The World’s Most Secretive Nation

The future of North Korea is as murky as its past is murderous

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, right, and his son Kim Jong-un, left, salute as a military parade passes in Pyongyang, North Korea, on the 63rd anniversary of the state's founding in this Sept. 9 photo from the official KCNA news agency. (CNS photo/KCNA via Reuters) Outside of a rebellion, the death of a sitting head-of-state normally does not hold the globe’s attention for weeks on end. This is especially true when that person heads a nation whose size is roughly that of Mississippi, whose population is smaller than Ghana’s, and whose economy ranks behind Yemen, Ethiopia, and Panama.

Then again, there is nothing normal about North Korea, the most secretive state in the world, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or its recently deceased “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. Kim died Saturday, December 17, 2011, allegedly of a heart attack while on his special bulletproof train doing one of his famous “field guidance” tours.

President Kim’s death came only 14 days before the start of the year marking the 100th birthday of his father and predecessor Kim Il-sung, who founded the DPRK in 1948. The deceased leader had decreed this year would be year one of Kangsong Taeguk, which translates as “strong and prosperous country.”

Since succeeding the elder Kim in 1994, Jong-il regularly made news, even when he did nothing to make news. Whether it be the mixture of mismanagement and misfortune that led to a massive famine and killed approximately 10 percent of his nation’s 24 million people, the nuclear technology he either developed or sold to countries such as Iran and Syria, his devil-may-care military aggression against his US-allied enemy South Korea (ROK), his perfecting of a system of repression and secrecy unequalled in world history, the guessing game this secrecy engendered, or the murders and persecutions he condoned and even sponsored, all of it combined to make Kim one of the most intriguing, feared, and discussed leaders history has ever known.

Certainly no single politician in the last 20 years had Kim’s global impact. Nonetheless, as one confidential report obtained by CWR put it, his legacy is “a country with a broken economy and an untested young successor.”

Kim’s life

Soviet government records show Kim was born on a Russian army post February 16, 1941, where his father commanded a brigade of Chinese and Korean communists. North Koreans are told, however, he was born in a log cabin on Mt. Paekdu, a sacred Korean mountain near the Sino-Korean border, and that both a swallow and a double rainbow heralded his birth.

After his son completed college, Kim’s father, the “Great Leader,” began a slow and careful process of grooming the young man for succession. This, however, did not become overtly clear until 1982, when Jong-il became a member of the Seventh Supreme People’s Assembly.

After that point, state propaganda began referring to him as “Dear Leader,” and Kim started to amplify the cult of personality that already existed for him and his father and that would later ensure his succession. At the same time, this enabled the regime to refine its already infamous repression of all dissent. This was made possible by Jong-il’s systemization and promotion of juche (loosely translated as “self-reliance”), the quasi-Marxist/Stalinist/Christian/Confucian creed that governs everything the so-called Hermit Kingdom does.

By the time of his father’s death in 1994, Kim had largely succeeded in solidifying his powerbase, and his elevation to Supreme Leader was a largely foregone conclusion. However, that ascension was surrounded by a confluence of factors that thwarted his grandiose plans for making the DPRK both an economic and military powerhouse. Indeed, until the mid-1970s, because of Soviet aid and trade, North Korea had a better economy than its southern rival, and Kim’s vision was to achieve that superiority again.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, North Korea lost its biggest source of foreign aid, seriously weakening an already dangerously compromised economy. Then 1995 saw one of the worst strings of natural disasters the country had ever known. With no significant exports and its adherence to juche unmitigated, the country plunged into a terrible famine.

Apart from the more than two million citizens it killed, the remarkable thing about the disaster is that it was the first instance of “a famine taking place in such a literate, urbanized, industrialized country,” says Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee, who teaches International Politics at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts. “Famines typically take place in agricultural, pre-industrial economies, and are often characterized by rebellion.”

Some were sure the food crisis would cause the regime’s collapse, but, perversely, it strengthened it. Furthermore, it did so at a time when Kim did almost everything but address the crisis.

Much of the world looked upon Kim’s actions with fascination, shock, approval, horror, disgust, bemusement, admiration, or condemnation—or even a combination of these—and inside observers had a begrudging respect for the man.

One anonymous high-level foreign source told CWR that Kim Jong-il struck those who met him as “a very well-informed and intelligent man with rather normal human characteristics.” Furthermore, “his horizon did not end at the North Korean border. … He was not a stupid man. He orchestrated and used well the very limited means he had in his hand. Nonetheless, he actually failed to change his country in a way that would have fundamentally increased his power, that is, by making the country rich. However, in my opinion this was not a lack of understanding on his side. Rather, it was his estimation that such steps would have set into motion powers he feared not to be able to control anymore.”

This helps explain why Kim launched the songun, or “military first” policy, precisely during the famine. Were insurrection to occur, he would need firm military support. In 1992, the DPRK spent 12.3 percent of its GDP on the military. In 2003, still in the famine’s deepest throes, it reported spending 15.9 percent of GDP on the military.

The expenditures have not stopped. In 2009, the regime claimed military expenditures of $570 million. However, adjusted for what economists call “purchasing power parity,” this actually amounts to $8.77 billion, according to the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis. If that adjustment is correct, the DPRK spent 19.2 percent of GDP on defense, representing roughly 40-45 percent of its total budget that year (for the same year, the US spent 4 percent of GDP on its military; South Korea 2.7 percent, the UK 2.5 percent, and Canada 1.5 percent).

It was also during the famine that Kim made his country into a nuclear power. Regardless of their take on him, all sources consulted or interviewed by CWR agree that were it not for this, chances are good the world would remember him as the last leader of North Korea.

Kim also launched huge public building projects, such as erecting a mausoleum to hold his father’s embalmed remains. Additionally, when he accepted that juche was not sufficient to stem the crisis and allowed foreign food aid into the country, he ordered his traders to sell some of the donated food on the international market. Many rightly consider it an underhanded move, and a sign of how desperate Kim was for capital.

Letting in the foreign aid groups was an unprecedented step, and it did save lives. Groups such as the World Food Program and the Catholic Church’s Caritas International provided food and medical assistance. This is how many of the photographs of conditions in North Korea that shocked the world got out.

It is also how some of the first Masses in the north since 1950 came to be said. That doesn’t mean, however, there was religious freedom. Far from it. North Korea has a rigid system of castes, or songbun; religious believers—especially Christians, whom the regime fears most—are among the lowest, and such a designation can get one sent to the kwallinjo (that is, a prison camp). If caught with a Bible or other religious paraphernalia, a person will likely receive a death sentence.

In any event, thanks largely to outside assistance, the nation is no longer in the grips of famine. That said, practically all the country’s citizens are malnourished. The effects of malnutrition have been so bad that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) has lowered its minimum height requirement from 4’11” to 4’3”, with the average soldier being just five feet tall.

Meanwhile, despite limited growth, the country’s economy is stagnant. This, however, has not prevented the elite from enjoying life. In 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that the regime “spent $10 million on luxury items from January through May of this year.” This included top-shelf whiskey, items from Gucci, Armani, and Rolex, Marlboro cigarettes, Hennessy cognac, imported beer, and beef. Indeed, in 2003, Hennessy confirmed Kim Jong-il was their largest customer.  Russian diplomat Konstantin Pulikovsky noted how Kim had roast donkey and live lobsters delivered to his train while making foreign visits. He also kept a well-stocked supply of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

These goods were not just for Kim’s personal use. Rather, he used them to keep the support of the regime’s other power brokers. Not that many would voice complaints. After all, in a nation where Kim so thoroughly systematized the suppression of dissent, authorities take the better-safe-than-sorry route and imprison or execute troublesome individuals. As a result, the DPRK has no Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, or VÁclav Havel.

Even more tragically, it is not just offenders themselves who receive sentences to the kwallinjo; their children and parents are often imprisoned as well. In this, Kim has carried on a policy originated by his father to “root out class enemies through three generations.”

Through the various crises Kim faced—even those he caused—the regime remained standing. Yes, this was because of the military and elite support, but also because of the juche system begun under Kim Il-sung and perfected in its perverse implementation by his son. It allowed for a breathtaking cult of personality. It was said, for instance, the first time Kim Jong-il ever gripped a golf club, he hit 38 under par and 11 holes-in-one at Pyongyang’s 7,700-yard golf championship course (compare this with Jack Nicklaus’ 20 lifetime aces and the Master’s Tournament course at Augusta, Georgia’s 7,445 yards). DPRK citizens were expected to completely believe it.

Sometime around August 15, 2008, Kim suffered a stroke. Although officially disputed, the French neurosurgeon who operated on Kim confirmed the stroke and said he would almost fully recover. By November and December of 2008, intelligence services confirmed state news agency reports that he was back at work.

A top priority for Kim was the matter of succession. His firstborn son fell out of favor after attempting to enter Japan with a falsified passport. His second son was considered too unmanly for such a grave position. Thus the choice fell on the third son, Kim Jong-un, whom his father began grooming to succeed him in 2009. An average student at the International School of Bern, it was not necessarily his being the last man standing that made him heir to the throne. Many believe he closely resembles to his still-revered grandfather and Kim’s former chef has said Jong-un is “exactly like his father.”

Quickly given a key military role, Jong-un was suspected by many of masterminding the unprovoked sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010 and the shelling of a South Korean island. These incidents, reportedly done to prove Jong-il’s bona fides, killed around 50 ROK citizens.

Last August, the elder Kim traveled with Jong-un to China, and also met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev just across the Mongolian border. During his final days, the President attended performances, received foreign dignitaries, and, as late as December 15, made many of his famous “guidance visits” to factories and other facilities, during which he exhorted workers to greater heights and gave advice on how to operate more efficiently and productively.

That was the last public sighting of the “Dear Leader.” On December 19, a sobbing female news anchor announced on state television that Jong-il had passed two days before. The news caught even Korean and US intelligence agencies by surprise.

There had been signs, however. At 1 am on December 18, an order went out to all military units near China to seal the borders and “increase patrols.” Later, at 9 am, in the border city of Musan, in the “unreliable” border province of North Hamkyung, soldiers imposed a curfew. Not even children could go outside. Subsequently, orders went out to execute those who attempted defection during the official mourning period, as well as their families.

After that began the mourning period preparations, especially in the capital. Many have speculated that much of the incredible mourning witnessed on television preceding and during the funeral was staged. South Korean media has even run reports from what it says are DPRK sources claiming that part of the delay in announcing Kim’s death came because government cadres had to train the proletariat on proper mourning protocol. One Chinese businessman reported the KPA prevented him and others from boarding his homebound train until they appeared sufficiently saddened by Kim’s death.

Conversely, the Korean newspaper Donga Ilbo reported, “According to [a South Korean manager of a plant in the DPRK], North Korean workers were considerably shocked to hear of Kim’s death but continued their daytime shift until the end of the business day. Workers gathered in groups of three or four and held chats with a serious look during breaks, but did not cry or…push up the close of business.”

Another news outlet says that on January 10, 2012, the regime even started handing out six-month sentences in reeducation camps to those who had not shown sufficient grief during the official bereavement period.

Additionally, some have begun questioning the official line on Kim’s death.

When it announced his death on December 19, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Kim “had received medical treatment for his cardiac and cerebrovascular diseases [i.e., stroke] for a long period.” This would appear to confirm reports of Kim’s 2008 stroke. It also confirmed the intelligence non-allied states had on his subsequent poor health.

The KCNA report went on to say his heart attack was brought on by the “great mental and physical strain” of doing so many field guidance visits. And it is true—his public appearances since the summer had seen a noted uptick, with more than 30 taking place in October alone.

KCNA had said Kim’s death occurred while his train was in motion. Korean National Intelligence Service Chief Won Sei-hoon later told a National Assembly committee hearing that Kim’s train never moved from its berth at Pyongyang’s train station.

International man of mystery

Now that Kim is gone, many have speculated what course the younger Kim will take—whether he will be more aggressive or if his rise to power portends better chances for a peaceful and possibly reunified Korean peninsula.

First, who is this young man whose ascension as the new Supreme Leader has created the first dynasty in socialist history (certainly an irony to those imprisoned in the kwallinjo for being “bourgeois”)? He is described as shy, possibly diabetic, an avid lover of video games and, like his father, a collector of anything having to do with former professional basketball star Michael Jordan. He speaks English and some German.

Concerning his immediate plans, Jong-un will embalm his father, as Kim Jong-il did his own father, for starters. This past Friday, he marked and publicly celebrated his father’s 70th birthday in Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang (where his father’s body is on display). Kim Il-sung’s birthday, celebrated on February 17, is a national holiday known as “Sun Day.” Kim Jong-il’s birthday will also be a national holiday known as “Shining Star Day.” Furthermore, the impoverished nation will erect a large number of statues of the late Leader to join the 30,000 of Kim Il-sung scattered around the nation.

Additionally, most agree the military will remain the most influential force in North Korea. Many, however, want to see whether Jong-un will transfer some of that influence to the WPK, the nation’s only real political party. As the previously mentioned confidential report put it, “In this sense, one of the most likely scenarios of the post-Kim Jong-il era is a collective leadership system, in which Kim Jong-un is backed by a group of high-ranking military and party officials.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one foreign diplomat who has lived in the region for many years told CWR:

Certainly, given the fact that the old guard will, for sure, one-by-one naturally leave this earth in the coming years, it opens possibilities for change his father did not have.

I think, however, he will for some time to come continue his father’s policy, if for no other reason than North Korea has, from their point of view, no other chance to survive. They must be perceived by the outside world as dangerous as long as they face a hostile environment. So many things depend on South Korea, especially its next president. Furthermore, there is also US “provocation.” From my observations, unnecessary actions that North Korea can legitimately perceive as threats or provocations occur on and around the Korean Peninsula by many actors.

In any event, he says, “The goal of the regime is the survival of North Korea in its present form. One may agree with that aim or not, but, in a way, that is principally a legitimate aim for any regime.”

Regardless of what course Jong-un takes, there is one thing upon which everyone agrees. China will use the next few years to draw North Korea ever closer. One big reason is to gain more access to the country’s vast and untapped mineral wealth, which the DPRK hasn’t the technology to fully extract.

Undoubtedly, this is a confusing and uncertain time. In the midst of it, however, perhaps the best course is that suggested by Bishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik of Daejeon: “It is too soon to say what will happen on the Korean Peninsula, but we must pray and work so that peace wins.”


Editor’s note: This article is the first of a series for Catholic World Report on the situation in North Korea. Future articles will focus on the history of Christianity in Korea, past and current religious persecution in North Korea, the current state of Catholicism in North Korea, and what the future might hold for that country and its oppressed citizens.

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About BK O'Neel 29 Articles
BK O’Neel writes from Pennsylvania.