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Land of Bliss and Fairyland

Kim_jongil_heart_throbAs regular readers will know, I have a certain fascination with life in North Korea.   After all, where else would you have celebrations to honour the 20th anniversary since leader Kim Jong Il's "famous" work "On Improving and Strengthening Land Administration" was made public.  The DPRK News Agency assures me that, under the wise tutelage of this brilliant analysis,

"[m]ountains of the country have been covered with trees of good species through a mass tree-planting campaign. Such beauty spots as Mts. Chilbo, Kuwol and Jongbang have been equipped with better conditions necessary for recreation grounds and other scenic spots including Songam Cavern and Ulrim Waterfalls have been found and visited by a large number of people. Many towns and counties have been facelifted.""

North Korean Minister of Land and Environment Preservation Jang Il Son, citing the anniversary,

"called upon all the officials and working people to turn out in a gargantuan campaign to convert the country into a socialist land of bliss and fairyland in the Songun era under the great Songun leadership of the Party and translate Kim Jong Il's far-reaching plan into reality." 

You can't make this stuff up, folks. But when the joking is over, the fact remains that 23 million people live under the hard heels of a brutal egomaniac and his all-powerful Army.   

While it is clear that the North Korean regime has an extraordinary ability to restrict unwanted information getting to its own people, and that it spends inordinate sums on internal propaganda, a recent article in Der Speigel suggests that the people still fight back when pushed too far.  In a new book about North Korea, Jasper Becker, a British author and journalist living in Beijing, writes that "factories, military units, and even entire towns revolted against the leadership in Pyongyang."

"Becker obtained details about the biggest labor demonstrations in North Korea's history, which took place in 1998 in the industrial city of Songrim. The protests began on a cold February morning after the public execution of eight men, all managers at the Hwanghae Iron and Steel Works. Their crime? In an effort to provide food for the workers and their families, they sold parts of the factory to Chinese businessmen. Even though many of Songrim's inhabitants were starving at the time, the attempt to circumvent the defunct public supply system to obtain food was considered sabotage and treason ... A few hours later ... the factory's employees stopped working. The peaceful protest was short-lived. The next morning, tanks broke through the factory gates and mowed down the demonstrators. According to eyewitness reports, hundreds lost their lives. Several days later, dozens of suspected agitators were shot, and countless so-called counter-revolutionaries and their families were taken away to labor camps."

Most observers agree that the economic and food situation in North Korea is better now than it was in the 1990s.  However, CNN quotes one leading Korean scholar as saying that, even today "it's quite easy to spot North Koreans criticizing their regime and Kim Jong Il in public."   The same observer, perhaps indulging in wishful fantasy, links this to reports that official portraits of the Leader have been removed from public spaces.

"So these recent incidents surrounding his title and portraits in the official buildings may be an indication that Kim Jong Il is aware of the criticism toward his regime and is lowering the level of personality cult around him in order to appease the public sentiment."

However, the DPRK News Agency has furiously denied that portraits have been removed, and diplomatic reports suggest that nothing unusual is afoot. 

Kim Jong Il has confounded his critics many times before.  He acts the buffoon -- in our eyes, at least -- but he has a native survival intelligence and an equally native brutality.  It will take quite some upheaval to overthrow him.

November 20, 2004 in North Korea | Permalink


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I'm sure you've heard of this, but North Korea from space is quite striking - an abrupt drop in the amount of lighting, in contrast to that of other adjacent countries. Have only heard about this, not really seen it for myself.

Posted by: alyosha | Nov 21, 2004 1:10:08 PM