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North Korea Showdown

May 19, 2017 • Volume 27, Issue 19
Can a military confrontation be averted?
By David Hosansky

Short Features

Personality Cult Makes Kim a God
Defectors Risk Death to Escape

“All-encompassing indoctrination” begins in early childhood.

North Korea is one of the world's poorest nations, with nearly half its population living in extreme poverty. But that hasn't stopped the ruling regime from erecting massive, 70-foot statues of its leader, Kim Jong Un, in provincial capitals across the country. Residents also can gaze upon miniature statues of Kim's predecessors — his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung — at the Pyongyang Folk Park, a theme park that features tiny versions of North Korean landmarks.

From the time the Kim family took power following World War II, the state has attributed godlike powers to them. Now the government is extending this cult of personality to Kim Jong Un, who was just in his late 20s when he took over in 2011 upon his father's death.

From early childhood, North Koreans are bombarded with images of the ruling family. The state requires that portraits of the leaders be cleaned daily with a special cloth and look out at residents in every home, office, classroom and other public spaces, including train cars. Starting in kindergarten, teachers and officials regularly instruct children about the greatness of their leaders.

“The milk would arrive [in kindergarten] and we would go up one by one to fill our cups,” a North Korean woman told The Washington Post. “The teachers would say: ‘Do you know where the milk came from? It came from the Dear Leader. Because of his love and consideration, we are drinking milk today.”1

Governments, especially those run by dictators, regularly try to instill a sense of respect or even awe toward their rulers. But the Kim dynasty takes this veneration to a different level, using a nonstop barrage of propaganda about the nation's leaders as a way of cementing their grip on power.

“It's clear they have very good control of the country, and part of it is because of this cult of personality which permeates the whole system from when you're in kindergarten to when you're in university,” says Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

The statues of Kim Jong Il, right, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, left (AFP/Getty Images/Pedro Ugarte)  
Kim Jong Un and other North Korean officials attend the unveiling of giant statues of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, right, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, left, on April 13, 2012. The state attributes godlike powers to the Kim family. (AFP/Getty Images/Pedro Ugarte)

In addition to the ubiquitous images, Pyongyang cultivates quasi-mystical worship of the Kims. The nation's calendar calculates time from 1912, when Kim Il Sung is said to have descended to Earth from heaven. More than two decades after his death in 1994, he remains the “eternal president” under the North Korean constitution. His son, Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 to 2011, was also said to have extraordinary abilities, such as walking at just three weeks, talking at eight weeks and writing 1,500 books while studying at Kim Il Sung University.2

Even as this cult of personality continues to extol the virtues of North Korea's first two rulers, it is now also turning to Kim Jong Un. He is said to have demonstrated pistol marksmanship at age 3. As a youth, he supposedly mastered seven languages, discovered new geographical features and became a scholar of famous generals in world history.3

A 2014 United Nations report on human rights violations in North Korea said the propaganda serves as a powerful tool for the government, building up support for the leaders while directing hatred toward other countries, including the United States, South Korea and Japan.

“The State operates an all-encompassing indoctrination machine that takes root from childhood to propagate an official personality cult and to manufacture absolute obedience to the Supreme Leader (Suryong), effectively to the exclusion of any thought independent of official ideology and State propaganda,” the report said.4

The money spent on advancing this personality cult, the report added, comes at the expense of “providing food to the starving general population.”5

But some Korean experts say the propaganda is becoming less persuasive. Increasing numbers of North Koreans are able to get alternative views from the outside world because of the growing availability of cellphones, homemade radios and the internet, although access is limited.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, and author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World, says this technology may make it harder to maintain the cult of personality.

“It's increasingly less effective,” he says. “It's so much easier now to be aware that you're being lied to.”

— David Hosansky

[1] Anna Fifield, “North Korea begins brainwashing children in cult of the Kims as early as kindergarten,” The Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/nx2wzwk.

Footnote:
1. Anna Fifield, “North Korea begins brainwashing children in cult of the Kims as early as kindergarten,” The Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/nx2wzwk.

[2] Robert Kiener, “North Korean Menace,” CQ Global Researcher, July 5, 2011, pp. 315–340.

Footnote:
2. Robert Kiener, “North Korean Menace,” CQ Global Researcher, July 5, 2011, pp. 315–340.

[3] Christopher Richardson, “North Korea's Kim dynasty: the making of personality cult,” The Guardian, Feb. 16, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/ldt4tt2.

Footnote:
3. Christopher Richardson, “North Korea's Kim dynasty: the making of personality cult,” The Guardian, Feb. 16, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/ldt4tt2.

[4] “Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,” U.N. Human Rights Council, Feb. 7, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/lbwc8du.

Footnote:
4. “Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,” U.N. Human Rights Council, Feb. 7, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/lbwc8du.

[5] Ibid.

Footnote:
5. Ibid.

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“How could our country lie so completely to us?”

Thae Yong Ho grew weary of lying to his sons about the greatness of their country. Posted in London as North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, he kept fending off questions from his oldest son, a high school student who wanted to study computer science at a London university, about why North Korea was so different. Why did their native country not permit access to the internet or allow residents to watch foreign films?

“As a father, it was hard for me to tell lies, and it started a debate within the family,” Thae said at a Jan. 25 press conference in Seoul, South Korea. “This North Korean system is a really inhuman system. It even abuses the love between parents and their children.”6

Finally, last summer, Thae defected with his wife and two sons. He made headlines because he was the highest-ranking defector in years. But several thousand North Koreans reportedly flee the country annually.7

For North Koreans, the decision to leave is fraught with peril. The most straightforward route is north across the Yalu River into China, but North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un has increased security along the border in recent years. Those who are caught face imprisonment or even execution.

And those who make it into China can face difficulties, such as human trafficking or being arrested by police and sent back to North Korea.

Defectors also must deal with guilt when the regime punishes relatives left behind. Park Sang-hak fled North Korea in 1999 after discovering his family would be punished because his father, who was working in Japan, had decided against coming back. Park bribed a border guard to cross the Yalu into China with his mother, brother and sister. But the regime exacted retribution after he escaped: His fiancée was beaten so badly she was left unrecognizable; two uncles were tortured to death; and his teenage cousins lost their jobs and had to beg in the streets.8

Nowadays, relatives and a black market are helping a small but growing number of more-affluent North Koreans, especially those with family members already living abroad, to find their way to South Korea or other nations.

“There have been shifts in the composition of defectors,” says Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington. “It used to be a lot more people living in the border areas who were marginalized individuals.” But today, he says, most defectors are elites who rely on family connections and brokers. “Money is paid, arrangements are made,” Snyder says. “People are almost pulled out by their relatives and the growing influence of cash.”

Although the numbers don't indicate “true internal instability,” Snyder says, the defections are nevertheless important “because they open up greater understanding and information for people on the outside about the parts of the regime that really matter.”

North Korean deputy ambassador to Great Britain Thae Yong Ho (Getty Images/NurPhoto/Seung-il Ryu)  
When former North Korean deputy ambassador to Great Britain Thae Yong Ho defected with his wife and two sons last summer, he was the highest-ranking North Korean defector in years. Several thousand North Koreans reportedly flee the country annually. (Getty Images/NurPhoto/Seung-il Ryu)

Thae, who has both spoken privately with South Korean officials and gone public with media interviews, has painted a grim picture of the Kim government. “When Kim Jong Un first came to power I was hopeful that he would make reasonable and rational decisions to save North Korea from poverty,” he said. “But I soon fell into despair watching him purging officials for no proper reason.”9

Despite the difficulties of life in North Korea, defectors have had mixed experiences abroad.

Seoul is home to an estimated 28,000 defectors, most of whom are women, possibly because women have more freedom of movement and can defect more easily than men without being immediately detected.10

Among the best known is Hyeonseo Lee, who wrote a bestselling book about her experiences, The Girl with Seven Names. While she grew up in a comparatively wealthy family, Lee was traumatized by such experiences as seeing an execution when she was 7. Eventually, after secretly watching Chinese television as a teenager, she crossed an icy river into China. After narrowly avoiding servitude in a brothel and surviving a police interrogation by pretending to be Chinese, she made her way to South Korea and then daringly snuck back into North Korea to guide her mother and brother to China.

These experiences haunt her, Lee said, and she sometimes cries. “When I meet people, I forget the pain,” she said in an interview last year. “I want to keep positive and show that North Koreans can be positive people. But when I am on my own, I think about the past and it gives me more trauma.”11

Some defectors seek to liberate those still in North Korea. Defector Park now uses homemade balloons to send millions of leaflets across the border criticizing the Kim government, along with declarations of human rights and booklets about South Korea. He believes such information is the best way to undermine Pyongyang.

“All defectors,” he said, “ask the same question: How could our country lie so completely to us?”12

— David Hosansky

[6] Anna Fifield, “Ex-diplomat: ‘I've known that there was no future for North Korea for a long time,’” The Washington Post, Jan. 25, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/lem3pvb.

Footnote:
6. Anna Fifield, “Ex-diplomat: ‘I've known that there was no future for North Korea for a long time,’” The Washington Post, Jan. 25, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/lem3pvb.

[7] Anna Fifield, “Just about the only way to escape North Korea is if a relative has already escaped,” The Washington Post, March 31, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/kftz6ta; and Kim Tae-woo, “Number of elite North Korean defectors on the rise,” The Diplomat, Aug. 19, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ka3nkjw.

Footnote:
7. Anna Fifield, “Just about the only way to escape North Korea is if a relative has already escaped,” The Washington Post, March 31, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/kftz6ta; and Kim Tae-woo, “Number of elite North Korean defectors on the rise,” The Diplomat, Aug. 19, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ka3nkjw.

[8] Ian Birrell, “‘How could our country lie so completely?’: meet the North Korean defectors,” The Guardian, Aug. 27, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/hh7fmbe.

Footnote:
8. Ian Birrell, “‘How could our country lie so completely?’: meet the North Korean defectors,” The Guardian, Aug. 27, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/hh7fmbe.

[9] Mark Hanrahan, “North Korea defector says elite turning their backs on Kim Jong Un,” NBC News, Jan. 25, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/gubftg2.

Footnote:
9. Mark Hanrahan, “North Korea defector says elite turning their backs on Kim Jong Un,” NBC News, Jan. 25, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/gubftg2.

[10] Birrell, op. cit., and Shinui Kim, “Why are the majority of North Korean defectors female?” NK News, July 31, 2013, https://tinyurl.com/kfcf4fe.

Footnote:
10. Birrell, op. cit., and Shinui Kim, “Why are the majority of North Korean defectors female?” NK News, July 31, 2013, https://tinyurl.com/kfcf4fe.

[11] Birrell, ibid.

Footnote:
11. Birrell, ibid.

[12] Ibid.

Footnote:
12. Ibid.

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Document APA Citation — See Alternate Citation Style
Hosansky, D. (2017, May 19). North Korea showdown. CQ researcher, 27, 433-456. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2017051920
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2017051920
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Korea
May 19, 2017  North Korea Showdown
Jul. 05, 2011  North Korean Menace
Apr. 11, 2003  North Korean Crisis
May 19, 2000  Future of Korea
Aug. 12, 1977  Relations with South Korea
Apr. 24, 1968  Divided Korea
Jan. 27, 1960  Korea: Problem Protectorate
Aug. 24, 1951  Rehabilitation of Korea
Nov. 01, 1945  Freedom for Korea
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