Friday, October 13, 2006

Blind Loyalty Based on Mythical Self-Reliance

North Koreans may have been trained to be tough, but the socialist nation has always depended on the aid of China and others.
By Mark Magnier
Times Staff Writer

October 12, 2006

BEIJING — Faced with a starving population, an economy that is a shambles and longtime Communist allies tripping over themselves to embrace free-market capitalism, North Korea's leadership long ago turned weakness into strength by steeling its population for permanent war.

The years of spadework have paid off, experts say. With tighter restrictions on oil, food and other goods a near-certainty after Monday's announced nuclear test, Pyongyang seems confident that its long-suffering people — battered by famine, floods and economic mismanagement — will bow their heads and continue to suffer in silence. This is an important surety in the regime's decision to detonate an apparent nuclear device, a major gamble.

Many of the intimidation tactics employed in North Korea to keep its population in line are common to totalitarian regimes elsewhere. But North Korea has taken them to the extreme, analysts say, maintaining a tighter lid on its society than East Germany did in its darkest days.

For decades, North Korea has subjected its population to a propaganda assault centered around the concept of juche, roughly translated as "self-reliance." In recent years, scholars say, the term has also come to connote unquestioned trust in the "living god" leadership of national founder Kim Il Sung and his son, current ruler Kim Jong Il.

This link between sacrifice, national glory and the neardivine leadership is evident in the smallest details. During a tour of Pyongyang's Tower of the Juche Idea last year, guide Park Gyong Nam explained that the 560-foot-high monument was built in 1982, the year of the 70th birthday of Kim Il Sung, using more than 25,000 granite blocks — one for every day of Kim's life, he said.

The truth is that socialist North Korea has never been self-reliant, depending since its formation on the Soviet Union, then China and the United Nations and other international donors to feed itself. But the myth is part of the glue that binds North Koreans to the regime.

"This has a huge impact on people's ability to withstand hardship," said Cui Yingjiu, honorary director of Peking University's Institute for Korean Culture Studies. "For most of the past 100 years, North Koreans haven't had enough to eat or wear. This gives them enormous tolerance for hardship," added Cui, who attended university with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in the early 1960s.

The idea that North Korea has joined the club of seven nations that are declared nuclear powers is also a huge source of honor and confidence for the average North Korean.

"If I were still in North Korea, like ordinary citizens, I would be proud to hear that the nation succeeded in conducting a nuclear test," said Seo Young-seok, 26, a university student living in South Korea who defected in 1999 with his mother and two older sisters. "This is by far a totally different dimension than succeeding at a missile test."

North Korea has no opinion polls, making it difficult to gauge how deeply North Koreans believe their government's propaganda. But a recent project involving North Korean refugees in China provides a clue.

Interviews with 1,300 North Korean expatriates, many of whom had been living in China for months or even years, found nearly 20% still believed North Korea was better off than South Korea, a key claim of the regime. In reality, North Korea's economy is less than one-thirtieth the size of its southern cousin's.

"This gives you some sense of the degree of the socialization in place," said Marcus Noland, a senior fellow with Washington's Institute for International Economics, who was involved in the study. "People may be angry, and there's lots of anecdotal evidence to suggest they are, but that doesn't translate into political action."

Nor would the disaffected have much internal or external support, even if they dared speak out. The state's iron grip on society means there is no domestic institution that might serve as a focal point akin to the role played by the Solidarity labor movement in Poland, the Catholic Church in the Philippines or American-supported nongovernmental assistance organizations in Ukraine, analysts say.

The North's neighbors China and South Korea hardly welcome use of their territory as a base for anti-regime activities that might ultimately give voice to the suffering of ordinary citizens. Far from working against the North, both neighbors have helped prop up the regime, fearful of the refugees and social problems that would flood their countries if Kim fell.

Both dispense unmonitored food aid they know goes mostly to the military rather than ordinary people, fearful of the cost of an implosion. China arrests and harasses North Korean refugees, sending many back. And while in theory any North Korean is entitled to South Korean citizenship, Seoul sets up huge hurdles to control the numbers and has shut down anti-North radio stations after Pyongyang complained.

Adding to North Korea's isolation are U.S. financial sanctions already in place designed to punish Pyongyang for weapons proliferation and suspected money laundering and counterfeiting. These have been surprisingly effective, analysts say, not so much because of the relatively small amount of money frozen at Macao's Banco Delta Asia, much of which is reportedly linked to the North's military, but because of the signal it has sent to banks worldwide.

"It's been a huge shot across the bow for any bank doing business with North Korea," said Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at UC San Diego. "With the sanctions already in place starting to have an effect and talk of further tightening, the North Korean economy is on an incredibly bad path."

Analysts speak of two economic classes in North Korea, the relatively well-off military and party elite and Pyongyang residents, and ordinary citizens elsewhere. Widening the wealth gap further, elites have more access to black-market luxury goods than 15 years ago now that the government's distribution system has started to break down.

The North's economy is around $23.5 billion, or about half of Microsoft's annual sales, ranking it among the poorest nations in the world.

Feelings of international isolation tend to bolster support for a nation's leadership, say Chinese who lived through their country's self-reliance movement, known as zili gengsheng, after falling out with the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

Xia Liping, head of strategic research at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, and a student and soldier in Fujian province in southern China at the time, recalls how it helped unify people in the face of hostile relations with both Moscow and Washington.

"It's the most important way to have people forget their suffering," he said.

Self-reliance is particularly attractive for a small, insecure northern-latitude country with just 22 million people and giants Russia and China sitting to its north.

"If you listen to North Korean history, China didn't even have a role in the Korean War," said Banning Garrett, Asia programs director at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "Now of course they're making self-reliance a reality. They've made everyone angry and will be left to eat dirt all by themselves. They're in deep kimchi."

Bolstering the propaganda is the fact that the regime is not afraid to use force against the slightest sign of dissent. North Korean refugees detail the existence of detention camps with an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 inmates subject to torture, starvation, rape, killing and forced labor, according to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, an independent civic group. Human Rights Watch in its annual report ranks the North among the world's most repressive regimes.

Informants are numerous and every five families "share" one official responsible for ensuring adherence to ruling party ideology.

Propaganda efforts are overseen nationally by the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers' Party. This department is headed by Central Committee Secretary Kim Gi Nam, who has close ties to Kim Jong Il.

Officially, everyone in the nation spends two hours a day in political classes, and all state enterprises and offices are required to devote Saturdays to political education, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. There are also special courses every year for leading cadres at the Kim Il Sung Party School. Students spend two months each summer in camps devoted to military training.

Schools spend most of their time on the teachings of the two Kims, their biographies, and ruling party history. Feature movies and documentaries about the two leaders make up 20% of the broadcasting time on television and radio.

"If you inculcate juche and other beliefs over decades, you start to have a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Andrew O'Neil, a senior lecturer in international studies at Australia's Flinders University. "From what you hear, a lot of people really believe the U.S. is going to invade tomorrow and their best defense is nuclear weapons."

No comments: