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Business as usual for North Korea

Richard Crook takes an in-depth look at the phenomenon that is North Korea, assessing its future under Kim Jong-un.


North Korea has defied the laws of modern tyranny. Despite its pitiful economy and impoverished population under strict socialist rule, it has managed to endure a hereditary dictatorship now entering its third generation with Kim Jong-un. Whilst most communist regimes collapsed at the end of the Cold War, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) has quite improbably remained unchanged and unmoved by the progress of its capitalist neighbour, South Korea. Politicians around the world hoped that the death of DPRK’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il last December might act as a catalyst for reform. The New York Times even suggested that “North Korea as we know it is over.” But in reality this theory is hopelessly optimistic. Reform – let alone revolution or Korean unification –remains unlikely.

Why has North Korea, perhaps the most secretive country in the world, not fallen along with its former ideological comrades? Where is the widespread discontent? Why has the military allowed for a de facto monarchy to emerge? And why did China continue to prop up the regime of the late Kim Jong-il, a man who sat idly by drinking expensive brandy (he was the world’s leading spender in Hennessy Cognac) while his people starved.

North Korea will continue with “business as usual.” The most common suggestion for collapse have been war, public revolt, internal reform and pressure from China. None of these are likely.

A brief history

To understand North Korea today though, a brief account of how it came to be is necessary. The 35-year Japanese rule over Korea effectively ended thanks to the Second World War. The USSR and USA took temporary control of the country with the plan for a unified, independent state. But Joseph Stalin had a change of heart and blocked the move, paving the way for two Koreas: A communist backed north and an American backed south.

Propped up by Soviet forces, North Korea developed into a Stalinist government. Kim Il-sung, a hero to Koreans for his campaigns against Japanese occupation (which would be embellished as his premiership went on), was installed leader by Russia. He soon communicated his desire for war and eventually convinced Stalin to pursue a unified Korea.

The conflict became a proxy war, with America essentially fighting it out against Russia and then China, who feared a U.S. victory would make conflict between them inevitable. Eventually, stalemate ensued and the Korean Demilitarized Zone (KDZ) was created in 1953 at the war’s end, separating the North and South to this day.

Post-Korean War

Initially, things were looking good for North Korea. Even the CIA admitted in an internal report that the health and education systems for its people were impressive. But even more impressive was Kim Il-Sung’s ability to consolidate the country’s political independence by removing the pro-Chinese and pro-Russian factions from government, despite their obvious role in propping up his regime. By 1961 any opposition to Kim Il-Sung’s presidency had been forced into exile or killed.

The economic limits of a command economy were reached in the 1970s and rapid decline followed. High levels of expenditure on the military compounded their financial problems and when the flow of money from the fallen Soviet Union ceased in 1991, their economy nose-dived.

The rule of Kim Jong-il

The 1990s saw the passing of Kim Il-sung and a famine which is estimated to have killed well over a million of its citizens. The President’s son Kim Jong-Il took over and showed nothing but contempt for the reforms witnessed in Russia and China. He placed stability of his own personal power above that of the nation and the continued with the socialist police state that forced its people into lives of hopeless destitution.

One area of investment the DPRK was willing to engage in under both Kim Il-sung and his son was the military, and it currently possesses the fourth largest army in the world. Under Kim Jong-il, North Korea allowed its people to become dependant on international aid whilst spending millions to become a nuclear state. The South Korean “Sunshine policy” of pursuing a more positive relationship in 1998 brought no success and highlighted only the stubbornness of the North’s government. Steps towards non-proliferation by the USA broke down and North Korea is now estimated to hold between two to nine warheads.

In December 2011, Kim Jong-il finally passed away. Long-term health problems spurred him on to ensure his son would be in pole position to take over, and sure enough Kim Jong-un was announced the new President of North Korea upon his father’s death. He has inherited a nuclear state, which survives thanks to a highly developed army that coerces aid and ensures national independence, and a population whose loyalty is built on deception and fear. As we shall see, the way he conducts his relationship with China, their last remaining allies, could be crucial to their future.

How could change happen?


The improbability of war needs little explanation. As much as the propaganda machine of North Korea likes to suggest otherwise, there is no immediate external threat. America is keen to avoid a war with a nuclear nation, particularly when they are allied to China. South Korea remains open to talks and has resisted escalated conflict despite sporadic displays of aggression from their northern neighbours, the most recent of which occurring in 2010. And any attack North Korea would launch on the South would be short-lived, for neither America nor their allies China would stand for it.

Not that they would do that. The North Korean army is primarily a tool used for economic coercion. Through its irrational leadership and nuclear missile tests, they have forced superpowers into a policy of caution and aid. The government have become experts at using their army for blackmail – threatening or showing some aggression, then pulling back once help is offered or confrontational rhetoric is reversed. But this action should not fool you into thinking North Korea seeks a war they cannot win.

Public revolution

North Koreans mourn the death of Kim Jong-il

The North Korean people, who are forbidden from leaving the country, have seemingly shown far more patience towards their despotic rulers than the Europeans. Western media has given a great deal of press to this ‘brainwashed’ loyalty, producing images of mass grief and inconsolable North Koreans crying over the death of a man who brought them nothing but misery. Whether forced or not, It appears that there will be no revolution any time soon.

Part of this is down to the cult of personality, which is enforced on a scale perhaps unmatched in modern history. In maths lessons, 5-year-olds are taught subtraction by being asked, “If Kim Il-sung is fighting ten imperialists and he kills seven imperialists, how many imperialists are left?” As their lives go on, they’re told extraordinary tales of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il’s intellectual and physical prowess. Some myths even take on a religious element. Accounts of divine birth were spread, as was the idea that their leader could influence the weather.

But it is lazy to dismiss the lack of public revolt merely as blind benevolence towards their leader. As tempting as these absurd stories make it seem, a subdued North Korean population is not just thanks to a cult directed towards the apparent greatness of one man. The propaganda machine in North Korea is so much more than that.

The DPRK’s government have done a quite incredible job of convincing its people the world is against them. That North Korea stands alone against the imperialists out to destroy their march towards a socialist utopia. What makes it all the more remarkable is that North Korea was founded on, and indeed continues to operate on, complete dependence to foreign nations. Astonishingly, they still accepted aid from the “Western puppet” South Korea until it was ceased in 2008.

How has this prevented revolution?

A common enemy binds a nation together. That feeling of isolation and foreign governments conspiring against you created by propaganda only strengthens your resolve. And the government have completely cut off its people from foreign communication. State controlled television, no access to internet and even the occasional foreign visitor is kept out of reach and followed at all times by guards (the second guard is there to watch the first for bribery attempts).

In Barbara Demick’s ‘Nothing to Envy’, a captivating book chronicling the lives of North Korean deserters, an interesting discovery is made. Far from feeling free and liberated, many deserters are tormented by guilt over forsaking the socialist mission. Despite seeing the obvious improvement in the South Korean or Chinese quality of life, there remains an innate loyalty to North Korea and a distrust of foreigners that is not easily undone.

You can rule out public revolution on the scale of the Arab Spring for the near future. And if it ever did look like it was heading that way, you can be sure China would step in to prevent the collapse of a nation on their doorstep.

Reform from within

New leader Kim Jong-un

There is also the suggestion that the DPRK government under fresh leadership may finally come to their senses and pursue gradual market reforms whilst remaining in power.

China would like to see this happen. After the death of communist leader Mao Zedong in 1976, their government underwent economic reforms that laid the groundwork for China to become the economic superpower it is today.

But it would take the kind of political will that simply isn’t there. We know little about how much faith in socialism the power elite truly have, but any doubts have yet to be converted into policy. Kim Jong-il issued crackdowns on the small markets that were developing in the mid 2000’s, whilst the limited trade with China for goods was denounced as failing to support North Korean trade. But, as one North Korean deserter told Barbara Demick,

“We’re supposed to be buying North Korean products, but North Korea doesn’t make anything!”

Though the government eventually issued a rare apology of sorts, their crackdowns and “currency exchange” policies, which effectively made traders profits worthless, have had irreversible damage.

Some experts speculate that this devotion to the socialist cause is genuine, noting the initial success that founding ruler Kim Il-sung had with free education, universal access to healthcare and a decent standard of housing after the Korean War. Alternatively though, there is the very likely theory that officials believe that market reforms could lead to increased international presence and wealthy traders. Put simply, it might give people ideas.

No, Kim Il-sung’s grandson and now “Great Successor” Kim Jong-un is far more concerned with solidifying his power. Han Zhenshe, expert in North Korean studies and former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argues,

“Kim Jong-un is just 28 years old. His top priority is to reinforce government legitimacy and maintain social stability. This takes at least one to three years. I don’t think the next administration will give much thought to policy adjustments.”

Reports from inside North Korea suggest Kim Jong-un is being moulded into a kind of reincarnation of his grandfather Kim Il-sung, a man so revered he is still technically their President despite being long dead. Some insiders are even suggesting he has had plastic surgery to increase the likeness between them. Such efforts suggest not a policy looking forward, but one depending on nostalgia and frozen in the past.

Still, there are glimmers of hope. The Pyongyang University is building up a reputation in technology and software development that could one day become profitable. And though most of the population live in poverty and destitution, life is not as bad as it was in the 1990’s, where famine was seen on an unimaginable scale and most jobs were paid in IOU’s. Finally, some small “economic zones” have been reported recently, and although China recently rejected these as “not business-friendly,” it shows a willingness to dip their toes in the water.

China has shown that a socialist economy can make remarkable progress without leadership changeover. But China had the political skills of Deng Xiaoping, an industrial infrastructure and capitalist zones such as Hong Kong to learn from. North Korea has none of these qualities. Instead, it has a fragile government with an inexperienced leader, widespread suspicion towards foreigners and no real capitalist mentality anywhere within its borders. Internal reform for the time being remains unlikely.

Pressure from China

Probable incoming Chinese President

China has a curious relationship with North Korea. When Kim Jong-il died, many in the West were frustrated at China’s declaration that he was a “comrade and a great leader” who they shall “miss greatly”. Of course, few really believe the Chinese government are genuinely mourning the death of their “friend and ally”, but their passionate condolences and support for the legitimacy of the successor Kim Jong-un tell us much about the Chinese desperation to see stability in the region.

In her book, Barbara Demick discusses in detail the migration by North Koreans to China. The government are reluctant to accept their arrival, or the closed-off and often “trouble-making” North Korean communities that have developed in towns by the border. The last thing they want is a collapse leading to a mass influx of starving refugees.

There are political reasons for support too. China has always seen North Korea as the buffer against American led interests appearing on the border of their nation. What was once a partnership of ideology has become one of practicality and international politics.

But the late Kim Jong-il had a tense and fractured relationship with Beijing. In a message designed to demonstrate independence, the 2006 nuclear missile test went ahead without giving China prior warning. Despite infuriating the Chinese government, little action was taken and their slow response on Kim Jong-il’s death led many to believe that again, China was kept in the dark over North Korean internal affairs.

“China has decided that North Korea is too big to fail,” said John Park of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. And don’t expect much change in the near future. Xi Jinping, the probable incoming leader of China, has shown a desire to pursue a convervative policy of patience and financial aid, and was critical of the tough stance South Korea embarked on 2008.

But the Chinese people are becoming tired of this loyalty, and many wonder whether it really is in their best interests to be propping up this regime. It’s becoming an embarrassing ally to keep and one that’s enormously expensive. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, people have shown their dissatisfaction. By December 21st, just two days after Kim Jong-il’s death, there were eight million comments on the news of his passing, almost all negative. There is a growing unease towards the alliance with this rogue nation amongst the young, up-and-comers within the Chinese government that could one day force North Korea’s hand into reform. They are, after all, completely dependent on their aid. It offers hope for the long-term future maybe. But for now, one can expect a relationship similar to the one before Kim Jong-il’s death. For China, stability and denying increased Western presence on their border takes precedent to reform.