A Recent History of North Korea: Threat or Failure?

The communist five-pointed red star at the infamous Arirang Festival (Mass Games) in Pyongyang, 2007.

On the 10th October of this year North Korea celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party with a grandiose military display. Thousands of troops paraded through Kim Il-Sung Square, Pyongyang, accompanied by mounted ballistic missiles and drones in what CNN termed a ‘carefully choreographed show of strength’. This was followed by a speech in which Kim Jong-Un, the current dictator, claimed that North Korea’s ‘revolutionary force is ready to respond to any kind of war the American imperialists want’. He also referred to North Korea as an ‘impenetrable fortress’ and a ‘global military power’. But is he to be believed? Is North Korea a legitimate cause for concern in the West or is this fiery rhetoric and military posturing as empty as it is common?

North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), was first classified as an international threat when in 2002 George Bush identified it on the ‘Axis of Evil’. This branded the DPRK, along with Iran and Iraq, as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Bush’s list of accusations included starving their citizens, exporting terrorism and amassing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The country was later removed from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in 2008, but its reputation for military instability remains. It is in fact true that the DPRK represents significant military strength, at least numerically. There are 1.19 million active soldiers in the army and 7.7 million in reserve; this is in comparison to the 655,000 in South Korea, its capitalist counterpart. Despite these statistics, the perceived threat of North Korea seems to owe more to a fear of the unknown.

The current ruler of the DPRK, Kim Jong-Un.

During the course of my research on the country I had the privilege of meeting the British Ambassador to the DPRK, Mike Gifford. Gifford suggested that it wasn’t so much that the West were misinterpreting the DPRK, but more that they lacked reliable information and access. Western journalists, for example, are rarely allowed to enter the country. On the infrequent occasions that they are, huge restrictions are put in place and it’s more than likely that they receive a rather sanitised snap shot of the nation. The fact that the capital was flooded with international tourists and journalists for the anniversary celebration was highly unusual, and only confirms its carefully considered intention as a display of strength.

Official state statistics tend to be unreliable, there is no free press to hold the government to account, and any expression of anti-government sentiment is forcefully retracted. A lot of the information we do have of what real life looks like in the DPRK comes from the country’s few defectors. However, it takes time to track down those bold enough to speak of their experiences and even then, evidence is rather subjective and often out of date. The extent to which we will ever know the true extent of the threat North Korea presents is, therefore, quite limited.

In an age of mass communication and international surveillance, it seems remarkable that such a place could survive for so long. One might argue that this surely suggests a powerful political system. The DPRK came into existence under its current leadership in the wake of World War II. Korea was divided between Russia and America – the Soviet North and the capitalist South. Kim Jong-Il, who had been trained in the Soviet Red Army, was established as leader of the Workers’ Party in the North. Over the following years, from 1950 to 1953, Korea was the site of what arguably constituted a proxy war between the Americans and Russians, on the basis of Cold War tensions. The tension between these nations never fully subsided, especially with North Korea remaining extremely financially dependent on Soviet Union imports for many years. Its collapse in 1991, combined with the inflexibility of the Workers’ Regime’s centrally run system, resulted in widespread famine in the late 1990s.

In light of the Soviet Union’s demise, it seems only natural to question how North Korea’s own brand of communism has outlived it by so long. One possible reason for this is the personality cult that characterises the regime. First established under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung, this cult pervaded education, literature and music, infiltrating all forms of popular culture and communication. In 2014 the South Korean broadcaster, KBS, revealed that North Korea had developed a high school syllabus teaching students about the clearly fictional early life of Kim Jong-un. The success and intensity of the cult was evident in the hysteria following the ‘Supreme Leader’s’ death, which involved a combination of genuine emotion (caused by years of entrenched indoctrination), as well as official state-enforced mourning. According to accounts in journalist Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, this period witnessed scenes of highly visible competitive grieving, to the extent where citizens were seen to tear out their hair and strike their heads upon pavements. The expression of such devotion is surely a cause for concern: where are the limits of what the people might do in the name of their leaders and the regime?

However, the key differences between the Soviet and North Korean regimes are the two fundamental political policies on which the Workers’ Party is founded upon. These policies have allowed the regime in the DPRK to limp on, while simultaneously preventing the growth and development that could make them the ‘global military power’ they already claim to be. The first of these is the policy of self-sufficiency, locally known as ‘juche’. Not only has this policy proved economically detrimental, but it also contributed to the 1990s famine. With concerns of another famine looming, it is evident North Korea’s terrain can’t support such a policy.

The second founding ideological pillar of the Party is that of ‘military first’, also known as ‘Songun’. In 2003, North Korea spent 22.9% of its GDP on its army, the highest percentage known throughout the world. Although, as an ideology, the latter may seem a cause for concern, the combination of the two policies has resulted in an underpaid and often underfed military, very limited despite its size. The policy of ‘juche’ has made North Korea unwilling to interact and communicate with other nations, and ‘Songun’ has created a widespread distrust of the country on an international level. Paradoxically, however, it is also these policies that enable the isolation and patriotism that allow the regime to exist in its current form.

Recently, it seems that the regime has somewhat increased levels of freedom, with the relaxation of fashion controls and the possibility of allowing citizens to holiday in China. Kim Jong-Un is reportedly planning considerable reforms dubbed the ‘May 30th Measures’, intended to increase the privatisation of the markets and thus straying away from typical communist collective measures. The extent to which personal liberties are being expanded, however, is still questionable, and economic development is limited in scope. It seems largely to benefit only the relatively developed Pyongyang. Social reform, moreover, still poses a considerable threat to the power of the regime. North Korea does remain militarily volatile and so in this sense will always be a cause for Western concern, but the regime’s fundamental limitations on their own development place a cap on the weight behind the words of its leader. Yet for how long will its population’s knowledge of the outside world be in the Workers’ Party’s control? I, for one, am cautiously interested as to how long it will take for this mask to slip, exposing North Korea to the world, and the world to North Korea.

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