As a study abroad student through the CIEE program, I was recently privy to attend a talk on North Korea by Professor Andrei Lankov, one of the world’s most renowned scholars on North Korea, a current professor at Kookmin University and even a past attendee of Kim Il sung University.
Professor Lankov’s goal was to introduce and talk about the North Korea regime in one hour or less, and in that time he addressed many off-hand questions I’ve wondered about in the past. Let me share with you what I learned!
1. Current Leadership and the Heir.
One question I’ve always had is why nothing happened to Kim Jong Eun, the third son of Kim Jong Il, when he was studying abroad in Switzerland. He attended classes, met professors and interacted with students to some degree, right? Here was a chance for the regime to end and for North Korea to drastically change! However, Kim Jong Eun wasn’t touted as Kim Jong Il’s son but rather posed as the son of an ambassador. He had personal bodyguards around him all the time, had limited interaction with others around him, and of course, being in Switzerland, was protected (since Switzerland is a neutral country).
And even though many would say that North Korea isn’t even close to collapsing, or changing, or to being an open country, the leadership of North Korea is so old that something potentially good and unexpected can happen soon. The advisors to Kim Jong Il aren’t getting any younger. The average age of the leaders is about 78 years old. This may be a very important factor in how strong the regime continues to be in the next five or ten years.
2. Rational or Irrational?
I’ve only heard of North Korea as being one of the most unreasonable, irrational, precarious states ever. Imagine my surprise when Professor Lankov says he believes North Korea’s government is the most rational, Machiavellian government on earth, and definitely more rational that America’s government! He attributes this to the DPRK having no ideology, so they can be totally rational—whatever they want, they will go for without any moral or ideological hindrances. Although, since they don’t have any qualms about going the full mile to maintain tight control, I think that can make them unpredictable in a different way.
3. Enforcing Obedience.
Before the widespread corruption of today, efficient control by North Korea was mainly perpetrated through zero tolerance for minor offenses, rather than through torturous means (at first). So the crime rate was essentially non-existent. Much like in Orwell’s “1984”, the network of secret police and “people’s groups” also ensured that there was no opportunity for resistance. Every traveler had to register for a permit, which was hard to get—even if you were visiting your grandpa in a different town, you needed a travel permit. This has effectively controlled the people’s freedom of movement.
Another way obedience was encouraged was through the family responsibility system. In North Korea, if a political crime was committed, all the people in that registered family have to go to a camp for an indefinite period of time. Husbands would be punished as the principle offender, even if it was the wife who committed the political crime, because it was seen as the husband’s oversight. No one would know how long you would stay in prison, so these indefinite prison terms also enforced the fear of breaking the law.
4. Inefficient Economy.
The North Korean economic system is extremely inefficient, like many if not all communist past and present regimes. However, even though communist economies don’t work well, North Korea’s is exceptionally bad. When Kim Il Sung took over North Korea, it was actually one of the most developed of all countries in Asia besides Japan, yet now it is impoverished. How did it become this way?
In the early 60s, food was received through rationing. Depending on your job, you could get a certain amount of food, and unlike what people believed, government officials didn’t get any more than anyone else; they just got a different ratio of corn to rice. The ratio changed based on your location and job, and the state distributed everything.
However, this distribution system was only viable as long as the DPRK was getting aid from Russia and China. In the 1970s and 1980s, the DPRK got rice from Russia, not because they liked each other but because it was necessary for geopolitical relations. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and the aid stopped. Now the DPRK is dependent on China and its desire to maintain North Korea as a buffer zone, and in recent news, even tries to use divided family reunions to squeeze aid from South Korea.
When rice stopped coming in the mid 90s, a half million to one million starved in the DPRK. People trying to survive set up markets, and farmers went into the mountains to do private fields (still illegal now). But it wasn’t enough, and the shortage opened the gates for widespread corruption.
Because a hyper-Stalinist state requires enforcement, the North’s government needed to hire lots of people to monitor the people’s behavior. So for every indoctrinator, every government official, every policeman and every people’s group checker, the government needed to pay them, normally in rice. When North Korea’s small army of enforcement officials started to not receive this paycheck of rice, they started looking for bribes because they needed money and food, just like anyone else. It was this corruption that saved many North Koreans, otherwise maybe 5 million would have died during the famine. But back then, you could give fifty cents to an official and he would turn a blind eye to economic activity. The newest economic development is moving markets, which are essentially small markets on carts that roll around.
5. Why Isn’t There a Revolution?
Let’s all remember that most revolutions don’t happen because of political oppression, or even oppression of basic human rights, but mainly because of food. The two major French Revolutions, as examples, all began not from horrible living conditions but because there was no more bread. While North Korea is still not doing well, living has improved since the famine they had in 1991—and with the strict control of information, the indoctrination of the people since birth, the intolerance for any dissension, and the extreme punishments for crimes against the state, short of another huge famine the chances of a real revolution are slim.
6. Why the North Still Believes in the Propaganda.
For a good while, I wondered at how many North Koreans really believed the information that the regime fed them, and how many knew better. Yet, for a long time since the divide, North Koreans thought they were well-off compared to the South, because they believed that the South was being crushed under the oppressive American fist, and that South Koreans were yearning for the North’s Dear Leader (Kim Il Sung) to save them. Many truly believed South Koreans were starving and dying in the streets because there was no reason for them to believe otherwise! There was no route through which news could reach them. Plus, the North had completely outlawed tunable radios—if you were found to have one, it was a political crime, punishable by up to 5 years of imprisonment. Even now, the households that own radios only have access to three channels, all about the Dear Leader. Even if some households have TV, it is for only a few hours a day and is completely censored.
But the seed of doubt has been planted, and it will be sown more and more as time goes on. South Korean and Chinese dramas and newscasts, even cell phone reception, or reaching parts of North Korea. Even if North Koreans doubt what they see in the dramas, there is now a reason to wonder at how truthful the propaganda is. In fact, Professor Lankov believes the biggest obstacle to Kim Jong Il and, now, Kim Jong Eun, is the existence of South Korea. North Koreans are beginning to know that South Korea is prospering and eating well, and dissension against the current regime may grow.
7. The Issue of Unification.
Professor Lankov is also convinced that the general South Korean population is not at all eager for unification now; although no one will admit it because it is kind of “obscene” to say so—obscene because part of the Korean identity rests hugely on the belief that the Korean people have always been one people and one blood. Will the South just abandon its relatives up North?
However, as Professor Lankov stated, if the North and the South combined, it would take one to two generations for the gap to heal, and even if Korea was unified, the North would lag for 30-40 years behind the South. The South, quite frankly, doesn’t want unification primarily because they don’t want to pay. A past driving factor for wanting unification was because of the divided families, but nowadays the only people with first-hand memories of people in North Korea are 75-80 years old, with little political or social clout. The Germany example shows that there will be a definite price to pay by the South if unification comes… so Professor Lankov surmises that perhaps a peaceful solution in which the North can develop alongside China, and isn’t posing a danger, may be a good solution as well to the North Korean Problem.