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     Aug 24, 2012

Kim will dance to his own tune
By Tom Farrell

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.

What 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.

Like 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 rule? An


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.

The 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 population centers.

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.

Merchants operating 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 famine state.

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 Son theme.

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.

Although the 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.

His 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.

Between 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 locals.

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 societies.

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.

So by 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.

Nevertheless, many 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 mind-controlling cult.

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 that April.

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 birth.

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 hostages.

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 defection.

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 Rocky theme.

Tom Farrell is a freelance journalist who writes on Korean affairs.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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