Saturday, 24 August 2013

Korea - Something to Envy?

I've just finished reading Barbara Demick's book Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea (2010).  It's a fascinating read and I feel that this book has given me a real insight into what has happened on the Korean peninsula, especially North Korea, in the past 60 years.  I'm also left wondering, as so many have been left wondering before me, how the North Korean regime has managed to hold on to power for so long?

I wanted to share three things I learned from Demick's book, that I think are important or resonate with places I've blogged about in the past.

1. The Famine

View from the Juche Tower by Marcelo Druck
I'd normally consider myself to be quite well up on world affairs but, somehow, I seem to have completely missed the fact that there was a major famine in North Korea, between 1994 and 1998.  True, it was a time in my life when I was bit disengaged from the bigger picture, mostly concentrating on my final exams at university and my first attempts at travelling and living abroad. 

Or perhaps I'm not the only one who missed this?  Perhaps it wasn't really known in the West at the time, due to the secrecy surround the hermitic People's Democratic Republic?  It's estimated that anything up to 3.5 million people died during the Famine (Demick puts the figure between 600,000 and 2 million) and I find it astounding that this could happen, in the closing decade of the 20th century, in a country surrounded by some of the most prosperous nations on Earth!

2. The North Korean Army

Portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il by Marcelo Druck
I also learned that North Korea, which has a similar population to Ghana and less than half the population of the UK, has the fourth largest army in the world!  There are 1.1 million people actively serving in the Korean People's Army, out of a total population of around 25 million people.  Unbelievably, North Korea has a larger army than Russia and is only surpassed in size by the new Superpowers; China, the United States and India. 

If you also count reserves and paramilitary forces, then North Korea has the biggest army in the world, almost 9.5 million people!  Perhaps this explains why the regime has stayed in power for so long?  Demick also explains North Korea's Songun or military-first policy, which prioritises the People's Army, in terms of resources and food supplies.  It has to be said that South Korea is also an incredibly militarised society, for its size.  With a population similar to England, South Korea's army is three times the size of the British army.

3. Mongolia's soft spot for religious dissenters?

Juche Tower by Marcelo Druck
Much of Demick's research is backed up by real-life stories of North Koreans who defected to South Korea and I found it interesting to read about the Mongolian route to South Korea.  The only way out of North Korea is across the northern border to China - those who can afford it organise fake passports that will get them on flights from Harbin and Beijing to Seoul.  For those with limited resources, fleeing to Mongolia is the best, albeit, more perilous option.

I noticed that the stories about defectors via Mongolia seemed to mostly involve North Koreans who were practising, or claiming to practise Christianity and it reminded me of my previous blogging about Mongolia, when I learned about the 'loss of religion' in Mongolia and how this has impacted on the national psyche.  Perhaps the Mongolians have something of a soft spot for the religious refugees fleeing North Korea?

Nothing to Envy

The title of Demick's book is from a popular slogan used by the establishment in North Korea.  She uses this slogan ironically - it should mean 'North Korea has nothing to envy in the rest of the world', but it could also mean 'The rest of the world has nothing to envy in North Korea' - also the fact that 'envy' is suggested at all, reveals that it's probably the greatest fear that the North Korean regime has - ie. that it's people will finally succumb to the temptations of the decadent capitalist world around them. 

I've just started reading another great book - The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (2013) by Victor Cha and he also makes a reference to this slogan.  I'm not sure if I'll have time to finish Cha's book, before my month (or so) with Korea runs out, which is a pity, as I'm already getting quite involved in his interpretation of recent events. 

Who knows what the future holds for Korea - every political analyst and commenter seems to have underestimated the power of the North Korean state and we've been led to believe that the People's Democratic Republic could fall any day now, except it never does!

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the photography of flickr member mardruck - aka Marcelo Druck.  Marcelo has taken some really beautiful photos in Korea and North East Asia - these photos are from the set Pyongyang - thanks Marcelo for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons License. 
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