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Excerpt of Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (c) Victor Cha.  Printed courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 


Meandering through the streets of Pyongyang, one cannot help but be impressed by its wide thoroughfares and massive structures. The capital city of North Korea is a carefully manicured and organized piece of urban planning. Like most Communist cities, it is built to impress with large plazas, iconic architecture, and scenic vistas. There is no litter on the streets and no graffiti. There are no homeless as you might find in any major city in the West. The air is clean. There are no traffic jams.

One afternoon, as I was being driven back to my guesthouse from the foreign ministry, I watched children walking home from school, like kids everywhere. Their uniforms were a little disheveled after a day’s use, and they were laughing and joking happily as they chased each other down the sidewalk. Office workers were smoking cigarettes as they waited for the bus. Women, not dressed extravagantly but also not dressed poorly, were strolling home with shopping bags full of purchases made at the local store. Passing the main entrance to Kim Il-sung University, I was reminded of the university where I teach. Not in the sense that Kim Il-sung University is surrounded by multimillion-dollar Georgetown townhouses, but in the sense that one saw college-age students who looked carefree, full of enthusiasm, and welcoming of life’s opportunities. Every student had a clean-cut and well-kept appearance (no grunge look in Pyongyang!).


Socialist Paradise

Looking at life in Pyongyang, one hardly gets the impression often given in the Western press that this is a country on the verge of mass starvation and collapse. There is no sign of conspicuous wealth, but also no sign of poverty. On the contrary, it looks like a modest but well-functioning population that seems quite content living its everyday lives. I thought to myself, “I guess this is their Socialist paradise.” Some who have traveled to North Korea point to this scene that I have described to discount all of the claims of human rights abuses in North Korea. They argue that people are well taken care of. They argue that those who want to try the North Korean leader in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his treatment of his people are ideological neocons looking to undermine the regime. They argue that the government is fulfilling its end of the social contract, and while there is no democracy, there is “good governance.” Some further argue that a Western definition of human rights is not everyone’s. The U.S. version of human rights, defined as individual liberty, is not what North Koreans value. Instead, it is freedom from external predation and foreign intervention that is a paramount “human right.” On this score, the regime has done well by its people. This type of cultural-relativist argument may work for high-minded scholars, but not for most others. The average commonsense person does not demand that every country share the U.S.’s democratic values, but does expect society to allow those who excel to do well, those who need help to receive it, and all to be treated with human dignity. North Korea meets none of these criteria. It is a system that denies its citizens every political, civil, and religious liberty. It severely punishes with physical and mental abuse any perceived violation of laws, without any juridical fairness. And it allows its citizens to starve while the governing elite lives in relative splendor. One would never get this impression in Pyongyang, because Pyongyang city-dwellers are by far the most privileged. Indeed, one cannot live in the capital city without some connection to the party, military, or bureaucracy. Part of this status is determined by family lineage, which means that if your family has party ties, you could do well. It also means that on any day, someone could knock on your door and take you to jail because a distant relative two generations prior was discovered to be a Japanese collaborator. Life looks normal at first glance, but if one stares only a few seconds longer, the cracks become evident. North Korea would like you to believe that their people enjoy all of the creature comforts of modern society. For example, in October 2010, CNN cast from Pyongyang a story about how cell phones were prevalent in the North. Second-unit shots showed young, smiling citizens chatting happily away on their cell phones on a street corner. Sure, these phones may be prevalent among the elite and party loyal, but these are not available for purchase by any North Korean citizen (unlike in the South, where smart phones are ubiquitously seen in the hands of grade-schoolers to grandmas); moreover, the service area is limited to local calls only. Instead, most “elite” citizens in Pyongyang use public telephone booths, which became clear to me one afternoon when I saw on several streets scores of people lined up behind orange bubble-like structures. I soon realized that these were city-dwellers lining up to make their one phone call of the day. Visitors to North Korea are sometimes invited to attend Sunday services at a Christian church, which leads them to believe that there is a degree of freedom of religion in the country, while their guides dutifully explain that it is promised in the North Korean constitution. But the reality is that there are three government-controlled Churches (two Protestant, one Catholic) in the country for foreigners. The government bans any other form of organized worship as counterrevolutionary and grounds for charges of treason against the state. Buddhism, widespread in Asia, is accepted in the North, within limits, as a philosophy,but not as a religion. The existence of deep underground Christian movements in the North is a telling sign of the absence whatsoever of any freedom to worship anything but Kim Il-sung.

The neat, orderly streets seen by visitors to Pyongyang are that way because there is no traffic. A car is another indicator of privilege and status. Tourists who return from Pyongyang claim that they saw BMWs, Lexuses, and Mercedes-Benzes in the streets, so they conclude the country is doing fine. These cars, of course, don’t belong to average citizens but serve to chauffeur VIPs and dignitaries. As I was driven around in a sedan, I did not see anything but an occasional VIP car or military vehicles. I finally noticed one old beat-up four-door compact. It was orange, rusted, and with no windows. I was told the car was a “taxi.” Official sedans whiz by, which may carry dignitaries or Chinese businessmen, but you don’t see average North Korean moms driving their kids to soccer practice or salarymen commuting to work. On the contrary, everyone walks or rides ancient and dangerously overcrowded 1960s vintage buses. There is also a subway system, which doubles as an underground network of tunnels and bomb shelters. The only times that my car had to stop due to traffic was in the late afternoons, when hundreds of students, still dressed in school uniforms, were marching down the main thoroughfare. Kids who had been playfully walking home from school the previous hour were now expressionless, walking in unison behind a lead sign board that designated their work unit. In school, 33 percent of the curriculum is devoted to the personality cult of Kim. (Typical course titles are the “History of Revolutionary Activities,” “Poetry of Kim Jong-il.”)

Children are taught that Kim gave them their clothes, toys, and books, and to love Kim more than they love their parents. They are taught that they can live without their parents but they cannot live without love for and undying loyalty to Kim Il-sung.

Outside of the capital city, the situation deteriorates rapidly. Kaesŏng, the second-largest city, is most well known in the West for the gleaming new joint industrial complex built by the South Koreans. But outside of this structure, the city is in dire straits. Apartment dwellings not only have no heat, they have no windows. Outside the city, farmers use old and diseased oxen to till the land; there is no mechanization visible. The paved roads, despite their infrequent use, are cracked and potholed to the point that they would even make riding a bicycle difficult. The mountains surrounding the area are brown and gray, having long been stripped of all of their trees. Children in grubby clothes can be seen running barefoot among herds of skinny goats. Large, military-green Korean War–era ambulances lumber along, over the bumpy roads. The area hosted bus tours from South Korea from late 2007 to late 2008, and tourists reportedly found it reminiscent of the South in the 1960s.1 Most interesting to me was that no one seemed to be in a hurry. Observed by one Italian chef, who once was asked to make pizzas for the Kim family: “[Y]ou caught sight of people squatting on their heels, their legs folded under them as if doing knee bends. They appeared to be waiting around for something—though it was impossible to tell what this might be, or how long they have been waiting for it, or how long they intended to go on waiting.” Asian cities are known for being fast-paced: people rushing to meetings; friends late for a date; car horns honking. None of that exists in North Korea. There is far less to life in this dark kingdom than meets the eye.

Absolute poverty rates in North Korea are over 30 percent of the population. The health-care system, which is said to provide universal coverage, is broken beyond repair. The system services the elite, military, and party members, but no one else. In 2006, the World Health Organization estimated the North Korea government has one of the lowest expenditures on health care in the world, at approximately $1 per person. Medical facilities have power shortages and lack basic supplies. There is no clean water supply and no sterile environments. Hospitals are forced to reuse hypodermic needles. Surgeries are performed without anesthesia. Doctors have long been cut off from payments by the state and therefore barter cigarettes, food, and alcohol from patients for medical treatment. No medicines are available and only the well-heeled can afford to buy medicine on the black market and bring it to the hospital for administering. Tuberculosis, cholera, malaria, typhoid fever, and dengue fever are among the diseases still prevalent in the North. This is not a model of “good governance” that absolves the state from charges of human rights abuse.