A DYNASTY ON THE VERGE OF COLLAPSE
By Chan Kai Yee
In its New Year report, North Korea’s Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said, “The food problem is a burning issue in building a thriving country” and urged various Party organizations to “resolve that problem to prove their loyalty.”
Obviously exacerbation of this decade-old “food problem” to a burning extent reveals those organizations’ failure to “prove their loyalty” to the regime.
The lack of loyalty is further revealed in KCNC’s quote of the New Year editorial carried by three newspapers that “The whole party, the entire army and all the people should possess a firm conviction that they will become human bulwarks and human shields in defending Kim Jong-un," Kim Join-il’s successor. Certainly, people do not possess such a firm conviction, or they would not be urged to do so.
While the Kim regime itself is clearly aware of the lack of loyalty, there is a commentary in America that “Mourning by North Koreans in the better-fed capital may largely have been genuine” (p 14, Newsweek 9-14 Jan. 2012).
There are certainly some Kim loyalists in North Korea among the core classes of military personnel, officials, cadres, workers and poor peasants constituting 30% of the population. However, according to defecting soldiers, food shortage is so serious that even soldiers do not get enough to eat. How can people be better fed in the capital, where at least 20% of the population is of enemy classes and 50%, wavering classes who the regime cannot rely upon. The percentage of core classes is smaller in the capital as soldiers and peasants who constitute major parts of the core classes, do not live in the capital.
It is very clear to those who have been used to read communist party’s documents and propaganda between the lines, that there is widespread disloyalty to the Kim Dynasty not only among ordinary people but also among the ruling elite there.
How could there be such a scene of grief if people are not loyal to the deceased tyrant? In fact, it was but a common show of grief in Chinese culture.
When my grandma died in Shanghai, I for the first time understood the Chinese way of mourning. We had someone outside as a lookout. When he saw some relatives or friends of the family coming to offer their condolence, he immediately came in to inform us. Then we all stopped chatting and began to cry and make a loud show of grief. Soon after the guests had left, we stopped crying and resumed our chatting. My grandma’s two daughters-in-law who used to hate my grandma, cried the loudest as if their dearest one had died. I asked my mother why they were so sad at the death of the person whom they regarded as a dominant and oppressing mother-in-law. My mother said, “They were making a show that befits them as daughters-in-law no matter whether they love or hate Grandma. You see my friends who have just left cried sadly along with me. In fact they barely know Grandma but as my friends they had to make such a show and I am grateful to them for that. We need loud crying for such an occasion.”
North Korean films and books give me the impression that influence of old Chinese culture is stronger there than in China. The people there must be even more skillful in acting grievous mourners than Chinese people.
One of a totalitarian regime’s best tricks to maintain its rule is to have people watching one another. People of the enemy classes are watched even more closely.
When I was listening to the news on Mao Zedong’s death in the workshop of a factory in Shanghai, I was worried that I could not control myself not to yell wildly with joy. A few years before, my father, a successful doctor, was imprisoned for a non-existing counterrevolutionary crime. I was struggled against and told to inform the authority of my father’s counterrevolutionary activities and speeches. I told the authority that I had never found my father doing or saying anything counterrevolutionary. I got the conclusion of having committed serious political mistakes. I had to be very careful as I might be labeled a counterrevolutionary and even be imprisoned like my father for any further misconduct. Failure to be sad at the news might be one of such misconducts, but if I had shown my joy openly, I might have been beaten to death by Mao loyalists.
Fortunately, I soon heard a stern voice telling me to sit straight and behave myself. It was the director of the workshop where I had been working as a temporary worker for a few days. I immediately realized that all the information about my political background was given to the workshop as soon as I was assigned the job and there were lots of eyes watching me. The sense of danger made it easy for me to pretend to be sad.
At Mao’s funeral, everybody knew that he was watched by others. It was clearly show time for everyone to display his loyalty. Those of the core and wavering classes wanted to move up as political status was very important for obtaining promotion and jobs and entering university; while those of the enemy classes wanted to prove their loyalty in order that their labels as enemy of the regime may be removed.
Each has his intention in acting grievous mourner while true Maoists were busy watching others and did not join the loud show of grief.
However, it is difficult for people outside the iron curtain and without knowledge of Chinese culture to understand their genuine intentions.
In fact, in spite of my personal experience of people’s predicament under communist tyranny, I regarded scenes of North Korean mourning for King Il-sung as genuine before I learnt the truth from North Korean immigrants in Qingdao, China. According to them, the situation there was precisely the same as that when Mao died in China.
In Mao era, starving peasants in Guangdong, China stealthily crossed the border to Hong Kong to avoid being Mao’s loyal citizens. Similarly, lots of North Korean people have moved to China. When border rivers are frozen for months in winter, it takes minutes to flee to China but border control was tightened later and a treaty has now been signed between China and North Korea to repatriate illegal immigrants.
According to gossips, there are now 200,000 to 300,000 North Korean immigrants in China. The exact number is a mystery as there is no official figure and lots of such immigrants were able to be registered as Chinese residents due to their Chinese origin, sympathy of Chinese rural officials, bribes, etc. According to some immigrants, all their classmates back in North Korea have moved to China. If so, the number of immigrants must be enormous.
There are over 2 million people of Korean ethnic minority in China, but lots of North Korean immigrants have registered as people of Han (the major race in China) instead of Korean nationality. They speak perfect Chinese and Korean languages. When asked whether they are Chinese or Koreans, they said that they were not clear themselves. Anyway, they preferred being Chinese and liked the freedom and better living standards in China.
Are Korean tyrants not aware that public anger at the everlasting famine may erupt like a volcano soon?
In the past, they had two providers, Russia and China, who vied with each other to provide generous aids and thus helped them establish and consolidate their dynasty. The torrent of Chinese aids has been reduced to a tricklet since Mao’s death while Russian aids have simply dried up since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Without Soviet machinery and fuel, their collective farming is unable to produce enough food in spite of all the pressure they have brought on their peasants. They had to find new providers. How? They resort to nuclear blackmail to force America and South Korea to be their new providers. This does not seem successful as not much has been obtained from such sources, but it has enhanced American enmity, which at least helped the dynasty survive in those years of hardship according to some North Korean immigrants in China.
First, North Korea is a small, weak and poor country with limited resources for development of weapons, but some people exaggerate its potential in developing nuclear weapons and missiles. Ridiculously, even its poorly fed and equipped troops are regarded as a fierce threat. They have thus turned the spotlight on the late Kim and made him a star to be worshipped by Korean communists.
Second, the damages that North Korea suffered during the Korean War make it easy for North Korean people to believe that America is their major enemy. The Bush Administration fought a second Gulf War and designated North Korea as one of its major enemies. North Korea has thus been provided with the excuse that threatened by US invasion, it has to focus on developing military strength including nuclear weapons and thus lacks the resources to develop its economy and improve people’s living standards. When a small country is threatened by a superpower and has lost the protection of its former allies, Russia and China, the people there naturally want the leadership of a strongman like Kim to protect them.
Kim’s autocracy is bad but American invasion is even worse. America makes North Korean people choose Kim–the less of the two evils.
However, in the long run, the Kim regime cannot rely on the fear to maintain its rule. Ultimately, it has to feed its people and improve their living standards especially when its neighbors South Korea and China have become rich and mass protests for democracy are spreading to quite a few countries.
Being isolated, China is now the only country North Korea can turn to for help. With its huge foreign exchange reserve, China is certainly able to help North Korea out. However, it is no longer ruled by a despot who pursues leadership in the communist world at the expense of his people’s wellbeing. During his visit of North Korea in 2005, Chinese leader Hu Jintao spoke about the problems China had at a banquet Kim Jong-il gave in his honor. That was a clear sign that China was unwilling to give substantial aids free of charge. Obviously, Chinese aids have to be mutually beneficial.
North Korea has to conduct reform and open up to China. Major foreign investment has come from China since North Korea began to open up. In 2005, Chinese investment was only allowed to have 50% share in a Sino-North Korean joint venture, but Chinese investment is able to take a 65% share in a joint venture department store opened in Pyongyang on January 5, 2012 (it was scheduled to open on December 22, 2011, but the opening was delayed due to Kim Jong-il’s death).
There are all kinds of goods in the store including food, articles of daily use, electronic products, electric appliances, etc. almost all imported from China except most of the garments, headwear and footwear. When the markets are shrinking in developed countries, North Korea provides an additional outlet for Chinese goods. But it has to have Renminbi to pay for the imports. It is now setting up Sino-North Korean joint ventures to produce cheep goods for China where labor cost (monthly wage exceeds 1,000 yuan in many areas in China compared with 300 yuan or less in North Korea) is much higher and will rise further due to Chinese government’s efforts to narrow the yawning rich-poor gap.
The joint ventures may also provide forest and mineral resources for China, but it takes time for the joint ventures to earn enough Renminbi to feed North Korean people.
As “the food problem is a burning issue” now, North Korea has to learn from China’s reform. When people’s communes were dissolved and individual farming resumed, food shortage disappeared soon afterwards in China. However, decollectization is a reform capitalist in nature strongly opposed by conservatives in party organizations and the army. That is why party organizations are urged to “resolve that problem to prove their loyalty” and “the whole party, the entire army and all the people” are urged to “possess a firm conviction that they will become human bulwarks and human shields in defending Kim Jong-un," who is being opposed by the conservatives.
Obviously, there is fierce power struggle in North Korea now. If the conservatives win, the Kim Dynasty will collapse, but if Kim Jong-un wins with Chinese support, North Korea will become China’s dependency.
Chan Kai Yee is the author of Tiananmen’s Tremendous Achievements: The Silent Peaceful Coup D’état In China…