Proper Gander – The state of North Korea
Little information about how people live in North Korea has leaked out beyond its borders. The only footage we’re likely to see is of tightly managed military parades and appearances by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un rather than anything more everyday. The lives of the vast majority are kept secret: the country has its own intranet separate to the internet and communication with outsiders is forbidden. Despite the oppressive laws, some North Koreans have been able to share details of their lives, and the extracts of these on the BBC Two documentary North Korea: The Insiders are even more grim than we might expect.
Jean Mackenzie, the BBC’s correspondent in South Korea, worked with Daily NK, a specialist news organisation which has contacts in North Korea. They found three people there who agreed to be covertly interviewed to raise awareness of their situations. Daily NK sent Mackenzie’s questions to them using a ‘special device’, then interviews would be recorded in ‘safe locations that can’t be bugged’ and sent back. This was done at considerable risk, as if the interviewees were caught by the police they could face execution.
North Korea has been even more insular since the pandemic. Ostensibly to reduce transmission of the virus, the government imposed stricter restrictions on the border with China. An effect of this was to prevent goods being smuggled into North Korea which had previously supplemented the inadequate rations available from within the country. One of the people interviewed sold contraband medicines at a market near the Chinese border, and since the pandemic her income has halved because she can’t get as much stock to sell. The lack of imports also means there is now even less food available than before, and for higher prices. A consequence of this is that two of the three people interviewed personally knew multiple people who had died of starvation. Stories of widespread starvation in the country haven’t been known since its crisis in the mid-late 1990s.
Alongside the threat of malnutrition is the threat from the repressive state. One of the interviewees says ‘If I live according to the rules, I feel like I’ll starve to death but just by trying to survive I could be arrested by the state security, branded as a traitor and killed’. The other interviewees also live in fear of the authorities, such as one who was taken in for questioning under the ‘anti reactionary thought law’. There’s no suggestion in the interviews of any enjoyment at all: no socialising or entertainment. As one of the interviewees says ‘people are stuck here and waiting to die’.
Given the dire conditions in North Korea, it’s understandable that its government doesn’t want the rest of the world to know what’s happening. Nor does it want its own subjects knowing about life outside its boundary, in case they make comparisons. One of the interviewees knew a 22 year old man who was sentenced to over 10 years of hard labour for distributing South Korean songs and films. Before 2020 he would have got a year in prison, but now the official line is that ‘the perverted and animalistic pursuit of South Korean and Western culture must be purged’, and the death penalty is possible. James Heenan, the UN Investigator for Human Rights in North Korea, says that punishments just for watching foreign media are ‘very serious violations of human rights’ and could be crimes against humanity, not that this would concern the regime. When they were sent a video of the documentary, the North Korean government replied that the interviews had been faked, and claimed that it ‘has always prioritised the interests of the people even at difficult times and has an unwavering commitment to the well-being of the people’.
Of the consultants with a view on North Korea featured in the programme, Sue Mi Terry, a previous CIA Senior Analyst on Korea, gets closest to explaining what drives the regime. She says that the government there has always been motivated by preserving its ruling family rather than protecting the people, which is obvious enough. She doesn’t go on to add that all governments work to support the capitalist class, the difference being that in North Korea this class is more compact than in and across most other countries, as its industries and services are all state-owned. The wealth they generate gets channelled into Kim Jong Un and family’s no-doubt lavish lifestyle alongside manufacturing weaponry. In case any North Koreans wonder why investment isn’t being made in food or medicine production, the official justification is that missiles are needed to defend against hostile powers such as the USA and South Korea. Covid has been used as a further pretext for repression and restrictions.
Mackenzie meets Ryu Hyun-woo, who defected from North Korea in 2019 while working as an ambassador. He says that younger people are more likely to ask of the regime ‘what have you done to stop us starving to death?’, adding ‘if anger and discontent keep building up, one day it will explode’. The documentary doesn’t dwell on any action which the people of North Korea could take to improve their conditions: the very real threats of starvation and punishment mean that it’s understandable if many can only concentrate on survival. The situation there makes any kind of worker-based organisation seem unlikely, although this is what’s needed to change it. The programme suggests a little hope, through what Hyun-woo says and how the interviewees have defied the oppressive laws and propaganda to tell their stories.