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North Korea – Totalitarianism and the police state

“A society where individual life is absolutely pointless, and where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden”
Christopher Hitchens, Why Orwell Matters (2003)

Under Kim Il Sung North Korea morphed into an archetypal Nationalistic Stalinist state, and it was in this form that it managed to survive without many changes up to the early ‘90s. Kim Il Sung was the ideal choice to rule the north part of the newly divided country, as his military achievements (which where later exaggerated by the propagandists) where known to the people, he was a native of Pyongyang and cooperative with the soviets. Kim was suggested to Stalin by Lavrenty Beria in 1945, and was assigned the chair of the Communist Party of North Korea, to later become (in 1948) its leader with the drafting of the Constitution –essentially a copy of Stalin’s 1937 constitution, which Stalin edited anew. During this early period even the most mundane decisions had to be approved by Moscow, even the drafts of the politician’s speeches. The fact that North Korea of this period can be described as Stalin’s puppet state doesn’t mean that the new regime was not popular or that it didn’t have the people’s support. Nevertheless, Kim had to get Stalin’s permission to attack South Korea and free it from the Americans, which he considered were occupying his compatriots’ land. A permission that he got in 1950 (after the Americans left the country – Stalin did not wish to get in a war with them), along with war advisors and munitions, only to end the war three years later (with a truce that still stands, since for North Korea the war isn’t over yet) without any gains, as no change in the border line was made.

Kim Is Sung with his son, Kim Jong Il, in 1983 (photo)
Kim Is Sung with his son, Kim Jong Il, in 1983 (photo)

In Kim Il Sung’s decades of rule, North Korea became a society whose regime took the control of the public and the private life of its citizens to such a degree that no other country has experienced before or since. Citizens could not look for a job on their own but had to accept the position offered by the state after their education was finished. Only few were allowed to apply for college –those who were considered smart enough and politically loyal enough.

Of the greatest particularities of the life in North Korea, the degree of surveillance and control stands out, especially during 1960-’90. To relocate became something practically impossible, as the state would allow such liberties only in the case that it itself would deem the financial conditions fit for a citizen to switch jobs and perhaps his address, or in the case of a woman who got married and therefore had to move where her new husband lived. Even transportation had to be approved by the local authorities. No one could travel out of his city of birth and residency, with the exception of neighboring municipalities.

The People’s Units were formed (or Neighborhood Units – Inminban) that were responsible for controlling the private life of the citizens. They were comprised of 20 to 40 families and it was compulsory for all citizens to be part of one, irrelevant of age or gender. The head of each Unit was usually a middle aged woman, responsible for knowing and reporting the income, the holdings and the habits of her unit’s members. As such heads point out, during seminars they were instructed that “an Inminban head should know how many chopsticks and how many spoons are in every household!” The Units were supervised by the police and the positioned police officer would regularly meet the Unit heads to report any suspect behavior. These women had to know if their neighbors had guests from another city and check their permits. Several times a year they would accompany special police patrols to examine the citizens’ apartments to make sure whoever spends the night has been legally cleared. Moreover, they would examine the seals that had been placed on every radio in the country to make sure their owners had not unlocked it to listen to a radio station other than the official one. After the late ‘90s, and the spread of illegal videotapes, before every patrol the authorities would shut the power off, only to turn it back on when inside the apartment to examine weather the videotape inside their VHS player was illegal or not. Inminbans still exist, but their function and efficiency have drastically diminished.

Parade for the 60 year anniversary of the ceasefire of the Korean war (photo)
Parade for the 60 year anniversary of the ceasefire of the Korean war (photo)

The citizens of North Korea are divided into hereditary castes. The castes are three: Loyal, Wavering and Hostile. The categorization is based on the political affiliations and actions of one or more male (and only male) ancestors during the ‘40s and early ‘50s. Those in the third caste are often subjects to discrimination; systemic and not systemic. For example, even if a woman belongs in the Loyal caste, if she marries a Hostile, their children cannot be admitted in a university. The hereditary system, therefore, affects citizens in their private life, since it can become a definitive factor of choosing a spouse.

The Soviet Andrei Linkov, writer of The Real North Korea, describes his experience during the ‘80s, when he was an exchange student in North Korea and was forbidden (like every foreigner) to come in contact with the locals. He could not go to the cinema and certain museums, even enter big libraries, become a guest in a Korean’s house or attend a class alongside local students. Naturally, most locals avoided any contact with any outsiders.

The regime took cares to isolate its citizens even from its own history, as a decade old magazines and newspapers and older started to disappear from every archive. No shift in politics by Kim Il Sung could be pinpointed by historians anymore, and his lauding of Stalin in the ‘40s were wiped out, as the regime was becoming more and more centered on the person of the Leader in the ‘70s and distanced itself from Marxism-Leninism, as we saw elsewhere.

“Re-education” camp (photo)
“Re-education” camp (photo)

Similar tactics were used to hide the existence of a large system of concentration camps, with roughly 0.7% of its citizens populating them as political prisoners. This percentage is even larger than that of Stalin’s last days of rule in the Soviet Union. But in North Korea there were no mock-trials as in USSR. In North Korea dissidents simply vanish, usually not knowing themselves what the charge against them is or how long the sentence will be. Only the common criminals enjoy the right of an ordinary trial, however prejudiced or unfair that trial might be. Of the most ruthless measures of the regime, the repressive system of family responsibility means that if someone is arrested for a political crime, his whole family is taken along with him (to be precise, whoever lives in the same house and is related to him). Children born in a camp grow to only know life in their prison doing hard labor. Life in the camps is brutal, involving 10-12 hours of hard labor a day, followed by catechism.

All things considered, it’s not surprising there are hardly any dissidents and reactionary cells in North Korea since, if someone says or does something not politically accepted, he doesn’t only condemn himself but the people closest to him as well. Apostates of the state police of North Korea report that the network of police informants is so widespread that 1 in 50 citizens is paid by the police as an informant (250 to 300 thousand informants). The economy of the country is largely based on forced labor, with products such as military uniforms, bricks, leather shoes, alcohol and decorative paper flowers being produced in such camps.

Memoirs of an escaped convict from a NK concentration camp (photo)
Memoirs of an escaped convict from a NK concentration camp (photo)

Since the beginning of the ‘70s the quality of life in North Korea went downhill; never to recover. With the vast military expenses (4th military power in the world) sucking up a great percentage of the country’s resources, the dissolution of the USSR greatly decreasing the main source of financial aid and raw materials and the famine that followed and peaked in the late ‘90s, North Korea reached many times the verge of total collapse. It is only saved through financial aid packages coming from its sworn enemies (USA, South Korea, Japan) and by threatening to use its nuclear weapons, but also thanks to the constant support it receives from China, its last ally.

The regime suffered from these new conditions as it could no longer support the gigantic machine of informants, Inminban handlers and propagandists it needed in order to know at all times where every citizen was sleeping and to communicate its political catechism. The public servants, themselves now facing the danger of famine, turned a blind eye to their citizens’ misconducts, either on bribe or out of sympathy for their fellowmen deeming it useless to enforce an irrational measure. By the end of the ‘90s several laws loosened up, like changing the characterization of the illegal crossing of the border to China, up to then a serious crime, into a misdemeanor and the almost complete abolition of the family responsibility system (it is now valid only in cases of crimes deemed extremely dangerous). North Korean refugees report that in the time of Kim Jong Il (who took over after his father’s death in 1994) you could say and do things that in Kim Il Sung’s era would lead to prison or death.

Mobile phones, DVDs and PCs have slowly started to spread in the country. The computers in North Korea are not connected to the internet and only a few of them are connected to the limited intranet. But even so, a computer can be a powerful tool for communicating information, and now the authorities perform random inspections on hard disks. The DVDs of South Korean TV shows that circulate hand-to-hand illegally, and the mobile phones that borrow the signal of South Korean and Chinese antennas, offer a different view of the neighboring countries than the one professed by the official propaganda. Few, now, believe that the South Koreans are poor. This new revelation is so widespread that the southerners are now presented by the state as suffering, not of hunger, but national humiliation, cultural degeneracy and environmental degradation.

Citizens under 30 don’t have memories of the almighty state that issued food rations, and therefore are incapable of seeing the state as the natural provider of all of life’s needs. Those above 30, having lived through the state’s impoverishment, are not incapable anymore of imagining that they can do without it. When, in 2006 and 2007, the authorities tried to close down the black markets and re-establish the institution of food rations (without success), the merchants protested -their cry was “give us rations or let us trade!”

We should not, however, form the assumption that the North Koreans are ready for regime change. The country remains the most isolated and heavily policed in the world and the citizens don’t look like they are in the position to form any kind of organized resistance movement. The sanctions that are long ago enforced on North Korea haven’t paid of, and the members of the elite are not willing to recede, since any kind of reform would not only endanger their positions but also their lives. Only China seems to be in a position to force any change, as any ceasing of its support would bring North Korea in a very difficult spot. But is it in its interest?

Women’s parade during the 60 year anniversary for the ceasefire of the war of Korea (photo)
Women’s parade during the 60 year anniversary for the ceasefire of the war of Korea (photo)

China enjoys several privileges through its particular relationship with North Korea. Firstly, North Korea possesses minerals -such as carbon, iron and copper- and China has a privileged access to them. Secondly, China is interested in the transportation venues the neighboring country offers. The closest spots of access to sea for the north-east China are ports in North Korea and to lose these spots would mean an increase of the cost of transport for its products. Thirdly, North Korea offers cheap labor for neighboring companies of China as, if a Chinese worker is paid 100 dollars a month, the North Korean is paid 20 to 25 dollars for the same work.

But if China will not be convinced to help change the quality of life of the millions of Koreans under the Kim regime, what other hope remains?

The two Koreas in a satellite photograph (photo)
The two Koreas in a satellite photograph (photo)

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