North Korea: what the fuck?

The world is staring open-mouthed as the tiny, ancestral, “Juche” dictatorship moves towards a nuclear footing and threatens the by-now familiar “lake of fire” against its enemies. Both South Korea and the United States have put themselves on a war footing, allegedly, as the North restarts a nuclear reactor, suspends the crisis hotline between North and South and shuts down a joint industrial complex on the border.

Whatever panic there might be among the American public — remember, a poll released today shows one in four Americans believe President Barack Obama may be the Antichrist — is not shared by its elite, who know the hermit kingdom has not yet managed to perfect an anti-ballistic delivery system for a nuclear weapon. No easy thing, apparently.

They also know well something Western audiences are barely told: the US and South Korea have, in recent weeks, been engaged in large-scale war games on the peninsula, involving up to 40,000 troops and hundreds of planes and tanks. The line in the Western press, when this is aired at all, is that these are purely defensive measures, because, well, we never start wars against countries we have nominated as part of the “axis of evil”, do we?

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Simultaneously we are told North Korea is a joke country that no one could take seriously — so why the large-scale war manoeuvres? The North Koreans have one idea: the imperialists intend to annihilate them. Do the power elite in the country really believe that? Or is it all a ruse designed to keep the game on the road?

The question is impossible to determine, because the answer might be: both. North Korea’s leaders are split between those who have spent time overseas — children of the elite, raised in Swiss boarding schools — and those, in the military chiefly, who have never known anything else. Various diplomats, and the occasional feted Western Stalinist, have said Kim Jong-il had told them they knew the whole thing was a sham and they would have to transition out of it at some point.

Yet on the other hand, the army is an entirely self-supporting system that reproduces itself generation on generation, defining itself not only against the world, but against the bleeding heart liberals in the elite of the Workers’ Party, who dally with notions of rapprochement and international co-operation.

So, one theory is the North’s response is entirely external — to the movements of the US. Another theory is that it’s internal, whereby the Workers’ Party elite tries to assert its power against the army, which accuses it of backsliding. Six weeks ago the leadership made some token measures towards greater openness — chiefly, allowing tourists to use their mobile phones while in the country (there are quite a few tourists, valued for their foreign currency, traipsing through on guided tours).

The third theory is it’s both, combining the two. In the trade we call that “dialectics”. Whatever the case, it has created plenty of opportunity for foreign correspondents to trot out the usual stories on the essential weirdness of North Korea, alternatively portraying it as entirely brainwashed or an entirely captive nation.

“What Western media outlets find hardest to disentangle is the personality cult from the economic system, the 10-storey gold-plated statues from the starvation.”

People are either goose-stepping in front of missiles in ardent fanaticism or they are all faking tears whenever one of the now eternal presidents dies. The popular story flicks between the two. What’s the truth? Both are right, and I would refer you to the earlier answer on dialectics. From extensive accounts of North Korean life, such as Barbara Deming’s Nothing To Envy, it’s clear the North Korean public is entirely split between those devoted to the Kim-il cult and the idea of “Juche” and those who think it’s a crock of shit.

To some extent the split is geographical — those closer to the Chinese border and the major crossing city of Dandong, a Wild East gambling/smuggling/pornorama, have a better idea what’s going on because they can get DVDs of Lindsay Lohan movies smuggled in, etc. It’s also divided in Pyongyang, a relatively prosperous city — though everyone there, to judge from their Los Angeles lithe elegance, is on 1300 calories a day — with some vestigial international connection.

Outside of that, well, as far as one can tell (your correspondent is an expert, based on a four-day tour) it’s simply a dirt-poor farming barracks. Villages have been demolished to house the population in concrete housing blocks, which stand isolated in the fields. There are no shops, no pubs, no clubs, little electricity and not much food. Half the population is in uniform, but a lot of them don’t seem to be doing anything useful. In Pyongyang, thousands of them seemed to be planting flowerbeds, very slowly, like the whole place was a school full of kids who’d been excused phys ed for the afternoon.

What Western media outlets find hardest to disentangle is the personality cult from the economic system, the 10-storey gold-plated statues from the starvation. They’re inter-related obviously, but not identical. It would be quite possible for the North Koreans to loosen the total economic system, allow private farming, small business and move steadily to a mixed economy, while still preserving the Kimist idolatry. Unless you’re a mad Hayekian — and there’s a personality cult if ever there was one — you realise by now, glancing at China, this is not only possible but quite a feasible historical trajectory.

One reason it’s so hard to think about North Korea in that way in the West is that if we did start to distinguish idolatry from efficiency, we’d start to look askance at out own system. Let’s face it, if you’ve lived in Brisbane or Adelaide, or half-a-dozen other places for the past two decades, the wall-to-wall media has been of singular voice, no matter who owns it, which is overwhelmingly Murdoch; the party system is more or less unitary; life offers a smooth singularity, lacking real difference. Yes, since you ask, it is considerably more pleasant than North Korea — which simply makes my point.

You never know when you’re in the middle of a wrap-around ideology, so all-encompassing that there’s very little opportunity for most people to think outside it. So places like North Korea become extremely useful in that situation. You can run relentless military exercises on their border, and construct any response as the product of a paranoid totalitarian self-enclosed state, a surviving mutant of 20th century history. Of course half the time it is, but the other half, it’s just a mixture of rational statecraft, and internal politicking, and it might be useful if the meeja offered better analysis than “North Korea: what the fuck?”.