24 May 2017

Inside the cruellest country in the world

By J.P. Floru

While Marxism might still be popular in the upper echelons of the Labour Party, it has become nigh on impossible to find a government in power that actually applies its principles. Those who can still remember the Eastern Bloc are met with blank stares from the under 35s. And you can now even buy a townhouse in Havana these days.

There is, of course, one notable exception. And that exception is the strangest place you can go but for the Moon. When I, along with three friends, decided to run the Pyongyang marathon, I could not resist the chance to visit such a notoriously secretive state. Even if, as became clear when we arrived, the event was little more than regime propaganda.  I had not planned to write a book about it. But two days into the trip I already had enough material.

Visitors to North Korea need pre-approval before they can sign up for a trip. Undesirables such as writers, politicians, and South Koreans are kept out. I said I was a teacher. Their vetting can’t have been particularly sophisticated because a few days later I received the green light. A quick google search would have revealed my books and political activities.

We flew to Beijing, where we had a three-hour briefing by the travel agency on all things verboten in North Korea. We were given a leaflet from the British Embassy which included the laconic line proviso that “if you get into legal trouble in North Korea, there is nothing we can do for you”.

And they can’t. Foreigners are arrested with some regularity. A kangaroo court duly condemns him or her to ten or 20 years of hard labour. This becomes world news, which is precisely what the regime wants. Visitors are scared into following the rules and self-censoring.

It works. Every time you see a forbidden photo opportunity in North Korea you ask yourself: is this worth the risk of being sent to a concentration camp?

A lot of what we saw was difficult to make sense of. Why was there no other traffic on the 10-lane motorway? Why was a floor missing in our hotel? When the questions became too interesting, our guides changed the subject.

Your two minders keep an eye on you at all times, and endlessly recite the endless rules. They double up so that one can keep an eye on the other. And, as if that wasn’t enough, who is to say that there isn’t a regime spy in your group?

Our hotel in Pyongyang was conveniently located on an island, making it impossible for visitors to pop into town on their own. When I entered my hotel room, I wondered where the bugs were. A friend’s American roommate went straight for the radio-set, unfastened the front panel, and found a tiny camera.

But how useful are cameras and microphones in a country with regular power cuts? At the time of the marathon, with foreign presence at capacity, the regime would not have had enough staff equipped with the foreign languages needed to keep an eye and an ear on everyone in real time. The point is that everyone thinks he or she is being spied upon.

This is how the regime stays in power: through fear. When the Great Leader’s own brother Kim Jong-nam was killed by throwing a poisoned towel over his head at Kuala Lumpur Airport in February, the regime was effectively sending a message to all would-be trouble makers: “We can come and get you – wherever you are”.

The fear the regime uses to control foreign visitors is nothing as compared to what it does to North Koreans. Not that we were told that by our guides, of course.

At every war or leaders’ memorial we visited a guide with permed hair and long black velvet robe with diamante sequins would rattle off completely invented Korean history.

With all outside information sources forbidden, many North Koreans believe the myths the regime has invented to legitimise its existence.

So we were told that the first Leader liberated Korea from the Japanese (in reality Japan withdrew when it lost World War II); that the 1950-53 Korean War was started the American Imperialists and the Japanese War Criminals (North Korea invaded the South); and that North Korea won the war (it ended in a stalemate because Mao threw in the only inexhaustible resource impoverished China possessed: 4 million soldiers).

The truth is that when the Japanese withdrew in 1945, the Soviets appointed Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the Kim Jung-un, as their puppet leader. The Soviets wrote North Korea’s constitution, nationalised everything, and held bogus elections.

When Khrushchev succeeded Stalin in 1953, the North Korean regime decided the Soviet Union had become too liberal. Soviets citizens were expelled and Soviet books were outlawed.

Instead, Kim turned to Mao. He admired Mao’s imposition of hard-line Marxism, and his obliteration of all individual freedom.

Kim now set about introducing his own Marxist paradise; accompanied by ruthless oppression that would keep the people on the straight and narrow. When you walk the streets of Pyongyang the people don’t smile. They are too scared to talk to you; their faces are like masks.

During our trip, we were not only careful not to make trouble for our own sake; but also because we knew that our guides would have been punished as well. They grew on us. Though perhaps we should not have been so soppy. Those selected to accompany tourists are among the regime’s most faithful servants: only those belonging to the Reliable Class are allowed anywhere near foreigners.

Under Kim, all liberties disappeared. Courts became part of the Communist Party machine. Elections became shams. Private property was abolished, initially by punitive taxes. The regime introduced a new class system.

The Songbun class system was introduced in 1957. Every North Korean was classified depending upon his perceived support of the regime. Supporters became the Reliable Class. All the “capitalists”, e.g. someone who had employed someone in the 1930s, or had perhaps owned a small corner shop or smallholding, were labelled the Unreliable Class. In between were the Waverers.

This class is hereditary; with virtually no opportunity to rise, but plenty to fall from grace. If, for example, a family member defects to China, then the entire family sinks into the Unreliable Class.
One’s class determines one’s privileges or deprivations, as meted out by the state. As the North Korean state decides everything, the class-bound privileges or deprivations determine a North Korean’s entire life.

Our guide, Mrs. Kim, as member of the Reliable Class, obtained ample food and clothing rations; lived in a nice flat; had been allowed to study; and was allowed to live in Pyongyang.

If instead Mrs. Kim had been the descendant of a farmer who owned half an acre of land in the 1930s, then she might have been sent to work in a coal mine in the inhospitable north instead. During the famine in the 1990s the Unreliable Class stopped receiving food rations altogether, and many died.

North Koreans have no freedom at all. The state decides your studies, your job and place of work, where you live, and in what sort of house. Even your spare time is regulated. North Koreans are obliged to attend political indoctrination lessons three times a week.

Everywhere we encountered groups of hundreds of people rehearsing for the compulsory mass spectacles to celebrate the Leader. In addition, North Koreans are obliged to join social organisations (the women’s institute, trade union, farmers’ union etc.) where the regime can keep an eye on them. Virtually all music serenades the Leader and the system; and virtually all printed books are the Leaders’ jottings or ideological rants. Outside media sources are illegal. You need a travel permit to travel to other towns or cities.

Every twenty or so North Korean households are supervised by a neighbourhood watch or “Inminban”. The head of the Inminban even has a key to your flat, and can inspect it: e.g. to check whether dust has gathered on the Leaders’ portraits which you are obliged to hang on an otherwise blank wall in your living room. When you have visitors, they need to write their names in the Inminban’s register; and their ID and travel permit are checked.

Where is change to come from? When the state is responsible for everything, everything can be blamed on the state. So why does the population not revolt?

The only way a communist regime can survive is through extreme terror.

From satellite photos we know that about 250,000 North Koreans (1 per cent of the population) are kept in concentration camps. They are not supposed to come out of a political camp alive. When somebody makes a joke about the Great Leader, the entire family is sent down. So not only the culprit, but also his or her parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters, will “disappear”.
When I asked our friendly guide Mrs. Kim about the camps she replied: “Sometimes people have the wrong ideas about our country. So they go for re-education”.

Everywhere you see uniforms and kepis. A very large part of the population are in the army. Could the generals mount a coup? The top brass are kept on tenterhooks by regular executions for the flimsiest of reasons. The preferred method is to put a disgraced general in front of an anti-aircraft gun with an “invited” audience.

Reform from within the regime itself seems unlikely too. The last communist regime standing is well aware of the reforms which did in all their former allies.

As for foreign intervention, the Chinese won’t do it, as they don’t want the US on their doorstep. To scare off everyone else, North Korea keeps up its bellicose warmongering. Kim Yong-Un’s threats to “transform Seoul into a sea of fire”.

At the end of our trip, on the train from Pyongyang back to China, everybody was tense and quiet. We had heard stories of arrests at the border, so had hidden our memory cards, full of photographs, behind seats and in bread rolls. We stopped at the border and the guards duly went through our luggage, our cameras, and our phones.

When the train set into motion again, across the river and into China, corks popped, and we laughed and hugged.

CapX readers can pre-order “The Sun Tyrant: A Nightmare Called North Korea” with 30 per cent off (for £9.10) here. The discount code to enter at the checkout is simply “CAPX”

J.P. Floru is the author of 'The Sun Tyrant: A Nightmare Called North Korea' (Biteback).