How to Talk About North Korea Without Being or Making an Ass of Yourself

So, here’s the thing: the DPRK is sort of difficult to understand. We don’t always get what we might call accurate information out of the country. Most of what we get comes from interpretations of the propaganda/state-run media reports or from a dude who knows another dude who told them x, y, z. It’s sometimes hard to sniff out the bullshit. People tend to think that just because it’s difficult to understand what goes on in and the motivations behind decisions made by the North Korean regime that almost anything could happen. For example: that story about every man in North Korea needing to have the same haircut as Kim Jong Un. That sounds like a thing that could happen if you operate under the assumption that literally anything is possible in North Korea because North Korea is crazy and that’s just the sort of thing they’d do. Except it’s not. Come, friend, let me give you a history of the North and then help you understand how to be more critical in your readings about the North.

First things first: North Korea is not crazy. Its people are not crazy, its leaders are not crazy, its bureaucracy is not crazy. Let’s just stop using “crazy” to describe things we can’t immediately comprehend, okay? North Korea is a rational actor. When you actually consider the motives behind the decisions those in power make, and the context in which the country develops and continues to survive, you’ll find they actually make sense (shock! gasp!). The thing with that, though, is that you have to really understand how North Korea came into existence and how it’s maintained itself. If you don’t really get that, it’s basically a given you’ll fall right into the “North Korea is crazy!!!11!!1” analytic method (which isn’t an analytic method). If you call North Korea crazy or imply they’re not a rational actor, I’m basically not listening to you anymore, and neither is anyone else who has any idea what they’re talking about when it comes to North Korea.

If you need a brief history of North Korea, here are my notes on the first 20 years of the DPRK’s existence. Nothing here that isn’t also available on Wikipedia but if you need a quicker list, here’s some major events and concepts. Please don’t repost them without permission (the watermark is there for a reason, you moochers):

notes01_sm notes02_sm notes03_sm notes04_sm notes05_sm

I didn’t make a cheat sheet for the final exam, so you’re going to have to deal with me and my, shall we say, unconventional narration methods.

So, we’re all clear that KJI came to power in the late 60s, had his rise through the 70s, and in the 80s, began taking over more operations. His succession was portrayed as a necessity to propagate the idea of a revolutionary generation.

During the 50s, North Korea looked like best Korea: people had jobs, they were eating, they were clothed. Meanwhile, the South was super duper mega fucked. But the thing with the North was that in the 50s, Juche started to be a thing. It was defined more fully and enshrined in the 1972 Constitution, but it started being a thing before then. So North Korea developed out of colonialism and the Cold War and the two superpowers were snatching countries into their spheres of influence. COMECON (or the USSR’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) was a thing and a thing that basically used the Soviet Bloc and associated countries to help the USSR get resources. North Korea never fully joined it because the North was like “we need to handle our own shit because did you see what the fuck the Japanese did when they ran the place. No thank you.” The DPRK got a lot of things, especially petroleum, at “friendship prices” but was never fully a part of COMECON. The North Korean economy ran on and still runs (to whatever extent it actually runs now) on a Soviet-style system of collectivization. Factories and farmland and stuff are all owned by the state. Small businesses are allowed but only with a certain number of employees and only in certain industries. People are allowed small veggie farms and to raise like, rabbits, but they’re only allowed a certain size for the plot (usually in their backyard or up on a steep slope (we’ll get to that later)); the rest is for the state. The major problem with this is that the majority of arable land is in the south of the peninsula, not the north. The south was the breadbasket for the Empire, and the north is where the Japanese put most of the factories, and this is why the North seemed to be coming out ahead in the 50s and part of the 60s (that and, again, the South got fucked in the Korean War). Shortfalls of this system started to become apparent in the 60s, and by the 70s, the North was importing turnkey factories (they’re exactly what they sound like: you import everything to make the factory run and basically all you have to do is turn the key).

OK, so turnkey factories were a thing, but the North, relying on juche and not wanting to open up to have capitalist companies and states fuck them over, refused to open up past a certain point and basically didn’t pay back their loans for the industrial equipment and defaulted on all their loans in the 80s. Defaulting on their loans to other countries means they, to this day, can’t borrow money and have to pay for every single thing in cash. This is why you have North Koreans overseas hustling for hard cash, and also the increase in tourism in the last 5 years (though it’s been a thing since Koryo Tours began in 1993), because the regime needs hard cash for stuff.

Collectivized ag and a refusal to open to the corrupting influence of capitalism, in addition to an over-reliance on science meant that things started to go downhill in the 70s. Let’s talk irrigation. Most of the time, you let gravity do the work when you want to irrigate the land: you find a water source above your farm, and then you put your pipes and stuff in and you let gravity do the work to bring your water to the land. That’s not how things work in North Korea. People in the 50s were like “man, science rules, what if we used SCIENCE to get water to the farms?” and so decided they would tap into creeks and other water sources that may have been below the farm and then use fuel pumps to funnel the water back uphill to the farm. This sounds really cool because SCIENCE only it doesn’t work when you start to run low on fuel. Remember those friendship prices I mentioned? Russia and the DPRK stopped being so friendly as the Cold War came to an end, and Russia began running lower on fuel, and also when the USSR normalized relations with the South (which gave legitimacy to the ROK state, a thing the DPRK did not like its allies to do (basically, to the DPRK, the ROK is a puppet state of the US and imperialism and all that)). So, friendship started to run cold with one of its main allies. At the same time, because they used chemical fertilizers to fertilize the land, the land began to be deprived of its humus. Basically, the land stopped producing so much because fields can never lie fallow in the DPRK because they need every bit of arable land to produce food to distribute through the rationing system. In the 80s and 90s, they were basically spending more money producing fertilizer to fertilize the land than they were getting back in food from it. So the soil started to turn really red because that’s what happens when soil is depleted of its organic matter, basically. During the 80s, you have campaigns for “let’s eat two meals a day” and to get mothers to put brown rice in their kids’ lunch and etc. Up through the 80s, you weren’t doing so bad if you were a North Korean, but beginning in the 80s and beyond, shit hit the fan.

Steep-slope farming became a thing because people needed arable land for farming, so KJI encouraged people to go up into the hills and mountains and use the land there. The problem with this is that the lack of trees and other vegetation to block the rains when they come meant that when heavy monsoons came through in the early-mid 90s, there was little to stop them from devastating towns and cities. After this, we have the famine, the first real wave of refugees (people just really didn’t leave the DPRK before this), and we’re all pretty familiar with what happens after this, yeah?

So the thing I need you all to take away from this is that the DPRK does not want to open up to the corrupting influence of capitalism. Those in power see the way the US treats other countries around the world and sees a very real threat to its existence, particularly when the US and ROK military do war games exercises. And while I’m here, North Korean people are not brainwashed automatons, and the extent to which people believe the propaganda can vary from person to person. And while the North does absolutely function on a system of having everyone spying on one another, the people there are still people.

Now, how do we talk about North Korea without being assholes? Well, apparently that’s a really difficult thing for a lot of people to do, but it’s really not that hard, I promise!

  • North Korea is not crazy. Just. Stop. In order to maintain sovereignty, the North Korean regime uses threats and belligerence to keep itself in power. The people in power are not stupid: they know they would lose in an all-out war with South Korea, the US, possibly Japan, and other allies. These threats and acts of violence serve a purpose, usually a domestic propaganda purpose. Nuclear weapons are a way to guarantee a stalemate and ensure the country can continue to exist. There’s a reason for everything and if you took five minutes, you’d be able to figure it out.
  • North Korea is not funny. Famine isn’t funny, jokes about labour camps aren’t funny. Someone showed me an article on Cracked recently where they were trying to be more serious in their reporting that referred to NoKo as the Kims’ “murderous Disney World.” Like. Can you not.
  • Five minutes with a history book and a critical eye before you mouth off about Korea, please. Ishmael and Ahab maintain that Bruce Cumings is pretty much the worst Korea Studies has to offer, but even his book would give you a decent perspective on the history of the peninsula. Not a great one, but better than you probably received in school. Ahab will be adding recommended reading on North Korea soon.
  • Understand that the US is far from blameless in all of this. The US happily supported brutal dictators in South Korea for decades because it served our ~economic and political interests~. The US is not a shining beacon, a city on a hill. We’re an example for the rest of the world, but not always a good one (in case you forgot, our government tortures people then tries to say it wasn’t ~real~ torture! Our police are basically unaccountable for their actions! AMERICA, FUCK YEAH!)
  • Regime change is difficult (understatement of the century). Military force may bring about regime change, but then who’s gonna be there to rebuild the country and help all the North Korean people adjust to life in late capitalism? How would a confederacy work if both governments were to agree on it? There’s a reason there are a bunch of institutes that study how regime change could happen (hint: it’s not because it’s easy!). I remember years ago when I was first beginning to actually study Korean history and politics, conventional wisdom was that a million people would die just on day 1 if the US and its allies went to war with North Korea. A MILLION. There’s seriously no fucking easy solution here and if you honestly think there is, you aren’t paying attention.
  • Stop making blanket statements. We can get a clearer picture of life in North Korea (and we have) from defector testimony, and we can generalize certain things but not others. We will honestly never know what “all North Koreans” think. Some believe the propaganda, some don’t; some question, some don’t. This is where being critical and having a variety of opinions and perspectives comes in handy.

tl;dr: The North Korean regime is the actual worst but we can all be a lot better in how we think and talk about it. Remember also that whatever happens in North Korea, it also has the potential to/does have a huge effect on the rest of the region, particularly South Korea, but also China and Japan. The situation on the peninsula did not develop overnight and it won’t be solved overnight. There are no easy solutions. Please try to be more critical. Please just try to be less of an asshole. Remember also that I am not The Expert on North Korea. There are a lot of differing opinions out there and I am but one person shouting into the void that is the Internet, but I hope you’ll take the time to learn to be more critical in your readings on and discussions and about North Korea. OK, thanks for stopping by, drive safe!


. Notes and Citations .
In general, I’m drawing mostly from Adrian Buzo’s Guerrilla Dynasty, things I’ve just picked up from grad readings on North Korea, and my class notes from my grad class on North Korea.