In the 10 February edition of the New York Review of Books, Nick Kristof reviews two recent books about North Korea: Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s) and Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies by Victor D. Cha and David C. Kang (Columbia University Press).
Kristof captures at least two interesting ironies:
Americans routinely try to increase the country’s isolation by trying to cut off its few links to the outside world, even though this only increases the longevity of the regime. [This, of course, is exactly why the Kim dynasty tries to keep its subjects isolated.]
For example, Western journalists and commentators have periodically written exposés about North Korean labor camps on Russian territory in Siberia. These are typically logging camps or occasionally mines where North Korean laborers, under North Korean supervision, work for negligible wages, without any freedom to engage in political activity, under constant guard so that they cannot escape. Westerners have assumed that the workers are slave laborers forced to toil in the grim conditions of Siberia, and they have demanded that Russia crack down on such abuses.
The articles seemed persuasive to me. But in fact, Martin writes, the laborers were not forced to go to Russia but went willingly:
Indeed, they had competed fiercely, using bribes and any other means available, to exert enough influence on North Korean officials to get themselves on the list. They saw going to Russia as their tickets to wealth otherwise almost unimaginable by North Korean standards. The work was approximately as arduous as what they would have experienced back at home. The big difference besides huge salary increases was that it was possible to leave the camps occasionally and interact with Russians and ethnic Koreans and Chinese in nearby communities. Many loggers were transformed by experiencing Russia’s relatively liberalized atmosphere.
Martin cites interviews with defectors like Chang Ki Hong, who said that the average income in North Korea was about sixty won a month, but that in Russia he got nine hundred won a month. The thousands of North Korean workers in the camps were all under North Korean supervision and were not permitted to leave the restricted area without a pass but they did get to see something of the country. But those allowed to work in the camps were transformed by the experience. “Until I got to the Soviet Union, I believed in the regime,” Chang Ki Hong said.
But when I got to the Soviet Union and started meeting people there, I realized there must be something wrong back home. It was after I had been there about six months that my mentality started to change. We are taught that the whole world worships Kim Il Sung. I met Russians who made fun of this Kim worship, and then I realized that he was not in fact worshipped by the whole world.
Ultimately, Chang defected from the work camp, as did others among these laborers in Russia. But partly because of pressure from Western human rights activists, and partly because of Russia’s 1998 economic crisis, almost all of those North Korean laborers have since been sent home—a loss, it would seem, for human rights.
Shades of blackbirding (PDF) in the South Pacific! Now compare the role of missionaries in the South Pacific, or the relative success of Christian missionaries in Japan and Korea.
The evidence suggests that Kim Il Sung was a genuine nationalist hero and guerrilla leader, albeit not nearly so heroic as the later hagiographers would suggest, since his group’s attacks on the Japanese were not decisive in the war.
More remarkable, it turns out, Kim’s father was a Christian. Korea was fertile ground for Christianity in the early twentieth century, partly because Christianity was a way to quietly express defiance of the Japanese colonial rulers who had formally annexed the country in 1910. Kim’s father attended a school founded by missionaries, and later attended church regularly; he was also a church organist. He taught Kim Il Sung to be an organist as well, and the boy attended church throughout his teens. “I, too, was interested in church,” he once wrote, but later “I became tired of the tedious religious ceremony and the monotonous preaching of the minister, so I seldom went,” although he acknowledged receiving “a great deal of humanitarian assistance from Christians.” Still, after taking power, Kim completely wiped out Christianity from his country, keeping a couple of churches for show but staffing them with actors and actresses to impress foreign visitors with his tolerance.
Ironically, in view of his ideological extremism in later life, Kim was initially accused by other guerrillas of being a “rightist deviationist,” and he complained that some guerrillas were too ideological and not pragmatic enough. Yet Kim genuinely did fight hard against the Japanese at a time when many Koreans (including many future South Korean officials) were quislings of the hated occupiers. Those nationalistic credentials gave Kim Il Sung an authenticity and moral authority among Koreans that leaders in the South lacked, and that is one reason why many ethnic Koreans in Japan (even those from the southern half of Korea) have sided with North Korea rather than with South Korea. They weren’t Communists; they were nationalists. Some moved to North Korea in the 1960s, thus ruining their own lives and those of their families.
via The Marmot