Inside the Time Warp that is North Korea

26 02 2012

Tom Farrell (The Irish Times, 25 February 2012)

Though in power for just over two months, the personality cult around Kim Jong-un is already thriving, reports the first Irish journalist inside the country since his accession

THE NATION he ruled may still be an international pariah, but to judge by the International Friendship Exhibition, the late Kim Jong-il was a popular man indeed.The building housing the exhibition rises from the pine-forested hills of North Pyongan province, close to North Korea’s border with China. It appears as a huge box of burnished concrete, topped by a multi-coloured “hip saddle” roof. Like most buildings erected by the North Korean state, it seems like a cross-breeding of Soviet modernism and Korean tradition, a melding of the communist and the Confucian. Flanking the immense patterned doors are soldiers in fur hats, each carrying a silver-plated Kalashnikov rifle.

When Kim Jong-il, the “Dear Leader”, died on December 17th last, State television broadcast images from the snowy capital of Pyongyang. In the streets, in public squares and at various monuments, crowds of North Koreans wailed. The purpose of the exhibition parallels that footage, purporting to demonstrate that the love of foreigners for North Korea’s rulers almost matches that of its subjects.The world’s youngest head of state led the Dear Leader’s funeral procession. At 29, Kim Jong-un has already been named Great Successor.

An editorial in the Pyongyang Times on December 24th stated: “The journey through our revolution is arduous and the present situation is grave, but no force in the world can check the revolutionary advance our party, army and people are making under the wise leadership of Kim Jong-un.”

…On February 16th, what would have been Kim Jong-il’s 70th birthday was marked with parades, gymnastic displays and the unveiling of statues. Worship of the Dear Leader plays an important part in buttressing the authority of the latest incarnation of North Korea’s personality cult.

THERE IS plenty of evidence of this phenomenon in Pyongyang. At first glance, the city gives the impression, accentuated by the fierce cold, that the clocks stopped ticking 30 years ago. China next door may have embraced all the trappings of consumer culture, but its flashing neon signs and billboards for cosmetics or soft drinks are almost non-existent here.Yet cranes are visible on the skyline. In some parts of the city construction sites are alive with the splutter of jackhammers and helmeted construction workers. These could be sites in the South Korean capital of Seoul were it not for the bundles of red flags fluttering nearby.

Much of this building is going on in the central sectors of the capital and close to the banks of the river Taedong. Further out fresh apartments are going up: the government recently pledged to house an extra 100,000 people in the city of three million in 2012. Visitors to Pyongyang have noticed an upsurge in the amount of Japanese and European vehicles on the capital’s once somnolent traffic lanes. “Far more than even 12 months ago,” says a British businessman who travels regularly to Pyongyang…

WATCHING ALL this, it could be tempting to surmise that perhaps the first stirrings of a Soviet-style glasnost or perestroika are under way. But such speculation would be premature. The surge in construction work around Pyongyang was authorised some years ago by Kim Jong-il. Scaffolding and sheeting now cover the most hallowed of the estimated 34,000 separate statues of the dynasty’s founder. At Mansu hill, a 65-foot high statue of Kim Il-sung stands in burnished bronze, one arm held aloft. North Korea will mark the centenary of his birth in April. Far from indicating a new engagement with the outside world, the building work anticipates a further burst of cultic worship.

“What I’ve been struck by since January is how much Kim Jong-un has been paraded by the regime,” says Aidan Foster Carter, an expert on North Korea at Leeds University. “After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the country effectively shut down for three years and Kim Jong-il was little seen. It’s the opposite now: the regime’s rhetoric has been very strong since 17th December.”This dynastic regime is notorious for its belligerent nature, having conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and with international talks to resolve the nuclear issue having stalled. North Korea also possesses intermediate-range ballistic missiles including the Taepodong-2, which could theoretically hit targets in Alaska.

The neophyte Kim Jong-un is surrounded by ageing and highly conservative generals and ministers, most notably his uncle, Jang Song-taek (66), the vice-chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission. His grandfather formulated a national ideology called Juche (self-reliance) and his father augmented this with a policy of Songun, roughly translating as “military first politics”. It is rumoured that Jang Song-taek was the de facto North Korean premier during Kim Jong-il’s final years, when he was debilitated by a stroke.“Jang Song-taek is a purely political figure, very conservative and ostensibly anti-market,” says Leonid Petrov, a Korea expert at the University of Sydney. “In this, Jang Song-taek ensures Kim Jong-un’s accession and stability in North Korea. Any reform in North Korea will destabilise the situation.”

…Once outside the capital, the North Korean countryside in winter is spectacularly bleak. The main highways usually do not see much traffic, but when they ice over groups of a dozen or more people materialise, hacking and pounding the roads with shovels. Bundles of red flags rise at intervals from the countryside. In fields and on the crests of hills, stone slabs rise decorated with Korean characters. These translate into such slogans as “Long Live Kim Il-sung” or “We will do as the party tells us”…

See the full text of this article here…

Interview with a North Korea Watcher

31 01 2012

ImageToday, I gave interview to the Australian ABC Classic FM Radio program “Midday” with Margaret Throsby. Our discussion was structured around the past, present and future of North Korea. Listen to the podcast of this program here…

Also, last week a freelance journalist, Tom Farrell, approached me with a set of questions on the similar topic. The following is the transcript of our e-mail correspondence:

T.F.: In recent interviews given by Kim Jong Nam and published by journalist Yoji Gomi, the late Dear Leader’s eldest son has dismissed Kim Jong Un as not a credible succesor to KIm Jong-Il. Do you think he is trying to set himself up as a future Opposition figure or perhaps, a ‘safe pair of hands’ that China might want in Pyongyang in the future, acting as a would-be North Korean Deng Xiaoping?

L.P.: I think that KJN is opposing the hereditary succession system of power in general, and in this context he does not see his younger half brother is a potent candidate for leadership in North Korea. Surely, KJN has had much more exposure to the realities of contemporary world and has more experience in international trade than KJU, but this is not enough to rule the country. I don’t think that KJN is the future Deng Xiaoping on North Korea. Even if China wants him to play this role he cannot lead a China-type of reform in North Korea because such reform is impossible (see below why).

T.F.: Does Kim Jong Nam have a powerbase of any kind and might China see him a bridge to his uncle, Jang Song-Taek, if he is now the real power in Pyongyang?

L.P.: KJN is a businessman who is well connected in North Korea, China, Japan and other countries of the region. His uncle Jang Song-Taek is a purely political figure, very conservative and ostensibly anti-market. In this, JST ensures KJU’s accession and stability in North Korea. Any reform in NK will destabilise the situation. I doubt that KJN and JST have anything in common except for family links.

T.F.: Do you think Kim Jong Nam’s critique is valid? Namely, that Kim Jong Un is too young to anything more than a figurehead? Would such actions as the Cheonan/island artillery attacks during 2010 have been enough for Kim Jong Un to have gained the respect and backing of the KPA leadership?

L.P: KJN and KJU are half-brothers in the ruling dynasty, thus the venomous rivalry between them is pretty natural. KJU won’t waste bullets to hunt KJN down but simply ban him from returning the country, which is perfectly OK for both of them. To gain respect and backing of the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA), KJU needs to pay the elite and feed the 1.1 million of conscripts. Cheonan Corvet and Yeonpyongdo incidents are used in North Korean domestic policies as much as in South Korean and US regional policies. The war in Korea is continuing and KJU has been already elevated to the role of Supreme Leader, so there will be no discussion among the KPA about possible alternatives.

T.F.: Do you think there are any prospects for an organised and effective opposition from NK defectors and refugees now living in the ROK and the West?

L.P.: No, the ROK government claims the sole legitimacy for power in Korea and will not permit any effective political opposition, which might proclaim an alternative DPRK government in exile. Neither will US government support such movement.

T.F.: Given that 2012 marks both the 100th anniversary of Kim il-Sung’s birth and an election year in the United States, would you predict more offensive military actions e.g. another underground nuclear test or attacks along the DMZ and maritime border?

L.P.: For North Korea the beginning of 2012 has been overshadowed by the mourning over late KJI and consolidation of power by KJU. I don’t think that North Korean elites are willing to risk provoking a full-fledged war or a forced invasion and a regime change in the midst of 100th anniversary celebrations. Also, a provocation from the North Korean side will only help the outgoing conservative forces in South Korea to win presidential elections. In other words, I think that North Korea will stay calm, sombre, and cautious.

T.F.: Ten years after the ‘Ardous March’ (famine) there have been tens of thousands of North Koreans who crossed back and forth across the Yalu and Tumen rivers. Presumably the level of information control is not what it once was. Coupled with the won devaluation fiasco, do you think there is potential for an uprising of some kind?

L.P.: It has been 13 years since the Arduous March (1995-1998) ended. Common people in North Korea live a much better life, while the elites have many more freedoms and opportunities. Currently, no popular uprising is possible as long as the people’s level of life continues to rise and the elites feel safe and economically confident. KJU is the best person to give them that sense of safety and open the new opportunities.

T.F.: If the DPRK implodes or faces a serious breakdown of government control, this will mean massive refugee infux into China. Do you think the PLA would not stop at sealing the boder but might actually intervene with the DPRK and would they risk confronting the ROK and West?

L.P: If the DPRK implodes the ROK army will enter northern Korea to stabilise the situation and prevent the uncontrolled border crossings. China will not get involved in Korea’s domestic crisis as long as other foreign troops stay away from this crisis.

T.F.: According to Kim Jong Nam, economic liberalisation will translate into a breakdown of the political order. Do you think the DPRK might opt to butress its position by setting up more exclusive economic zones e.g. Raijin-Songbong, Kumgangsan or Kaesong that bring in revenue but keep out the general population?

L.P.: I agree with KJN. More SEZ (with or without South Korean participation) will work best for NK, generating income for the regime without compromising its political system. Reforms in economy will inevitably affect politics. The DPRK leadership want to modernise the country’s economy without much change in social and political areas. Thus, the DPRK is not attempting to fix its outdated and dysfunctional economic system. Economic changes in North Korea usually come from below, and only later (post-factum) are accepted by the top of the pyramid. The current leadership does not have a visionary master plan for development. They only react to the slow motions timidly initiated from below and, therefore, nothing is really changing in North Korea. People eat better and use mobile phones but continue fearing the same things they learned during the Cold War. Radical change in the DPRK is substituted for a slow-motion make-up measures.

Listen to another interview by Leonid Petrov given to the Australian ABC Classic FM Radio program “Midday” with Margaret Throsby on 31 January 2012 here…