The land of doublethink: the base of the North-Korean political system

A country, where the portrayal of the debauched imperialist West and Mickey Mouse performing in Pyongyang can easily coexist. A country which runs a nuclear program and tests intercontinental ballistic missiles, while millions of people are on the verge of starving. A country, which operates the world’s most repressive political system, while it takes the adjective “democratic” in its name, and where Denis Rodman could act as a professional diplomat. This is North Korea, the last totalitarian system, or at least the kaleidoscope of it seen from outside.

The base and sustainability of the political system and the working of the regime of the East Asian country can be analyzed by using several different approaches. These are for example the relationship of the regime towards the society (how it controls the society), the interactions among elite groups (how the regime controls the leadership) and the international level (how international conditions of sustainability are built into the regime and how foreign policy could be used as a domestic political instrument). In this article I will examine the first aspect, how the control of the society works.

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When Kim Jong-Un came to power in the end of 2011 expectations all around the world even from well-known experts arose that the young leader who was educated in Switzerland would launch far-reaching political and economic reforms. Nevertheless rhetorical responses and the experiences of the last more than two years totally set these hopes at rest. The Kim dynasty keeps on conducting the accurately elaborated technique of controlling the population of the country. The regime has a wide range of tools for repression; they are using soft power in parallel with fierce “hard” power. The former is referring to the control and uniformization of education and culture and other means of controlling channels of information through intensive media propaganda and restrictions on travelling not just abroad but even inside North Korea. Everyday life of the Korean people is absolutely entangled. Every five family has its own inspector, whose task is to supervise whether they are behaving according to the “lifestyle guidelines” of the beloved leadership. They are forming a comprehensive and hierarchically well-built structure, which can successfully eliminate suspicious and hostile elements.

The North-Korean society is hermetically closed from the few foreigners (for instance reporters or fellow workers of charity organizations) coming to country; they are only permitted to talk with selected people at the assigned places. Visitors recalling their impressions usually emphasize that North-Korea did not show itself as an intolerably oppressive dictatorship. The capital simply acts as a showcase for the world, while rural North-Korea is hidden from the world’s eyes. A positive exception is that in 2012 the government allowed for the AP news agency to open its permanent bureau in Pyongyang – the first Western news agency to do so. Among soft power instruments the regime systematically uses building stones of democratic systems. The appearance of political participation plays an important role; thus – just like in every five years – parliamentary elections were held this March as well. North-Koreans went to the polls – with a 99,97% turnout – to elect members of the Supreme People’s Assembly by voting yes or no to the candidates put up by the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland. Besides showing the democratic characteristics of the system, elections practically serve as a tool of controlling the political elite by nominations and as a kind of census as well.

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The inter-Korean family reunion program is a further element, which might be seen as a part of easing the repression; however it is rather another play card for the regime to take advantages. It started in 2000 and continued roughly annually until 2010, when it was suspended after a border island with debated sovereignty was shelled by North-Korea. After years of exploratory talks, a reunion meeting could be hold in February in the North Korean mountain resort of Mt. Kumgang. During the negotiations Pyongyang connected economic and security questions to the reunion and consciously aspired to reach a package deal. Their concrete conditions were the restart of the Kesong industrial center and the aforementioned Kumgang resort, from which important revenues for the regime could derive. They expected advantageous bargaining positions with good reason because of the pressure put on the South-Korean government from the more than 80.000 mostly elderly applicants waiting to meet their lost family members.

Guidelines mentioned above are based on the official ideological background of the system, called juche (self-reliance) and worked out by Kim Il-sung the Great Leader itself. Juche is more than an ideology; in its expansion and influence it is an all-encompassing belief system, a combination of Korean ethnic nationalism and Marxism-Leninism with the primacy of the first. Korean nationalism dates back to the time when the country was a Japanese colony (since 1910) and has its origins in the assimilation attempts by the invaders. Strong anti-Japanese and anti-imperialist attitude in combination with the communist-led liberation war secured stable ground for Kim Il-sung indoctrinatory plans. Anti-Japanese and anti-western attitude happened to overlap and gained further justification during the Korean War (1950-53) – which could be presented for the people as evidence, that the West hinders the unification of the nation – and after that the US-Japanese strengthening cooperation. On the one hand Juche is an internal tool for evolving cohesion and ideological reliability; on the other hand it is an explanatory and self-justifying framework for the regime’s foreign policy. Juche dismisses dependence and promotes economic and political self-reliance. In order to achieve these objectives in such a hostile environment, it is necessary to obtain and improve military capabilities. This is the way how North Korea officially tries to justify its nuclear program as an instrument of deterrence.

Beyond soft power the regime uses of course the time-honoured method of all totalitarian system: pure violence. The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in DPRK established by the UN Human Rights Council on February 17 released a 370 pages long report on systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in North Korea. “These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” According to the inquiry besides the ordinary prison system there could be about 120.000 prisoners detained in concentration camps. In spite of the gravity of these crimes it is unlikely that the members of the North-Korean regime may be personally held responsible by the International Criminal Court, simply because China as a permanent member of the Security Council – traditionally supportive towards North-Korea, whom sustainability is its vital interest – rejects to consent.

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As we can understand based on limited information, after nearly 70 years of oppression the population of North Korea lives in a parallel universe far from the way of independent thinking, in a world of necessary contradictions. It is not hard to imagine that most of the people hysterically mourning Kim Jong-Il in the end of 2011 showed real emotions, but very hard to imagine how this population could ever be integrated in a democratic society.

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Bálint Vidovics

About Bálint Vidovics

My name is Bálint Vidovics, third year law student at the Eötvös Loránd University and member of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. I have my bachelor’s degree in international studies from the Corvinus University of Budapest. My field of interest is first of all international law and the law of the European Union, but on the blog rather complex foreign political analyses could be expected of me.

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