift to Kim Jong-un. The world should learn from Clinton’s mistake. North Korea can survive despite dysfunction. Bellies may remain empty but the belicose dynasty of Dear Leader will continue. As the handpicked factory worker in the sobbing video said “I will change sorrow into strength and remain faithful to Comrade Kim Jong-un.” It’s best North Koreans cry now because it will not be tolerated in six months time.

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