Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

     Feb 7, 2008
Page 2 of 2
A breach in North Korea's iron curtain

By Andrei Lankov

However, there are other remarks. For many visitors, this is the first-ever opportunity to meet North Koreans, and they do not fail to notice that those people do look, well, like people: "At first I felt tense when talking to our guide, but then saw him smiling. Such a warm smile!" One can wonder whether warmness is the most typical quality of a secret police officer in one of the world's cruelest dictatorships, but at any rate the visitors came to perceive North Korea not as an abstract concept or geographic space, but as a country inhabited by real people, made of flesh and blood.

The impact on the other side is equally important. The extraordinary security measures undertaken by the North Korean authorities ensure that only a very limited number of northerners are allowed to approach the visitors. Nonetheless, the tours are a

major event.

Every single day, a small city is invaded by an impressive motorcade: 10 large imposing buses, half a dozen jeeps and other vehicles - incidentally, produced in South Korea. The preparations are thorough and, one might suspect, seriously disrupt the city's routine. The North Koreans can see, albeit from the distance, the visitors - their dress, their height, their behavior. The South Koreans can immediately see how poor the North is. It seems that North Koreans, being necessarily street-smart, also instantly feel the South Korean prosperity.

Some North Koreans are allowed to interact with the tourists. The guides, for example, are even encouraged to talk, both gathering intelligence and spreading North Korean propaganda. From their questions it becomes clear which issues they are required to investigate on a particular day. However, even those toughs from the Dear Leader's secret police remarkably change their behavior when they get an opportunity to talk one-on-one.

Instead of fishing for bits of useful intelligence, many of them demonstrate a seemingly genuine interest in the South Korean lifestyle. One of the guides could not hide his surprise when he learned that a fancy digital camera owned by one of the tourists cost US$1,500. Obviously, he assumed that the girl must be the daughter of a rich landlord or an evil pro-US capitalist, and was visually surprised to discover that she is a humble school teacher from a small countryside town.

The waitresses, girls in small stalls and even a handful of genuine guides (not the plaincloth intelligence operatives) who can see the visitors will also notice a lot. Even the willingness of the guests to spend a dollar on a cup of instant coffee or a few cookies is an important sign to them - after all, the average monthly salary in Kaesong is about $4. Those South Korean guests definitely do not look like impoverished victims of evil US imperialism. For a while it will be possible to explain away their extravagant behavior by insisting that those people come from the exploitive elite. But the longer the tours continue, the more difficult the task will become.

The author remembers growing up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. By then we knew that foreign tourists were rich and we also suspected that Western countries were living very well. An occasional Western movie, a chance encounter with well-dressed foreign tourists, a foreign short-wave broadcast, made this obvious. However, in the case of the Soviet Union, the growing realization of our own economic disadvantage did not immediately translate into political action. After all, Finland or France were foreign countries, with different histories and cultures, and so government indoctrinators could plausibly argue that the "uniquely tortured" history of 20th-century Russia was largely responsible for our relative poverty. Not all believed these statements, but some, including the present author in his teenage years, certainly did.

In Korea, the situation is different: both South and North officially consider themselves to be two parts of the same nation. The regime's claims to legitimacy have always been based on its supposed ability to deliver better material life for its subjects, and the alleged North Korean prosperity was always contrasted in Pyongyang propaganda with the supposed South Korean destitution.

Unfortunately for the North Korean government, the opposite is actually true: depending on which calculations one believes, the per capita income in the South is between 17 and 40 times higher (perhaps the world's greatest difference between two countries sharing a land border). If common North Koreans come to realize that another half of their country is fabulously rich, this discovery might have seriously subversive effects, and the government understands this very well. This is the reason why the North Korean regime for decades has maintained a policy of information self-isolation, which far exceeds examples from other communist states, including Joseph Stalin's Russia.

So why did the North decide to open Kaesong in the first place? It seems that the major reason is the easy currency income the project brings to Pyongyang. Every visitor pays 180,000 won ($190) - a hefty sum for a one-day bus trip. Out of this amount, 100,000 won goes to the North Korean authorities. All investment into necessary infrastructure is done by Hyundai Asan, so for the North this is easy money. Since 17,000 visitors joined the tours during the first two months of its operations, annual earnings could be in excess of $10 million.

At the same time, they might believe that the Kaesong area has become ideologically contaminated anyway. The Kaesong industrial park is located just a few kilometers from the city. In this facility, some 15,000 North Korean workers are employed in factories owned and run by South Korean capital, largely small businesses which are in desperate need of "cheap labor".

These workers interact with South Koreans regularly, and they also see life inside the industrial park, which presents a remarkable contrast with their native towns or villages: well-paved roads, trees planted everywhere, modern buildings and round-the-clock supply of water and electricity. Even traffic lights, famously absent from North Korea, are present in this de-facto South Korean enclave.

Therefore, the Pyongyang rulers obviously decided that tours would not make much difference in an area where so many people had already got hints of South Korean affluence.

Instead, they greatly increased surveillance and control. In North Korea, all citizens are required to apply for a "travel permit" when they decide to go outside their native city or county. A few months ago there were reports that the authorities had introduced new rules in regard to trips to Kaesong: permission for such trips was made very difficult to obtain.

Nonetheless, the changes are important. Contrary to what many people think, North Koreans living in the area along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) are worst informed about life in the outside world, and especially in South Korea. The DMZ is safely sealed so no exchanges of any kind have been possible since the 1950s.

"Dangerous" knowledge about overseas affluence began to penetrate North Korea in the mid-1990s, but it spreads largely from the northern regions where the badly guarded border with China, crossed by numerous smugglers and refugees, has became the major conduit for such unauthorized information. Therefore, paradoxically, the further a particular area is from the border with the South, the more informed its inhabitants are about South Korean life.

Now things are likely to change. Despite all police efforts, the rumors will start spreading, and very soon the inhabitants of the southern counties will know that just kilometers away there is another life, colorful, strange and unbelievably rich. As long as the system works, they will keep their mouths shut, but if there are cracks and signs of instability in Pyongyang, those people might react. And this might make a difference. Riots somewhere in the far north, in Hamhung or Ch'ongjin, can be easily localized and suppressed: the rebels will have nowhere to run, the news can be safely blocked. Similar "disturbances" in a major urban center sitting right on the border will become a different matter.

Many opponents of the North Korean regime criticize the current South Korean approach as "spineless". They present the Sunshine policy of engagement as a chain of concessions which only feed the regime.

The Kaesong tours have already attracted such predictable criticism. However, the critics seem to be wrong. The Sunshine policy might be based on wrong assumptions and is sometimes executed quite badly, but it still produces an important and lasting effect.

The only way to promote change, evolutionary or revolutionary, is to bring North Koreans into contact with the outside world. The North Korean dictator and his elite might see partial exchanges as an easy way to earn money, which is necessary for them to maintain their caviar and cognac lifestyle. In the short term they are probably right. But in the long term, the exchanges will make breaches in the once monolith wall of information blockade. Sooner or later, those breaches will become decisive.

Andrei Lankov is an associate professor in Kookmin University, Seoul, and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacifica and Asian Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

1 2 Back





All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110