Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A more rosy view of North Korea (from Simon Winchester, via Mick Hartley)

Among the many virtues of Mick Hartley's excellent Culture and Politics blog is that it offers a useful guide to bits of information about the exceptionally isolated bizarro-world of North Korea ... and also about the different varieties of apologists and cheerleaders for North Korea in the west. Not all of them are Stalinists by any means, and most of them would probably not want to live under a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship (with racist, xenophobic, and dynastic-monarchical flourishes) themselves, but many of them seem to think that it probably suits Koreans.

Yesterday Mick Hartley picked up an illuminating expression of this outlook (True to its cultural roots):
You'd expect the Guardian to come up with something stupid on the occasion of the Dear Leader's demise, but it's more of a surprise to find this (£) in the Times today, from Simon Winchester..."Life under the Kims was grim. But at least the North has stayed true to its cultural roots."
Winchester spells that out:
The State’s founder, Kim Il Sung, claimed that all he wanted for North Korea was to be socialist, and to be left alone. In that regard, the national philosophy of self-reliance known in North Korea as “Juche” is little different from India’s Gandhian version known as “swadeshi”. Just let us get on with it, they said, and without interference, please.
To grasp the full absurdity of this encomium, it helps to know something about the concrete reality of "Juche". Yes, "self-reliance" (juche) was a central slogan of the regime established by Kim Il Sung. But in practice the claim of "self-reliance" was a sick joke—or, at best, an optical illusion—since in reality the whole system depended on a steady stream of subsidies from the Soviet Union (and, to a lesser extent, from China). Even with those subsidies, economic development in North Korea ground to a halt as early as the 1970s and probably began to regress. Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the subsidies dried up. And since the North Korean regime refused to respond with any constructive reforms or policy adjustments, the result was economic catastrophe for ordinary people, at least a million of whom died of famine during the 1990s (despite massive food aid from the outside world, much of which seems to have been diverted to the military, bureaucratic officialdom, and the elite). Paranoid, xenophobic, and truculent self-isolation, yes; self-reliance, no.

Also, it's a little misleading to say that Kim Il Sung asked only for North Korea "to be left alone". He threatened continually to re-invade the South, and undoubtedly would have tried it if there hadn't been a US military guarantee for South Korea.

If Kim Il Sung had succeeded in bringing the whole country under his rule, then perhaps South Koreans would now share the same blessings enjoyed by North Koreans. Winchester continues:
India’s attempt to go it alone failed. So, it seems, has Burma’s. Perhaps inevitably, North Korea’s attempt appears to be tottering. But seeing how South Korea has turned out — its Koreanness utterly submerged in neon, hip-hop and every imaginable American influence, a romantic can allow himself a small measure of melancholy: North Korea, for all its faults, is undeniably still Korea, a place uniquely representative of an ancient and rather remarkable Asian culture. And that, in a world otherwise rendered so bland, is perhaps no bad thing.
Mick Hartley's observations are on-target:
Better a starving slave state, it seems, than this ghastly modern Americanised culture.

Conservative romanticism raised to a truly idiotic level.
Hard to disagree.

=> In the "Comments" thread following Mick Hartley's post, Martin Adamson adds his own two cents:
And it's not even remotely true on its own terms. The architecture of Pyongyang is Moscow 1952. The mass displays are China 1964. Painting is Soviet Academy 1936. Music is Gang of Four Operas 1974. Dress is Bucharest 1988 etc etc.
Ah, tradition ...

—Jeff Weintraub