There have been plenty of documentaries, columns, and first-hand accounts describing the surrealist life inside the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea. The list of video documentaries illustrating the propaganda pushed by the cult-of-personality Communist government are in many ways consistent. Despite the change in leadership from Kim Il-sung, to Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un, many things in North Koreans’ lives have remained the same.
The history of North Korea since the division of the peninsula in 1945 is largely one of bellicose leaders dedicated to maintaining a militaristic state. North Korea’s alignment with the Communist Soviet Union, and the persisting tensions relating to the Cold War, have driven the adjacent Koreas further apart since 1945. As South Korea has become a modern, capitalist nation, the North Korean people continue to be shut off from technology and the outside world by a ruling family determined to keep them subjugated.
And, each of the Kims has presided over – and been largely responsible for – widespread atrocities against their own people, though they have not all looked quite the same. In 1950, it was Kim Il-sung who decided he would conquer South Korea, “unifying” the nations. The scars of the Korean War remain today, and with an estimated 10% of the North Korean population and Pyongyang reduced to rubble as a result of the war, the conflict has become a historical centerpiece for modern anti-American and anti-South Korean propaganda.
Under Kim Il-sung, the nation was also transformed into a Stalinist-type state, with all private property and organizations seized by the state, and a cult of personality firmly entrenched to consolidate the Kim family’s power. Travel was restricted, all media was controlled, and even the clothing on one’s back technically was the property of the Korean government. He also implemented the Songbun class system, which allows for the subjugation of dissenters under official doctrine. Make no mistake, the modern North Korea was the vision, and result of, Kim Il-sung and his allies, and it is fair to argue that his son, Kim Jong-il, was the lesser evil of the two.
Yet, life for North Koreans under Kim Jong-il did not improve, and for that, the second ruler in the Kim dynasty deserves much blame. Seeming improvements in North Koreans’ quality of life stagnated in the 1970s and 80s as the Communist economic system predictably began to fail. When Kim il-Sung died in 1994, the country was in the throes of economic collapse– a failure facilitated by the Soviet Union’s own disintegration in 1991– and Kim Jong-il was held largely responsible for the state’s economic, industrial, and agricultural failings.
Roughly 5% of the North Korean population was thought to have died as a result of starvation in the mid-90s, and the younger generations remain stunted because of the dearth of nutrients. While the structural failings of Communism are not necessarily the fault of Kim Jong-il, the nation’s treatment of an increasingly desperate and industrious population is.
Instead of admitting the failures of the system, re-orienting allegiances, and transforming into a more modern, even Democratic state, the regime doubled-down on its authoritarianism. As private food and other markets emerged- a necessity for the survival of North Koreans– the Kim Jong-il government saw these markets as the beginning of the end for the preservation of their dictatorship:
‘in late 2009 the regime made their most drastic attempt to restrain the markets to date: a currency reform aimed at wiping out private wealth. The resultant market disruption and rapid inflation reversed the people’s hard-won progress, and even regime projects were derailed.’
This move also left Kim Jong-un with a more unstable situation than ever when Kim Jong-il died in 2011, ceding power to his enigmatic, Western-educated son:
‘North Korean refugees have described this (the shut-down of private markets) as a watershed moment in their diminishing belief in the regime, with anti-regime sentiment so strong that it even rose to the surface in some communities.’
Flash-forward to 2017. It is thought that Kim Jong-un has experimented with some economic liberalization, and I use that term very lightly, that many see as necessary to even the most basic survival of the North Korean people, not to mention the prevention of all-out rebellion. But, the third Kim has also become more radical than his predecessors in many ways:
‘In his first years in power, Kim Jong-un has implemented a new PR style that has portrayed him as a modern version of his grandfather, while purging, demoting and promoting regime officials to secure his power base. The new leadership also moved to crack down on illegal cross-border movement and the inflow of foreign media, increasing repression in the border regions and reducing the number of defectors who managed to make it to South Korea by almost half.’
And, as tensions arise around North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear, inter-continental ballistic missiles, a recent Wall Street Journal column has exposed the way in which the Kim regime has made the atom the center of Korean society. Nuclear war, it seems, is the rallying cry around which Kim Jong-un has attempted to ‘unify’ his people, to an extent that qualifies as surreal:
‘Bomb imagery colors daily life. At an orphanage, children play with plastic mobile rocket launchers instead of toy trucks. Shops sell commemorative intercontinental ballistic missile stamps, while a bakery sells cakes featuring an upright rocket, ready for launch.’
It has been difficult to tell for years where the North Korean citizens draw the line between which of the regime’s abundant propaganda they actually believe and which they must merely pretend to believe in order to survive.
But, the prospect of a generation raised on replicas of ICBMs shows that the Kim regime is as committed as ever to maintaining a grip over its people. And, more frighteningly, how dead-set they are to fostering attitudes that normalize nuclear warfare. For those who believe that Kim is merely interested in acquiring ICBMs for the sake of trade leverage, these depictions of Korean society should induce second thoughts about where Kim will draw the nuclear line.
The Journal reporters were greeted with this welcoming memo:
‘On the day the Journal group flew into Pyongyang, North Korea’s state news agency declared in a news release that all “Yankees” should be “beaten to death, as a stick is fit for a rabid dog,” for persuading the United Nations to enact economic sanctions against the country.’
Clearly, Kim Jong-un is not interested in extending pleasantries to any American representative not named Dennis Rodman. Direct verbal threats to American dignitaries and citizens are nothing new, but in light of the regime’s relentless pursuit of nuclear missiles, they seem more menacing than ever.
Despite the direct, anti-Western rhetoric, reporters allowed into the DPRK were told that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear missiles were for defensive purposes only. As a regime whose grip on power is based largely on lies, who is willing to risk Kim Jong-un with the ability to launch a nuclear strike?
Clearly, the Kim regime is not issuing the same message of self-defense and nuclear moderation to its own people that it did to the WSJ reporters:
‘A restaurant bartender approached by the Journal expressed pride in the country’s advancing missile capabilities after a broadcast of a Sept. 15 missile test played on a television over the bar.
“We will accomplish the final victory against the U.S.,” the bartender said. “I wish they would launch 20 or 30 missiles a day.”’
History tells us it’s safe to assume the words of the North Korean people are merely those that the government insists that they espouse. These words are more telling than any government-issued statement ever could be. And, equally concerning is the complete disregard China continues to show for the threat a nuclear North Korea would pose to its southern neighbor, as well as the United States:
‘(Pyongyang) is also a city undergoing a growth spurt, thanks to an economic miniboom driven by trade with China. Kim Jong Un is adding futuristic-looking skyscrapers, many built for scientists and university lecturers, plus cultural amenities including a water park.’
So, China continues funding the North Korean regime bent on developing a nuclear missile. The same regime that has constructed testaments to the atom bomb in its most visible urban centers. The same regime replacing toy trucks with plastic nuclear missiles, detaining and causing the death of American citizens, etc.
The latest documented iteration of North Korea is the picture of a world increasingly imbued with chaos, and tyrants with increasing access to weapons that threaten to destabilize the control America and other Western nations have established through superior military might.
The question remains: when, and what, will be done to prevent a nuclear Korea? And, if nothing is done to stop this development, how long – not if – will it take for that weapon to be launched successfully at a rival nation?