The Impossible State: North Korea Past and Future by Victor Cha Ecco, 2012

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden Viking, 2012

The central focus of US policy towards North Korea over the past two decades has been Pyongyang’s attempt, which has succeeded, to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, and its proliferation of weapons technology to other rogue states such as Iran and Syria. Much less attention has been paid by US policymakers to the internal nature of North Korea.

One exception was President George W. Bush, who was deeply moved by reading a memoir of a former prison camp inmate, Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. In 2005 Bush instructed his cabinet that they should all read this book, and he made human rights a part of his stated policy on North Korea. However, Bush has been the exception.

North Korea internally is perhaps the worst place on earth. So argues Georgetown University professor Victor Cha in his excellent book The Impossible State. Though it covers a range of issues central to US foreign policy, including the nuclear question, one chapter of Cha’s book gives a succinct analysis of the abominable conditions of life in the world’s last remaining totalitarian communist state.

At the top of the North Korean political pyramid sits the Kim family tyrant: first the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, succeeded by his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, and finally the grandson Kim Jong-un. The leader is treated as a deity and his proclamations considered the products of great genius.

Beneath the tyrant, North Korean society is divided up by the songbun system into three main social categories: the loyal, the waverers, and the hostile. The loyal are the elites of the Korean Workers Party, the military officers, and the security police, who have access to better food, housing, and education than the rest of the population. The waverer category consists of the majority of peasants and workers. The hostile category consists of former collaborators with the Japanese colonial bureaucracy, former landowners, businessmen, and the families of defectors. They live under the worst economic conditions and deprived of rights to adequate food, housing and university education. Every Korean is defined by social category, which determines access to social goods and services. It is not just one’s own actions, but also the behaviour of one’s family or ancestors which determines which social category one is in. Guilt by association is an important operating principle of the regime.

The whole social structure is upheld by ruthless force and terror, with informers denouncing real or invented crimes to the regime in order to advance their status. Underpinning it is a network of forced labour prison camps, the number of inmates of which is uncertain, but Cha estimates they hold between 200,000 and 300,000 prisoners, and that one million people have already died in these camps. One can be arrested and imprisoned for the most trivial acts considered subversive by the regime, such as being heard singing South Korean popular music, or watching pirated tapes of South Korean soap operas. One can also be arrested for one’s social background or the behaviour of one’s relatives. There is no judicial process involved. One is guilty as charged. Prison authorities can and do beat, torture, rape, and kill inmates as they wish. The North Korean gulag is the most brutal form of slavery.

There are two types of camp: “re-education zones” where inmates who learn and memorise the works of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader can possibly be released after some years, though after release they are always kept under surveillance by the state’s intelligence services; and “total control zones” where prisoners are never released, and are expected to die at an early age from starvation, disease, beatings, or execution. Camps are surrounded by barbed wire and electrified fences, with intermittent armed guard towers manned by soldiers with automatic weapons. Attempting to escape from a camp is punishable by death.

Although the roots of North Korea’s totalitarian state are to be found in the system created in the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin, the Kim dynasty has ratcheted up the level of oppression to exceed even Stalin’s.

The nature of the North Korean regime can best be grasped by the memoirs of survivors of the prison camp system. One has recently been provided by Blaine Harden’s searing account of the life of Shin Donghyuk, the only person to have ever escaped from a North Korean prison camp. It should be compulsory reading for US President Barack Obama and his cabinet.

Shin was born in a “total control zone” camp, where the overriding issue was finding enough food to live on and avoiding beatings by the camp authorities. Prison rations were not enough to survive on, so catching rats, snakes, frogs and insects became an obsession for all inmates.

Shin was born to parents who conceived him in an arranged “reward” marriage that was determined by the camp authorities. He knew of no world outside the camp and his parents never talked about one. Shin never felt any love for his parents and they showed no love for him. In fact love was an alien concept to the boy. So too was friendship. In the camp, one’s outlook and attitudes were formed by the lurking threat of starvation. As a result the impulse was to inform on one’s parents as well as one’s schoolmates or fellow workers, in return for which one could hope to receive better food rations. Informing was not merely encouraged by the authorities, it was officially mandatory. To not inform when one knew of a “crime” having been, or about to be, committed by a relative or associate was punishable, sometimes by death.

The most shocking scene in the book is Shin’s witnessing of the public execution, by hanging, of his mother, and by shooting, of his elder brother. They had been planning to attempt to escape the camp. Even more shocking is the revelation that their plans were exposed by Shin himself. He resented his mother and brother, and felt that by informing on them, his life situation could be improved. However, the school superintendent attempted to take the credit for Shin’s report. As a result, Shin was arrested, imprisoned in a tiny underground cell, and tortured for days for failing to inform on his mother and brother.

Eventually Shin plotted his own escape from the camp with another inmate. How the two expected to penetrate the electrified fence is not clear. But Shin’s luck was that his fellow inmate reached the fence first, was killed by the electric current, but brought down enough of the wire to create an opening and Shin was able to run over the corpse while receiving an electric shock that injured but did not kill him. After weeks of travelling by truck and rail in the northern regions of his country, Shin was able to make it to China, and after six months there was able to find asylum in the South Korean consulate in Shanghai, and was later flown to South Korea. He eventually received a US visa, where he resolved to become a human rights activist.

Shin was deeply traumatised by his camp experience only after he was able to compare it with life in the rest of the world, and as he slowly acquired feelings of trust and even affection towards others. Eventually he acquired profound feelings of guilt for having betrayed his mother. One of my conclusions from this book is that North Korea’s regime has created a materially and culturally deprived society in which the majority of the population is physically and mentally retarded.

There is no possible justification for the continuing existence of the North Korean totalitarian state. However there have been four factors which have militated against the overthrow of the regime prior to this point. The first is that the North Korean people, subject to the most pervasive system of repression the world has ever seen, are themselves incapable of doing it. The second is the fact that a majority of South Koreans are driven by material and status ambitions, and are indifferent to the fate of their fellow countrymen in the north. They are unwilling to pay the economic, let alone the military price, of overthrowing the North Korean regime and reunifying the country under a democratic government. The third factor has been the attitude of China. Though it does not necessarily like the unpredictable Kim family dynasty, China does not want to see a democratic, pro-Western, US-aligned state on its border.

The final and most important factor in preventing the overthrow of the North Korean regime has been the fact that North Korea holds the South Korean capital, Seoul, hostage. Located only 35 miles south of the Demilitarised Zone, Seoul is within range of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces buried in mountain caves just beyond the DMZ. In any conflict between North Korea and South Korea or the US, the North Koreans could make good on their threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”.

The concept of economic reform, on the model of China, has so far been rejected by the regime. Tragically, unless and until North Korea undertakes an action that directly threatens the security of the United States, or perhaps Japan, the North Korean regime is here to stay.