North Korea

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Objectively speaking, the history of North Korean state has been one of an ambitious social if brutal experiment that ended in a very ugly disaster. Essentially, the 70 years of the Kim Family's rule have been the wasted years. ~ Andrei N. Lankov

North Korea (N.K.), also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a socialist country located in eastern Eurasia. It is one of the two countries, along with South Korea, that were created from the partition of the Korean Peninsula by the Soviet Union and the United States, after the defeat of the Empire of Japan at the hands of the Allied powers in World War II. China and North Korea's attempt in the early 1950s to conquer South Korea by force ended in a stalemate after the United Nations intervened on South Korea's behalf to defend it. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, North Korea has been a focus of international concern and regional tension, which increased with its development of nuclear weapons.


  • South Korea is an extremely wired country, so has a lot to attack. Unfortunately for the South Koreans, North Korea has extremely limited internet connectivity and hence is a target-poor country. Hence, the only option is [conventional] war - or convincing the North Koreans that they can attack them in cyberspace as well.
  • South Korea has developed into one of Asia's most affluent countries since partition in 1948. The Communist North has slipped into totalitarianism and poverty.
  • North Korea was the Eastern bloc's house cat: intractable, convinced of its superiority, and to some observers a more independent creature, but never much good at feeding itself—even after the can openers started falling silent in 1989.
  • Citizens shall have freedom of speech, press, assembly, demonstration, and association. The state shall guarantee conditions for the free activities of democratic political parties and social organizations.
  • Unification, as I have mentioned, can be a euphemism for conquest, a gloss for winning the war.... The south's disagreement [against North Korea's proposal for confederation] is in part due to the fact that they believe that the nation and state must be one, that a confederation is not unification, and that North Korea must be totally absorbed into the south, its state destroyed, and its people assimilated.
    • Roy Richard Grinker, in Korea and Its Futures: Unification and the Unfinished War (1988), St. Martin's Press.
  • In North Korea, every person is property and is owned by a small and mad family with hereditary power. Every minute of every day, as far as regimentation can assure the fact, is spent in absolute subjection and serfdom. The private life has been entirely abolished. One tries to avoid cliché, and I did my best on a visit to this terrifying country in the year 2000, but George Orwell's 1984 was published at about the time that Kim Il-sung set up his system, and it really is as if he got hold of an early copy of the novel and used it as a blueprint.
  • The United States and its partners make up in aid for the huge shortfall in North Korea's food production, but there is not a hint of acknowledgement of this by the authorities, who tell their captive subjects that the bags of grain stenciled with the Stars and Stripes are tribute paid by a frightened America to the Dear Leader.
  • I only had a vague understanding of what freedom meant when I was back in North Korea... When I thought about freedom or rights, I thought it was a concept that was given under the great leader. Everything was subordinate to the great leader of North Korea.
  • North Korea abolished the colonial legal system, including civil and commercial laws. However, the country inherited and strengthened a wartime command economy. Regardless of wartime demand or socialist ideology, restriction on or abolition of a market and private property system makes it inevitable that the economy depend on command. In spite of political differences, that is why the two economies seem similar.
    On the contrary, however, South Korea returned to a market economy from a wartime command economy, and inherited a legal system and market regime before the Sino-Japanese War. The country regained monetary and tariff autonomy at the price of rapid inflation and retreat from an open economy. Experiences during the wartime command economy have also affected South Korea and caused government interventions in foreign exchange and financial markets. After policy shifts in the 1960s, which made the country’s economy more open and with less government intervention, South Korea was able to head into rapid economic growth.
    • Kim Nak Nyeon, "Japan’s Colonial Legacy to Korea with Special Reference to Economic Institutions" (2010)
  • The great famine of 1994-98 was to a large extent the inviolable result of the policies that Kim Il Sung had pursued for decades. The famine was brought about by Kim Il Sung’s fanatical belief in a hyper-centralized, state-managed agriculture, as well as an excessive reliance on (unacknowledged) foreign aid, not to mention militarization run amok. However, if the mine was planted (unintentionally, of course) by Kim Il Sung, it went off under the rule of his son. Hence, most North Koreans blame Kim Jong Il, rather than his father, for the economic disasters of the 1990s.
  • For the average North Korean over the last two decades, the times of Kim Il Sung have often been seen as a lost era of order and stability, in which everyone could be sure that twice a month they would receive food rations sufficient for survival, and essentially free of charge. This was also a time when corruption was kept under control and was largely invisible, material inequality was also almost unnoticeable. Objectively speaking, it was Kim Il Sung’s policies that made the disaster of the 1990s unavoidable. But this had little impact on public perception, and he continues to be held in high esteem by many. Remarkably, such sentiments toward the late Generalissimo are even expressed by refugees – not usually known for their sympathies for the North Korean system and its embodiment, the Kim family. Thus, it is that Kim Il Sung remains venerated, and due to the luck of dying in time, has a remarkably good reputation in death. The opposite is very much the case with his unfortunate son, Kim Jong Il, who inherited power in 1994 and reigned for 17 turbulent years, till 2011.
  • North Koreans now understand that South Korea is very rich. It is true, but there is a great difference between vaguely understanding something and having such graphic images of neighbors' prosperity flooding your daily life. As is usually the case, such pictures are liable to be exaggerated at first. An outsider in a rich country usually cannot immediately see the contradictions, problems and tensions that exist behind the sparking, glistening, glitzy facade. For the North Koreans, this picture of the South Korean prosperity would likely be seen as vivid proof of the complete failure of their leadership. The North Korean elite cannot even use the usual trick of putting the blame at the doors of their predecessors: This elite is hereditary, so the buck cannot be easily passed.
  • Objectively speaking, the history of North Korean state has been one of an ambitious social if brutal experiment that ended in a very ugly disaster. Essentially, the 70 years of the Kim Family's rule have been the wasted years. The Kim family did not merely build one of the world’s most “perfect” Stalinist dictatorships, but also managed to transform into a basket case what once, in the 1940s, was the most advanced industrial economy of East Asia outside Japan. However, one should not expect that such a pessimistic, if honest, view of North Korea’s past, is going to be enthusiastically embraced by those North Koreans who bother to care about such matters.
  • We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, someway or another, and some in South Korea too.
    • Curtis LeMay, in Strategic Air Warfare: An Interview with Generals (1988).
  • Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure?
    • Curtis LeMay in Strategic Air Warfare: An Interview with Generals (1988).
  • Koreans in both the north and the south tend to cherish the myth that of all peoples in the world, they are the least inclined to premeditated evil.
  • Korean schoolchildren in north and south learn that Japan invaded their fiercely patriotic country in 1905, spent forty years trying to destroy its language and culture, and withdrew without having made any significant headway. This version of history is just as uncritically accepted by most foreigners who write about Korea. Yet the truth is more complex. For much of the country's long history its northern border was fluid and the national identities of literate Koreans and Chinese mutually indistinguishable. Believing their civilization to have been founded by a Chinese sage in China's image, educated Koreans subscribed to a Confucian worldview that posited their country in a position of permanent subservience to the Middle Kingdom. Even when Korea isolated itself from the mainland in the seventeenth century, it did so in the conviction that it was guarding Chinese tradition better than the Chinese themselves. For all their xenophobia, the Koreans were no nationalists.
  • Unlike Soviet citizens under Stalin, or Chinese under Mao, North Koreans learn more about their leaders than from them. It is not in ideological treatises but in the more mass-oriented domestic propaganda that the official worldview is expressed most clearly and unselfconciously. I stress the word domestic. Too many observers wrongly assume that the North Korean Central News Agency's English-language releases reflect the same sort of propaganda that the home audience gets. In fact, there are significant differences. For example, where the DPRK presents itself to the outside world as a misunderstood country seeking integration into the international community, it presents itself to its own citizens as a rogue state that breaks agreements with impunity, dictates conditions to groveling U.N. officials, and keeps its enemies in constant fear of ballistic retribution. Generally speaking the following rule of thumb applies: the less accessible a propaganda outlet is to the rest of the world, the blunter and more belligerent it will be in its expression of the racist orthodoxy.
  • Although North Korea's northern border remains easy to cross, and North Koreans are now well aware of the prosperity enjoyed south of the demilitarized zone, Kim Jong-il continues to rule over a stable and supportive population. Kim enjoys mass support due to his perceived success in strengthening the race and humiliating its enemies. Thanks in part to decades of skillful propaganda, North Koreans generally equate the race with their state, so that ethno-nationalism and state-loyalty are mutually enforcing. In this respect North Korea enjoys an important advantage over its rival, for in the Republic of Korea ethno-nationalism militates against support for a state that is perceived as having betrayed the race. South Koreans' 'good race, bad state' attitude is reflected in widespread sympathy for the people of the north and in ambivalent feelings toward the United States and Japan, which are regarded as friends of the republic but enemies of the race.
  • North Korea cannot survive forever on the public perception of state legitimacy alone. The more it loses its economic distinctiveness vis-à-vis the rival state, the more the Kim regime must compensate with triumphs on the military and nuclear fronts. Another act of aggression against the Republic of Korea may well take place in the months ahead, not only to divert North Korean public attention from the failures of the consumer-oriented 'Strong and Prosperous Country' campaign, but also to strengthen the appeasement-minded South Korean opposition in the run-up to the presidential election in 2012.
  • Inspectors document violations; they don't stop them. Inspectors knew when North Korea broke to the bomb, but that didn't stop anything. North Korea turned off the cameras, kicked out the inspectors. Within a few years, it got the bomb. Now, we're warned that within five years North Korea could have an arsenal of 100 nuclear bombs. Like North Korea, Iran, too, has defied international inspectors. It's done that on at least three separate occasions; 2005, 2006, 2010. Like North Korea, Iran broke the locks, shut off the cameras.
  • You made us believe, Comrade Kim Jong-il! We cannot live without you. Our country cannot exist without you!
  • Back in 1994, American negotiators promised a “good deal” with North Korea. Its nuclear plants were supposed to be frozen and dismantled. International inspectors would “carefully monitor” North Korea’s compliance with the agreement and ensure the country’s return to the “community of nations.” The world, we were told, would be a safer place. It wasn’t. North Korea never forfeited its nuclear plants and the inspections proved useless. The community of nations is threatened by North Korean atomic bombs and the world is anything but safe.

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