Sanctions – What Sanctions?

‘No, impossible!’ She said with the sweetest voice.

I had pointed my camera at a shop shelf full of products and looked over at the attendant hopefully. It was not to be, so I put the camera away.

Why could I not take a photograph in a shop in Pyongyang? I wondered as I bought some water and walked away. You can take pictures of almost anything, except military personnel. So why not the shop?

Like other shops I visited, it was indeed full. It had products made in the DPRK, from China, Vietnam, Germany – you name it – except perhaps for the United States. A department store with two levels was full of people, buying food downstairs, and clothes, furniture (IKEA), appliances and sports equipment upstairs. A booth enabled one to exchange foreign currency, specifically Chinese Yuan, Euro and US dollars, into Won. If you had any left over at the end, you could change them back. Foreigners were not the only ones at the booth. In fact, when I went I was the only foreigner changing money.

What is going on the DPRK? Everywhere I turned were flat screen televisions, with music videos, news, soap operas playing. The modest hotel where we stayed had hair-dryer, fridge, scales, safe, alarm clock and whatnot. The brands were the ones you would see elsewhere. The streets were busy with traffic, some older but also quite a few new ones. The Koreans make their own cars, but there were plenty of foreign brands as well. The metro, trolley buses and trams have begun sporting newly designed and made vehicles. To be sure, the older ones still run, with clear vintage from Eastern European production during the era of the Communist Bloc (and well-made they were). But they are being replaced by new ones made in the DPRK.

Even more, Pyongyang is undergoing a building boom. A couple of years ago, everyone took a year off from their study and non-essential jobs to volunteer on building sites for a year. This was only part of  a longer boom that started a few years ago. Foreign architects have been working with Korean architects to design a new phase of unique architecture, which one simply cannot find anywhere else. Older buildings are being renovated, new ones are springing up.

Clearly, the DPRK economy and trade are doing rather well. Very few analysts have realised this, apart from the Chinese (for example, here, here and here). To be sure, some areas still need a lot of work after the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the economy almost fell apart, floods devastated the countryside and a fair amount of poverty returned. The railways and roads have been told they need to make do with the existing and ageing infrastructure, and many rural areas still use hand sowing and harvesting (although I also saw new machinery in parts). That will come, they plan, with Chinese and southern cooperation. Indeed, at the hotel where we stayed were a few foreigners like ourselves, but it was mostly used by visiting Chinese business people and Koreans.

Obviously, the much-hyped sanctions are not working very well. Northern Koreans have lived with sanctions for much of their 70 years as a state, so they know how to deal with them. But now is different. One reason is that channels for trade have been opened up and are running well indeed, but under the radar. Another reason is that countries like China, Russia and others have already made moves to work with the DPRK after Kim Jong Un’s clear international engagement. As is the Asian preference, when negotiating one builds trust by making reciprocal moves on the way forward. It does not do to demand everything and not budge.

But the third reason may be the strongest: sanctions are typically made in US dollars. This works if the preferred currency for international transactions and reserves are held in US dollars. However, with the United States wildly slapping sanctions all over the world, more and more countries and entities are dispensing with the US dollar. For example, last year only 39 percent of international transactions used the US dollar, while 37 percent used the Euro and 3 percent the Chinese Renminbi. Soon, the US dollar will slip even lower, especially when more and more people see that currency as toxic. I suggest that this situation is a major factor in the ineffectiveness of the sanctions on the DPRK.

While they do not like to use the terminology, the DPRK is clearly developing its own version of the ‘Reform and Opening Up’. In China they celebrated 40 years of the Reform and Opening Up in 2018. The DPRK has seen how beneficial such a process can be, although they prefer the terminology of ‘changes’. But at heart lies the socialist ideal of improving the socio-economic lives of everyone – as is stated in the DPRK constitution.

So why was I not permitted to photograph a shop full of products? The answer should be obvious: they did not want a non-Chinese foreigner plastering photographs all over the internet to show how ineffective the sanctions really are.

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An Effort to Understand the DPRK (North Korea) in Light of the Marxist Tradition

This year (2018) the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – or DPRK – celebrated 70 years. This is no mean feat, given the challenges it has faced. These include Japanese imperialism, United States imperialism, and what they call the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the web of connections with the Communist Bloc of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed. Through all this they have persevered through what they see as a struggle, for they define the transition period of socialism as a long process of struggle.

I was fortunate enough to visit the DPRK for the second time in early October of 2018, soon after the celebration of 70 years of struggle. We managed to catch a late episode of that unique creation, the ‘mass games’ which were in this year called ‘The Glorious Country’. It recounted through dance, music, song and gymnastics, the history of struggle and achievement. The experience, along with an intense week of in-depth engagement at many levels, has led to an effort to understand the DPRK within the longer Marxist tradition. It begins with the tension between old and new, in which a revolution is meant to usher in a qualitatively new society that at the same time stands in a complex relationship with what has gone before. This leads to the second topic, which concerns the relationship with the Marxist tradition, which may now be seen in its own way as an element of the old. In this case, the DPRK has been undergoing a process of claiming a distinct autochthony and gradually dispensing with reference to the tradition. Third, I investigate this development in light of anti-colonialism, which had an initial emergence within the Soviet Union but took on a whole new phase on the Korean Peninsula. Here the desire to rid this part of the world of foreign interference runs strong, so much so that Korean independence and sovereignty not only determine the nature of socialism in this part of the world, but also the drive towards reunification. At the same time, I remain intrigued by a unique feature of DPRK socialism, which is the role played by the leadership. It is very clear that the glue of the Korean project is the Kim family with its socialist succession and that the majority of people in the DPRK genuinely believe in the power and tradition of the family. How to understand this feature? I want to suggest that it ties in closely with the constituent feature of inheritance, according to which the actual figure of the revolutionary leader is embodied in the son and grandson of Kim Il Sung. Finally, I approach the whole situation in light of the ‘Western’ Marxist trope of the qualitatively different nature of socialist society.

Between Old and New

A constituent feature of revolutionary movements like Marxism is a tension between the old and the new. A revolutionary seizure of power is predicated on dispensing with the old and beginning the process of constructing a new society. The particular modulations of such a construction – the stages of socialism and communism, the use of contradiction analysis in the new situation, the development of new philosophical positions in light of circumstances, and so on – are merely part of this more fundamental question.

From the Russian Revolution inwards, this tension appears. Thus, in what became the Soviet Union, we find a significant push to discard all that had gone before, for it was part of the corrupt and exploitative old order of autocracy and nascent capitalism. Everything was to be destroyed and the new constructed from the ground up. On the other side were those – such as Lenin and Lunacharsky – who felt that this was impossible. It was not only that socialism had many precursors that it would be foolhardy to dismiss, but also that a dialectical relationship with what had gone before should be taken up and transformed in the context of the new. All that was best of the past should be appropriated and thoroughly sublated through the process of socialist construction. The second approach ended up becoming the basis of the Soviet Union’s construction of socialism, although it was always  in tension with the desire for creatio ex nihilo.

Let us move forward to the second great communist revolution of the twentieth century. In China, the reality of a complex and very long pre-history was far greater than in Europe or Russia. How to deal with this old tradition? While Mao Zedong argued for the need to make Marxism concrete in Chinese conditions, running all the way from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, and while he deployed much from this tradition in his own thinking and action, he tended towards a desire to begin anew. Perhaps the most significant manifestation of this tendency was during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when the whole tradition that had gone before was to be wiped out. That the excessive trauma of this period runs deep in China even today is witness to the presence of a strong sense that one needs to engage dialectically with the past.

How is all this relevant for Korean socialism? In this case we find not so much a continuing tension, with now one and now the other approach coming to the fore in relation to constructing socialism. Instead, the DPRK is a qualitatively new society, unlike any other country on earth. The challenge is to understand this different in light of the Marxist tradition. This means that the old is understood at two levels. The first is in terms of imperialism and colonialism, which Korean experience has been and continues to be capitalist imperialism. At the same time, the ‘old’ is very much present through the internal tension with the south of the peninsula and the continued occupation of United States troops. In response, the DPRK has set itself in stark contrast to the capitalist south.

The second level in which the old operates is a rather unique development, for it concerns the Marxist tradition itself.

The Marxist Tradition

With its 200 year history, Marxism has developed a rich tradition, full of experiences in seeking power and exercising state power. On this road, the philosophical developments have become significant indeed. How does the DPRK relate to this tradition? Curiously, the Marxist tradition has come to be seen as part of the old. Thus, there has been a steady process of stressing the originality, if not the autochthonous nature, of Korean socialism. If we study the extensive writings of Kim Il Sung – a 50-volume ‘Works’ exists, but the ‘Complete Works’ is still under way, with who knows how many volumes – we find a clear identification with the Marxist-Leninist tradition. Texts are cited, names mentioned, core elements of the tradition are developed further. Indeed, on one of the earlier monuments in Pyongyang devoted to the construction of socialism, one can still find the inscription ‘Uphold Marxism-Leninism’.

However, Kim Il Sung also stressed other features and floated the beginnings of an alternative terminology. So we find the first mention of ‘Juche’, that human beings are masters of their destiny, as well as a core principles of reunification, which is to be undertaken independent of foreign powers. These and other ideas would provide the seeds for his successor, Kim Jong Il, to stress more and more the autochthonous nature of his father’s thought. ‘Juche’ began to replace Marxism-Leninism, and the new security policy of ‘Songun’ was seen as originating with Kim Il Sung. Gradually, more and more of the traditional Marxist vocabulary began to disappear. The latest casualty – I am told – is the term ‘dialectics’. To be sure, they still speak of the stage of constructing socialism as one of struggle, which will eventually lead to communism. And one notices many features that come from earlier experiences of constructing socialism, such the planned economy (although there is a careful shift underway to a socialist market economy), education, socialist culture, and the history of art. The latter is intriguing: after the revolution and liberation of Korea, one finds first a period of socialist realism that then becomes Juche art, or realism with social features.

At the same time, if one studies the literature from the late 1990s until now, one finds less and less of the conventional Marxist terminology. Indeed, one may gain the impression that the socialism in question was created by Kim Il Sung and elaborated later. Indeed, under Kim Jong Un (since 2011), there has been a further shift, speaking of Kimilsungism and Kimjongilism as the body of theory and practice.

So we find a gradual and studied move from the old to the new – to keep the terminology I have been deploying. Korean socialism may have begun with a clear awareness of its debts to the old, maintaining close links with countries in the Communist Bloc. But it has moved ever more clearly into the new, stressing the sheer autochthony of this socialism.

Anti-Colonialism

As I have elaborated elsewhere, I am not inclined the deploy a ‘betrayal narrative’, especially since such a narrative is a Western European product with heavy debts to the biblical story of ‘The Fall’. Instead, I seek to understand this relationship to the Marxist tradition.

An important factor in this shift to an autochthonous Korean socialism is the anti-colonial project. The connection between socialism and anti-colonialism was initially made – theoretically – in the Soviet Union. In the immensely creative 1930s, they began to realise that the internal affirmative action policy in relation to minority nationalities (sometimes erroneously called ‘ethnic groups’) had implications for anti-colonialism. If the internal policy was to foster such nationalities at all levels so that they gained autonomy within the Soviet Union, then the same applied to other places in the world seeking to throw off the colonial yoke.

The intrinsic connection between Marxism and resisting capitalist imperialism appeared again and again in Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. Practically, this meant substantial support – albeit not without occasional friction – from the Soviet Union. Politically, it meant that some newly independent countries established themselves on a socialist basis. We see this situation clearly in China, where even today the anti-colonial project unfolds with extraordinary consequences. Think of the Belt and Road Initiative, the heavy investment of China in African infrastructure and economic development, as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In Korea, the anti-colonial struggle was initially directed at Japan, which had unilaterally annexed the peninsula in 1910. Brutal was the regime and intense was the struggle. The effort to develop a united front against Japanese imperialism meant that ‘patriotism’ was often the key determining factor. For example, in Kim Il Sung’s writings, we encounter all manner of groups and individuals who were not necessarily communists. Some were of a religious background, others were not, but as long as they worked to overthrow Japanese domination, they were seen as part of the same project.

Soon after the defeat of Japan, with the crucial role of the Soviet Red Army after it had defeated Hitler, a new imperialist force appeared on the peninsula. Keen to get a foothold on the Asian landmass, United States troops scurried to occupy part of the peninsula. Ignoring Korean requests to determine their own future, the United States Commander installed the well-known anti-communist hitman, Syngman Rhee, as the ruler of the south. A state was quickly declared in the south (with the north reluctantly following with it sown declaration), tens of thousands of people were slaughtered in crackdowns on uprisings, and United States troops remain on the peninsula.

For the DPRK, the Korean War – or what they call the Fatherland Liberation War – was an effort by the United States to impose its imperialism on the whole peninsula. Resisting this effort was an extraordinary achievement at an extraordinary cost. Twenty percent of the population was slaughtered, every building and piece of infrastructure destroyed, with more napalm and biological weapons used on the north than in Vietnam. Everything one sees in the DPRK today had to be built again or, very often, anew. Pyongyang is perhaps the best example of a completely new city. One or two former buildings (such as Chilgol Church) might have been rebuilt, but the city as a whole has been built from scratch.

As they like to say in the DPRK, Kim Il Sung managed to defeat two imperialisms in his lifetime. Not a bad effort at all.

All of this means that independence from foreign forces is close to hearts of those in the DPRK, as well as a good number of those in the south. Sovereignty here has a distinct sense: no interference from outside forces. This understanding of sovereignty the DPRK shares with China and other formerly colonised countries. It also shapes the policy of reunification, which the north has consistently promulgated. The three principles for reunification are that it should be determined by Koreans and not outside powers, that it should be peaceful, and that it should result in a federated Republic of Koryo, with a socialist north and a capitalist south.

While these developments constitute a worthy topic in their own right, I am also interested in the implications for the autochthonous socialism that I discussed above. Given the strength of the desire for the sovereign independence of the whole peninsula, it should be no surprise that this desire also influences the relationship with the Marxist tradition. Marxism is, of course, originally a foreign and indeed Western European body of theory and practice. But it took root in what at first seemed to be unexpected places, such as Russia, China and Korea. However, instead of acknowledging this tradition and the specific form it has developed in Korea – socialism with Korean characteristics – the preference is to efface the tradition itself. If they did acknowledge it and see themselves as part of it, they would in some way undermine the sheer emphasis on independent sovereignty.

Lest I steer too much in this direction, let me add a caveat: I have found Korean students very knowledgeable about Marx, Engels, Lenin and others, so much so that I have been asked what Marx and Engels would think if they visited the DPRK today. At the same time, this remains at the level of education and discussion, not officially stated positions.

Inheritance and Leadership

Let me now shift my underlying framework of old and new to a slightly different register: the type of socialism found in the DPRK is the most qualitatively different I have found anywhere in the world. One can, of course, identify specific features that one recognises from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. But the way the pieces come together and how they have developed is quite distinct.

What holds them together? It is a feature that many foreigners find most difficult to understand: the leadership. President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshal Kim Jong Un provide the inescapable cohesion of the whole project. As one person put it me when were discussing the recent developments towards reunification: ‘as long as we have our marshal, everything will be fine’. The vast majority genuinely hold to this position. The respect and veneration given takes place every day. For example, at the Palace of the Sun (mausoleum), one shows absolute respect, bowing low at three points of each leader’s preserved body (not the head). Or whenever one comes before a statue, one bows low in respect. Images of the leaders are not to be reproduced for commercial purposes, and one always uses their titles when speaking of them.

The question is how this might be understood from a Marxist approach. Those foreign Marxists who are sympathetic to and even supportive of the DPRK project usually bracket out the leadership. Apart from the inherited leadership, they say, they can support what the DPRK is doing. Obviously, this approach will not work, for the leadership is absolutely central for understanding the DPRK.

Alternatively, one can draw on various non-Marxist examples to gain some perspective. It may be the reverence given to the Thai king, with prison sentences for any act that shows disrespect. Or it may be the development of absolute monarchy in Europe, during its transition from feudalism to capitalism. Or it may be due to the old Korean imperial tradition, with its dynasties and indeed representations of large rulers. These suggestions may help a little, but they do not get us very far.

Other approaches draw nearer to Marxism, at times arising from within as internal criticisms. These include the ‘cult of the personality’, especially surrounding the one who leads the party to power through a revolution, or the well-worn trope of a quasi-religion, with the rituals and reverence for the alternative communist tradition and its practices likened to religion. I have written enough about such dubious suggestions elsewhere, so will not repeat those points here, save to indicate that they are decidedly unhelpful in the DPRK.

I would like to suggest another approach, which arises from the complex laws of inheritance in the DPRK. In the statement on family law (published most recently in 2018), we find a very strong emphasis on family continuity. Someone in the family must inherit the property of the one who dies, even when no spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, brothers or sisters can be found. Even a will written by the testator can be declared invalid if it ‘prejudices the interests of one who has been supported by the testator’. In other words, anyone in the family who has even remotely been supported by the testator can apply to have a will overturned. On the other hand, an inheritor can lose the right to inheritance if they ill-treated the deceased, did not take of the deceased properly or even ‘created conditions for inheritance’. Both conditions are sweeping and reciprocal.

Two questions arise from this feature of family law. First, the document is clear that it refers primarily to property, but one may wander what private property is doing in a socialist country. Here the constitution (revised in 2016) can provide some insight. Articles 21 to 24 stipulate three types of property: state owned, cooperatively owned, and private property. The first two are familiar from other socialist systems and ideally work together. Private property, however, also clearly exists. It is ‘property owned and consumed by individual citizens’. It may arise from socialist distribution according to work (as developed by Stalin in the Soviet Union), from ‘sideline activities’ and ‘other legal economic activities’ – rather broad, to say the least. Crucially the state guarantees this private property and the right to inherit it. Is this an innovation in light of the thriving DPRK economy, which deftly manages to negate economic sanctions (as was abundantly clear on our recent visit)? Not at all, already in the Soviet Union it became clear that only under socialism can everyone enjoy full access to their private property.

The second question concerns what may be inherited beyond property, or indeed whether property includes items that are not material. Some may want to refer to the ‘songbun’ system, in which all families are classified – in many subcategories – as ‘core’, ‘wavering’ or ‘hostile’, depending on family history and loyalty. The catch with this analysis is that it has never been outlined by the DPRK, but rather by CIA operatives, lousy ‘evidence’ from defectors and creative interpretations of Kim Il Sung’s texts. So I prefer not to deploy it here. Instead, what is important is family history and tradition, with a distinct focus on those from anti-imperialist fighters, peasants and workers. The nature of a family continues through the generations, being embodied in each generation. This too, I suggest, counts as inheritance.

By now the implications for understanding the central role of the leadership should be clear. Marshal Kim Jong Un inherits the family tradition of being a revolutionary leader. Let me add one further ingredient: it has become clear by now that the revolutionary leader is crucial not merely for the success of the revolution, but even more so for the construction of socialism. This complex process of veneration first developed with Lenin, but has been repeated in each effort to construct socialism. Lenin died only a few years after the October Revolution, but he lived on in so many ways. Leaders like Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung were fortunate enough to live long after the revolution, leaving their imprint on the new societies they led. In many respects, the leader embodied the revolution, so much so that the body itself was preserved and continues to be venerated (I, for one, have paid my respects to Lenin, Mao, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il).

If we connect this history of veneration of the revolutionary leader with the strong emphasis on inheritance in the DPRK, we are led to the following conclusion: Kim Jong Un today inherits the role of revolutionary leader from his father and grandfather. But he is not merely the descendent; he is the revolutionary leader. It is not for nothing that he is represented much like his grandfather at the same age, with similar clothing, bearing, and even hair.

Conclusion: A Qualitatively Different Society

In closing, I would like to return to the underlying tension between old and new. A visit or two to the DPRK can be a disconcerting experience, for it is simply like no other society on earth. Some of the elements I have outlined above, but let me use the example of Pyongyang. It has the advantage of having been thoroughly destroyed during the Korean War. In doing so, the United States did the city an unexpected favour. It could be planned and designed anew. And it has been.

Without going into detail concerning the city lines and unique architecture (a new building boom continues as I write), one way of putting it is that Pyongyang is what many cities in eastern Europe tried to become. Perhaps Minsk, also completely destroyed, comes closest, but Pyongyang is far beyond Minsk. What I mean is that Pyongyang is the world’s first truly socialist city. The very construction of space is different, a socialist space at once monumental and collective. The vast majority of the buildings are for the people – sport institutes, cultural venues, performance venues, reading houses, and so on. And now, with the economy moving along at a good clip the streets are full of people and traffic, although most prefer to use the trams trolley buses and metro to get about – in the newly designed and manufactured vehicles from the DPRK. Many are the foreigners who find it disconcerting, unable to find a way to be in it. I find it one of the most amazing cities on earth.

But it is utterly and qualitatively different, as is the society of the DPRK. Here we may deploy an element of ‘Western’ Marxism. It has been the wont of some ‘Western’ Marxists to stress the qualitatively different nature of socialism, let alone communism. So different will it be, they suggest, that we can barely imagine what it will be like. This approach has many negative dimensions (idealism, romanticism, perpetual putting off of socialism, myopia regarding actual socialist states), but here it may provide an unwitting insight. If you want a qualitatively different socialist country, then the DPRK is it.

Do I like it? I admire it, I enjoy many elements within it, but I am not sure if I like it. This essay is one effort among a number to understand it and come to terms with this sense. Let me put it this way: I am not an admirer of much of ‘Western’ Marxism, especially its emphasis on the new and the qualitatively different. Too many are the negatives with this approach. Instead, I can say that of the socialist countries (past and present) in which I have lived or which I have visited, I prefer socialism with Chinese characteristics, with its complex dialectical relationship with the past – including a clear sense of the Marxist tradition.

Train out of Pyongyang

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Nervously we sat, not daring to leave our train cabin. A border guard was searching through our bags and asking questions. But this was no ordinary border and this was no ordinary border guard, for we were attempting to leave the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Would everything be checked in minute detail? Would most of our purchases be confiscated and photographs deleted?

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We were on the T28 train, from Pyongyang to Beijing, about to pass over the border crossing, from Sinuiju across the river Dandong in China. More of that in a moment. I had been in the DPRK for only four days, although it felt like four months. Our small group had seen key sites in Pyongyang, rattled along a bumpy road to Kaesong in order to experience country life and see the Demilitarised Zone, and given a full dose of the DPRK’s perspective on the world. We were a sceptical liberals, social democrats, curious seekers for a real communist experience, and some older travellers with a wiser view of the world. Oh yes, a few communists were among us, keen to see old style communism still in action.

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But the rail journey was a real highlight, albeit for a handful of us brave enough to travel in such a fashion. Soon enough I realised that the rest, who had opted to fly out, had really missed an extraordinary opportunity. At Pyongyang station, I was astounded at the platform: not at the architecture or layout, but at the sheer number of northern Koreans. Were they seeing off visitors, I wondered? Were they here for the sight of foreigners in their ‘closed’ country? No, they were heading out of the country for work, study, sport and what have you. I should not have been amazed by now, but old preconceptions linger. Yet each day, the T28 train leaves Pyongyang for the 24-hour journey to Beijing, full of northern Koreans, while the T27 does the journey the other way, bringing Koreans back to their country. So much for the ‘closed’ borders.

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Some wore the badges of rank in the government. These were lapels pinned to one’s shirt or top. In some cases, both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il appeared on the background of a DPRK flag. In other cases, it was a single image of Kim Jong-Il in a small circle. The Russians once called them the nomenklatura – those who had shown their loyalty to the government over generations and were thereby given extra privileges. I could not help thinking of the Christian church during the Middle Ages – the last time another ideology was dominant in states. And I could not help appreciating the need to ensure that significant numbers have an investment in keeping the show on the road. They have done so now for almost 70 years.

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Departing Pyongyang Station, we trundled along at a perfect pace for rail travel – about 50 kilometres per hour. Our eyes looked outward, watching the countryside roll slowly by. The train passes northward from Pyongyang, in between towering and mountain ranges capped with snow even in early summer. The narrow valley was full of crops in every conceivable corner that was remotely level – even between the railway lines. Not to be outdone by the rugged landscape, farmers also grew hardy crops on hillsides. Arable land is valuable indeed, dotted as it was with groups of soldiers and farmers working the fields. Some mechanisation was evident, but the methods – especially for the rice paddies – still used traditional hand methods.

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Time passed, we talked, found our own spaces, and continued to peer out of the windows. And then it struck me: the land and its villages were incredibly clean and tidy. In Pyongyang and the other towns, I had seen many groups taking care of their collective public space, ensuring that the city remained spotless. But the countryside too was clean. Not a stray piece of paper or can or wrapper was to be seen. Did people reuse everything? I wondered. Is this a cultural tradition or perhaps due to the simpleness of life?

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By now I began to feel the pangs of hunger, as did my fellow travellers. I asked a conductor in broken Chinese: is there a dining car? Apparently not, even though the brochure boasted of such a car. My companions looked askance and tightened their belts. Until I mentioned that I had some food. Ever a cautious traveller, I had stocked up with various goods on the platform at Pyongyang: water, rice crackers, fresh vegetables and fruits. My stock became the lost dining car, supplying the five of us with necessary sustenance. Yet my stocks were not designed to last the whole journey and soon ran out. To our relief, at dusk and in China, many carriages were added – including a resplendent dining car with somewhat inflated prices. All of us made our way there, to stock up with freshly cooked food and Chinese beer.

Yet before we could get to China, we had that border crossing to negotiate, on empty stomachs.

Back to our friend, the khaki-clad border guard: he questioned me about my mobile phone, since he did not quite seem to believe that all I had was an old Nokia. ‘No smart phone?’ he said. ‘No, this is it’, I said. All of the books I had bought – mostly authored by Kim Il-Sung – drew scant attention. Not so a book carried by one of my travel companions. ‘What is about?’ He asked. ‘Who is that?’ He said, pointing to the cover. It happened to be a book about a Chinese philosopher and not a foreign book about the DPRK (of which they are wary).

Another companion had a large and prominent camera, to which our guard was drawn. He sat down and skimmed through the pictures. She was nervous indeed, for she had photographed pretty much everything in town and country. The guard spun expertly through the hundreds of photos and stopped at one. It was of two women in the countryside, topless and washing clothes. Our guard laughed! Yes, he laughed and said, ‘You can’t keep that one’. My companion laughed with him, apologised and deleted the photograph. But that was it. The rest were perfectly fine.

The examination turned out to be cursory and focused. We soon realised that our anxiety was generated by stories we had heard about leaving the DPRK. Everything would be checked in careful detail, we had been told by earlier venturers. Art work would be confiscated, most photographs deleted; even socks would be turned inside out to find anything prohibited. Not so, it turned out. The guards were polite and efficient, doing a job. The art work I had purchased was not even checked, my camera was given a quick glance and not examined, and my socks remained in my bag, along with everything else.

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And so we passed into China. Immediately, the contrast was obvious. How can one socialist country be so different from another? From quiet order we passed to typically noisy Chinese chaos. From painful politeness, we were immersed in Chinese openness. From simplicity we passed to complexity, from relative poverty and smallness, to relative wealth and sheer vastness.

We had little time to experience the contrast, for it was dark by the time we left Dandong, after yet another and even more cursory border check. So we settled into our bunks. ‘Soft sleepers’ they are called by local standards. If you have ever slept on a real Chinese or Korean bed, they were indeed soft. For many of us, they seemed hard enough. But that did not prevent my companions from snoring the night away. Nor did it prevent me.

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Too soon Beijing arrived, my second home. Out the front of the bustling Beijing Central Station, we parted with a shake and a thanks. As is the way with travel companions thrown together for a few days, only one of them contacted me by email afterwards. Her email was laden with photographs – the ones that the border guard had waved through with a well-practised glance.

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Seventy Years: On Visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Seventy years: this is how long the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has lasted. Or almost. Seventy years ago the north was liberated from Japanese occupation, and by 2018 the republic itself will have been in existence for the same amount of time. By 2020 it will equal the longest period of any socialist state, for the Soviet Union imploded after 72 years. Indeed, the DPRK is now the oldest surviving socialist state in world, being a year older than the People’s Republic of China.

Against all odds, against ever-present predictions and expectations of its imminent collapse, against caricatures of the arbitrariness of its nominal leader, the DPRK has survived. How has a relatively small socialist country managed to do so? In order to begin finding out how I finally managed to visit the place in 2015.

Visitors Welcome

I joined a tour with venerable elder of tour organisers, Koryo Tours, based in Beijing and with a rich history. When they began more than twenty years ago, they were the only organisers taking foreigners into the north and have developed an extraordinary range of options for travellers – including cycling, hiking, skiing, train and even architecture tours. Now there are perhaps a dozen operators, although each of them has to work with the Korean International Tourism Company when in the DPRK. The Koryo office is Beijing sets the tone. Located in an old Chinese home near Sanlitun, it evokes what may be called communist chic. Part Eastern Europe, part Soviet Union, and part North Korea, such chic appeals to those seeking a communist experience. Propaganda posters festoon the walls, Korean communist items are for sale, Koryo staff members work busily at their desks and one feels partly transported to the country itself. In one sense, I felt that the survival of the DPRK was not only part of Koryo Tours’ raison d’être, but that Koryo itself was integral to the survival of the DPRK.

How so? When they began, only a handful of people visited the north. But now the numbers are around 30,000 and growing. Two thirds of these are Chinese (judging by the sheer number of Chinese visitors), but the remainder are from elsewhere in the world. The DPRK is keen for even more people to visit, ever expanding its services. And the reason is simply that they want more and more people to see their country, to understand their perspective on the world and to let others know.

Visitors to the DPRK come for many reasons: the allure of out-of-the-way places or even communist chic, of which the DPRK has much; a social democratic agenda that wishes to see the ‘evil’ at first hand; thrill-seeking or perhaps a desire to visit as may countries in the world as possible; an adolescent desire to see what prohibitions one may flout; socialists keen to see what old-style socialism is really like; technical workers, teachers and conference attendees; and even supporters of the DPRK.

Preconceptions Overturned

Some tried to come with an open mind, but that effort proved futile. I had arrived with the assumption that few people visit the DPRK and that none of its citizens are permitted to travel. I was stunned to find our hotel full of travellers, with tour buses often lined up outside. At the Demilitarised Zone near Kaesong we were lucky to be the first of an almost endless stream of groups. Intrigued, I asked one of our guides: how many visitors do you have each year? He spoke of about 10,000 Westerners. What about the many Chinese visitors I had seen. They now number about 20,000 per annum.

Well and good. But what about Koreans wishing to travel abroad? Surely Koreans in the north are not allowed to leave the country, for one hears regular stories of ‘defectors’ who seek to ‘escape’. Once again I was surprised. At Pyongyang railway station, where we waited to board our train to Beijing, most of those of the platform were actually people from the DPRK. To be sure, some were travelling within the country, but many crossed the border into China. And each day flights leave Pyongyang for Beijing, full of mostly Koreans travelling abroad or returning home. Of course, those permitted to travel, mostly for work or study, do so with clearance from the government. But I reminded myself that I too need to request permission before I travel overseas.

Some of us arrived with the assumption that life was lived in black-and-white or perhaps in sepia tones, or that people lived glum lives, without smiling or laughing or enjoying themselves. Again, perceptions were overturned: in the DPRK they do know how to enjoy themselves, whether at the beer halls, or at the playgrounds and amusement parks, or at the many gymnastic, circus, musical and even mass games events. Even so, it was clear that they do not need such an event or location to enjoy life.

A third expectation overturned concerns reunification. Some – myself included – had arrived assuming that the north was hard-wired against reunification of the Korean Peninsula. The south may be in favour, but definitely not the north. The reality turned out to be somewhat different. The policy of the north has actually been focused on reunification since the early days of Kim Il-Sung. Landmark statements in 1972 and then again in 1973 and 1980 indicate clearly the desire for reunification. The policy is that reunification should be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. By contrast, ever since the rule in the late 1940s by the anti-communist strongman in the south, Syngman Rhee, the south has been wary, if not openly hostile, to reunification. The exception was the brief period of 2000-2008, when Kim Dae-Jung of the south agreed to negotiations, meeting on a number of occasions with northern leaders. This resulted in the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006. Too soon did such an initiative come to an end, when the new southern president, Lee Myung-bak, took a right-wing hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now.

Responding Rationally

Let me return to the question of survival, for well-nigh seventy years. How to account for this survival? One might focus on the ability to recover from continual provocations and a series of near-disasters, such as the Japanese occupation, the belligerent establishment of South Korea against the wishes of the majority of Koreans, the Korean War and the economic crisis and food shortages of the 1990s with the implosion of the Soviet Union. One might assert – as is so often the case with foreign assessments – that the DPRK survives through systematic repression and surveillance of its citizens. Or one might assume that the ‘regime’ teeters on the brink, stumbling along and somehow managing to keep its balance.

By contrast, I suggest that the north actually operates by means of a rational response to an irrational situation. Obviously, this approach runs counter to the dominant international narrative: the ‘regime’ is run by an idiosyncratic, arbitrary and capricious leader (one of the Kims) whose actions can only be described as irrational. Instead, the DPRK operates in a largely rational manner. Let me give two examples.

First, a significant number, if not the majority, of Koreans are integrated within the system. The country functions in terms of a complex series of well-articulated steps determined by loyalty and responsibility. The higher the level, the greater the responsibility and involvement. People gain such responsibility by showing fidelity and working for the cause, but – crucially – this fidelity is not merely a matter of the individual. Instead, it is established over generations, with the loyalty of whole families determining the responsibility granted to individuals from that family. The overt signals of such responsibility are the modest pins worn on shirts or dresses. One such pin bears the images of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, each smiling on the backdrop of a DPRK flag. Another, higher-level pin has the image of Kim Il-Sung in a small circle. The reason for such a system is that the more who are integrated in this fashion, the more they have a vested interest in ensuring that the system continues. Not only is this a feature of any communist government past or present, but it is also a feature any system and its ideology.

Second, the everyday running of the country is not undertaken by the ‘supreme leader’. The leader functions as a spiritual figurehead, constantly touring the country, visiting farms, factories, schools and homes. He may be surrounded by smiling aides, notebooks in hand to record every word said, but he has little to do with governing and the affairs of everyday administration. Instead, these tasks are undertaken by the parliament, with its three political parties representing workers, farmers and intellectuals. Here policies are promoted, decisions made and implemented, difficult situations addressed and resolved as best they can be in light of resources and current realities. Carrying out the various policies and decisions is the task of the administrators, particularly those who have exhibited generations-long fidelity and responsibility.

We have become accustomed to a mind-set that communist governments run out of steam after seventy or so years, based on the experiences of the Soviet Union. It may well be that the DPRK too will succumb in such a fashion. But my suspicion is that the DPRK – a small country that must negotiate the irrational and unpredictable geopolitical developments as rationally as it can – will probably survive well into the future.

The Origins of the DPRK: From Division to Reunification

The propaganda on which we were raised had it that the Second World War came to an end through the decisive action of the United States in dropping a couple of atomic bombs on Japan. Then, US troops immediately moved to the Korean Peninsula to ensure that the freedom-loving Koreans were not subjected to the totalitarian rule of evil communists. They were not entirely successful, because the north had been overrun by the Soviet Red Army, which brutally imposed collectivisation and socialist methods on the north. They then appointed a puppet as leader, Kim Il-sung. A few years later, the United States and troops from other nations such as Australia defended the southerners from aforesaid evil communists when the latter tried to take over the whole peninsula during the Korean War. Since then, the people of the south have earnestly wanted reunification, but the totalitarian ‘regime’ of the north has simply not been interested.

Needless to say, this account is more than a little biased, so let me see if I can provide some correctives.

To begin with, as war historians have long pointed out (see, for instance, Geoffrey Roberts), Japan began suing for surrender as soon it became clear that its colonisation of Korea and parts of China would soon be over. This occupation had been in trouble for some time, with Chinese and Korean fighters – led by the communists – undermining the occupying forces. But the decisive moment came when the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrived, fresh from the capture of Berlin and after having spent more than two weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway line. As Japanese troops were routed, Japan began suing for peace.

Somewhat alarmed, the United States hastily decided to drop an atomic bomb. This was entirely unnecessary for ending the war, since the Japanese were about to surrender. But the United States had its eyes on the post-war situation, using the two bombs to show the world, and especially the Soviet Union, its new firepower. In this light, the use of the bombs actually constitutes a war crime. Not satisfied, United States troops made haste to land on the Korean Peninsula and push as far north as possible.

At this point, the situation began to resemble Germany after the Second World War. In the north were Korean communists, led by Kim Il-sung, supported by Chinese units and the Red Army. In the south were American troops, which established the Allied Military Government. Now it becomes interesting. In theory, the Soviets and the Americans were allies, but they did not behave so. Kim Il-sung proposed that the Korean people should decide on the post-war situation in Korea. This entailed the removal of foreign forces from north and south. Negotiations over this process went on for three years.

Or rather, people tried to negotiate. The American military governor in the south, Lieutenant General Hodge, refused to meet with delegations. Syngman Rhee, a staunch anti-communist strongman, was appointed as provisional leader. Under his direction and with American support, a series of uprising in the south were brutally crushed. In autumn of 1946, workers and peasants rose up against the American occupation; from April 1948 until 1953 islanders from Jeju rebelled; in October 1948 regiments in the southern Korean army rose up in the Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion; in December 1949, Mungyeong citizens and their families were massacred since they were suspected of being communist sympathisers. In suppressing these socialist movements, swathes of villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

These repressions were all part of the mechanisms for establishing a separate state in the south. Indeed, it was declared in August 1948, with Syngman Rhee as president. In response, the north found itself needing to declare the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The comparison with East and West Germany is striking. There too, the Anglo-American forces stalled on negotiations for a united Germany, which was pushed by the eastern Germans, as well as Stalin and Molotov. There too, plans began in 1948 for a separate state in the western parts, which was foreshadowed by a new currency. There too the West German state was declared first, in September 1949. And there too the east had no option but to respond with its own state. Throughout, the aim was to keep Germany separated, despite the will of most of the people.

In light of all this, what has happened to the desire for Korean unification? It has been consistent policy of the Democratic Republic of Korea since its earliest days. But on what terms? A northern takeover of the south? Not at all. The policy is that reunification would be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. This position was made explicit in the Communiqué of 1972, after the leaders of both countries had secretly met. In 1973 and again in 1980, Kim Il-sung reiterated this position, proposing a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

However, the most significant movement happened after the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of 2000, between Kim Jong-il of the north and Kim Dae-jung of the south. Given that reunification has been a core northern policy, the change was obviously in the south. Here more progressive governments became open to the idea and agreed to the declaration. The change began with Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of 1998. The result was the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

But as is the way with the vagaries and uncertainties of bourgeois democracies, the south changed its tune in 2008 with the new president, Lee Myung-bak. His right-wing policies led to a hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now.

The north Koreans I encountered view that time as one of hope disappointed, although they ardently hope for an eventual reunification along federated lines.

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