The world according to Pyongyang

Asia Times
Andrei Lankov

Over the past couple of weeks, the small community of Seoul-based Pyongyang watchers was busy discussing a minor professional sensation. The Wolgan Chungang monthly, widely known for its good insights on all things North Korean, published a lengthy transcript of a speech, allegedly delivered last December, by a high-level Central Committee official. He was obviously talking to a group of prominent academics and engineers. The official’s name is cited as Chang Yong-sun, but he seems to be a complete unknown to the North Korea experts.

The authenticity of the transcript cannot be proved beyond doubt, but the Seoul expert community tends to believe that this tape was indeed secretly recorded somewhere in Pyongyang a few months ago and then smuggled to the South.

Being a former Soviet citizen, this author is inclined to believe this view as well. The tape rings true. This is how a high-level official would talk when lecturing lower layers of elite on the current situation, and such regular lectures were typical for many communist countries.

The semi-privileged met the bigwigs to get instructions on recent events, as well as some alleged insiders’ stories and anecdotes. The semi-privileged cadres felt themselves partaking in the enigmatic world of grand politics, and also learned something about the new trends in their leadership’s thinking about the world.

Most people who deal with “Chang’s lecture” concentrate on those parts of the lengthy presentation that deal with US-North Korea relations and the six-party talks on nuclear disarmament. Indeed, such issues are treated at great length by this document. Many others pay attention to rather unfavorable depictions of the Chinese or outbursts of threats against Japan.

However, I believe that there are more important things in the transcript than merely a North Korean version of what happened during former assistant secretary of state James Kelly’s visit to Pyongyang or during the first rounds of the six-party talks. The tape allows us to have one more glimpse at the world view held by the North Korean elite or, at least, by its lower reaches.

What are the features of the world as seen from Pyongyang? First of all, the significance of North Korea is blown out of all proportion. Somebody would describe this as Pyongyang megalomania, but perhaps author Bruce Cummings found a better term when he talked about “North Korean solipsism”, an assumption that North Korea lies at the center of the world, and that the world itself surely must be aware of this.

The North Korean press now tells its readers that the major international conflict of the modern world is the ongoing struggle between US imperialism and heroic North Korea. Chang Yong-sun even told his audience that the development of North Korean missiles has produced a serious impact on the public-health issues in the US: “Nobody can intercept our missiles now. All the people in the US are aware of this.

“This is why all the people in the United States are completely allergic to missiles of our republic. Once they learn that we test-fired missiles, they become so worried about the rockets changing their directions and exploding over them and killing them, so they develop nervous diseases and nettle rash breaks out all over their bodies. This is what is happening in the United States.”

One should not feel too sorry about the bastards, however. According to the official North Korean world view, once again reiterated by Comrade Chang, the US is responsible for everything that goes badly in Korea, and the constant military threat from the warmongering Washington is the major fact of North Korean life.

The audience was reminded that in 1950 it was the Americans who attacked North Korea, bringing death and destruction to the country (this official version of 1950 events seems to be almost universally believed by North Koreans). This great crime of 1950 has not been avenged yet, Comrade Chang reminded his listeners.

Many people in the US want to believe that such hostility stemmed from President George W Bush’s policies, but Comrade Chang reminded his audience a number of times that there is no real difference between the Republicans and Democrats: both US parties are pathologically hostile to the Country of the Beloved General. The differences between them are of a purely tactical nature, Chang Yong-sun told his audience. He said Republicans rely more on brute force, while Democrats are more canny and more willing to use ideological subversion and economic pressures.

Chang Yong-sun repeated a number of times that the major threat from the US is not that of a sudden military attack. The imperialists are not that simplistic: these days their major weapon is internal subversion. He said: “Although it appears as if the Americans do good things to us, their real nature has not changed at all. Their primary objective is, from start to finish, to undermine us from within and melt us down by disarming us ideologically.”

Chang Yong-sun repeated the message that has been delivered countless times by North Korean leaders big and small: the ideological threat of the outside world constitutes a greater danger than all imaginable military threats. He alleged that the foreign enemies have designed some grand plan of subversion. Chang said specially designated think-tanks work on this issue day and night. If his fantasies are to be believed, one of such centers is somewhere in Washington and employs no fewer than 370 retired generals whose only job is to find ways to undermine North Korea from within.

Being an enthusiastic supporter of soft power, the present author knows perfectly well that there is no coordinated plan of applying soft pressure on Pyongyang. The amount of money and efforts spent on broadcasts aimed at North Korea, on support of refugee groups and other similar activities, is ridiculously small. It is a dream to have a US research center specifically dealing with North Korean issues and stuffed with even, say, five post-doctoral candidates (let alone with 370 ex-generals).

But this raises a question: If this the case, why do Pyongyang politicians keep repeating similar statements? Why do they refer to a non-existent threat? Perhaps because they know what they should be really afraid of. They know only too well how potentially precarious against such a challenge their position is, and they probably cannot even believe that their adversaries fail to appreciate the major vulnerability of Pyongyang and do nothing to exploit the related opportunities. Comrade Chang would be really surprised to learn how weak and disorganized are actual efforts of the “class enemies” in the area that he (perhaps correctly) considers decisive.

Some twists of Pyongyang’s official mindset might come as a surprise to many readers. For example, Comrade Chang found a source of great pride in the North Korean penchant for secrecy. He used one peculiar example to explain why this secretiveness is great. According to him, the Americans defeated the Iraqis because they imitated the voice of Saddam Hussein and then sent fake orders to Iraqi troops in his name.

However, as he proudly reminded everyone, Marshal Kim Jong-il had spoken in public only once, so Americans will never find enough material for their perfidious schemes. The entire secrecy is necessary to keep foreigners at a disadvantage: “A long time ago, the Great General taught us to make sure that our internal things appears to be hazy as if covered by fog when the Americans spy on us. So we have made sure that internal things of our country appear really hazy as if in a fog when our country was viewed from outside.”

It is remarkable that the country’s economic woes are explained in a novel way, which was made possible by the nuclear test. Until 2006, North Koreans were supposed to believe that the only reasons for the recent famine were huge floods that “might happen only once a century”. Now it is admitted that the government needed money for missile and nuclear development, and hence had no other choice but to sacrifice some people to save the nation.

Chang Yong-sun said: “To be frank with you, even if one sells 50 plants as large as Kim Ch’aek Steel Mill, the money is not enough to develop a missile. During the ‘arduous march’ [Pyongyang-speak for the famine of the late 1990s], if there [was] a bit of money, it had to be spent on developing missiles, even though the generals knew that factories did not work and people were starving. This is why we have survived, and were not eaten up by those bastards. Had it not been like this, the bastards would have eaten us a long time ago.”

This line of argument is psychologically more powerful than the earlier version. Nowadays, people’s suffering can be presented not as the result of some blind misfortune caused by nature, but as a part of heroic sacrifice. People died because their country was at war and needed everything to save itself from complete destruction by the brutal enemy. Their deaths were those of heroes.

Such a change of tune is indeed typical of North Korean propaganda during the past few months. However, it might have some political consequences. This propaganda line makes it more difficult to surrender nuclear weapons even if such a notion will ever be seriously entertained by Pyongyang. If North Korea chooses to give up its nuclear arsenal, these sacrifices will be rendered meaningless.

Another propaganda line is that now people should expect a certain improvement of their lot, since the major work has been done: “Now we have conducted a nuclear test and other things, so we have to improve the people’s living standards by concentrating on economic construction.”

Still, Comrade Chang does not want his audience to entertain an excessively optimistic picture of their country’s future. Improvement will be minor and, as one might guess from some other parts of the speech, is likely to be limited to, say, complete reintroduction of Kim Il-sung-era consumer standards, which were not exactly luxurious (550 grams or cereal a day, plus a few pieces of meat on special occasions, four or five times a year).

Chang Yong-sun explained that North Korean industry is surely capable of producing quality consumption goods but cannot do it, because the ever present threat of an imperialist attack deems austerity and sacrifices necessary. He also made clear that his listeners should not await serious improvement of their lot any time soon.

The statement resonates very well with what another life-long analyst of North Korean propaganda, Tatiana Gabroussenko, wrote recently: unlike earlier eras when masses were extolled to make sacrifices for the sake of some identifiable future, nowadays North Korean leaders tell their people that no significant improvement is in sight. Comrade Chang even made a joke of this: “Since the end of the Korean War, we have lived with our belts tightened … One thing I can assure you: we’ll have to live with our belts tightened until the day our country is unified. If we do not have any more holes in our belts, let us make them.”

However, the audience was reminded that in the final count it is again the foreign forces who are to be blamed for these hardships. To quote Comrade Chang once again: “It is not because we do not know how to live better that we are not well off. Who is responsible for this? The US imperialists are responsible for this. That is why we call the US imperialists our mortal enemy with whom we cannot live under the same sky!”

Most of the speech consisted of US-bashing and Japan-bashing, but what about South Korea? Here Comrade Chang used the new tactics that have become typical for North Korean propagandists since the 2002 inter-Korea summit. Brian Myers, another remarkable specialist on North Korean culture and propaganda (not quite distinguishable areas, actually), recently wrote at length about a change of tune in Pyongyang propaganda: South Korea ceased to be depicted as the living hell, the land of depravation. The new image of the South is that of the country whose population secretly (or even not so secretly) longs to join its Northern brethren in their happiness under the wise care of the Beloved General.

This society might be relatively affluent, but it is inherently corrupt and lacks integrity, so its population knows that the only way to regain the moral purity is to join the spiritually superior North Korean civilization. The only force that prevents the South from achieving such happiness is the brutal US occupation army and a tiny handful of traitors on the Central Intelligence Agency payroll, but even those perverts are losing control over South Korean society.

Sometimes Chang’s fantasies went positively wild. He said, for example: “A portrait of the General is [respectfully] placed on the wall of the Main Hall on the fourth floor at the [Seoul] Government Building. Right now!” Then the flight of fantasy goes even further: “These days, South Korean publications do not sell in South Korean society if they do not carry the images of the General … 45% of the entire population in South Korea say that in case of a war they will fight on the side of the General.”

The domestic situation did not attract much of Chang Yong-sun’s attention, but he still made some comments on these issues. He admitted that even last December, in spite of all the government’s efforts, it was impossible to provide rations for the entire population, and that most people had to rely on the market for their needs, which is not good but was unavoidable.

He also explicitly stated that growth of the markets is not compatible with the socialist system: “All the people’s talk is money and again money. Is this socialism?” It is remarkable, however, that the virtues of socialism were seldom mentioned in the speech: its rhetoric was overwhelmingly nationalistic.

Chang Yong-sun also admitted that some North Koreans are very rich, and that their fortunes are now measured as a few hundred million North Korean won (100 million won is roughly equivalent to US$50,000). He did not make a secret that under less critical conditions the government would strike these reactionary elements hard, but under the current circumstances such a radical solution is impossible because of ongoing economic difficulties.

In essence, he admitted that government is not capable of controlling society as tightly as it wishes (or as it used to in the good old days of Kim Il-sung’s ultra-Stalinist rule): “Those ideological perverts are no longer counted as our people. Why are we not able to strike [them]? We are not able to strike them because we are not able to provide rations to the entire population.”

So the picture is quite clear. North Korea as depicted by Comrade Chang is a small but proud state that lives under the constant threat of annihilation by brutal enemies, betrayed by money-hungry allies. It fights for a great goal of national unification. There are signs that this goal is getting nearer, but people should not expect too much: life will not become easy any time soon.

Compromise with enemies is impossible since they, especially the Americans, will never change their nature, will never stop dreaming about destroying the small and proud republic led by the Beloved General. However, the country has finally developed military means that make all enemies’ schemes powerless. This project required great sacrifice, but the people who died during famine were in essence soldiers: their deaths saved many more lives.

There are internal problems in this society, largely because the government lacks resources to make sure things move smoothly (and it is assumed that government should be ultimately responsible for everything). However, these problems should not distort the larger view of ongoing heroic struggle and new victories.

Dr Andrei Lankov is an associate professor in Kookmin University, Seoul, and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacifica and Asian Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.


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