Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The North Korean Nightmare

Azmi Bishara ponders the horrors that have been inflicted on the people of North Korea

The wild shouting and gesticulation the North Korean newscaster went through as she announced her country's testing of a nuclear bomb reminds one of the hysterical wailing that accompanied the late Kim Il-Sung to his grave. Was it an act or were those real tears? Were the tears triggered by the occasion or did the occasion merely offer the opportunity to vent her personal misery? Was the newscaster such a consummate actress that she was carried away by her role or is it more the case of a person thinking that as long as one has to spend all of one's adult life performing a role, with no hope of ever changing it, then you might as well act to the best of your ability? The human psyche offers endless possibilities.

What is certain is that there was nothing in the North Korean announcement to merit jubilation, not even the kind of Third World bravado that makes some rejoice at the fact that Pakistan has the bomb. Whatever the feelings of despair or frustration that might make people long for displays of independence in the face of the US they pale next to the revulsion we should feel for the North Korean regime.

It is only madness of the sort that afflicts Bush, madness that screams I'm crazy so you'd better watch out, and which has conveyed itself to Ahmadinejad via the Europeans, that can place North Korea in the same basket as Iran and Iraq and call them the "axis of evil". These regimes have absolutely nothing in common, neither in terms of the levels of repression, nor the types of economic and social controls they use to perpetuate themselves. There is a difference between the authoritarian state and the totalitarian state, between having prisons and turning the whole country into a prison, between a theocratic state and a state that has turned atheism into a fully-fledged religion complete with its own rites and rituals. Only Bush and Hollywood could lump Islam, Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hizbullah into a single basket and then place Iran, North Korea and Saddam's Iraq side by side along an axis of evil. Syria was not an original member of the confederacy.

North Korea's official ideology is Juche (self- reliance), a political philosophy initially produced and directed by Kim Il-Sung, the self-appointed sage, inspirational leader, father of the people and national god. The tenets of this philosophy have been taken to their logical conclusion by Il-Sung's son, the weird looking and super eccentric Kim Yong-il, since his appointment as the ruling Communist Party's secretary of cultural indoctrination and propaganda. It was at the hands of this father- and-son duo that the ideological cover for perpetuating a state of poverty coalesced as they engineered the tragic transformation of their country, severing their people from the rest of their countrymen, separating them from their closest relatives by a border that not even a rat can cross. They have turned their country into a huge concentration camp. It has become a kind of electrified chicken coop, run to the beat of incessant martial music, where the uniformed citizens are issued orders to move from one city to another, forced into training to perform athletic feats, subjected to compulsory birth control, rented out as unpaid labour in exchange for hard currency from countries such as Russia or else pressed into corvee labour in North Korea itself. This is a country that killed 10 per cent of its own population -- an estimated two and a half million people -- in the space of four years. North Korea boasts the third largest death toll from starvation in modern history, having been surpassed only by Russia and China. This achievement, moreover, is not the result of drought, famine or other natural catastrophes but rather of experiments in economic planning conducted on farmers and agriculture. We do not know that much about North Korea, but what we do is sufficient to rank it somewhere between Pol Pot's Cambodia and Stalinist Russia at its worst.

The president of North Korea is not a president in the ordinary sense; in fact, he doesn't even go by the name of president but by a title that translates as Dear Leader. In practical terms he is treated as a demigod. In advancing his cult official propaganda falsified the place and date of his birth. Instead of 1941 and a remote Siberian village where his father lived in exile he was officially born a in 1942 on top of the highest mountain in North Korea. The narrative also has it that a previously unknown star sparkled in the firmament at the moment of his birth and a double rainbow appeared in the sky. All that was missing was a visit by three wise men.

After considerable searching, I found an official North Korean website which offered a description of Mount Paektu, on the ethereal heights of which Yong-il had his miraculous birth. The mountain has long been sacred to the Koreans, a symbol of youth, might and immortality. The official version, however, runs thus: "The highest point in Korea, its peak is covered with snow year around and it is regarded by the Korean people as their most sacred mountain because of its association with the revolutionary activity of President Kim Il-Sung and because it was honoured by the birth at its summit of the Leader Kim Yong-il." What an honour it must be for a mountain to have seen a fictitious birth on its peak.

Thanks to the application of a perversely literal interpretation of a version of Marxist Leninism, a pre-distorted import from China and Russia and superimposed on an Asian dictatorship prone to militaristic regimentation, the people of South Korea have been transformed into work battalions and military regiments in one of the largest, and the poorest, armies of the world. Equality has been reduced to identical daily routine, identical dress bearing the picture of the Dear Leader on the chest, identical beliefs and attitudes and a pace of life so monotonously predictable as to rob life of all meaning. It is totalitarianism gone wild. This is a far cry from secularism, which keeps the private realm wide open to religious diversity; it is a system of lockstep conformism in which religion has been replaced by hero worship, religious rituals by communist party rites and emblems and patriotism by abject allegiance to the leader. Worldly political religions are ephemeral phenomena. After they pass societies are left entirely hollow, with no moral reference points and no traditional structures, such as the family, to fall back on. They have all been destroyed by the pseudo-religion's uncontested priests-cum-gods who in their vainglory have reduced their people to slaves, to a commercial commodity.

The psychological profiles of Yong-il vary. He has been described as perverted, demented, a sexual degenerate and hedonist who indulges in the bodily pleasures in the luxury palaces that are sealed off to his people and known only to his personal guards, nurses and mistresses. Other more sympathetic reports refer to him as the prisoner of a system that he inherited and is unable to alter without the system collapsing. The current situation in the country certainly lends some credence to the second view.

Some heads of state have remarked on how impressed they were by his ability to hold a coherent conversation, as though this talent for talk absolves him of the horrors he has perpetuated upon his people. If anything such observations reflect poorly on the state of international diplomacy. He can't be that bad, some president or minister thinks, if he's a connoisseur of wine and likes his cognac. The fact that he can comment at length about some film or other (he is said to be an avid film buff) and can express cogent views on classical music is insufficient to declassify him as someone off their rocker and turn him into an intelligent, really a nice guy after all. Since when has a discriminating taste for cognac or a passion for music so deep that he composed six operettas in two years, or so his people are told, become the defining characteristics of a competent head of state?

All dictatorships, sultanates and other authoritarian regimes have availed themselves of their own instruments of domination and control in addition to the ones that have become so widespread that no one can claim a patent. What sets the North Korean system apart and visits such a tragedy upon its people is that it uses all available instruments at once and to their fullest capacity. It has a propaganda machine that has sealed off the country entirely from all other sources of information and that constantly drums home the message that the country is a symbol of progress, even as mass starvation forced it to appeal to UN relief agencies. It has 200,000 political detention centres according to the estimates of human rights agencies and a per capita income lower than that of the occupied West Bank. Meanwhile it is holding the world at gunpoint, using every form of weapon, including the biological and the nuclear, to demand it hand over food and money with no strings attached since those strings would be an affront to the state philosophy of self- reliance.

The greatest danger North Korea poses, however, is to its own people. This enormous prison is crushing its 22 million inmates, producing a human catastrophe of greater proportion than that which would be inflicted by the nuclear weapons it is using to terrorise the world.

Due to strategic concerns, including the unpredictable madness of Yong-il and the fact that it would be the first to be hit by a war with its northern neighbour, South Korea's policy has been to handle North Korea with kid gloves and it is prevailing upon the West to do the same in the belief that maybe North Korea can be changed by subtly inducing it to open up. Apparently the logic is to play along with the madman so he doesn't go berserk.

North Korea, for its part, is engaged in nuclear blackmail not only to keep others from meddling in its domestic affairs and maintain the status quo but also to coerce its wealthy neighbours into helping preserve regional stability by handing over financial aid.

It is a situation that gives rise to some existential questions that go beyond North Korea to include the meaning and conduct of politics as a whole. Why is it, for example, that governments seem to behave on the international stage as though they are autonomous individuals indifferent to the lives of the real individuals they are meant to represent but who are instead brainwashed, intimidated, impoverished and starved, sometimes psychologically by creating a desperate want for consumer goods, at other times controlled, regimented and reduced to something less than human? An equally if not more horrifying question pertains to the mental stability of governments that possess nuclear weapons.

Something is hovering over us like a spectre and we are determined to pretend it does not exist. Nuclear weapons have been used only twice in history. The power that used them had no strategic reason to do so. It cannot claim it did so as an act of desperation for it was on the offensive and victory was in reach. Nor was it a renegade state whose insane leader had his finger on the button. It was a democratic state -- the democratic state par excellence according to some -- and its leader was the symbol of the rational president, a president whose popularity has yet to be surpassed.

When the US dropped atom bombs on two peaceful Japanese cities at the end of a war that everyone knew it was soon to win it either wanted to avenge itself for Pearl Harbor and hasten victory, or to send a message to the other major victor of the war, the Soviet Union. The madness is that the decision was taken so coolly. Factor out the desire for revenge and it was entirely calculated in terms of profit and loss, as one might calculate an endgame in chess. The tragic cost in innocent human lives did not figure.

No nuclear weapon has been used since this madness was unleashed against Japanese civilians. This is not because sanity has come to prevail in modern times, or because of democracy, or because democracies are more rational than dictatorships when they go to war. The reason is that the monopoly on nuclear weapons was broken and allowed for a balance of terror. If history tells us anything it is that there is a greater risk to mankind when one nation possesses nuclear weapons than when two rival nations possess them. This lesson, I believe, applies to the Middle East, where Israel's monopoly of the nuclear weapon constitutes a greater threat than that which would exist if there were a balance. Of course we would all be better off if no one possessed such weapons, though that would mean that rationality had prevailed. It would be unwise to hold your breath and wait for that to happen.