(Part I of II)
North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 25 million that has been effectively trapped in a Cold War mindset since the 1950s. Like his father Kim Jong-il who ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has run the country through a policy of desperation, repression, and isolation, the last of which has given way to its label as the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea is governed by Juche, a political ideology of self-reliance used to justify the totalitarian military dictatorship and the idolization of its hereditary leadership. Kim il-Sung, the father of Kim Jong-il and grandfather of Kim Jong-un, is the founder of Juche and still the Eternal President of North Korea despite the fact that he has been deceased for over 20 years. Worshiped like a God, the leadership of Kim il-Sung and his successors are treated as infallible, and their policies have driven the country to a draconian state in a constant humanitarian crisis with alarming similarities to George Orwell’s 1984.
North Korea’s leaders have perpetuated a mentality of mortal fear through decades of pro-regime propaganda. The country has instilled into its populace the idea that at any moment South Korea and the ‘evil American imperial empire’ would annihilate them if not for their hard work and the sacrifice of their armed forces. The North Korean active armed forces are the fifth-largest in the world by manpower, a staggering feat considering North Korea is barely in the top 50 of countries by population. Bizarre reports from North Korea such as an official released happiness index placed them at #2 most content behind China, South Korea at #152, and the US at #203 (though the criteria and full rankings are unclear). After a trailer for the movie, “The Interview” featuring James Franco and Seth Rogen was released, North Korea’s UN Ambassador made an official complaint to the United Nations, declaring the film as “the most undisguised act of terrorism as well as an act of war.”
The conclusion of the Korean War (1950-1953) resulted in a cease-fire though not a formal peace treaty, thus technically the two countries have been at war for more than six decades. The sinking of the ROKS Cheonan navy ship that killed 46 South Korean servicemen, and the shelling of Yeongpeong Island, also in 2010, are recent skirmishes that prove North Korea is willing to push the envelope on what is acceptable in terms of brash maneuvers to embolden their own military situation. Though the rhetoric and threats far exceed the reality of the situation, North Korea has shown it is an unpredictable and temperamental thorn in the region. For example, despite an extensive array of measures, sanctions, and incentives offered to give up its nuclear and missile programs, North Korea continues to develop and test its weaponry and nuclear capabilities.
The reality for many North Koreans is far from the front lines, despite hosting the most heavily militarized border in the world with South Korea. Millions of North Koreans live and work in labor camps which have been compared to Nazi labor camps and Soviet gulags. The inhumane conditions are coupled with the extent of service in the camps, which can span past one’s life onto their future kin. In the relatively short span of several generations malnutrition and starvation has resulted in a marked difference in stunted health and growth between North Korean children and their neighbors in South Korea. The health emergency has become the norm in the country and the state has taken great effort to hide the scale and extent of the atrocities. The average North Korean knows next to nothing about the modern world, living in a caged country and with minimal hope for change.
Most comparable humanitarian disasters are troubled by a lack of governing authority and distribution networks. Uniquely, the North Korean government has defiantly rejected food aid many times because of the conditions dependent on halting or ending its nuclear ambitions, and its stance on the donors themselves. Its adherence to the Juche self-reliance ideal has created a paradox of being unable to sustain itself without outside help, while being ideologically against accepting most assistance with the exception of its closest quasi-partner, China. China has seen North Korea as a buffer zone between a united Korea under Western influence, and has desired internal stability in the Hermit Kingdom over an even worse humanitarian disaster that would inevitably come with state collapse. Recently, the United Nations has tried to put additional pressure on China to change its policies towards repatriating North Korean defectors, many of whom must travel to Southeast Asia before being accepted as refugees in South Korea. The transition into the modern world for North Korean defectors is so shocking that assimilation is an extremely difficult task in itself.
While a total reformation of the North Korean political system seems the best way forward for the people of the DPRK, total state collapse would inevitably bring about chaos and tremendous consequences for the millions of refugees that would find themselves in a totally new world they have been taught to fear their entire lives.
(Part II covers the contemporary relations and future of North Korea and can be found here)