Sunday, January 2, 2011

Life in North Korea

December 3, 2003

The United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia are meeting with North Korea in Beijing this week to persuade Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in return for food, economic aid and security guarantees.

Living conditions are deplorable in the isolated communist country, but popular singer Li Gyong Suk sings, “Mother party is protecting me.” The party, of course, is the communist party, and while it may have protected the star singer, it seems to have neglected most ordinary North Koreans.

According to various sources, hundreds of thousands have died in the last decade as a result of famine. The shortage of food, aggravated by floods and droughts, a lack of clean drinking water and shortage of energy for heating have undermined people’s resistance to disease.

There may be one million people suffering from tuberculosis in the country of about 22-million. Malaria, eradicated in 1950, reappeared in 1998 with 100-thousand cases reported in 1999 and 95-thousand in the year 2000. The lack of clean drinking water is a frequent cause of diarrhea and other water-borne diseases. The situation has worsened in the past few decades when North Korea’s economy began to deteriorate and with it the country’s health care system.

Stephen Linton, chairman of the Eugene Bell Foundation, a U-S relief organization providing food and medical aid to North Korea, says poverty has undermined people’s natural resistance to disease.

“If you live in a crowded situation, poor ventilation, cold weather, perhaps to compromise your immune system further, poor nutrition; all of these factors make tuberculosis easy to spread and easy to catch,” he says.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of the last bastions of communism. Since 1948, it has been under the rule of communist dictators, first Kim Il Sung and now his son Kim Jong Il. The father was able to use colonial assets to industrialize the country. Initially, North Korea did better than many other communist regimes, but the growth could not be sustained because the country has been isolated from the world market. 

Michael Robinson, professor of contemporary Korean history at Indiana University, says the North Koreans were able to establish relatively simple technology in reprocessing and in certain bulk-chemical production, to produce a certain amount of what we would look at now as basic manufactures and machine tools. "But eventually, they outran their own technology. That is, they could not continue to re-invest within the socialist system,” says Robinson. Until the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, North Korea swapped its products with other communist countries, primarily China and the Soviet Union.

“And the Soviet Union, as it ran into its own economic problems, started to squeeze off the goodies that it could give North Korea. So by the early 1980’s, North Korea’s economy was in a very slow-growth mode, and they had very few ways to earn foreign exchange. They were not trading on the world market.”

Robinson says agriculture, which has never been strong in the mountainous country, followed a similar pattern. After the initial gains due to massive fertilization, production started to decline.

“In the agricultural sphere they did not continue to work to revitalize the soil. They basically took the gains early, but didn’t do anything to extend agricultural production,” he says.

When Kim Il Sung died in 1994 after 46 years in power, leadership passed to his son Kim Jong Il. He has taken an active part in developing North Korean popular culture, especially movies. He has also helped create popular music bands as part of his propaganda.

As most totalitarian rulers, and like his father before him, Kim Jong Il has kept his country in isolation. Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, in New York, says travel even within the country is discouraged and public transportation is almost non-existent.

“Information is highly restricted. There is virtually no access to foreign news of any kind, at least not officially, in North Korea. Even foreigners who live in North Korea cannot see foreign television, newspapers, magazines and so forth. And, of course, the ordinary people do not have access to this at all,” says Armstrong.

Official permission has to be obtained to live in the capital of Pyongyang, a place reserved for the communist elite and the military. Armstrong says North Korea maintains one of the world’s largest standing armies, about one-million strong.

“The army is very powerful. In fact, in some ways you can say North Korea is a military state. The military really has preeminent power in the country over the civilian government, and that has increasingly become the case in the last ten years or so.

North Korean leaders have promoted the ideology of “Juche,” or self-sufficiency, in which there is no place for global markets, personal freedoms and free flow of ideas. Observers says after a decade of humanitarian crisis, Koreans may finally be ready to abandon that ideology. When they do, North Korean pop musicians may turn to lyrics of a more personal nature.  For now, they are still singing songs that glorify the communist party, or a soldier’s life.

Kim Jong Il died in 2011 and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Un who continues the same authoritarian rule.

To see a really funny Chinese video lampooning the Korean leader click here and scroll to the bottom: