History is full of ironies and
if July 6 represented a moment when the first
shoots of a North Korean style glasnost
began poking out of the permafrost, then Mickey
Mouse's appearance at a musical concert by a band
called Moranbong was ironic indeed.
would Walt Disney have made of it? At roughly the
same Kim Jong-eun's grandfather was attempting to
reunify the Korean peninsula under the Red Flag,
Disney was riding on a wave of McCarthyism. He had
long before testified before the House Committee
of Un-America Activities that certain striking
animators were communist agitators.
the Rocky theme music and songs such as
My Way that accompanied the festivities,
the tuxedoed Mouse has been interpreted in some
quarters as a lucky omen. Surely Kim Jong-eun can
see no future continuing his father's style of
education in Switzerland
and a reputed fondness for James Bond flicks and
baseball might indicate a less paranoid and
belligerent attitude to the outside world.
But the Moranbong gig was hardly
representative of North Korea as a whole. While
the Red Guards were smashing reminders of China's
"feudalist" past to pieces during the Cultural
Revolution, Jaing Quing aka Madame Mao was quietly
enjoying The Sound of Music in her private
film theatre. Exposure to 1950s Paris did not
dissuade Pol Pot from turning Cambodia into a
murderous agrarian work camp 20 years later. And
the British upbringing of Mrs Asma al-Assad has
not prevented her husband unleashing catastrophe
on the people of Syria.
So to what extent
has Mickey Mouse (and other representatives of
foreign culture) percolated into the consciousness
of the general population?
Even by the
standards of 20th century totalitarianism, North
Korea was regarded as particularly insular, often
likened to a feudal kingdom from ancient times,
despite the leadership's propensity to spout
Maoist-sounding slogans. Undoubtedly, the
frontiers of North Korea grew porous during the
reign of Kim Jong-il, an era when North Korea's
erstwhile patrons, Russia and China, opened trade
and diplomatic links with the West.
ability of ordinary citizens to form alternatives
to the world view imposed by the state has
traditionally been stymied by an effective
security apparatus, restrictions on communications
technology along with heavily patrolled and mined
borders. Even within North Korea's borders,
citizens require passes to travel between major
The breakdown of the
state distribution system and the spread of famine
conditions, so chillingly spun by the regime as
"The Great Arduous March", resulted in an exodus
across the Tumen and Yalu rivers during the mid-
to late 1990s. This exposed tens of thousands of
citizens to the demonstrably superior living
standards of their Chinese neighbors. There has
been continuous crossing of the border in both
directions since then. North Koreans, albeit at
considerable personal risk, can talk by cell phone
to relatives overseas.
out of the various private markets around the
country now travel to Dandong and even as far as
Shenyang. They have brought back illicit DVDs,
CDs, USB drives and transistor radios. This has
probably been a factor in the regime's often
clumsy attempts to clamp down on private markets
such as the won devaluation fiasco of late 2009.
But if the influence of a monolithic state
orthodoxy has been attenuated, the question arises
as to how much it was simply imposed from above
and maintained by censorship and isolation. And if
official truth has morphed into official fairy
tale, how does the status quo sustain itself?
A clue may be gleaned from the reaction to
Kim Jong-il's sudden death on December 17 last
year. Images of howling middle-aged housewives
beating the pavements flashed around the world.
These competed with those of teary schoolchildren
to provide the most abject and pitiful send-off
for a dictator who had inherited a nation-sized
prison camp and turned it into a nuclear-armed
Decembers are often snowy in
Pyongyang but this did not prevent The Pyongyang
Times surmising that "even the mountains, rivers,
plants and trees seemed to wail". But however
outlandish the scenes might have seemed, last
December's show of public mourning was actually
pretty tepid stuff. At least, it was compared to
the tsunami of mass hysteria that washed over
North Korea following the death of Kim Il-sung on
8 December 1994.
I arrived into Pyongyang
in January, six weeks after these scenes were
broadcast, my first visit to North Korea in over
eight years. It seemed apparent that the younger
Kim, while still the lesser star in the binary
system, glowed with greater luminosity in death.
Books by and about were now far more common than
last time. The Dear Leader's snow-white teeth and
liquid black teeth enlivened the gift shops of
hotels and stalls near the capital's landmarks.
Paintings and murals, once biased towards the
Great Leader, now leaned more towards a Father and
And ahead of the centenary of
his birth, the Grand Monument of Kim Il-sung that
towers 20 meters over the capital's Mansudae
district was off-limits, ensconced in a box of
scaffolding and sheets. In life Kim Jong-il was
notoriously touchy about his lack of stature. As
of April 15, he now towers above everyone else,
immortalized alongside his father in solid bronze.
But for all that, there was very much a
sense that the "Dear Leader" is now part of the
past. The hysteria that commenced in July 1994 was
of a vastly greater volume and longer duration.
Over the next three years, the country lived up to
its reputation as a latter-day "Hermit Kingdom",
as a period of mourning commenced to rival the
funeral rites of the most despotic pharaoh.
Industry and agriculture may have been in
freefall, but this did not prevent the regime
shelling out an estimated $2.68 billion on
ceremonies and monuments to its departed despot.
The sea of convulsing, howling faces had
its fakers. A defector whom I interviewed in
London recalls rubbing his eyes red and placing
spit on his cheeks, wary of consequences if he was
seen not to display the required level of anguish.
But the grief was certainly genuine for large
swathes of the population.
economy was already deteriorating, Kim Il-sung had
the good fortune to die before famine conditions
were widespread, ensuring the North Koreans would
remember his rule, for the most part, as a time of
reliable harvests and electricity.
self-concocted ideology of Juche, lauding
national self-reliance and delivered in a
bullying, petulant fashion, may have sounded
ridiculous to the outside world. Especially when
set against the reality of a North Korea
bottle-fed on Chinese and Soviet aid, in the
decades following the Heroic Fatherland Liberation
War of 1950-3.
But its core tropes
nevertheless appealed to a proud people who felt
humiliated by the 1910-45 Japanese occupation and
traumatized by the subsequent war with America and
its allies. The primacy placed on the wisdom of an
authoritarian patriarch harked back to Confucian
tradition. Kim could also draw on the more recent
arrival of evangelical Protestantism in Korea to
flatter his subjects. Stripping away the
communistic jargon, they could imagine themselves
as a chosen people, being led to a promised land
after a period of tribulation.
1953 and 1994, only a select few thousand North
Koreans travelled outside of the country each
year, many of them political prisoners or
criminals engaged in manual labor. In the late
1960s, the Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev
permitted Kim Il-sung to send about 15,000 North
Koreans per year to work in the Russian Far East.
Even today, the remittances of North Koreans
working there, usually as lumberjacks, are an
important source of revenue. Overseas workers are
monitored by North Korean agents and in case, work
in fortified rural camps prevent interaction with
With very few exceptions, those
that did travel did so to other communist nations.
Almost all belonged to the haeksim (Core
class), people who lived relatively comfortable
lives in an era when North Korean living standards
compared quite well to those of other communist
In any case, North Korean
military advisers, diplomats and technicians
visiting the likes of Cuba, Angola, Zimbabwe or
Romania would be overtly chaperoned and discreetly
spied upon. To even fraternize with locals, let
alone defect, was to risk appalling consequences
for their entire family back home.
the time of Kim Il-sung's death, it is likely that
the majority of North Koreans genuinely saw
themselves as inhabiting an island of plenty in a
sea of want. But the delusion of unique privilege
had evaporated long before the death of Kim
Jong-il last December.
Western commentators continue to categorize North
Korea's population as "brainwashed" or
"indoctrinated". North Korea is routinely ascribed
an "Orwellian" character, as if Oceania, the
omnipotent dictatorship of Nineteen Eighty
Four, whose people imbibe such grotesque
slogans as "Freedom is Slavery" and "Ignorance is
Strength", is manifest in today's DPRK. In the
post-Cold War era, it has even become fashionable
to liken North Korea to the world's largest
In truth such
analogies became redundant nearly 20 years ago.
The regime initially tried to resist the
proliferation of mobile phone technology at the
turn of the millennium. The introduction of local
networks was blocked in 2004, after the
authorities believed one was used in the massive
blast that devastated the Ryongchon rail station
As of December 2008, the state
has owned a 25% state in Koryolink, the DPRK's
only mobile operator, a joint venture with the
Egyptian Orascom Telecom Media and Technology SAE.
In keeping with the traditions of the personality
cult, the first few digits of the Koryolink
mobiles were 1912: the year of Kim Il-sung's
At present mobile usage accounts
for around 1 million out of a population of 24
million, hardly market saturation. On the train
from Sinuiju to Pyongyang, I saw numerous North
Koreans of all ages, chattering away. These
people, however, were prohibited from making
overseas calls or accessing the Internet.
But it is possible to access the Internet
using special smuggled memory cards. Moreover,
some North Koreans have made money renting out
Chinese mobile phones covered by networks on the
far side of the border. This has allowed contact
with relatives in China or South Korea. A fixer or
friend can arrange to pay for credit while in
China. This of course entails great dangers, but
defectors have reported how an illicit mobile can
be buried in plastic at a concealed location.
The South Korean government and various
NGOs continue to engage in various attempts to
disseminate information within the DPRK by
conducting radio broadcasts, in similar fashion to
the operations of Radio Free Europe during the
Cold War. Meanwhile, South Korean NGOs, such as
The Campaign for Helping North Koreans in a Direct
Way, the North Korean People's Liberation Front
and the Association of North Korean Refugee's
Organizations, are involved in their own ways.
They have attempted to fly balloons over
the southern Demilitarized Zone, carrying flyers,
CDs, DVDs and USB drives. While private trade and
contact with China may be having a more corrosive
effect on state orthodoxy, the authorities took
these activities seriously enough to attempt to
assassinate Park Sang-hak, a prominent defector
engaged balloon flying at the border, last year.
After nearly two decades, it can be said
that the North Korean status quo is these days
perpetuated not by brainwashing but by blackmail.
Kim Il-sung's policy of targeting the
extended families of perceived "anti-state"
criminals, continued by his son and so far, by his
grandson, effectively creates a population of
Since 1948, the regime has
fostered a culture of surveillance and informing,
with grassroots neighborhood units called
inminban tasked with keeping tabs on minor
infractions and backsliding. For more serious
recalcitrance, the agents of the dreaded Bowibu
(National Security Agency) have direct control of
almost all the kwan-li-so, North Korea's
network of penal labor camps, said to hold up to
150,000 inmates. Once convicted of a "political"
crime, deportees to theses camps are often
accompanied by parents or children. The threat
even hangs over defectors, illustrated by the
tragic case of Oh Kil-nam, whose two daughters and
(reportedly) deceased wife were detained in one of
the kwan-li-so, following his 1986
In that sense, the Rocky
and Disney-loving "Great Successor" has inherited
an archetypal dictatorship, for all its
strangeness. Given events further west, the
world's youngest premier must be pondering its
fragility beneath the smiles and the bars of the
is a freelance journalist who writes on Korean
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