North Korea: The Long Coma

How has the dictatorship in North Korea survived despite mass starvation and economic failure? One factor that comes out of reading Nothing to Envy is that the North Korean iron curtain has been much more impenetrable than that of Eastern Europe. Consider:

In the nearly half a century that elapsed between the end of the Korean War and Mi-ran’s defection in October 1998, only 923 North Koreans had fled to South Korea. It was a minuscule number if you consider that while the Berlin Wall stood an average of 21,000 East Germans fled west every year.

The border with China is longer and more porous than the border with South Korea but until the 1990s there wasn’t much of an incentive to escape in that direction since China wasn’t much better off than North Korea. Moreover, if North Koreans are caught in China then even today they will be sent back,probably to a North Korean gulag; so many defectors try to cross from China to Mongolia through the forbidding Gobi desert. Mongolia will then “deport” them to South Korea.

North Korean propaganda has also been very effective because unlike leaders in Eastern Europe, Kim Il-sung “wasn’t merely the father of their country, their George Washington, their Mao, he was their God.” Here is Nothing to Envy:

Broadcasters would speak of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il breathlessly, in the manner of Pentecostal preachers. North Korean newspapers carried tales of supernatural phenomena. Stormy seas were said to be calmed when sailors clinging to a sinking ship sang songs in praise of Kim Il-sung. When Kim Jong-il went to the DMZ, a mysterious fog descended to protect him from lurking South Korean snipers. He caused trees to bloom and snow to melt. If Kim Il-sung was God, then Kim Jong-il was the son of God. Like Jesus Christ, Kim Jong-il’s birth was said to have been heralded by a radiant star in the sky and the appearance of a beautiful double rainbow. A swallow descended from heaven to sing of the birth of a “general who will rule the world.”

To us this sounds ludicruous but I think Demick is correct when she writes:

…consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers, that for the subsequent fifty-years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?

When Kim Il-sung dies, Demick describes one woman’s reaction:

Mrs. Song went blank. She felt an electric jolt shoot through her body as though the executioner had just pulled the lever. She’d felt this way only once before, a few years back when she’d been told her mother had died but in that case the death was….This couldn’t be true. She tried to concentrate on what the television broadcaster was saying. His lips were still moving, but the words were incomprehensible. Nothing made sense. She started to scream

“How are we going to live? What are we going to do without our marshal?” The words came tumbling out….She rushed down the staircase and out into the courtyard of her building. Many of her neighbors had done the same. They were on their knees, banging their heads on the pavement. Their wails cut through the air like sirens.

(See also this short video.) FYI, Demick also shows that not everyone believed and preference falsification certainly occurred, although until the regime collapses it is difficult, of course, to say by how many.

All of this works I think to explain the first few decades. Kim il-sung did help to expel the Japanese, and after the Korean war, North Korea was in fact getting better. Without knowledge of the outside world, claims of being the most developed nation on earth could be sustained. But by the 1990s it was clear things were getting worse and as China grew and starvation took hold in North Korea, the North Korean’s could see that the grass was greener on the other side. As a result, defections to China increased tremendously (see my previous post). Moreover, the transfer wasn’t only in one direction, goods and information from China came into North Korea and some North Koreans even traveled back and forth across the Chinese border. Yet, even with this increase in communication and the death of Kim Il-sung the regime held together.

Can North Korea continue to hold together after Kim Jong-il passes? It wasn’t easy to reintegrate Germany after the Berlin Wall fell and the ties there were much greater. North Koreans, it is said, still do not know that a man has walked on the moon let alone that South Korea has a far higher standard of living. What will happen when the regime in North Korea falls and North Koreans awake from their long coma?

Addendum: For more see this National Geographic video with secret footage from inside North Korea. Hat tip on the latter to Dan Klein and Fred Foldvary.


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