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North Korea — Same Old Story, Same Old Song?

Athena Tacet | jhrConcordia

 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was born of Heaven and able to control the weather. These are some of the numerous myths which have been part of a long-lasting campaign of propaganda elaborated by the state-run press agency Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). State media reported unusually cold weather when the leader died from a heart attack at age 69 last Dec.19.

Following the Kim family’s tradition of covering the truth with a thick veil of secrecy, Pyongyang only released the information two days after the death in order to give some time to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) to post a video of propaganda, which with English subtitles aimed at showing Koreans mourning the death of their beloved leader to the foreign audience. Kim Jong il’s son Kim Jong-Un has already taken the reins of power and been recently elevated to the status of “Great Successor”, the BBC reported on Dec. 27.

In light of such events, there is much uncertainty as to how the future of the nation and the rest of the region will unfold. One thing remains sure: The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea finds itself at the heart of some of the greatest paradoxes and mysteries. Trapped between the necessity for modernity and the remains and inheritance of the Cold War, this tiny state has been surprisingly able to conserve with great success some of the most deeply rooted principles of the communist ideology. It also borders South Korea, one of the most industrialised and capitalistic countries in Asia.

Recognised for its strategic position on the international scene as one of the five greatest armies in the world and as a power with nuclear capacity, North Korea has alarmed many. Needless to say that the nuclear power and military status of the country has not benefited the population. Their military first policy showed in the 1990s it could drive the country to the road of extreme starvation. With a 1.2 million-strong armed forces and the support of neighbouring China, North Korea is politically and geostrategically strong. Nonetheless it is not prosperous. According to the “2010 World Population Report” published by the United Nations Population Fund, Kim Jong-il’s regime saw a dramatic expansion of the military, as the life expectancy was slowly decreasing. Today, the 25 million North Koreans live three and a half years lower than they did in 1994 when Kim il-Sung was succeeded by Kim Jong-il. The country has been on the threshold of a health and humanitarian crisis with more than 13 million North Koreans suffering from malnutrition, including 60 percent of children, the U.N’s World Food Program revealed last September.

In short, without the economic and political help of China, added to the food help provided by numerous international NGOs, the country would not have been able to overcome most of the crises it faced. According to the Council on Foreign Relations website, Pyongyong’s economic dependence on China is undeniable and rapidly increasing, as the Middle Kingdom has provided the country with nearly 45 percent of its food and has accounted for more than 90 percent of its energy imports since the early 1990s. The World Food Program has also been a key actor operating in the country. Since 1995, the organisation has delivered 2 million tons of food, worth $500 million, making it the largest international aid agency operating in the country.

Consequently, North Korea represents one of the most subtle cases in point of the irrefutable inviability of political and economic autarchy in the long run. The state sometimes proceeds to nuclear tests, as though it wanted to remind the world that it is still a significant player in the international scene. But aside from the nuclear threat it poses and its strategic location as a neighbour of the Middle Kingdom, North Korea is not diplomatically, economically and politically strong in the international arena. This reality needs not to be forgotten in any analysis regarding East-West relationships, as well as democracies in contemporary politics.

In North Korea, authoritarianism has reached a completely different level. Political analysts have used terms like “brainwashing” and “propaganda” to describe the main reasons explaining the survival of this autocratic system.

Some of the methods the state uses to enforce its power, including control of Internet and the media, as well as censorship of information and constant threats of torture for political opponents and for people with different religious faiths, have been at the heart of this long-lasting autocratic system. Once nicknamed “Jerusalem of the East,” Pyongyang is now the metonymy of a place which is one of the least tolerant nations in the world in terms of freedom of expression and religion. North Korea has been for the last ten years on top of the world’s index in terms of how it has persecuted Christians, said Open Doors , an NGO which aims at protecting Christians worldwide. Under Kim il-Sung and since 1994 under Kim Jong-il, the fascist philosophical ideology of Juche (self-reliance) has been raised to the level of obligatory religion. Any other religion is strictly prohibited. After the atrocities of World War II, many Westerners may not imagine that concentration camps remain a reality for some. Yet, Amnesty International published last year satellite imagery revealing that nearly 200,000 North Koreans are currently enslaved in labour camps, victims of torture, hunger, forced abortions, infanticide and public executions. Among them, between 50 and 70 thousand Christians are held there because their faith was discovered and reported to the authorities, Open Doors reports.

Source of paradoxes and mysteries, old entity in an increasingly modernised world, neighbour of one of the most industrialised nations in the Eastern world, North Korea remains a mystery for many. Similarly, the Western world does not know much about 28-year-old successor Kim Jong-Un. As the transition is taking place, many wonder whether the nuclear threat and the anti-imperialistic ideology will continue to prevail. Questions such as the necessity and efficacy of the involvement of the West in North Korea remain unanswered. What is a reality however is the fact that in an era of globalization, where most countries tend to open and liberalize their economies even to the smallest degree and democratize their systems, a country like North Korea cannot be viable in the long run. Contemporary History has shown that dictatorships can be viable, but only for some decades.

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