North Korea: The Happiest Place on Earth, According to Government Propaganda

Every once in a while when reading the news I’ll see the words ‘North Korea’ and my first thought is always “Oh goodness, what have they done now”, because it’s never good news when it comes to North Korea.  Most recently there’s a story about North Korea firing ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, directly at Japan.  Still, despite how often “The Hermit Kingdom” appears in the news, the general public knows little to nothing about North Korea and the horrors that its citizens deal with day to day.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to answer some questions about North Korea, it’s history, and the genocide that they are waging against their people even now.

What is North Korea?

The Happiest Place on Earth!  According to Government Propaganda.

North Korea is a country on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.  It’s capital is the city of Pyongyang.  It was founded in 1945, after the surrender of Japan in WW II, when Kim Il Sung took charge of the country after his return from exile.   When reading the Official Webpage of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea), the discussion focuses on Kim Il Sung.  Saying that he came into the country when it was in the glory of its liberation (from Japan) and he immediately set out to improve the country and unite the peninsula under the flag of the Worker’s Party of Korea.  The website claims that the entirety of the Korean people elected Kim Il Sung, and that he was to be the people’s savior.

On having solved the problem of power, the Korean people began to carry out democratic reforms. So a number of democratic reforms were enforced. They were the laws on agrarian reform, on nationalization of industries, transport, communications, banks and so on, on labour, and on sex equality. At the same time various steps were taken for the democratization of judicial, educational and cultural affairs.”

North Korea has a policy of isolation so fierce that it’s called the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ by much of the outside world.  They want to keep the outside world a secret from their people, so that no one knows how bad they have it. However there is one point where North Korea stands and faces the rest of the world. At the border between North and South Korea. The North has guards set up in a formation that allows them to watch the South and each other to ward against defection across the border. Beyond that immediate Border Control Station, there’s what’s known as the Demilitarized Zone, or the DMZ. The DMZ is an area two miles wide that runs the length of the border between the North and South. Its filled with over one million land mines and lined with hundreds of miles of barbed wire fence. It is one of the most hazardous and dangerous places in the world. Few people who attempt to cross the DMZ survive.

Ok, so who’s the ruler of North Korea?

When the country was first founded it was Kim Il Sung.  He ruled from 1945 until 1994.  It was under his leadership that North Korea invaded South Korea.  It was his belief, and the belief of the Soviet Union, that Kim Il Sung was the rightful ruler of the entire peninsula.  Kim Il Sung built a cult of personality so strong that he is often venerated as a god by his people.

The Cult of Kim is so all encompassing that in the official record of the founding of North Korea and its victory over the Japanese there appear no other figures. In the whole of that history there are no names, except for Kim Il Sung. Everyone else who was involved in the victories of North Korea, and in helping Kim Il Sung with the founding of the country have either been simply removed from the history, or they’ve been killed.[1]

Egyptian pharaohs had this idea that each distinct pharaoh was a physical embodiment of the god Horus. This means that because each is an embodiment of the same god, each pharaoh, is every pharaoh. What this allows is for any pharaoh in history to claim all the accomplishments of his predecessors. So pharaohs who didn’t do much in their own time can gain notoriety and importance by claiming that everything that happened before their reign, was a feather in their cap. This is similar to what Kim Il Sung did in North Korea, except the god was Kim Il Sung. The pharaoh was Kim Il Sung. The hero was Kim Il Sung. The history is, Kim Il Sung.

To understand the state of things in North Korea it is important to first understand the men who have led the country, and how the people of their country viewed them. Many other personality cults gloss over various aspects of their leaders lives in order to pay more homage to the truly glorious aspects of their lives. Stalin and Mao’s cults left out those areas of their lives that weren’t important. The Cult of Kim left very little factual information in their stories. Large sections of the lives of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were romanticized or mythologized. Kim Jong Il was said to have been born under a rainbow, and Kim Il Sung’s actions as a guerrilla leader were largely exaggerated.[2]

The cult of personality to Kim Il Sung was constructed to be a scaffolding that would never fall. It was created so that the reigns of power could be passed cleanly to Kim Jong Il without any fuss. Other cults were able to be destabilized after the men they were built around died. The Chinese destroyed the works of Mao, and Kruschev was able to destroy the works and influence of Stalin. Kim’s cult was designed to be indestructible.[3] While the North Koreans were fighting their guerrilla war against the Japanese, Kim Il Sung and the Soviet Union were already building myths and legends around Kim Il Sung.  A cult of personality is based around turning one man into a legend and letting that legend infect the masses of people who you are trying to control.

After the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. Kim Jong-Il was in power from 1994 until 2011 when he died.  He was then succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Un, who is still in power.  Though it does bear mentioning that Kim Il-Sung is the only President that North Korea has ever had.  Kim Jong Il was not the President while he was alive. He was named Chairman of the National Defense Committee, and Kim Jong Un holds the same title that his father did.

What type of culture do North Koreans have?

North Korea has set up a country and a people that are kept highly separate from the rest of the world. North Korea uses a utterly different calendar system than the rest of the world. It’s called the Juche system. Juche is not only a calendar, it is also the entirety of North Korea’s philosophy. They created this new calendar in 1997. The new calendar would start in 1912, with that being year one. The reason for this is, of course, because 1912 was the year that Kim Il Sung was born.[4] This makes 2017, Juche 105. Sometimes, the North Koreans will use the standard calendar system side-by-side with their own, but this is done sporadically, and as a strange courtesy to foreigners. Of course Kim Il Sung died in 1994. This was done posthumously to honor the man that the North Koreans see as a god.

The core tenant of Juche is also its translation. It means self-reliance, and this is the final goal of North Korea, to be an island that needs no outside help. One of the things that the Juche philosophy puts at the front of any policy making is the military. This is called the Military First policy, and it is seen in North Korea as the surest way to ensure juche.[5]

All of North Korea’s internal decisions come from the basis of their leaders being mythologized god-kings and from their Juche philosophy.  This caused North Korea to, at least on the surface, take a fiercely isolationist policy toward the rest of the world.

“Although the Juche idea seems to be deeply inherent to the North Korean mindset, the claim of self-determination is probably an illusion that is proven by the country’s dependence on economic support from China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.”[6]

North Korea was created as a state that thought itself the finest country that has ever existed; it values, its face value of, self-reliance and doesn’t allow any information from the outside to come in. Worse is that there is very little information leaving North Korea that’s not an official statement by the government. For this reason there isn’t much known about North Korea on the street level except for what we can glean from the official stories, and those stories we can get from the few people who have managed to escape the country.[7]

Why would people need to escape the country?

Now that’s a question well worth the asking.  The short answer is Genocide.

Wait… genocide in North Korea?  Why haven’t I heard anything about this?

See the previous paragraphs about government information control.  We don’t call North Korea ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ as a joke.

At the beginning of 2014 the UN released a report on North Korea, detailing findings derived from intense investigation of the actions of the North Korean government. This report gave a long laundry list of North Korea’s abuses and then went on to explain and cite the how and what and where of it all. North Korea was accused of “arbitrary detention, torture, execution, labor camps, violations of freedom of thought, expression and religion, discrimination, abduction and forced disappearances, violations of freedom of movement and residence, and violations of the right to food and other necessities for life.

We’ll be tackling that list of violations out of the order that it was presented in, in order to categorize the violations to international law that North Korea has made. We’ll start with discrimination and violations of the right to movement and residence. This is perhaps the most basic violation, and one possessed of only a basic level of inhumanity. We start here because while these actions by the government are not genocidal in their own, they do begin to lay a foundation for genocide. The discrimination of North Korean society harkens back and is reminiscent of the old Indian caste system. In this system a person is born into a certain caste, much like someone in the United States might be born into the middle class. However, unlike the United States where a person can rise or fall out of their class, in India a person born into the middle caste will always die in that caste.

North Korea calls their version of this type of system songbun. Songbun is mostly hereditary and your membership to a certain songbun would influence, greatly, your career path, education, and whom you will end up marrying.[8] When the songbun system first began in the 1950s it split the people into three groups, which largely still exist to this day. Those groups were defined as hostile forces, neutral forces, and friendly forces. During a campaign of discovery by the North Korean government between 1957 and 1960 various enemies of the state were claimed to be discovered amongst the population. During this period around 2,500 people were executed.[9]

Those people who are considered enemies of the state fall under ten categories:

  1. Workers of complicated origin, that is, people who though they had become workers after Liberation, had formerly been entrepreneurs and officials.
  2. Former rich peasants.
  3. Former small or medium merchants.
  4. Former landlords, that is, people who before the reform of 1946 had more than 5 hectares of land.
  5. People who participated in pro–Japanese or pro–American activities.
  6. Former officials in the Japanese colonial administration.
  7. Families of people of good social origin who fled to the South during the war.
  8. Families of people of bad origin who fled to the South during the war.
  9. Chinese Koreans who returned from China in the 1950s.
  10. Japanese Koreans who returned from Japan in the 1960s.[10]

These people were not allowed to live close to the border or the coast, or the capital, or any major city. This poses significant problems for anyone who falls under this category because North Korea is a small country. So the only areas that fall under all of these restrictions were mountainous regions that were far out of the way. There are some ways to improve your songbun, for instance, exemplary military service can increase your social standing, but for some people your songbun can span generations.[11]

The UN report goes on to speak of many of the horrors that North Korea inflicts upon its people. Arbitrary detention of the North Korean people in prison camps, torture, and even executions. “In the political prison camps of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the inmate population has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide. The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades.” A former inmate named Kim Eun-cheol described two instances of executions in the camp. One man, he said was killed for scavenging a potato, while another was killed for eating herbs.

The North Korean camps were modeled after Soviet gulags and were established by Kim Il Sung as a way of eliminating political opponents. According to reports from CNN the North Koreans fed their prisoners starvation rations and forced them to work ’til the brink of death. If the work was not done to satisfaction then rations were cut back even farther. The reasons for detainment are nothing that we would consider a crime, or that would be considered a crime in any country except for North Korea. Watching foreign DVDs or criticizing the leadership, leaving dust on the portrait of the Dear Leader were reasons. Every home was expected to have a portrait of Kim Il Sung and his mother. Once Kim Jong Il took over a portrait of his holy personage was expected to be in every home as well. These pictures were expected to be in pristine condition at all times.

Attempting to leave the country was also a reason for arrest. Most people who were arrested were given no due process, no trial, and no chance for appeal. They would be ‘disappeared’ and it was better that you never asked questions. Eun-cheol says that the two examples mentioned earlier were as good as dead before their executions from torture. Still he says, the guards used six to nine bullets for each man.

Another former prisoner named Jeong Kwang-il told of his arrest and torture. He had been arrested for having business dealings with South Koreans in China. The North Korean police force accused Kwang-il of illegal business dealings, and also of being a South Korean spy. Kwang-il denied being a spy. To this day he maintains that he wasn’t.   This wasn’t what the North Koreans wanted to hear, so for ten months he was tortured until he confessed to the crime of being a spy. One of the forms of torture that the North Koreans used was called pigeoning. Your arms would be handcuffed behind your back and chained so that they were lifted up into the air, forcing you into a bent over position. “If you are hung like that for three days, four days, you urinate, you defecate, you are totally dehydrated… [it] was so painful that I felt it was better to die.” Kwang-il was given so little food that his body weight halved.

Once a North Korean citizen has entered one of the countries infamous prison camps it is rare that they ever leave. It was possible for a person who was incarcerated for a minor crime to eventually be released back into society, but since 2007 there have been no reports of anyone being released from a North Korean camp. Both the guards and the prisoners were informed that anyone attempting to escape from a camp would be summarily executed. Indeed guards were told they would be rewarded for killing prisoners trying to escape, however attempts to escape had highly flexible definitions. A prisoner approaching the perimeter fence without authorization was reason enough, as was a prisoner separating from their group. In order to get those aforementioned rewards some guards would kill prisoners and then later claim that they had tried to escape. One guard killed five prisoners and then claimed that they had all tried to escape. It was later discovered by his superiors that he had lied, but the guard was subject to no punishment for his actions. He was merely transferred to another camp to keep morale among the guards up. Anyone who died in the camps was not treated with any sense of dignity. Once you entered the camps you were erased as a person. Bodies were not returned to their families, and were at most, buried in shallow graves by fellow prisoners.

The North Korean government doesn’t just limit its abuses to its own people. Anyone who enters the borders of the regime can be subject to gross abuses. In recent years two Americans were released back to the US after negotiations between the UN and North Korea. “The two Americans—Kenneth Bae, a 46-year-old missionary from Washington state sentenced to 15 years hard labor in 2013 for unspecified crimes, and Matthew Todd Miller, 24, sentenced to six years for “hostile acts” against the state—were released after secret negotiations that involved Clapper, the Swedish government, and North Korean officials.”

Perhaps one of the more heinous things that the North Korean government does is forced abortions and infanticide. This is a highly common occurrence for repatriated women, especially from China. Any women who is repatriated from a foreign country and returns to North Korea pregnant is assumed to have become pregnant via a non-Korean man. This flies in the face of the idea of North Koreaa racial purity. A former member of the SSD (North Korean Secret Police) described it in a way that would have made Hitler proud. For a woman to have a child who is not one hundred percent Korean is to be less than fully human. Not only is the child considered sub-human, but now the woman is as well for having carried it for any amount of time. “One witness saw guards take away the new-born baby of a repatriated mother at the Onsong County SSD detention facility. Moments after the baby was born to the mother in the cell – without medical assistance – guards put the baby in a bucket and took it away saying “the baby is not human” and “[it] does not deserve to live because it is impure”.

During the 1990s North Korea faced what is called by some people “The Great Famine”. Every single person who is not living on a farm in North Korea is eligible for government distributed rations through the Public Distribution Service (PDS). The PDS set a benchmark for what they thought would be an acceptable level of food rationing in 1955. This ranged from 900 grams of daily food for a heavy industrial worker to 300 grams for a child. By 1973 however this rationing lowered by 13 percent, and then by 1987 it lowered again by another 10 percent, then by 1992 it was reduced by another 10 percent. This put the rationed food below the level of what people could reasonably be expected to survive on. This would not be the last of the issues that the North Koreans faced in regards to their food shortages.

The North Korean government went on to use these food shortages to punish certain parts of their population. Four of North Korea’s provinces had PDS services suspended. This means that the people living in these areas no longer had access to their primary and possibly only source of food. Torrential rain and flooding in both 1995 and 1996 caused over 1.5 million tons of grain to be lost. Starvation became common in North Korea in general, but especially those areas that had PDS services suspended. The UN gathered large amounts of testimony regarding starvation conditions.

It’s as vivid as if it happened yesterday. In the 1990s, especially in Hamgyong region, the famine began in 1994. … in one day, 80 people from [my neighbourhood] died. So many people died that we didn’t have enough coffins so we borrowed [traditional burial boards] to give them burials. We didn’t have any wood to even give tombstones. That’s how many people died.

The situation continued to deteriorate through the 90s and by ’97 30% of food eaten was scavenged from the wild and by ’98 the PDS was only supplying 6% of the population with rations. At this point the issue is no longer the natural disasters that North Korea faced which depleted its available food rations. The issue became that the government, whose job it was to provide food to the citizens of North Korea, was deliberately withholding food from its people. The flooding wasn’t even the main source of the food shortages. There is evidence that North Korea was having problems before the flooding in 1995. Let us not say that North Korea made no efforts to seek aid for the problems it was having though.   Before that first round of flooding North Korea had asked Japan for aid, and Japan sent 300,000 tons of rice to the Hermit Kingdom. Still the PDS would always be in charge of who got the food and when. We have already established what the songbun system is and the drastic effects it has on the lives of the people. This system would affect the distribution of rations to the citizens of North Korea. Men, women, and children of a lower songbun would be the first to receive reduced rations or to have their rations cut off altogether.

However this is perhaps one of the worst things that the government did in the years of this famine and series of food shortages. As we know in 1994 Kim Il Sung died, and that Kim had spent all his time in office building up a cult of personality. “There were months of mourning and the equivalent of USD 790 million was spent for building his tomb and other monuments. The DPRK economy that was already in poor conditions hit the bottom.” Then during the reign of Kim Jong il, Kim was the largest single importer of Hennessey Cognac, had a fleet of cars and private planes, and one of the world’s largest DVD collections. During years where their citizens were starving, the leadership of North Korea was not using its funds to try and reduce the burden on its people. North Korea was spending money on the aggrandizement of the Party and the Dear Leader. There can be no question that the North Koreans knew that their people were suffering, food was rationed and distributed by a government agency.

The famine was perhaps the worst period in the lives of North Korean people. Estimates for a total number of fatalities are very difficult to come by. Foreigners aren’t often allowed inside the country, so most of our statistics are either best guess work, or based off of official North Korean statistics. As we know, those numbers can’t be trusted. Still, by taking the various numbers that sources give us we can a general number or at least a range. A Buddhist charity group working out of China called ‘Good Friends’ has interviewed over 1,000 North Koreans living illegally in China. They have based their estimates on those interviews. The organization estimates that around 3.5 million people have died from famine since 1995. This is a shocking statistic, if accurate. Pyongyang itself places the death toll at 220,000, but South Korea says that 287,000 people died just between 1995 and 1998. The US Congress, which conducted its own investigations, has cited a total death toll of two million people. This gives us a death toll range of 220,000 – 3,500,000.

This is a horrifically broad range, but any number in that range is not acceptable to a world that values human lives and dignity. Furthermore these figures don’t even take into account public executions, or deaths in labor camps. There is no real way to get figures for public executions. Amnesty International cites that 105 people have been executed in North Korea from 2007 to 2012. A South Korean newspaper however cited that in November of 2013, 80 people were executed in that month alone. What this tells us is that we simply can’t know how many people are dying inside the borders of North Korea due to the large amounts of secrecy and information control. As far as labor camps are concerned reports say that perhaps 200,000 live in labor camps in North Korea, and that some of these camps are larger than major US cities. The largest is called Camp 22 and it sprawls over 775 square kilometers. “According to the report, after a food shortage in 2009-10, Camp 22’s population shrunk to somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 people from around 30,000 in previous years. Thousands of prisoners seem to have evaporated into thin air — perhaps via Camp 22’s crematoria.” What all this tells us is that there is no way to know the exact numbers of people who have perished under the reign of the Cult of Kim, but the numbers are large, too large to be allowed to continue.

Oh my… that’s sickening!  What’s being done about it?

Honestly?  A whole lot and nothing at all.

The North Korean government would give the outside world a picture of a united people. They would have us believe, in the words of old world watchmen that ‘it’s twelve o‘clock and all is well’. Now the international community knows that North Korea has problems. It faced famines, and most of its people live in squalor and poverty without access to adequate food or medicine. North Korea is also waging genocide against its people. Killing anyone who they consider an enemy of the state. The paranoia of the North Korean government does not reach the levels of the Khmer Rouge near the end of their reign, but we’ve seen the reasons that the North Korean government uses to kill their people. These are not reasons that equate with a proper rule of law. North Korea would tell us that they are acting within the confines of their laws and that they are merely dealing with criminals, as is their right as a sovereign nation.

However we have already seen the levels that the North Koreans will sink to for their cult and the image of their nation. Their aggrandizing of the Kim family has completely rewritten history. They have stripped names from the record and manufactured a world where Kim Il Sung won the entire war by himself. The North Koreans deny abuses in their country, calling it all lies, and any foreigner who enters the country only sees the North Korea that the government wants them to see. No one has made memorials to the people who died in The Great Famine. No one has made memorials to the people who have died in the prison camps. There are however, memorials to Kim Il Sung. There are statues and pillars and benches trapped forever in glass for Kim Il Sung. While the only memorials for the North Korean people live in the stories of those who have escaped and shared the horrors they witnessed and experienced with the world.

As we already know the UN created a report on North Korean human rights abuses, and have levied sanctions against the North Koreans. There have also been attempts of peace talks with North Korea, none of which have been successful. North Korea would have you believe that all tensions for those talks have been the result of the US. They mostly blame the sanctions that have further isolated North Korea from the rest of the world. In June of 2013 North Korea went before the UN and called for serious high-level peace talks between North and South Korea. They called for the removal of US troops from the Korean peninsula, and wished to discuss an easing of tensions, denuclearization of North Korea, and an end of the armistice in favor of a true peace treaty. While the Americans refuse to go back to the peace talks until the North begins to take sincere steps toward denuclearization. Both sides have concessions that they wish the others to make before peace talks resume, and neither is willing to bend on it. The North wants the sanctions to end, or at least the other member states of the UN to ignore the sanctions. The US has said that they will continue with those sanctions. The North blames the US for every tension that exists in North East Asia and maintains that its own country is blameless, claiming that all of their actions were geared towards self-defense. They include their nuclear missile program in this.

There can be no kind of reconciliation, justice, or reparations with North Korea at this time. The regime that put North Korea into the state that it is still in power. The Kim family is still running, or perhaps ruining North Korea would be the better term. While that regime is in power and continues its policies of iron fisted control there can be nothing like justice. There will be no apologies, and nothing that looks even remotely like justice can happen on that peninsula. Despite the UN report on North Korea there has been no word of any trial for human rights violations levied against Kim Jong Un and the North Korean government, and military intervention would not end well for anyone involved. So for now the situation in North Korea is at an unfortunate stalemate while people die and information is gathered.

[1] Paul French. North Korea: State of Paranoia. London: Zed Books, 2014, 75
[2] Paranoia, 73
[3] Paranoia, 74
[4] Andrei Lankov. North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea. Jefferson, N.C.:         McFarland &, 2007. 10
[5]  Paranoia. 45-46
[6] Karl H. Stingeder. Case Study: North Korea. Marburg [Germany]: Tectum, 2010. 20
[7] Case Study, 16-17
[8] DMZ, 66
[9] DMZ, 67
[10] DMZ, 68
[11] DMZ, 69


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