North Korea: Slow-Motion Collapse?
On June 7th, I asked if a "North Korean Collapse [is] Already Underway?" I think that the evidence points to this, for I daily receive updates on North Korea from the US Army's open-source intelligence gathering, which offers unclassified information to interested individuals, and this service has alerted me to the North Korea Today website, an excellent source for stories from the daily lives of North Koreans that reveals how deeply dsyfunctional the North Korean system has become, so dysfunctional that many North Koreans are openly skeptical of their government. Let's look at some recent excerpts.
Kim Nam-joong, a North Korean man in his seventies, was meeting with a group of friends, and one of his friends offered a remark about the government's goal of achieving economic parity with other nations by 2012:
"I hear the gates to a strong nation will be opened in 2012 and our nation will become as wealthy as any other nation."To this, Mr. Kim responded:
"I would like to see the gates open just a little bit, if not open fully." He then continued, "Do we deserve our present lives? Can anyone open the gates to a strong nation?"Mr. Kim was arrested when his words were repeated by informers. Interestingly, people in his village raised questions about the necessity for this arrest, prompting a party leader in Pyongyang to respond:
"The Central Party is aware of what is said about the current dire situation at people's private gatherings. Little complaints are considered the seed of social instability. This is why they started cracking down on people."Now, this might be interpreted as meaning that the North Korean government continues to exert full control, but let us note some intriguing points. The government itself acknowledges its dire economic state and fears social instability if people begin to criticize governmental policy. Mr. Kim's criticism was mild, by our free, democratic standards. Indeed, it would be no offense at all. But he had openly questioned the ability of the government to achieve its economic aim.
Or take the case of Han Duk-soo, also a man in his seventies, who seems to have been drinking a bit of alcohol and to have complained about the current hard times, apparently saying:
"During the Arduous March[, i.e., the North Korean famine of the latter 1990s], many people died in this part of Hamheung and, for some reason, people continue to die. Even collecting grassroots and tree bark requires making a long trip into the mountain. Old people like me would die on the road [if we tried to make such a trip]. If our children were relatively well off, it would be alright, but even they have nothing. I think the best solution would be for me to die as early as possible for the sake of our children. Even though the Party now claims times are good, things were not even . . . [so] bad as this during Japanese rule."Mr. Han was arrested and interrogated for three days, then released. Interestingly, his eldest son, Han Kyung-bo, rather than being cowed by the events, angrily criticized the police for their treatment of "a weak old man," who had been caused "to suffer a great deal."
Or consider the case of a female food peddler in her forties, reporting under the pseudonym Lee Kyung-ok, who stated her opinion of governmental policy:
"They talk about opening the gates to a strong nation, but I am not convinced the gates will be opened. I don't see it. The way things are going, I do not believe we can become a strong nation. As usual, our Party will be the party of empty talk."Her words were reported, and she was interrogated along with two others who had listened to her, but nothing could be proven about her use of "Reactionary Words," so she was released. What I find interesting in her case was that even though she is younger than the two elderly men -- being merely in her forties -- she openly and harshly expressed her disbelief in governmental policy . . . and yet escaped punishment.
At times, the criticism breaks out into the open, as in a recent case in which a group of women who had been mobilized for farming protested to the Democratic Women's Union that some people had paid bribes of 20,000 North Korean won to be exempt from mobilization:
"Why is solving the nation's food crisis the job only for the poor? Those who are rich and eating well must have the strength to work much better than us. Is 150-Day Battle a battle to offer money? How come those with money do not have to work while those without have to work so much?"One woman is reported to have yelled:
"How can a poor person survive in this unjust world?"The protests lasted an entire day and prevented any work. This case indicates that people recognize several things about their North Korean society. The economy is ineffective. The system is corrupt. The mobilization effort is unjust.
What these cases reveal from the daily lives of North Koreans is a system breaking down so completely that people are voicing their criticisms despite the possibility of arrest. These protests are not violent demonstrations aimed at overthrowing the North Korean government, but they are protests expressing profound skepticism about the governmental policy, and such criticisms appear to be widely held under economic suffering that seems endless.
There can be little remaining loyalty to the government or to the communist party, for indoctrination cannot feed anyone, and people know that other countries are wealthier. Indeed, even the government's own aim of "opening the gates to a strong nation" by 2012 presupposes that North Korea is economically weak. Added to this the poor health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the difficulties in promoting the succession of 26-year-old Kim Jong-un to a position of real power, and the North's military belligerence that has angered even its ally China, one could readily conclude that the confluence of economic and political crises have rendered North Korea unstable. I won't make any predictions, but I would suggest that if the succession difficulties turn serious as Kim Jong-il declines, a power struggle could break out within the ruling elite that would utterly destabilize the entire country as the nomenklatura fragments into factions.
The next year of two may be very interesting . . . perhaps a bit too interesting for comfort if observed from a position as close to the North as where I live.