John Casey

From riches to rags

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The Impossble State: North Korea, Past and Future

Victor Cha

Bodley Head, pp. 530, £

So accustomed have we become to North Korea as a failed state, 15 times less prosperous than the south, and depending entirely on foreign aid to survive, that we forget that things were not ever thus. I remember meeting Japanese nationalists who boasted that Japan had put more effort into building the infrastructure of their colonies than any western power had done for theirs.

This was entirely true of Korea. The Japanese rulers (since 1910) left a huge industrial base in the north, including mines, processing plants for coal, iron, magnesium and zinc, and many reservoirs and pumping stations which enabled the north to fertilise and irrigate its land. By 1945, after the liberation of the Korean peninsula by the Soviets and Americans, North Korea had 76 per cent of mining production, 80 per cent of heavy industry, and 92 per cent of electricity generating capacity. It had the largest collection of hydroelectric plants in Asia. Its factories compared with the most efficient and modern in the world. North Korea was the most industrialised and urbanised society in Asia.

South Korea, by contrast, was not much more than a collection of paddy fields, ruled by a dictator (Syngman Rhee) who was universally regarded as an American puppet. For the first 30 years after the division on the peninsula, North Korean GNP per capita outstripped that of the south. North Korea continued to be a reasonably efficient economy right into the 1970s. The decision in 1950 of Kim Il Sung to invade the south, with the permission of Stalin and Mao, was not all that irrational.

But its failure sealed the fate of his country. Kim Il Sung went on to isolate the north with what he called Juche. This was a system of autarchy and self-reliance. It was not only economic. Race and Marx came together. Juche drew upon a belief that very many Koreans cherish — that they are the most ethnically homogeneous race in Asia, uniquely pure both in blood and moral virtues. (The resemblance to pre-war Japanese nationalist beliefs may not be coincidental.)  Were North Korea to compromise with the capitalist, foreign world, the Koreans would be polluted both racially and ideologically.  Hence the system — weird, megalomaniac and plunging hopelessly into industrial and agricultural backwardness (nearly all heavy farm work is done with horses rather than ploughs) with malnutrition verging on starvation. (Victor Cha points out that North Korea’s chief successes have been in counterfeiting — including $100-dollar bills that are better than those produced by the United States treasury, counterfeit cigarettes and fake Viagra.)

The north’s cult of personality outdid that even of Stalin. After all, Stalin had to give up power when he died, whereas the late Kim Il Sung is Eternal President of his old domain. And Stalin’s universal genius, while it extended to music and linguistics, as well as as ideology, stopped short of sports.  Kim Il Sung’s son and successor, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, by contrast, on his first ever outing on the golf course, got 11 out of 18 holes in one. The new leader (Great Successor), Kim Jong Un, not only bears a striking resemblance to his portly grandfather, but also seems to have inherited the family’s magical powers. On one of his on-the-spot inspections he ‘miraculously created a new synthetic fertiliser that could grow 15,000 tons of wheat on a 9,000-square-metre plot of land’.

While the north developed into a country of mass near-starvation, ruled by a family that granted itself unimaginable luxuries (Kim Jong-Il possessed a cellar of 10,000 bottles of the finest wines), South Korea was transforming itself. One of its military dictators (Chung-hee Park) was highly intelligent and set the country on the road to massive economic development. South Korea is now a functioning democracy with an economy 37 times the size of the north’s.

Since the north has failed on every front, its sole remaining strategy has been to threaten violence from time to time in order to ensure a steady supply of foreign economic and food aid. It often reminds its southern neighbour that it could fire 500,000 artillery rounds per hour on to Seoul. This has worked remarkably well. Until recently South Korean governments pursued a ‘sunshine policy’ towards the north — which essentially meant paying a Danegeld. (A single meeting between a president of South Korea and Kim Il Sung is said to have cost the south $500 million.) Above all, the north, despite signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, is developing nuclear weapons with as much publicity as possible.

If Victor Cha is right, the outlook is extremely gloomy. The madness of the rulers of North Korea has method. The aim is to convince outsiders that they might be irrational enough to do the unthinkable and launch all-out war, even though that would infallibly lead to their destruction. The possession of nuclear weapons is part of that strategy and is designed not only to deter any foreign power from attacking, but also to force the Americans to guarantee that the House of Kim shall rule for ever. With the Chinese determined to keep a client state on their borders, and the Americans paralysed with indecision, this may be the future we have to look forward to.