At the time of writing it is four months since I returned from Pyongyang. I entertain no nostalgia for North Korea whatsoever. I spent a difficult year there and I have no desire to return. Although I liked the people very much, the nature of the society prevented me from forming really close relationships with any of them. There were a few with whom I became as friendly as was possible under the circumstances. However, even if I did return, it is not certain that we would be able to meet at all.
It was not the type of society of which I would ever wish to be a member. That is not to say that I do not hold some feelings of respect towards the society or some regrets that it has fallen into what is probably an irreversible decline. I am inclined to believe that Kim Il Sung was a genuine idealist who set out to create a new society that was fundamentally fair, decent and humane. Up to a point he has been successful. After all, North Korea is a third world Asian country that was decimated only thirty-five years ago. Things could have been a lot worse for the people, who have been living simple but peaceful and secure lives devoid of undue hardship. The social values that Kim Il Sung wished to promote have been instilled in the consciousness of the people who, it cannot be said too often, are as sweet and good-natured and comradely a species of humanity as one could ever wish to encounter. Everywhere I sensed a commitment to the collectivist ideal, even among those who felt frustrated and disenchanted at their country’s failure to sustain economic progress over the last fifteen years. There are no reasons to think that high standards of civic morality are notably indigenous to North Korean culture. In an address to the central committee on 15th December, 1952, when the war was at its height, we find Kim Il Sung complaining that “the Ministry of Public health does not take good care of the medicines imported or received as relief from foreign countries. As a result they are spoiled in the ministry’s drug warehouse while local hospitals go short. That is not all. Medicines worth tens of millions of won are stolen from the warehouse.” (CW, Vol.7, p.341-2)
It is understandable that Kim Il Sung, confronted by this sort of selfishness, incompetence and corruption, plus an internal power struggle, tackled the daunting task of post-war reconstruction in the aftermath of the Americans’ scorched earth bombing campaign with a policy of rigid and centralised physical and psychological control over the people. His policy may be justified by the fact that the country did recover quickly during the fifties and sixties. The current official Chinese view of the similar approach adopted by Chairman Mao after the Chinese revolution is that it was correct for the time, but became counter-productive when persevered with after the problems of primary deprivation and political instability had been largely resolved. The prominent Chinese economist Huan Xiang argues that “the eventual consequences of overcentralisation are: the more centralised, the more rigid; the more rigid the economy, the lazier the people; the lazier the people, the poorer they are; and the poorer the people are, the greater the need for centralisation, forming a vicious circle.” (From his essay Urban Economic Restructure, included in the Chinese government publication Progress in Urban Reform, p.9.)
The reluctance of the Kim regime to follow the post-Mao Chinese example and liberalise can be attributed to a genuine desire to maintain ideological purity and a commitment to preserving the traditional Korean way of life and protecting it from the corrupting influence of the decadent western way of life, a frequent target of Kim Il Sung polemic. Moreover, just as a Time magazine correspondent could argue that “the US must proceed more cautiously [towards democratisation] in South Korea” because “there a more open government is also needed, including freer political activity and direct presidential elections, but the menacing proximity of the frantically Stalinist regime in North Korea makes liberalisation a much more difficult and dangerous proposition” (Time magazine, 12.5.81) – so until recently an apologist for Kim Il Sung could similarly maintain that liberalisation in North Korea is made hazardous by the menacing proximity of a US imperialist-backed puppet regime in Seoul.
Unwillingness to liberalise his country’s economy, i.e. liberalisation entails less central control, more individual freedom and more exposure to outside influences, all of which could serve to undermine his personal authority. Ironically the threat that liberalisation poses to the Kim dynasty becomes greater the longer liberalisation is postponed, because without reform the economy will continue to stagnate, the people’s quality of life will continue to deteriorate, their living standards will fall further and further behind those of the South Koreans, and their ideological commitment to Juche values will become more brittle. Necessity has scarcely forced the North Korean door open a couple of inches in recent times, and already standards of personal conduct have tumbled among those privileged enough to feel the draught. Without foreign investment and technical expertise, the people must toil in two-hundred-day campaigns merely to maintain their current frugal living standards; the news from Pyongyang since my return is that a mere three weeks after the end of the two-hundred-day campaign, on September 9th, the government in desperation gave the order for the people to embark on – you guessed it – another two-hundred-day campaign. But how is the people’s faith in Kim Il Sung and the Juche Ideato withstand the inevitable realisation that must come, if ever wind of the wide world outside is allowed to blow North of the 38th parallel, that the picture of the world with which they have been presented is an illusion, a joke?
This is a harsh dilemma for the great leader and his heir. It is one of the great advantages of the parliamentary-style democracies that loss of power for the elected rulers need not be synonymous with personal calamity. All that happens to elected rulers when they are voted out of office is that they go into opposition. For Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, the likely alternatives to power are exile or execution. The fact is that the Kim dynasty is trapped. They may well wish their people to lead better lives, but they dare not take the necessary measures. Yet they cannot go on indefinitely driving the people like slaves. Even the staunchest Juche revolutionaries are only flesh and blood. They become exhausted. They will become disillusioned. The Juche era is doomed. The only question is, will it end with a bang or a whimper?
Nevertheless, the Juche era has not been an altogether unsatisfactory period in the lives of the North Korean people. Even now the rural population, the majority, enjoy a quality of life that compares favourably with that of peasants in other Asian countries, indeed compares very favourably with that of the army of homeless and dispossessed people in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. I can imagine a future scenario when the thriving South has reassimilated the stumbling North, and the people of the North are enjoying higher material standards than ever before, in which many of them will look back with nostalgia to the old certainties, the security and the solidarity, that pertained in the reign of the great leader.
An objective perspective on the achievements of the Juche era can be derived from the November 1987 edition of South Magazine, which featured a strategic survey on all the countries of the southern hemisphere that charted for each country the population projection for 1990, gross national product expressed in US dollars for 1985, the size of the regular armed forces in 1986, and a score on a Physical Quality of Life Index. The magazine described its Physical Quality of Life Index as “an innovative concept developed by M. D. Morris at Brown University. The PQLI consolidates three indicators: life expectancy, infant mortality, and literacy to measure a country’s achievements of basic human requirements on a scale of 1 to 100 – excluding monetary variables.” The statistics from which the index was compiled were derived from the Overseas Development Council’s 1988 Agenda. This is how South Korea, North Korea and Malaysia, generally regarded as a fairly stable and prosperous developing capitalist country on Asia’s Pacific rim, measured up.