Between nuclear tension and caricature Communists, getting a real picture of everyday life in North Korea is rare. Voting reform activist and conflict expert Peter Emerson has spent the past year travelling the world, including to the famous hermit country. Opening up a little green window into reality in North Korea, he joins the dots between the nation’s troubled past, present quality of life, and hopes for the future.

Germany was divided where the Soviet Red Army met the Allies at the end of World War II. And in 1986, when cycling across the two halves, it was interesting to see how a mere 40 years of division had created two different sets of ‘national’ peoples, the ‘wessies’ and the ‘ossies’.

As in Germany, the end of the war spelled a split for Korea. While the future of Korea, a Japanese colony from 1910, had been discussed at Yalta in 1944, the talks did not go into any great detail. And so, following Japan’s defeat it was occupied by Soviet forces from the north and US forces from the south, before being divided somewhat arbitrarily along the 38th parallel. As a consequence, two puppet regimes were set up in 1948 and Korea has remained divided for 70 years. The South was established first, initially ruled by Syngeman Rhee, returned from exile in the US. Shortly afterwards, North Korea was created under Kim Il-sung, home from the USSR and Manchuria. Weary of war, both sets of occupying forces then went home. History did not stop however and one year later, the Soviets had their own nuclear bomb, Máo Zédōng was in control of mainland China, and Communism, it was argued, had to be contained.

So when North Korea’s army marched over the border and took Seoul in 1950, the Americans, as part of a wider UN force (the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council in protest at China’s position being held by Taiwan rather than Beijing) rushed to help the South. This force in turn overran the North as well until Chinese ‘People’s Volunteers’ pushed them back again. So, after terrible loss of life and with no permanent peace accord, everything returned to the status quo ante. In Korea, one out of every ten was dead, wounded or missing; China 800 000, while the US suffered 30 000 casualties.

Today however, it seems this last hangover from the Cold War may be over. Korea might well be re-united (and rather sooner than Ireland), but there are three main areas of concern: human rights, the economy, and democratisation.

Painful legacies and a terrible present

The South did not start well when it comes to human rights, its most infamous incident being the Gwangju massacre, while the North still falls way behind. Individual rights in the North are minimal. Careers, though obtaining objective information can be difficult, are  often determined by the state. Houses are not bought and sold but allocated, with some professionals – university teachers, for example – all living in the same compound. Travel, too, is sometimes restricted, even internally let alone abroad.

In this way, almost everything is state-controlled and the worst excesses are in the labour camps. A reliable source suggests about 20 000 remain incarcerated – the figure used to be much higher – and those inside have no rights and little hope. Or such has been the case until recently. With Kim Jong-un meeting Donald Trump in Singapore, however, many North Koreans are hopeful of change. How will it come about? For the moment at least, that depends entirely upon the Supreme Leader.

Autarky versus openness

Economically, the North did rather better than the South initially. In the 1990s, however, as with the mistakes of collectivisation in the USSR (in which over 20 million died) and China’s Great Leap Forward (where the figure approximates to 40 million), there was a man-made famine in North Korea as well. Up to 1 million people died and Pyongyang was forced to ask for international aid.

In theory, the North has a policy of self-reliance, Juche, which was introduced in 1972. Industries are state-controlled, agriculture is collectivised. It was this spirit of Korean unity, the locals are told, which in 1945 brought Japanese colonialism to an end (no mention is made of America’s role in World War II). The same spirit then defeated the Americans in 1953 in the Korean War (little is said of China’s contribution). Thus Korean nationalism is presented as ensuring peace and, albeit from a very low base, perhaps growing prosperity too. In accordance with Juche, up to 50 per cent of North Korea’s fairly low energy consumption is generated from renewable sources.

As with houses, so too land is not owned. Out in the countryside, men and women are often seen on their way to work, crowded into the backs of open lorries. Then, in small groups in the fields, all work together with little or no mechanisation, and sometimes only a bullock or two to help. That said, everything appears to be well organised, the plants are well tended, and the prospects for this year’s harvest look good.

All the produce is bought by the state for distribution to the towns, some of which are in a shoddy state, especially those in the north-east. Indeed, in many rural parts, the roads are just tracks, while the railways sometimes suffer long delays due to power cuts. Some state industries appear to be at best old-fashioned, except, by all accounts – for these I definitely did not see – those associated with the military. The capital also enjoys an excessive share of public spending, much of which has been channeled either into countless monuments to celebrate Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, or various white elephants like the huge 675-member Supreme People’s Assembly.

For the average North Korean, life is pretty basic. There are very few cars, which is perhaps a good thing, and lots of bicycles, which is definitely good. As in China but to an even greater extent, the media is all state-controlled, as too is a very restricted internet. Nevertheless, the young are enjoying their not-very-smart phones, often with a thirst to know what is happening in other parts of the world.

In huge contrast to the North, the South became one of Asia’s ‘tiger economies’, with global companies such as Samsung and Hyundai. So today, the economic and life-style differences between the two halves are huge, and far greater than those which existed in the East and West Germany, prior to their re-unification in 1990.

Democracy in name only

Despite its name, democratisation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK, [the North] has been minimal. There are many entities which describe themselves as ‘democratic’ despite being the very opposite, like the German Democratic Republic was for example. Another example is Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, the DUP – after all, democracy is for everybody but unionism is not. Likewise in Bosnia, the Serb Democratic Party of Radovan Karadžić is another oxymoron.

But back to Pyongyang, where all power rests with the Supreme Leader, the third Kim: Kim Jong-un. The ‘democratic’ bit is the Assembly in which the candidates are chosen by the state and then elected by universal suffrage on the basis of a ‘yes-or-no?’ question – a bit like Brexit really also being a ‘yes-or-no?’ (‘remain-or-leave?’) dichotomy but chosen by the ‘not-quite-so-supreme’ David Cameron. But the Pyongyang rubber-stamp Assembly is hardly even that, for it meets only once or twice a year, as per Article 92 of the Constitution.

In its own democratic development, the South got off to a very poor start, with two military coups in 1961 and 1979, one presidential assassination, and then the Gwangju massacre of 1980. This student protest against the military dictatorship was brutally crushed and literally hundreds were killed. Unlike China’s Tian’anmen of 1989, however, Gwangju was the catalyst for change. Today the South seems to have settled into an American-style two-party system and is currently under the guidance of President Moon Jae-in. This binary political system, however, is ill-suited for any future, united Korea. The very basis of the peninsula’s division should not be perpetuated into the future, be that as part of a joint or a federal structure.

Lessons from Russia, China and Europe

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR in 1985, countless western ‘experts’ rushed over to Moscow to tell him what to do. With regard to human rights, their emphasis was on the individual rather than the collective. For the economy, they advocated a ‘shock therapy’, which was disastrous. And on democratisation, the advice suggested ‘majority rule’ even though the Russian word for ‘majoritarianism’ is, or rather was, ‘bolshevism’.[1]

The lessons for North Korea are several. The state should not control the mind. Those accused should always have the right to a fair trial, and in courts of law, Western human rights norms are often good. In society at large, however, other standards should be questioned. Land ownership, for example, could perhaps be bettered by a concept of land tenancy. The house, built from human endeavour, may be owned but not the land on which it stands.

Economically, as was seen in China, change is a prerequisite of growth. That said, privatisation should only be contemplated in those industries associated with essentials like foodstuffs when the relevant sector is in surplus. Second, it should be carried out with rather more compassion than that shown by the Beijing government for some of its employees.

Third, democratically, in a land which has been divided into two for so long, a binary system of decision-making – even the consociational form of majority rule as exists in Belgium and Northern Ireland – would be inappropriate. Instead, collective decision-making should best be based on a more inclusive multi-option model, if but to ensure that the process allows for compromise options, not only in the debates but also in any subsequent multi-option votes.

The EU’s best expertise is in the field of human rights. Economically, South Korea is probably better able to help develop modern industries, especially those associated with digital technology. In regard to any democratic development, maybe the Swiss with their all-party Federal Council and devolved powers in the cantons, are best qualified.

Small steps on a long road

The West’s role in Iraq led to the demise of Saddam Hussein and a whole host of problems: war, Isis, and refugees. Likewise in Libya, the military intervention caused the demise of Muammar Gaddafi and another civil war. As part of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil”, North Korea has long suspected that it was on the West’s ‘regime change’ list, which explains the ‘logic’ of its own nuclear bomb. But maybe now is the time for internal modernisation.

China’s reformer, Dèng Xiǎopíng, was educated in France. In like manner, North Korea’s present leader was educated in Switzerland, so he knows the DPRK is very undeveloped. Indeed, maybe he feels that “nothing can stop a movement whose time has come”. Just as Enver Hoxha’s Albania had been unable to retain its isolationism – its only ally had been China – so too, again with just the one ally in Beijing, North Korea cannot continue to suffer so much rural poverty (although it is not as bad as that which I witnessed when cycling across Albania in 1990).

To survive, then, if he is not to be removed in a coup d’état or an Iraqi-cum-Libyan regime change from the West, Kim Jong-un must improve the collective lot of his people. This will take time. He should reform the legal system to give full rights of habeas corpus to those currently held unfairly; initiate infrastructure projects for road and rail, especially in the north-east; further encourage rural development, allowing not only for the collectives but also for private rentals of land; and maintain the free education system, but with a more international syllabus and much greater access to the internet; the latter, once the sanctions have been lifted, could facilitate inward investment – preferably without McDonalds. In addition, he should allow for a multi-party democracy under (not majority rule but) all-party governance and tone down the cult of personality, not necessarily with a de-Stalinisation speech which implied that Joseph had it all wrong, but via a more Chinese approach, like that which admitted Máo’s errors amounted to 30 per cent of his policies.

On matters not affecting human rights, then, the wiser approach to change and reform would be an unhurried one. Accordingly, those in the West who might be looking for a speedy transition or lucrative contracts should also show some restraint. When the economies are a little closer, as in Germany, the two regimes could adopt a joint currency… and only then go for political re-unification.


[1] Within the Russian Social Democratic Party at the time of the 1917 revolution, a Bolshevik was ‘a member of the majority’, ‘bolshinstvo’, while the Menshevik belonged to the minority, ‘menshinstvo’. They have now concocted a new word, ‘majoritarnost’.

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