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Country profile: North Korea

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.