Country profile: North Korea

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Pyongyang

A view of the capital, Pyongyang, showing schoolchildren practising for the National Day parade in Kim Il-Sung Square, with the Juche Tower and a large new LCD screen in the distance. © Christian Petersen-Clausen

Many countries profiled in this column might be considered obscure. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK or North Korea for short – has the opposite problem: it is notorious.

The weirdly wicked deeds (real or invented) of its young leader Kim Jong-un, who inherited power on the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2011 – his father, Kim Il-sung, founded the state back in 1948 – are juicy tabloid fare. More books are published in English on the DPRK than on any other small impoverished state, be it scholarly and policy studies or the five defector memoirs from major publishers this year alone. A dozen Western tour firms will take you to the so-called ‘hermit Kimdom’ (where you’ll be perfectly safe and eat quite well, unlike most of the citizens you won’t see).

Cartoonish clichés hardly help. But nor does the counter-claim that the DPRK is demonized. A tyranny that regiments and starves its own people while brandishing nuclear weapons is not normal, nice or much misunderstood. North Korea is an outlier, a threat, a big raft of problems and a tragedy. None of this is fiction concocted by the many foes it has made.

North Korean flag

The DPRK must be understood historically, not hysterically. An ancient nation which tried to fend off outsiders, Korea had a brutal baptism into modernity: seized by Japan in 1905, then sundered in 1945 by US and Soviet liberators. That was meant to be temporary, but in 1948 separate regimes were declared. In 1950 Kim Il-sung invaded the South, and the Cold War turned hot. Four million died in three terrible years, but in the end the border barely moved.

After that trauma the two Koreas competed to develop, each aided by its allies. (DPRK boasts of juche – self-reliance – are an ingrate’s lies.) Incredibly now, the North led at first with fast growth, industrialization and urbanization. But massive military spending and sclerotic state control soon hobbled this, while the South’s export-led model saw growth soar. The UN estimates the North’s GDP per capita at $621 compared with the South’s figure of $26,482, 43 times higher. Korea today is one country, two planets.

Performing for foreign visitors in a rural kindergarten.

Christian Petersen-Clausen

An already tanking economy went into freefall after 1990, when Moscow pulled the aid plug. In the late 1990s famine took at least a million lives – five per cent of the population. A reluctant regime was forced to appeal for help, which came generously: the UN World Food Programme’s DPRK operation was once its largest anywhere. But donor fatigue and regime recalcitrance – going nuclear with three tests so far, punished by UN and other sanctions, hardly helps – have seen aid dwindle recently.

Famine changed the DPRK, but not enough. The collapse of state rationing forced people for sheer survival to create unofficial markets, which are now vital to the economy. The state no longer tries to stop these, but nor does it acknowledge them – much less help them. Rumours of far-reaching market reforms are hard to square with forcing urbanites to turn out for rice-transplanting as part of class struggle.

North Korea has always lived a lie, but now in new ways. A failed regime still demands total loyalty, on pain of a vile gulag: human rights abuses prompted a special UN Commission of Inquiry in 2014. Yet many citizens covertly watch South Korean soaps, so they know a better world exists. A few flee to the South but, lacking skills, often fare badly.

Wishful pundits, this writer included, long predicted North Korea’s collapse – but it endures. Regime change appears remote – and its brandishing of nukes may spare North Korea the chaotic fate of Iraq, Syria or Libya. Change must come from within.

Fact file

Leader Kim Jong-un
Economy GDP per capita $621 (South Korea $26,482 – both UN estimates from 2013).
Monetary unit Won (KPW). Official rate 109 to US$, black market rate 8,300. The Chinese yuan is widely used in markets. Foreign currencies are seen as a far safer bet than the KPW.
Main exports Minerals such as coal and iron ore. Some 70% of trade is with China; the 24% with South Korea consists of light manufactured goods from the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Complex.
People 24.9 million. Annual population growth rate 1990-2013: 0.9%. People per square kilometre 207 (South Korea 517).
Health Big early gains have been partly reversed by the famine and chronic underfunding. Infant mortality worsened from 9 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 26 in 2008 though it improved slightly to 22 by 2013 (South Korea 3).
Environment Northern Korea is largely mountainous and unsuitable for agricultural terracing that is prone to be washed away by storms. Much tree cover has been lost for firewood and charcoal; Kim Jong-un is keen on reforestation.
Religion A few churches and Buddhist temples are kept for show. Real congregations exist underground, but the sole officially approved creed is quasi-worship of the Kim dynasty.
Language Korean. Both Koreas are rare mono-ethnic states. The North abolished Chinese characters and uses only the Korean alphabet; it also purged many words of Chinese origin.
Human Development Index Not available.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Data are lacking, but the DPRK allocates resources on criteria including rank, loyalty and job. Alongside this hierarchy, the market-based inequality usual elsewhere is starting to emerge, with a nouveau riche class visible in Pyongyang (but hardly yet elsewhere).
Literacy 100% is claimed but unverified. Free compulsory 11-year schooling was attained by 1972, and expanded to 12 years in 2012. Its range is narrow: basic sciences, few humanities and much mythologizing of the Kims.
Life expectancy 70 years (South Korea 82). A fall from 73 in the 1993 census is largely attributable to the 1990s famine.
Freedom North Korea comes near-bottom in international freedom listings and in September 2015 the World Bank ranked the DPRK last out of 230 countries on a range of criteria including press freedom and rule of law.
Position of women Age-old subordination of women based on Confucianism was outlawed in 1946. Yet the DPRK remains patriarchal, with few women in public life and traditional gender roles sanctified. Women are, however, key players in the new market economy
Sexual minorities The DPRK admits to neither homosexuality nor HIV. It is unabashedly racist and sexist, referring to Barack Obama as a ‘wicked black monkey’ and South Korean President Park Geun-hye as a ‘prostitute’ and ‘comfort woman’.
New Internationalist assessment The mask of monolithism hides fissures. Kim Jong-il’s songun policy favoured the Army but Kim Jong-un is trying to claw back the Party’s clout. Executions like that of his uncle and mentor Jang Song-thaek in 2013 might unnerve the elite and prove destabilizing. A bizarre blend of traditional Confucianism, Japanese emperor-worship and Stalinism may be a dinosaur in the 21st century, yet it has survived two hereditary successions and by 2020 will have outlasted the USSR. When and how it might change is yet to be seen.

mag cover This article is from the December 2015 issue of New Internationalist.
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