Perfecting the Art of Totalitarianism

Since the mid-20th century, North Korea has become the most fully realized totalitarian regime in history.

For most people, a normal day might look like the following.

After rising and getting yourself ready for the day, you read the newspaper or get your news online. You like to be informed, so you read the op-ed section, making sure to see what both Mr. Liberal Columnist and Miss Conservative Columnist have written.

During your commute, you flip back and forth among any number of radio stations. After arriving and beginning the day’s work, you might now and then take a break and talk with colleagues. Naturally, each person would express his or her own opinions, which might lead to some strong disagreements.

If you work a blue-collar job, maybe you occasionally check your cell phone for texts or emails. If yours is a white-collar job, you would probably check your work and personal emails accounts. You might also surf the web, either because of a project or to handle some light personal business.

After returning home, maybe you watch the news, read the newspaper, or peruse a magazine that came in the mail. After dinner, maybe you gather with friends at a local coffee house or pub for some carefree conversation over some current political topic. Or maybe you stay home and pray the family Rosary or the Liturgy of Hours.

Before going to bed, if you didn’t stay up and watch the news or a late-night comedy show, you might read some book of your choosing. Perhaps, for the sake of illustration, an excoriating evaluation of your nation’s leader.

Perfecting the system

If you live in most nations on the planet, the description above probably looks familiar. If, however, you live in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or the DPRK, and better known as North Korea), 12 of the items described above would not be possible, and six of them would get you and your whole family arrested. If the latter happened, it is very likely that none of you would live beyond five years, much less the duration of your 15-year sentence.

Such is life in the world’s most totalitarian state—which is not, as many claim, Stalinist so much as it is a combination of Stalinism, pre-1945 Japanese fascism, and national socialism in slightly varied forms.

As human-rights activist and Catholic seminarian James Mawdsley wrote in the February/March 2006 issue of Crisis magazine, the maintenance of a totalitarian regime depends on several factors. These include the government’s total eradication of any contrary voices to the official line. Furthermore, it must always have an enemy against whom only the regime can defend the people. For DPRK citizens, that equals the Japanese, Americans, and the “imperialist toadies in the south Chosun” area (that is, the government of South Korea).

Next, Mawdsley asserts, “totalitarianism suppresses the transcendent [i.e., religion]. It must be total, so it cannot accept that anything exists beyond its reach; it denies that there are boundaries it cannot cross. As such it has no regard for truth…. Force-fed these lies daily, it becomes increasingly difficult for the people to recognize truth.”

Finally, “totalitarianism inevitably deifies the leader. Unable to destroy the part of the human being that yearns for God, the tyrant tries to fill that space with himself.”

There have been many totalitarian states in history, but none have quite perfected the art as have the North Koreans. Writing in The New Republic shortly after Kim Jong Il’s death, Tom Malinowski noted:

North Koreans have grown up and grown old with a government that seeks to control every aspect of their lives, demanding not just obedience in action but devotion in thought, denying them not just the right to demand an alternative way of life, but the ability even to imagine one. Past dictators have tried to do the same—Pol Pot in Cambodia, Stalin in the Soviet Union. But none sustained the experiment for 60 years, as the Kims have done in North Korea. Most North Koreans have no memory of living in a different kind of society. Theirs may be the most fully realized totalitarian state in human history.

How, exactly, has the North Korean state so successfully maintained this system and how does it function?

Post-World War II Korea

To answer these questions first requires some background on Korea after World War II. As WWII drew to an end during the summer of 1945, the victorious Allies carved up the world based on deliberations at various conferences, such as that at Yalta. For instance, they partitioned Europe into what later became the NATO nations on one side of the so-called Iron Curtain and the Warsaw Pact countries on the other.

This same phenomenon took place on the Korean peninsula. In the north, the peninsula was bordered by communist-dominated northern China and the now former Soviet Union. In August 1945, Soviet forces quickly occupied the northern part of the country until it could install a friendly regime. In response, Colonel Charles “Tick” Bonesteel and future US Secretary of State Colonel Dean Rusk were given the task of creating the dividing line between the US and the Soviet spheres of influence on the peninsula.

The assignment came with no notice and a rapidly approaching deadline. Knowing nothing about Korean geography and having available only an old National Geographic map, the two men chose the 38th parallel, both because it seemed to evenly divide Korea and it kept the historic capital of Seoul under US protection. What neither knew was that some of Korea’s most fertile farmland was just above the new border. Also, it left Seoul particularly vulnerable to enemy attack, since it is roughly 30 miles away from the northern border. Post-war Soviet expansionism being what it was, it was only a matter of time before the soon-to-be formed North Korea invaded its southern sibling.

Before that could happen, however, the Soviets, led by Colonel General Terenti Shtykov, had to more firmly establish communism. One reason was that two-thirds of the peninsula’s Christians lived above the 38th parallel, and their bold anti-communism was formidable. Also, Korea’s relative lack of activity during WWII left Koreans free to fight for independence from their Japanese rulers (Japan had annexed Korea in 1910). Many of the Korean independence movement’s leaders lived in the north, including the Presbyterian Cho Man-sik. Following the Japanese surrender, a power-sharing arrangement was reached between Cho and the Workers’ Party of Korea founder, Kim Il Sung (father of Kim Jong Il), who had not set foot in Korea for 26 years and who could hardly speak Korean, doing so with a heavy Chinese accent.

By February 1946, the Soviets had placed Cho under house arrest, allowing Kim unfettered power. Not surprisingly, Kim and other communists overwhelmingly dominated the 1948 Shtykov-rigged elections. Following this, other notable independence activists and leaders of various faiths were arrested, including Bishop Francis Hong Yong-ho and 166 Catholic priests and religious. That this happened at the same time as the arrest of Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese sent a less-than-subtle message.

All of these Christian leaders and more were likely executed in the early months of the Korean War (1950-53). A series of purges then followed the truce that ended the conflict’s hostilities. The first purge eliminated communists who had fled from the south when the Republic of Korea was declared a nation in 1948. The next purge happened at the expense of the Yan’an faction, so called because these people had served at Yan’an, China, the cradle of Chinese communism. After that, Kim eliminated the Soviet faction. By the late 1950s, he had eliminated any potential threat to his power.

All of this coincided with the development of a gulag-like system of camps called the kwalliso. While the leaders of various opposing factions were executed—at first following show trials, later without even those—their families, loyalists, and anyone remotely associated with them were sent to the prison camps.

Over time, Kim and his son perfected these hard labor camps into one of the most effective tools any totalitarian state has ever possessed. They also perfected ways of getting people into the camps to quickly stifle any opposition, punishing those perceived as threats to the regime for the most trivial of offenses. For instance, every North Korean household is required to have framed pictures of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il—and woe to those who don’t keep them dust-free. Imprisonment could also await those who failed to sufficiently venerate public portraits of the Kims, were caught without the requisite Kim Il Sung badge, or missed the KimIlSungism study halls set up in every school and workplace throughout the country.

This is partly why 200,000 people in a nation of 24 million now find themselves in the kwalliso, including an estimated 50,000 Christians.

In addition, the Kims perfected ways to suppress all dissent by eliminating the factors that typically allow such opposition to foment.

For instance, communism collapsed in Poland largely because there were groups of clergy, labor leaders, and university students all working to spread a distinctly different worldview than that offered by the state. More recently, during the so-called Arab Spring, the merchant class joined a similar alliance of groups, and informed and coordinated with one another via the Internet.

In Poland, such groups could form a resistance due to a combination of Western economic pressure and the fact of Pope John Paul II’s support for their efforts in his homeland. Many believe social networking sites were the key factor to resistance formation in Arab countries last year.

None of this is possible in North Korea. There is no clergy, period. Only the children of the indisputably reliable elite attend universities. Labor is overseen by a network of spies, and there is no merchant class.

Nor is there any outside economic investment to speak of, except from China and, to a much smaller degree, South Korea. China is quite content with the status quo for a number of reasons. As for South Korea, its economic and humanitarian assistance is vital to the regime, but its government has no influence at all.

And while there is a very heavily controlled Intranet in the country, only the elite of the elite have Internet access. This also makes North Korea unique on the world stage; every other nation of the world’s top 10 repressive regimes have Internet access for anywhere between 2 to 15 percent of the population.

Thus none of the means and methods by which opposition groups typically develop and maintain relationships as a fulcrum for revolt are present or possible in the DPRK.

As North Korea Freedom Coalition Chairwoman Suzanne Scholte says, “Think about Solidarity [in Poland]. The people in that situation had the right to associate and discuss [politics]. North Koreans have no ability to talk or form dissenting groups. They can’t even form an alumni association. The only time we saw dissent by people in the elite was during the period from 1989-94, and that was with a group of North Korean military officers who had studied in the Soviet Union. They wanted to open up the nation, and so they formed a group. They were found out, however, and executed.”

A former officer in the NSA, the DPRK’s secret police, notes, “Mid-level cadres would find it almost impossible to report to Kim Jong Il that ‘due to so-and-so a protest broke out’. A public disturbance of any kind is an insult to the leader, completely impossible.”

This total crushing of dissent is buttressed by an unprecedented cult of personality. In the documentary Suspicious Minds, a former defector tells the filmmaker, “The moment a child utters a word, they start him on ideological training, making him say, ‘Thank you, Dear Leader,’ and ‘Thank you, Great Leader,’ all the time. So they can’t think for themselves.”

Another defector says, “People say, ‘May the Great Leader live 10,000 years.’ Even those dying of starvation say it. When you go to North Korea, you’ll only get to meet those saying, ‘Long live the Great Leader, Father General.’”

In one scene of that documentary, a little girl sings for the camera, “Sun, sun, if there’s sun it’s the morning. Sun, sun, if there’s sun the birds fly. The Great Leader’s picture is the sun to whom I am grateful. I can’t live without him. I am thankful to him.”

As one defector says in an interview on the Daily NK website, “If those above say ‘Ah,’ we say ‘Ah.’ That’s us. We are systematically taught that way.”

A National Geographic documentary about North Korea shows the bandages being taken off the eyes of hundreds of people who had just had cataract surgery. The surgeon was a Nepalese doctor who came with his entire crew and did the surgeries for free. As the bandages came off, the patients did not thank the doctor, but rather bowed in adulation before Kim Jong Il’s portrait, loudly wailing their thanks for this great gift of the “Dear Leader.”

Some signs of improvement

And the cult of personality continues with his son, the newly installed leader, Kim Jong Eun. As the Daily NK website reported in January, “The Central Party is propagandizing the greatness of Kim Jong Eun through criticism sessions, and coming down hard on anybody who is reported to have said anything hinting at any doubt of his greatness…all cadres are being careful not to get caught out by this, without exception.”

Many had hoped the persecution would abate with Jong Eun’s ascension to throne of the so-called Hermit Kingdom. If anything, things have become worse, despite the friendly face of the rotund 20-something leader.

A Yangkang Province source explained to Daily NK that Daehongdan County officials had ordered the local populace to make and deliver—at their own cost—a plank measuring 39.8”x7.9”x0.79”, studded with 100 2.75”-4” nails. “The plan is to bury them along the border riverbank and in areas where the water is shallow,” said the source. Considering that the per-person cost to make these barricades is about the same as the price of a 16 oz. bag of rice, in a nation that still suffers from tremendous food scarcity, one can easily see why the populace resents this. Furthermore, certain areas along the Chinese border have been entirely fenced off with barbed wire. This is done to prevent defections, which happen at the rate of 2,000-3,000 per year.

There are some signs things are improving. For instance, in a series of defector interviews, one said, “Before now people didn’t speak about their misgivings. Speaking politically was a solitary activity. If two people spoke and were caught, that was the end, so people didn’t. But after the currency redenomination [which the government promised would alleviate all the country’s problems, but only made them worse], people would meet in twos and threes and mutter to each other. So, if it all comes to nothing, I worry maybe whether that two or three will become 20 or 30.”

Another defector says some have even begun making political jokes:

Before, we couldn’t openly say these things but now we’re frank with our criticisms. Many do that. Before, if anything was to come out it would be big trouble… but now in the market while selling things, if an incident occurs with security or defense agents we would say, “Hey, how am I supposed to live? You’ll feed me?” What can we do? We’re about to starve to death. People are asleep.

As Brookings Institute scholar Kongdan Oh recently wrote, “North Koreans now have almost a million cell phones with which they can cautiously share information with each other, although they cannot make calls outside the country. Social networking [on the nation’s Intranet] is becoming very popular among North Korean youth. The 23,000 North Korean defectors who live in South Korea send money and information to their families and friends back home through Chinese connections. Thousands of Chinese traders cross the border and bring goods and information into North Korean society. North Korean diplomats deployed overseas, traders earning foreign currency, and students studying at foreign universities all recognize North Korea’s diminished place in the world. In short, the Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un eras are very different: one was analog, the other digital.”

Around the time of Kim Jong Il’s death, someone had taken the unheard of step of scrawling graffiti on a wall near the Pyongyang Railroad College. The words of protest said, “Park Chung Hee [a Republic of Korea Army general and the leader of South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979] and Kim Jong Il are both dictators; Park Chung Hee a dictator who developed his country’s economy, Kim Jong Il a dictator who starved people to death.”

In a June 2011 interview, a North Korean defector told the BBC she had recently seen a typical propaganda poster in a train station proclaiming, “Long live the Great Leader Kim Jong-il.” Across it, someone had written, “The regime is falling, and I hope it collapses soon.”

This, reported the “Beeb,” has “caus[ed] the authorities to launch a crackdown to uncover the culprit” and now “[n]obody can come or go from Pyŏngyang. [Another interviewee] also notes, ‘Despite the authorities’ efforts to block the spread of the news, people as far away as Pyongsung and even North Hamkyung Province know about it.’”    

An old story, retold

No one, however, believes that any of this means the regime is in eminent danger of collapse. This is, after all, a nation whose demise has been predicted by the West since 1994. In that time, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada have each seen three or four changes in leaders. None of these leaders, however, have taken the courageous human-rights stand toward the DPRK that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher did toward the Soviet Union. None has called out the regime as Reagan did with his celebrated demand, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Yes, George W. Bush included the DPRK in his famous “Axis of Evil” comment, and he made it easier for defectors to reside in the United States. After that, however, his efforts on behalf of human rights for the North’s citizenry fell by the wayside.

Today’s leaders comfort themselves by believing it was the economic and military strength of the West that delivered the coup de grâce to communism, and so those are the strategies they pursue against North Korea. What they forget, however, is how without the human-rights efforts of Reagan and John Paul II, the Cold War would have lasted much longer.

Given all of this, the young Kim Jong Eun can plan for a long, well-fed reign on the Hermit Kingdom’s throne. There will come a new Darfur, a new Rwanda, a new Cambodia, a new Cuba, and when that new situation is righted, we, proud of ourselves for having done something, will solemnly intone, “Never again.”

In the meantime, a very old scenario will continue to play out, mostly unnoticed and largely ignored. Hundreds of thousands have died in its wake. It will likely kill many thousands more. And the only comfort to be had by those who look sadly, helplessly on is that these thousands will die without knowing it didn’t have to be this way.

[Editor’s note: This essay was slightly edited and expanded on March 20, 2012.]

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