The so-called ‘hermit kingdom’

One of the standard phrases used when speaking of the DPRK (North Korea) is ‘hermit kingdom’. It is meant to portray a country entirely closed off from the world. You can neither enter nor leave, so the assumption goes, and no country or individual in their right mind would want to engage with the DPRK.

I am not quite sure of the source of this idea. To be sure, hostile countries find it impossible to spy on the DPRK, which is not a bad thing. But as for getting in and out of the country, this is quite easy to do. Any number of tour operators can get you there, and you can go to study, teach for a while, and so on.

International relations? Let’s take a sample of some of the latest activities:

In a report on congratulations to Xi Jinping’s election for a second term as president of China, who should be first on the list? Kim Jong Un. Others of course appear, all of them specifically important Asian partners – including Shinzo Abe from Japan.

The Pyongyang Times reports from Mongolia one of the many events – a photo exhibition – celebrating 70 years of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and the DPRK.

Then there is the ongoing relationship with Nepal, as also with Cuba, Syria, Iran, Mozambique, Nigeria, India, Egypt, Cambodia, Bulgaria, The Netherlands, Singapore, New Zealand  … Russia particularly has regular interaction with the DPRK, with a Russian delegation recently visiting. Of course, we find regular participation in international sporting events, such as football, wrestling, acrobatics and the Olympics.

But the connections with Sweden are perhaps the closest for any country that counts itself as part of Western Europe and the North Atlantic. Diplomatic relations began in 1973, with embassies opened in 1975. They have been close ever since, with the DPRK foreign minister heading for Sweden a couple of days ago to ‘exchange views on bilateral relations and issues of mutual concern’, as Rodong Sinmun puts it.

A ‘hermit kingdom’? Hardly.

 

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The real story about the economy of the DPRK

Hedlund has provided an invaluable link to an article in the Asia-Pacific Journal on the myth of the ‘North Korean collapse’. Well worth a careful read, and it backs up my anecdotal impressions when I visited a couple of years ago. Keen to get back and spend more time there.

A North Korean Perspective on Reunification

Since the DPRK (North Korea) is in the corporate news, and full of the usual misrepresentation, I thought I would reprise a section of an article I wrote a couple of years ago on Korean reunification – from the perspective of the north.

Reunification been a consistent policy of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea since its earliest days. But on what terms? A northern takeover of the south? Not at all. The policy is that reunification would be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. This position was made explicit in the Communiqué of 1972, after the leaders of both countries had secretly met. In 1973 and again in 1980, Kim Il-sung reiterated this position, proposing a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

However, the most significant movement happened after the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of 2000, between Kim Jong-il of the north and Kim Dae-jung of the south. Given that reunification has been a core northern policy, the change was obviously in the south. Here more progressive governments became open to the idea and agreed to the declaration. The change began with Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of 1998. The result was the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

But as is the way with the vagaries and uncertainties of bourgeois democracies, the south changed its tune in 2008 with the new president, Lee Myung-bak. His right-wing policies led to a hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now. Perhaps an opening up from the south may be possible once again if Moon Jae-in wins the elections this year. Who knows.

But the north Koreans I have met continue to hope ardently for an eventual reunification along federated lines.

The origins of the DPRK: From Division to Reunification

The propaganda on which we were raised had it that the Second World War came to an end through the decisive action of the United States in dropping a couple of atomic bombs on Japan. Then, US troops immediately moved to the Korean Peninsula to ensure that the freedom-loving Koreans were not subjected to the totalitarian rule of evil communists. They were not entirely successful, because the north had been overrun by the Soviet Red Army, which brutally imposed collectivisation and socialist methods on the north. They then appointed a puppet as leader, Kim Il-sung. A few years later, the United States and troops from other nations such as Australia defended the southerners from aforesaid evil communists when the latter tried to take over the whole peninsula during the Korean War. Since then, the people of the south have earnestly wanted reunification, but the totalitarian ‘regime’ of the north has simply not been interested.

Needless to say, this account is more than a little biased, so let me see if I can provide some correctives.

To begin with, as war historians have long pointed out (see, for instance, Geoffrey Roberts), Japan began suing for surrender as soon it became clear that its colonisation of Korea and parts of China would soon be over. This occupation had been in trouble for some time, with Chinese and Korean fighters – led by the communists – undermining the occupying forces. But the decisive moment came when the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrived, fresh from the capture of Berlin and after having spent more than two weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway line. As Japanese troops were routed, Japan began suing for peace.

Somewhat alarmed, the United States hastily decided to drop an atomic bomb. This was entirely unnecessary for ending the war, since the Japanese were about to surrender. But the United States had its eyes on the post-war situation, using the two bombs to show the world, and especially the Soviet Union, its new firepower. In this light, the use of the bombs actually constitutes a war crime. Not satisfied, United States troops made haste to land on the Korean Peninsula and push as far north as possible.

At this point, the situation began to resemble Germany after the Second World War. In the north were Korean communists, led by Kim Il-sung, supported by Chinese units and the Red Army. In the south were American troops, which established the Allied Military Government. Now it becomes interesting. In theory, the Soviets and the Americans were allies, but they did not behave so. Kim Il-sung proposed that the Korean people should decide on the post-war situation in Korea. This entailed the removal of foreign forces from north and south. Negotiations over this process went on for three years.

Or rather, people tried to negotiate. The American military governor in the south, Lieutenant General Hodge, refused to meet with delegations. Syngman Rhee, a staunch anti-communist strongman, was appointed as provisional leader. Under his direction and with American support, a series of uprising in the south were brutally crushed. In autumn of 1946, workers and peasants rose up against the American occupation; from April 1948 until 1953 islanders from Jeju rebelled; in October 1948 regiments in the southern Korean army rose up in the Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion; in December 1949, Mungyeong citizens and their families were massacred since they were suspected of being communist sympathisers. In suppressing these socialist movements, swathes of villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

These repressions were all part of the mechanisms for establishing a separate state in the south. Indeed, it was declared in August 1948, with Syngman Rhee as president. In response, the north found itself needing to declare the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The comparison with East and West Germany is striking. There too, the Anglo-American forces stalled on negotiations for a united Germany, which was pushed by the eastern Germans, as well as Stalin and Molotov. There too, plans began in 1948 for a separate state in the western parts, which was foreshadowed by a new currency. There too the West German state was declared first, in September 1949. And there too the east had no option but to respond with its own state. Throughout, the aim was to keep Germany separated, despite the will of most of the people.

In light of all this, what has happened to the desire for Korean unification? It has been consistent policy of the Democratic Republic of Korea since its earliest days. But on what terms? A northern takeover of the south? Not at all. The policy is that reunification would be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. This position was made explicit in the Communiqué of 1972, after the leaders of both countries had secretly met. In 1973 and again in 1980, Kim Il-sung reiterated this position, proposing a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

However, the most significant movement happened after the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of 2000, between Kim Jong-il of the north and Kim Dae-jung of the south. Given that reunification has been a core northern policy, the change was obviously in the south. Here more progressive governments became open to the idea and agreed to the declaration. The change began with Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of 1998. The result was the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

But as is the way with the vagaries and uncertainties of bourgeois democracies, the south changed its tune in 2008 with the new president, Lee Myung-bak. His right-wing policies led to a hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now.

The north Koreans I encountered view that time as one of hope disappointed, although they ardently hope for an eventual reunification along federated lines.

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Communist Mystery: The Secret Appeal of the DPRK

Many are the reasons as to why one would want to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For some it is way off the ‘beaten track’. The fact that many people think you cannot travel to the place at all reinforces this sense. For some it provides a window into what the communist countries of Eastern Europe might have been like before 1989. Indeed, the tourist companies trade on this desire, offering Soviet architecture tours or plane tours in which you fly with Air Koryo’s fleet of Tupolevs. For some it is an effort at reinforcing their own ‘world’, to remind themselves of how ‘bad’ socialism really is and why capitalism is far ‘better’. For some it is a genuine desire to see what this form of socialism looks like, even to the point of sympathising with the sheer effort of maintaining the system. For these people, it is extraordinary that the DPRK has survived for almost seventy years.

For some, however, it is the appeal of what I would like to call ‘communist mystery’. By this I mean the profound sense that the DPRK is keeping much hidden from public scrutiny. More than once has the ancient foreigner’s title of Korea as the ‘hermit kingdom’ been used for the north. Indeed, whole projects exist – sponsored by the limited ‘intelligence’ services of countries such the United States – to try and find out what is happening in the DPRK. Most of that is pure speculation, since they really cannot find out all that much. Foreign journalists are forbidden to enter the country and one is not permitted to take in any GPS device. Add to this the fact that the telephone networks do not connect internationally, and that there is a separate phone network for foreigners who visit the country. The two networks do not connect with one another. And the DPRK’s computer systems also remain internal, without connection (mostly) to the wider internet. A visitor is therefore ‘off the grid’ when visiting the place.

This mystery, of course, generates a desire by some visitors to act as pseudo-journalists, attempting to find out about what is being kept hidden. It may take the form of trying to photograph items they think they are not supposed to photograph, or of ducking off from a tour group for a few minutes to see what might be seen. But let me give two examples.

When travelling the metro system, one is told not to photograph the metro tunnels. You may photograph anything else – people, metro cars, the glorious artwork in the stations, one another – but not the tunnels. So of course one or two try to photograph the tunnels. Who knows, they may hold some secret weapon stash, or some underground laboratories, or whatever. But as soon as the photographs are taken, a platform attendant immediately walks up, calls to a guide and demands that the photograph be deleted. This only exacerbates the mystery. I happened to be standing next to one such culprit when the deletion took place. The photograph merely contained a black space, with nothing to see. But the fact that you could not take a photograph of black space meant that it much conceal something.

The other example is the fabled ‘fifth floor’ of the Yonggakdo Hotel, one of the hotels where many visitors stay. The lifts skip by the fifth floor, jumping from four to six. And if one has bothered to check the internet, then stories abound of the mysteries of the fifth floor (check google or youtube). Many are speculations: here the guides are kept under guard so as not to be corrupted by foreigners; here is equipment to spy on visitors; here is a crack military squad ready to deal with any problem. To add to the mystery, occasionally a guard may appear and sternly demand that you depart. In our group, a few tried to get to the fifth floor by the stairs. One or two even managed a photograph. What did they reveal? Some pipes, perhaps a door or a wall or a corridor. And of course rooms with doors. Nothing else.

That is the point: nothing is there. The Koreans are very good at creating the impression that something is there, hidden from prying eyes. I suspect that they have created such zones precisely to maintain the mystery, for it appeals immensely to some foreigners, especially of the bleeding heart liberal type. Nothing actually exists in the metro tunnels except tracks for the trains. And nothing is to be found on the fifth floor of the hotel, except rooms and a possible guard to tell you not to enter. After all, if there really was something to hide, why have stairs with a door that opens on the fifth floor, or why have a ‘secret lift’ that visitors can actually use to get close to the fifth floor?

Let the mystery continue, for it keeps some visitors coming.