By Dr R Balashankar
North Korea, the country that defies taming
FOR the West, especially America, which has subdued most of the world, North Korea is a challenge. This Asian country refuses to yield, thereby becoming an increasingly irritating presence in the world map. Victor Cha in his Impossible State – North Korea, Past and Future has expressed this angst of America, the vexed frustration of failure in trying to engage with the last domain of communism. Cha visited North Korea accompanying New Mexico’s (then) Governor Bill Richardson.
Cha’s is not the first book on North Korea from the West. And they are all in the same tone and tenor. North Korea is in dire straits, it needs saving—by capitalism, democracy and who better than the West to do free-home delivery of these. Cha begins the book dramatically with the landing of the plane and his subsequent separation from the rest of the delegation.
North Korea is a land of contradictions, Cha says. The school children learn grammatical conjugations by reciting “We killed Americans,” “We are killing Americans,” “We will kill Americans.” Elementary maths is taught by the number of dead American soldiers. And yet, English and not Russian has been made compulsory foreign language. “In terms of economics, the facts are even more bewildering… The US Geological Survey assesses North Korea to have some of the world’s largest untapped reserves of coal, iron ore, limestone, magnesite and other minerals akin to rare earth reserves (tungsten, molybdenum and niobium-tantalum.” Per capita gross national income of the country was $960 in 2009 and the life expectancy is at 67.4 years. In terms of human rights, North Koreans suffer terribly. “You can get thrown into a gulag for six months of hard lobor for watching a DVD of Jackie Chan’s Twin Dragons or for humming South Korean pop song.” (Well, this matches well with the moral police punishment meted out in most of the West Asian countries for showing the knee or not covering the head or being seen in public with a man other than father, brother or husband.)
And yet, despite all the hardship, the North Koreans believe they are the chosen people and their leader is protecting them from the vice world. Even those who escape North Korea nurture a deep love for the Dear Leader. Discussing how North Korea became the Impossible State, Cha says, “I believe that without looking at the history of the Kim family, its over-the-top personality cult, and its ideology, we cannot explain why the North Korean people, even those who have defected, still harbor affection for the leadership. We cannot understand the nuclear weapons threats without understanding some of the bad economic choices the regime has made over its sixty-plus-year history. We cannot understand the human rights abuses without understanding the intense paranoia of the regime.”
According to Cha, the ruler, the King is in total disconnect with the public. He says, quoting Swiss trade statistics, that at the height of famine in the 1990s, the Son imported $2.6 million worth of luxury Swiss watches. In 1995, he paid $1.5 million for US professional wrestlers to do exhibition matches in North Korea—the most money at the time that professional wrestling ever made for a foreign event. The list of vulgar and inhuman extravaganza is long. He is reported to have eight villas in the country, all connected by underground trains so that at any time, nobody would know where he is. Cha also discusses the series of economic bad decisions the regime took. It is in constant competition with South Korea and was envious. When Seoul was elected to host the Olympics, North Korea invested in several mega projects, none of them complete or profitable. The half finished “hideous” structure in Pyongyang is a standing monument of these. The estimated cost of the hotel building with 3,000 rooms was estimated at $2 billion.
North Korea has been abandoned by the elder cousin Soviet Union. And China too helps North Korea only for its own purpose, exploiting the mineral resources in monopoly. Till 2004, China had no mining investment in North Korea. Today, 41 per cent of Chinese joint ventures in North Korea are in extractive industries, especially in iron and steel and considerable in molybdenum.
The founder of the world-wide conglomerate Hyundai Chong Chu-yong is from Korea, the northern part. He left home to go to Seoul. The country got divided soon after and he never returned home. While leaving he had taken a cow from his father without permission to fund his journey. Nearly six decades later, he came home, with five hundred cows to return that debt. He was keen to see that the divided South and North Koreans must meet and join. He invested enormous amount of money into North Korea to develop Kaesong Kumgang Mountain Tourism Project.
This was part of the Sun Shine policy initiated by the North Korean government to allow foreign investment in select areas. It received $3 billion from the South in a decade, far surpassing the money received from China during the period ($1.9 billion). While North Korea benefitted from it, the South Korean investors, like Hyundai have had to soak up their losses. The silent desire of this Sun Shine policy resulting in merger never bore fruit.
What does future hold in store for North Korea? Cha is definite that the days of revolution and democracy are not far off. He pins his hope on the basis of the series of such movements rocking the Middle East. The death of senior Kim Jong-il, the inexperience of the son, the growing marketisation and cracks in the information vacuum bode ill for the regime, he says. “There are five potential variables—wealth accumulation, rates of growth, demography, contagion effect, or regime type—that could bring the Arab Spring to North Korea’s doorsteps.” But none of these are operative in North Korea. Cha says that it is difficult to predict what would happen in North Korea. It can collapse tomorrow or it may survive like this even a decade longer. Neither would surprise him. But North Korea (four days spent there) left him angry and sad, for the people of that country.
Victor Cha is the former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. Currently, he is Professor of Government and Asian Studies and Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University.
(Bodley Head, Random House, 20, Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SWIV 25A)