By Aidan Foster-Carter
September 11, 2003
Say what you will about North Korea, it sure knows how to put on a show. In the world’s last remaining hardline communist state, “mass games” are the ultimate collective art form.
Thousands of kids ranged along one side of a huge stadium, quick-shuffling big colored cards. Images flash up: heroic soldiers, rich cornfields, busy factories, the Leader, militant slogans, the Leader again.
It’s an epic performance, but it’s more than that. Government-organized spectacles with casts of thousands have long been the mark of dictatorships. Control the movements and you control the message. And North Korea has much need to control that message.
The kids in the parades are the lucky ones. Living in Pyongyang, North Korea’s showpiece capital — itself a kind of performance, in marble and concrete — is a privilege. This is the elite, yet they’re visibly smaller than their siblings in Seoul.
Forty-story skyscrapers may look fancy, but not when you have to take the stairs, as power outages have stopped the elevator and the water. On night sky maps, North Korea is a black hole between the bright lights of China and South Korea. Only Pyongyang is a faint glimmer.
Mansudae Hall, where the Supreme People’s Assembly meets — for all of one day per year — is like a theater auditorium, facing a gleaming white statue of the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung, father of Kim Jong Il. Members say yes, right on cue. More choreography. Elections, too, are orchestrated. On August 3, 2003, 99.5 percent of North Korean electors — all except those abroad or at sea — turned out, and voted 100 percent for a single list of candidates.
Outside the capital, it’s far worse. The Chinese city of Dandong, itself hardly LA, faces North Korea across the Yalu River. On the opposite bank lies a city, Sinuiju — but none of the normal signs of urban life. No bustling crowds, no noise, no factory smoke; just a few rusty boats.
North Korea’s northern industrial heartland, which 30 years ago delivered a modest prosperity (along with the armaments that were always its prime raison d’etre), has all but closed down. Most of its shuttered factories have been cannibalized for scrap. In Sinuiju, even the copper cable that lit up the Great Leader’s statue got stolen. That thief was executed.
The golden corn shown on billboards and in the mass games is misleading, too. North Korea’s mountains are no good for growing grain, but who would dare defy the Leader? In 1995, floods swept away hillside soils. Famine followed, on a scale that beggars belief. Andrew Natsios — now head of the U.S. Agency for International Development — wrote a book on this: he reckons a staggering 3 million of North Korea’s 24 million people may have died. The regime admits to 250,000. North Korea still relies on foreign food aid to feed those who remain — much of it surplus U.S. corn, ironically.
The contradictions roll on. This year, Pyongyang staged celebrations for the golden jubilee of what North Korea calls its “great victory” in the Korean War. Some victory. Four million died, cities and factories were bombed to smithereens, napalm burned down the forests. After three years, the border had hardly moved. If China hadn’t come in to save Kim Il Sung’s neck — a debt rarely acknowledged in Pyongyang now, to Beijing’s chagrin — there’d be no North Korea today.
But there is. Against all odds and most predictions, the collapse of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe left North Korea still standing — if deeply stricken, like Cuba, by the loss of Soviet aid. Nor, despite much urging, have the Kims followed China or Vietnam down the Asian road to market communism and prosperity. Instead, North Korea just keeps on keeping on. Factories, food, an economy: who needs them? The show’s the thing — and the military, of course. What few resources remain go to missile and nuclear plants. North Korea also makes money — fake U.S. $100 bills, top quality — and trafficks drugs. A rogue state, par excellence.
What to do? Clinton offered fuel oil for a shutdown of North Korea’s nuclear reactors, but Kim Jong Il cheated. Bush took a tougher line. Japan fears missiles and is angry over North Korean kidnappings of its citizens (yes, they’ve done that, too). South Korea wishes it would all go away, but is opening cross-border routes despite the nuclear crisis. China and Russia are fed up with their maverick one-time protege, who attacked recent six-party talks in Beijing as a “stage show.” Now the fear is that North Korea may test a bomb. It’s hard to see how this ends.
With no Internet access and fixed-dial radios, the mass game performers know little of this wider world. Yet they can benchmark their own lives, and see things are pretty much in free fall. The old social contract is bust beyond fixing.
Before, a totalitarian regime claimed you body and soul, but at least it fed you. Not any more. A once proud health system is in ruins. School attendance is falling. Markets have sprung up, but only this year were they at last acknowledged. Self-reliance has long been a watchword, but it was never meant to be like this: everyone scrabbling for himself, the worst of all worlds.
Like the ANIMAL HOUSE band that parades into the wall — and keeps on marching and playing, ever more raggedly — North Korea goose-steps on. Will its citizens never quit the set or demand a new script? Until or unless they do, North Korea’s show goes on.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, UK. His interest in North Korea, which he has visited twice, dates back to 1968. For the last decade he has been a full-time Korea analyst, serving a wide range of academic and policy-oriented audiences in the UK, Europe, the US and Asia. He writes on North Korea for The Economist Intelligence Unit, Oxford Analytica, Asia Intelligence, and New Nations, among others; comments regularly for the BBC and other media; and writes a regular “Pyongyang Watch” column for Asia Times Online.