Politics & Policy

Five Days in Pyongyang — Part II

Among the author's impressions: poverty, oppression, isolation -- and a surprising optimism.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of “Five Days in Pyongyang” can be read here.

My minder, Mr. Kim, was, in many ways, what I expected. He was loyal. He adhered to his talking points — in most cases, rigidly. I once posed the question: “What do you like the most about living in the DPRK?” He seemed a little taken aback by this, and his answer was wobbly: “Everyone in the DPRK is equal. There are some small exceptions to this, of course. But no country is perfect. We are all employed. We have health care. We have free education. I think that is why the DPRK is good for me.” I didn’t have a follow-up question, and even on other occasions when I did, I never tried to debate issues. His arguments were too easy to pick apart, and I could tell by the way he answered most questions that he knew this. As importantly, he soon realized that I was experienced enough to see his verbal posturing for what it was: party bluster. Mr. Kim, unlike most North Koreans, had visited both China and the United States (and possibly elsewhere). He had seen and knew the truth, and it affected his mien, and the way in which he interacted with foreigners. He knew that the DPRK, its system, and its leadership were oppressive disasters.

Still, he was likable. We shared a laugh over the silly movements of the attractive but robotic women directing traffic at intersections. And we enjoyed talking about the impending participation of North Korea in the World Cup, for the first time in over 40 years. But through our time together I noticed three distinct emotions in him. First, there was, of course, a lingering suspicion and defensiveness. He would notice when I silently stared at a building or studied a situation. Observing this, he would jump in, perhaps giving a history of the particular architectural monstrosity, or explaining away the relative poverty in Pyongyang by referring to the collapse of the “socialist market” (i.e., the collapse of the Soviet Union and of Communism in Eastern Europe).

Second, his face would periodically show expressions of longing and of depression. Constant glances to the ground, wistful gazing toward the horizon. Such expressions I had observed before, but only after extended periods in combat zones, or sometimes among the lonely elderly. Mr. Kim was contemplative, not scheming; conscious of the contradictions he experienced, not flippant in defiance of them.

Which leads me to the last emotion I observed: optimism. This is perhaps the most difficult to capture in words because I don’t believe Mr. Kim’s optimism originated with anything intrinsic to the regime, or juche (Kim Il Sung’s homegrown philosophy of national self-reliance), or the so-called equality of socialism he had touted earlier. It was a more personal mission, born perhaps from his duty as a father to produce a better future for his children. I had noticed a similar trait in Iraqis during my time serving on the ground in the Middle East. Most Iraqis, particularly outside the large cities, were adamant that the support they gave Americans was motivated by a desire to see their children lead better, safer lives. Like Iraqis, North Korean fathers had to be optimistic. They had little choice. For Mr. Kim, who was still serving the regime in an official function, the task was even more difficult. Iraqis were now in a position to speak their mind about Saddam Hussein and explore previously unthinkable ventures. Mr. Kim, however, had to find a way to reconcile what he had been taught with what he observed, perhaps believing his situation was permanent. He was smart. He had seen the outside world and was grappling with what it meant for his country and his family’s future. These sentiments became even more apparent one night over dinner.

Having drunk a bit too much, Mr. Kim became relatively excited as our conversation turned suddenly to the state of relations between the U.S. and the DPRK. I attempted to steer him toward safer ground, but it was something he obviously wanted to broach. I let him take the wheel and sat back, continuing to work on the bowl of cold noodles and bottle of soju in front of me.

I am young, Mr. Kim stated. I have a degree in economics, as do many of my friends. Along with my friends, I believe that change, economically speaking, is coming in North Korea. In fact, he said, things have to change. The country had experienced a devastating famine in the 1990s, and in many regions food, medical supplies, and basic subsistence items were still in deathly short supply. He did not elaborate on what economic changes he would embark upon if he had the power, or how they would be achieved, and before I had time to ask him to expand on his thoughts, he was onto another aspect of U.S.-DPRK relations.

His next statement I found shocking. “The U.S. and the DPRK,” Mr. Kim said, “need to move beyond the war. It was 60 years ago. My generation does not remember it.” My mind raced back to the Koryo Hotel book shop, where piles of propaganda accusing the U.S. of war crimes littered the tables and shelves, and to the constant barrage of posters, signs, and slogans that lined Pyongyang’s streets, warning of the American imperialist threat. Forget the war? On the contrary, this was a country obsessed with and built upon victimization.

Mr. Kim continued, “I believe that the DPRK can be a better friend to the U.S. than China.”

I looked up from my noodle bowl and asked, “Why?”

“Because,” he replied, “China has ambitions in the region that are not aligned with the United States. We are a smaller country, and we could help U.S. goals in this regard.”

“That’s an interesting idea,” I said, “One that had never occurred to me.” I leaned closer and said, “But, my friend, what about your government’s nuclear program?” This was the first time I had dared bring up this topic, but I felt this as good a time as any to be blunt about one of the main stumbling blocks to U.S.-DPRK relations.

His semi-drunken face turned sour. Sternly, but controlling his anger, he said, “This program is our right. It is for self-defense and our economy; protection from the Americans. It is not negotiable. But this is something our two countries can get around.” Sensing some building tension, perhaps within himself, he smiled again after a pause and asked me why I had not finished my noodles. I said that in keeping with my habits in the United States, I had let my eyes get the better of my stomach when I ordered. It was delicious, but I was full. He grinned, and we both turned in for the evening.

Mr. Kim’s attitude toward the North Korean nuclear program was consistent with that of every government official we would come in contact with over the next few days. It had become the focal point of North Koreans’ pride, and their ticket to dealing with the world on their own terms. The government officials we met, including a vice chairman and the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (formally the second-in-command of the country), were adamant about their right to acquire and develop this technology.

Behind this posturing, however, one could sense the stark reality of what it would truly mean for the DPRK to abandon the nuclear pursuit. The program did indeed allow the Communist government to engage the world on its own terms, however much these terms continued to destabilize the western Pacific Rim. Without it, or at least the credible idea of it, the regime would collapse. The power of nuclear weapons carved out for the North Koreans a unique position in Asia. They do not have the economic might of South Korea, Japan, or China. The few products they produce do not have any appeal outside their own borders. Their army, in terms of manpower, is estimated to be the fourth largest in the world, but, even with the regime’s songun (military first) policy, the army had become a hollow force as the ability to feed and equip its men diminished, and as its weaponry grew obsolete. The North Korean leadership realizes all of this, and to discuss even the possibility of abandoning the nuclear program sparks a particular rage. In asking Mr. Kim about the viability of his country’s nuclear program, I was not just asking about it as a function of international and regional relations. I was questioning the long-term prospects of the regime itself. Hence, the program was sacrosanct.

In the vitriolic reaction, I also sensed another development in the political character of the country. As was the case in most other Communist states (while they still existed), the “internationalist” aspect of their ideology had faded long ago. What remained was an extreme and defiant nationalism that adhered to basic tenets of Marxist economics. In the DPRK this was captured formally in the juche philosophy, which itself was fueled daily by a hatred of the outside world still raging nearly 65 years after the Japanese had sworn pacifism, and 55 years after the Americans had snugly positioned themselves behind the 38th parallel. The Western effort to denuclearize the DPRK had been made to serve as a second Korean War — a battle for “national pride” and “independence.”

My days in North Korea turned long. The uneasy feeling I had had my first morning during breakfast at the Koryo only grew stronger. Usually I warmed up to a country after being there for a few days. I had spent over a year of my life in the Middle East, and had also lived in places that had been part of the Soviet Union for an extended amount of time. I return often to both these regions and feel a sense of belonging, no matter how foreign their languages, customs, and religions are to me. But I look back on my brief time in the DPRK with a sense of bewilderment. In the muddled end, I left with two concrete conclusions.

First, I am convinced the North Koreans will never give up their nuclear program voluntarily. Juche seemed more valid to them than ever before, especially since they had survived three major existential crises over the past 20 years and continued to find a way forward (although given the low level of economic and social development at which they began 20 years ago, this may not seem too large a feat). The first of these crises was the collapse, in 1991, of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the so-called “socialist market.” Aid and assistance from the Soviet Union made up a significant percentage of the North Korean economy, and being able to receive it from a fellow Communist country helped the regime save ideological face. The cessation of this aid threw the DPRK further into economic crisis, while also posing a significant political threat to its rulers.

The disappearance of the “socialist market” helped lead to the country’s second crisis: the famine of the 1990s. During this tumultuous decade it is estimated that anywhere from 600,000 to 3 million people died from starvation.

Third, in the midst of this hardship, the founder and Great Leader himself, Kim Il Sung, died. To those of us who are used to applying the laws of mortality to every living creature, this may not seem so existential. But consider the vast majority of North Koreans who, for their whole lives, had been instructed to believe in Kim as some sort of deity. The death of Kim, to many North Koreans, did seem to bring into question the validity of the regime itself.

In just about any other similarly structured regime in the world, the near-simultaneous occurrence of such events would have, at the very least, moved the leadership toward a more conciliatory posture (both domestically and internationally) — but would still, in the most likely scenario, have proved violently fatal. In the case of the DPRK, however, neither has happened. The hardest elements of the nation’s leadership remain entrenched at the top, while the most ideologically dedicated appear to remain in control over whatever elements of the population are left at the bottom.

My second conclusion is that Pyongyang is a deceitful city. What is made readily apparent to the foreign observer should always be questioned. Nothing should be taken at face value. But there was certainly an element of truth not hidden. The foreigner, while being shuffled around the city, was witnessing first hand the still-awesome ability of a totalitarian state to control, manipulate, and oppress, all with little or no protest from its inhabitants. Hence, one can only hope that the seemingly impenetrable Pyongyang is itself a national façade for a population more aware and conscious of freedom than what their capital city implies.

– Reggie Gibbs was a 2009–10 Washington fellow at the National Review Institute. He was earlier a Marine Corps infantry officer, and is currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.


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