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.


Airdrop or smuggle in a 10,000 Ipads on the nation and set up satellite WI-Fi for the NKorean population so they can access the internet without being spotted and see how long they last.

It'll keep going, that won't do anything at all.

One of the other serious problems is that malnutrition surely causes reduced brain development and cognitive abilities. This would make the North Korean people more susceptible to propaganda, but is also going to make it hard to integrate them in a world that doesn't even exist for them.

This is the passage that's really scary:

North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fift...y 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?

There, but for the grace of God and Constitution, go we...

Also illustrative:

Oak-hee and Yong-su got married in 1988 in the traditional North Korean style—in front of the statue of Kim Il-sung, who symbolically presided over all marriages in the absence of clergy...

He really is everywhere.

It's like an instruction manual for how to properly run a dictatorship.

Yes, another telling piece is that in North Korea people don't celebrate their own birthdays, only the birthdays of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il.

Want to see a fascinating insight to North Korea. I suggest the Vice Guide to Travel. If you have Netflix, you can want the entire series as one program. If not, YouTube has it. As the reporter correctly points out, it is "not real". This is well worth your time. In fact, the entire Vice Guide series is interesting.

+1. The one about Liberia was truly scary. I'd dare to say that North Korea does look like heaven when compared to Liberia...

I think I linked the National Geographic story linked in the article. Let me try again... The Vice Guide to North Korea

I finished reading _Nothing to Envy_ last night; I'd heard about it, but the first post prompted me to actually get around to it. It was very good! I'm not sure it was as good as _The Cleanest Race_, but it's still one of the best NK books I've read.

How does a country like North Korea participate in international sporting events, such as the World Cup? Even if you could somehow convince that rank and file populous that you won (which isn't hard to do), you still have a group who knows the truth.

Many of the North Korean players in the World Cup - particularly their star player are Koreans living in Japan, many of the Japanese-Koreans are North Korean sympathizers.

I'm not a "Amerikkka first" blamer or a kumbaya type (and I don't like the idea of US blood and treasure being spent to protect and grow Samsung, LG, KIA, etc) but I can think that the US presence in Korea for 50 years may have prolonged conflict through mutual escalation to some degree. We subsidized the S. Korean military and N. Korea wanted to match its "brother's" strength and the cycle continued at a rate were Kim Il Sung and his son broke and continue to break the N. Korea economy.

If, magically, the regime collapsed and integrated with the South, N. Korea would be the ultimate emerging market for S. Korea, China, and Japan (once again, at US's cost).

Apparently, there is growing jaded tourist industry where you can gawk at the people living in 3rd world totalitarian regime while helping fund the regime.

Usually I would be the first to point the finger at the failures of US intervention but in this case I think the blame lies on the North Korean regime. For one thing, currently the size of the US force in Korea is tiny when compared to the size of the South Korean military - could SK do more, perhaps - I'm not an expert.
Integration of the North into the South would be an economic catastrophe for the south and this is why, deep down, many South Koreans (especially the younger generation) do not want to see integration. An economically and socially devastated country with a mere population of 20 million is in no way the "ultimate emerging market".

+1. The U.S. military presence in South Korea (per wikipedia, 1 Army division, totaling about 20,000 men, plus about 8,000 USAF personnel) is substantial, but not enough to make a military difference in the event of a North Korean invasion. It's a "trigger force," i.e., if North Korea invades, the resulting U.S. casualties will be severe enough to force a massive U.S. response.

Absolutely the US force there isn't nothing but the idea that US forces make up even close to the bulk of the troops in the South is ridiculous, the South has a huge army and mandatory conscription for 2 years for every male, they also have an armaments industry producing and selling their own tank to various other countries. I don't know where this idea that US forces on the peninsula are the cause of the problems comes from. In other situations, such as the Middle East I do think the US military plays a largely negative role but on the peninsula it's pretty clear that the North is hyper-aggressive and these days much more interesting unification then the South is.

The conscripts are not worth much based on anecdotal reports from people who "served" on the peninsula and worked with ROK conscripts. I agree with what you say but I if the US is so useless there, then why are we there?

Would you not agree that causes some aggression from N. Korea? China would not bless off NorKo to outright invade nor call-in its heavily infiltrated agent provocateur/saboteurs in the south.

They just lob some rounds over the border to un-populated areas to keep people nervous and the aid money flowing in.

All this is proof that if the elite wanted to, they could set up the type of regime envisioned in 1984 in a well populated country, and keep it going for generations.

Maybe not 1984 but it's not hard to imagine that a monarchy is functionally equivalent to what is being described here.

This is a book I need to read when I have time.

Koreans are a very spiritual people. We embraced Western religion in the South just as North Koreans accepted their new deity. It makes perfect sense if you know Koreans.

Geography is an important distinction between NK and East Germany. But while East Germans had lived in an advanced industrial society, North Koreans never did. They were peasants whose entire history was filled with conquest, civil war, corruption, and deprivation.

North Koreans have more contact with the South than you think. It's not lack of information, but hopelessness and the inability o coordinate that prevents uprisings.

The more interesting question is why the North Korean military puts up with the little runt Kims. Kim il Sung was a revolutionary hero. His son and grandson are not. Deity or figurehead? I've always wondered who is pulling the strings. In Egypt, we know the dictator has always been both product of and answerable to the military.

If you look at the work of BR Myers you can get a much better idea of why the North Korean regime has stayed together - even though awareness of the South's wealth has grown. The reality is is that the ideology of North Korea is not based on Communism - the justification for the regime is not at all economic - it is Racial Nationalism. Comparing North Korea to the USSR or East Germany is a big big mistake - a better comparison is Nazi Germany or WWII-era Japan when the justification of your regime rests of "keeping the race pure" its a lot easier to get people to go along with it even in the face of depravity. This works particularly well in Korea because, if you've ever spent a significant amount of time even in South Korea, you will know Koreans tend to be particularly nationalistic and many of them have a certain level of pride in the fact that their country is so homogeneous - interracial marriages are often frowned upon by the older generation even in the South.
The North Korean regime simply intensifies and amplifies these already existing prejudices in their propaganda and this is why they are able to continue to hold power.

No, no In fact Myer's thesis (which I tend to believe) is that North Korea is not at all a Marxist-based country - a hellhole, yeah that's obvious but not a Marxist one. The ideological basis (and hence the propaganda used on the people) of the regime has nothing to do with anti-capitalism, dictatorships of the proletariat, revolution against landlords or owners of capital - it's a purely race-based, ultra-nationalist, quasi-fascist ideology - drawn largely from, not the USSR or Maoist China, but the ideology of Imperial Japan.
This might sound pedantic (who cares if they're technically Marxist or not) but it has huge implications of how to deal with the regime - if they were simply Marxists (another East Germany) then they would have collapsed by now - once their people became aware of how economically deprived they were they would no longer support the regime and the country would collapse. A nationalist based regime, however, does not operate like that.

>The ideological basis (and hence the propaganda used on the people) of the regime has nothing to do with anti-capitalism, dictatorships of the proletariat, revolution against landlords or owners of capital

I would't deny that there's a racial purity component, as you mention, but this statement is quite false. Don't just read Myers--read the propaganda! It's right there--all the stuff about the workers struggle and overthrowing the capitalist order, you can read it for yourself; databases of it are available from several places on the web. There's plenty of propaganda about various other things, as well, of course. Your claim above is also completely at odds with basically every first-hand account I've ever seen. To say they're not truly following Marxist principles is one thing, but to say that those principles are not even used in their rhetoric is a claim easily falsified by observation.

Hive culture, I'm not sure what you mean - there is an element of the culture which is a strong nationalist which I think can be described as an underdog feeling standing up against the machinations of the outsider world, if that element can be intensified by skilled propagandist you end up the Pyongyang regime and the Kim family.

I do not know what CBBB's sources are, but there is a substantial amount of support for unification in the South. Both North and South officially want it, but of course the problem is there is disagreement as to who will be in charge. In Germany, the East caved, and everyone is expecting the North to cave, but it is not willing to, not yet at least.

Despite all the propaganda, there remain deep cultural similarities between the two. One of these is the shared heritage of being probably the most Confucianist of all societies. Neither the North nor the South is officially Confucianist at all, with the North strongly officially anti-Confucianist, while the South is more mildly so. But there remain strong Confucian elements in both socieites, if stressing different aspects of Confucianism. An interesting book that notes Confucian influences in the North is _Human Rights Discourse in North Korea: Post-colonial, Marxist, and Confucian perspectives_, by Jiyoung Song, Routledge, 2011.

I lived in the South for a couple years, I'm not saying this makes me an expert but what the government officially says about reunification doesn't mean a thing. Of course they officially want reunification - to say otherwise would be to massively lose face. The typical South Korean that I know (early-mid 20s), they don't really give a thought to the North or want to deal with this basket case post reunification, they might want it in some abstract sense of the nation being put back together again but in practice I think the number of people in the South who enthusiastically want reunification is becoming smaller and smaller as time passes.
I don't know how culturally similar they are at all - the North and South don't even refer to themselves by the same names: the South Koreans call themselves Hanguk-Salarm while the North seems to call themselves Joseon-Salarm (taking the name from the last royal dynasty). I guess I would take a look at the work of B.R. Myers and the book "The Cleanest Race". Sure they have their shared history but Myer's idea of the North being a Racial Nationalist state carrying on the traditions of the Japanese Colonial era makes a hell of a lot more sense to me then it being some standard Marxist state with some Confucianism thrown in - especially given what I know about the South (I'm not claiming to be an expert though).

A former coworker visited north korea (the US doesn't care, but getting a visa from NK is apparently hard) - and described it in words and photos.

Utterly surreal. A number of things that looked like something out of a dystopian movie (1984, Brazil,...)

And he was never sure to what degree this weirdness was the reality, or it was a special weirdness created just to show visitors?

How come USA won't let people travel to Cuba but are ok with N Korea? i.e. Is there an underlying principle behind the travel embargo policy?

When I try to open the Nat Geo video, I get this: "The uploader has not made this video available in your country." I thought I was in the Free World, not North Korea?

It's interesting to consider that if Stalin had had children and had passed on rule to one of them Russia today would still be Stalinist and very much like North Korea. Things only changed in Russia because key decision making passed from Stalin at his death to people who had some experiences with the down sides of that system and were willing to change/tinker with it. An heir never sees the benefits of change, everything works out ok for him just not for everybody else in the country.

FYI: Stalin did have children. Three sons (one illegitimate) and one daughter. Sons never received any special favors from him.

ultimately, though, it's simply fear of death. the reluctant ones do it because they're afraid of dying and the ones who by the propaganda you don't even have to worry about resisting.

Are there any grassroot attempts by USA / EU etc. at counter-propaganda?

North Koreans on the border receive South Korean TV and occasionally get smuggled DVDs etc. Those in the universities do know about the outside world, as they need to learn Linux to operate their nuclear plants and English for the tourists. But they are kept happy by stealing off the less well-educated. A lot of Goldstein going on.

Thanks for the pointer to Demick's book. That prompted me to write the following blog post on North Korea:

Comments for this post are closed