Understanding North Korea – Part 3

The third and final part of my article Understanding North Korea, set to be published in Groove magazine’s July issue, along with a few interviews I’ve done with North Korean defectors. Read Understanding North Korea | Part 1 and Understanding North Korea | Part 2 here.

The Dawning of Awareness

Contrary to common assumptions, modern North Koreans are not completely cut off from the outside world, as the previous generations were. While tunable radios are banned (all radios must, by law, have their tuners fixed to the government stations), cheap Chinese made DVD players are not a rarity. At approximately $30 USD, a DVD player costs a little less than an average North Korean earns in a month. Not cheap, but not overly expensive either – an investment comparable to buying a used car, for example. Certainly not something found in every home, but a realistic purchase for a substantial cross section of society.

Ostensibly permitted so citizens can enjoy biopics of their Dear Leaders, DVD players have given North Koreans the chance to glimpse the outside world through the lens of martial arts films from Hong Kong and South Korean dramas. The cultural impact of the humble DVD is great – Lankov’s colleagues in North Korea have reported that South Korean parts of speech and forms of address are starting to permeate the language.

The political ramifications of such international awareness are obviously undesirable from the regime’s point of view, which has spent decades indoctrinating its people in the evil ways of its Southern neighbor. North Korean propaganda about the South has been so pervasive that many citizens are unable to believe all of what they see in the imported dramas. For them the notion that nearly every South Korean household can afford a car is astonishingly contrary to what they have been told. Just as the North Korean government greatly exaggerates the opulence of its nation, they expect the South Korean government to do the same. But, as Lankov points out, “they do understand there are some things that cannot be faked – the cityscape of Seoul, for example. It is beginning to dawn on them that South Korea is doing well.”

This dawning awareness of South Korea’s modern success can be seen in the changing propaganda methods employed by the Kim administration. While once they asserted that the South was so poor that students had to sell their blood to pay for textbooks, they are reluctantly admitting that South Koreans are not in fact impoverished.

Traditional propaganda campaigns followed the Communist model of portraying North Korea as an industrial powerhouse, glorifying steel mills and smoke stacks while showing South Korea as a place of thatch houses, unpaved roads and sinister looking American soldiers. Now, however, the trend seems to have reversed, with the South depicted as a hellish inferno of pollution and suffocating toxic clouds. Conversely, North Korea is shown to be a pristine natural paradise through posters of political leaders interacting with common citizens in verdant fields and near crystal clear mountain streams. One specific campaign featured a cartoon turtle that was dying in the chemical wastelands of South Korea, and so was forced to flee to the pure waters of the North where he happily splashed for ever after.

Sinister American GIs throw babies down a well

Depicting North Korea as an industrial powerhouse was once a preferred form of propaganda.

As awareness of the outside world's economic successes dawns, North Korean propaganda is shifting to portray the country as naturally pristine.


The Future

Claiming to know the future of North Korea for certain is pure hubris, but based on the current trends, and testimonials from recent defectors, it is possible to speculate with some hope of accuracy. What is clear is that North Korea is changing, and in a typical communist dictatorship change marks the beginning of the end. Unfortunately for the Kim dynasty, the end will be harsh and very likely violent, predicts Lankov.

“I talk with the North Koreans a lot, roughly four or five times per week,” says Lankov, “and what is clear is that people who are now in their 20’s and early 30’s have very different ideas from their parents. They know North Korea is a poor place and they are [relatively] less afraid of the government. They no longer feel the Kim Jong Il method is the only method. While these people are still young, they will soon become the majority.”

Ironically, what is preventing the collapse of the North Korean regime is, in many ways, its enemies. With the possible exception of the US, most outside powers do not want the status quo to change. In a sense, the Kims are unusually lucky dictators.

South Korea, the nation that would seemingly be most eager to end the war, is perhaps the most wary of reuniting. Though lip service is usually paid in favor of reunification, a significant number of youth will admit that while they support the idea in theory, they do not want to deal with the realities – namely the huge cost to South Korean taxpayers. “I definitely support reunification,” says Hwang In Gi, a graduate student in Seoul, “as long as we don’t have to pay for it.”

This may sound like a heartless attitude, but South Koreans have worked exceptionally hard over the last five decades to transform their country into an economic success. For the average taxpayer, the cost of reunification would be substantial. If the United States annexed all of Central America, for example, and then asked American citizens pay for the cost of modernizing and improving the quality of life in the new territories, there would be predictable outrage. Asking South Koreans to pay for reunification is much the same except that in this case, North Korea has been threatening to kill them for the last 70 years.

Though South Koreans might not want to rush into reunification, North Korea will inevitably collapse. Exactly how is a matter of debate, but Lankov suggests several possibilities: An overly zealous police officer could go too far with a physical punishment and spark a violent riot which would spread across the country, forcing Kim Jong Eun and his elites into exile. Perhaps elements of the military that have less of a stake in the regime will decide it is time for a change in the power structure and stage a coup. It is even possible that Kim Jong Eun secretly desires to implement massive reforms and pursue political economic models that he studied while living in Switzerland. Maybe he has a bleeding heart and just wants all his people to be happy. It is impossible to know anything for certain.

But no matter what happens, sooner or later something will; the system is broken and unstable. “I would not be surprised if we learned tomorrow that there are riots [in North Korea],” says Lankov. “But I would be equally unsurprised if in 2027 we are discussing the 25th successful long range nuclear missile test. Being outsiders, we can know only that their system is rotten, but not how seriously. We just can’t know.”

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