North Korea—the World’s Last Stalinist Regime

November 1999. Weighed down by jet lag and four hours of interviewing, I let myself be driven around in silence. Kang Chol-hwan slips his favorite CD into the car stereo. “La Paloma” comes on, then “Nathalie,” played to the melody of “Yeux noirs.” He turns it up a notch. The music flowing from the two black speakers seems to inspire him. The audio system in his car must have cost him plenty; the sound quality is superb. I watch him smile and smoothly shift gears, mindful of not breaking the spell.

Before I know it we’re in Apkujong, the neighborhood where adolescents with too much money stroll into Gucci’s and Lacroix.

Red light.

Night has fallen by the time we pass Ciné House and The Muses, the fine restaurant where patrons once dined by candlelight, regaled by live operetta. I wonder why it’s closed down. Kang Chol-hwan slowly accelerates as we head up toward the Amiga Hotel. The apartment of our interpreter, Song Okyung, is only a few hundred yards away.

We’re in Seoul, Korea’s historic capital of 14 million inhabitants. Kang Chol-hwan has an e-mail account; he surfs the Internet; he skis; he worries about his Hyundai stocks. Kang Chol-hwan speaks Korean. He writes Korean using han’gul, a twenty-four-letter alphabet of ten vowels and fourteen consonants invented five centuries ago by King Se-jong.

In a word, he’s Korean. Yet he’s not from here. He comes from another country, one that’s also called Korea, but where no one drives Daewoos. No one has a stereo in their car. In the countryside, oxen draw pushcarts. There’s no Internet. No glossy magazines with pictures of gorgeous girls. No newspapers with different points of view. No chance to choose between the ten or twenty available radio signals, because the dial is permanently set to the official government station. One government channel on the television. To move around the country, a citizen first needs to get permission from the Party, then from the head of his or her work unit.

Kang Chol-hwan comes from the North, meaning north of the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. The zone—four and a half miles wide and 150 miles long—outlines an enormous wound running through the heart of the Korean peninsula. Its two edges are lined with more than 300 miles of barbed wire, fencing, and antipersonnel mines, all keeping the country separated from itself.

How can Koreans stand this?

They can’t. They are all more or less sickened by this separation. Imagine this metallic barrier in America: if we take, for example, the thirty-sixth parallel as a boundary line, it would separate Nashville from Memphis and Oklahoma City from Tulsa. Raleigh-Durham and Greensboro–Winston-Salem would be turned into opposing border cities right in the middle of North Carolina.

Only the Germans can fathom the horror of such a rending, of people shot trying to flee, of artificially divided worlds becoming hostile to their core. Yet even between the two Germanys a few points of passage did exist; a few exchanges were possible. Eastern Germans could at least watch Western television broadcasts. In Korea, the separation is absolute: on one side are Koreans; on the other . . . also Koreans. Yet each side keeps to itself. Both countries forbid any crossing. If you have a brother in the North, you won’t hear from him. If you live here and your mother lives there, you would do well to forget about her for the time being. But don’t worry: the demilitarized zone probably has more soldiers per square foot than anywhere on the planet.

The states that lay down the law on each side of this rupture were created in 1948. After a colonial period that lasted for a generation—from 1910 to 1945—and ended when Imperial Japan crumbled under America’s atom bombs, Korea, much to the dismay of its citizens, was split in two. Its north was occupied by Soviet troops, the south by Americans.

Split is perhaps not the right word. Initially it was a matter of a double administration, a provisional guardianship designed to last until elections could be organized under the aegis of the United Nations. But elections weren’t held. They were never held. The rival administrations clashed, over which parties should be allowed to present themselves, over election dates, over the number of elected representatives. The disputes and delays served Stalin well, for he had no intention of withdrawing quickly. He was training a cadre of submissive political leaders in the north, building up an army, and organizing a well-publicized movement for agrarian reform by setting the poorest peasants against their landlords and rousing the support of numerous leftist parties around the world. Stalin’s men had hardly undertaken to effect agrarian reform, when the hour for collectivization was ripe.

All this time the United Nations was growing impatient. Meetings gave birth to conferences, accusatory communiqués to bittersweet responses—but 1945 ended without action, then 1946, too. A wave of refugees flowed from the northern to the southern zones. By 1947, it had became harder to flee. The Soviet-American military fraternity that had so recently battled fascism was now a distant memory. The cold war had begun.

The boundary between the two zones gradually became something akin to a border. To its north, “people’s committees” were formed and began drawing the outlines of a new state. In the south, the less enterprising Americans, who had chosen to build up a huge police force rather than a powerful army—as their Soviet rivals had done—were making little effort to create a government in their image, opting instead to leave power in the hands of the same bourgeoisie that had been compromised during occupation by its relations with the Japanese. Although Americans hadn’t any great reforms to trumpet, they did have the backing of the UN, and in the face of Soviet opposition to holding countrywide elections, they organized their own vote in the South. The elections, which were anything but general, left half the National Assembly seats unfilled. The Republic of Korea nevertheless was born. It elected Rhee Syng-man, an upright man who had fought against Japanese occupation, as president of the assembly. This was in August 1948. The response from the North came quickly. The following month, in Pyongyang, the northern zone’s largest city, the Democratic People’s Republic was proclaimed, with Kim Il-sung, a former local guerilla leader who had fought against the Japanese in Manchuria, at its head. Kim Il-sung was presiding over what was already a fullfledged state, rebuilt from roof to baseboard and equipped with a police force and army hefty enough to allow the Soviet army to pull out in the autumn of 1948, thereby depriving the American military presence in the South of its legitimacy. By the end of the following winter, the Americans were out, too.

What follows did not come fully to light until 1994, when Boris Yeltsin opened up the related Soviet archives. Kim Il-sung, it appears, was stamping his feet in impatience. He wanted immediately to throw his army into an assault on the South, which was poorly armed, poorly organized, and suffering under the harshest economic difficulties—not to mention harassed by a northernbacked guerilla movement. Prudent as always, Stalin waited another few months before giving the green light. On June 25, 1950, despite assurances from observers that an attack from the North was almost unthinkable, North Korean tanks broke through the line of demarcation along the thirty-eighth parallel. Seoul fell in three days, as the North Korean army stormed its way down the peninsula, making short work of Rhee Syng-man’s small South Korean army and its several hundred American advisors. North Korea soon controlled 90 percent of the peninsula.

This was the start of the Korean War, a conflict of incredible reversals. The American president, Harry Truman, reacted quickly. Standing before the UN Security Council, he denounced North Korea’s premeditated aggression and pleaded for the young international organization to respond with “all its means.” The UN’s decision was made all the easier by the Soviet Union’s sulky protest to the organization’s admittance of Chiang Kai-shek’s China into the Security Council. On June 27, the UN called on its member nations to lend military assistance to South Korea. On September 15, American forces under the command of General MacArthur landed in the rear of the North Korean army. Caught off guard, Pyongyang’s troops fled or were destroyed. Under the blue-and-white banner of the UN, the American and South Korean troops, joined now by contingents from Turkey, England, France, and the Netherlands, liberated the capital, penetrated the North, took Pyongyang, and made their way up toward the Amnok River. Known to both the Chinese and Americans as the Yalu, the river marked the northwest border between Korea and the People’s Republic of China.

Mao Tse-tung responded by throwing several hundred thousand volunteers into battle. The UN troops suffered heavy losses and were forced to beat a hasty retreat. The seesaw battle again had changed course: Pyongyang was abandoned, UN troops fell below the thirty-eighth parallel, and Seoul was abandoned. After five months of fierce battle, the front stabilized. The scale then gradually began tipping in the other direction: Seoul was recaptured for the second time and the battle line pushed a bit farther north.

On July 27, 1953, three years and one million deaths after Kim Il-sung’s surprise attack and shortly on the heels of Stalin’s death, an armistice was signed in the village of Panmunjom.

The United Nations prevented a takeover, but failed to reunify the country.

One day I met a North Korean soldier who had recently defected to the South and was still recovering from the shock. He asked me, almost pleading, to clear something up for him.

“Who won the Korean War?” he wanted to know. “Here they claim the opposite of what I was told in the North!”

What could I tell him?

Tie game would have been a fair answer, given that the two armies ended up more or less where they started. That would have seemed too flip, however, and the question had been posed in earnest. Should I have said that both sides lost? That’s certainly true if one considers the untold misery caused by the war and the hundreds of thousands who died. Yet such a reply would have ignored the subsequent development of South Korea, which only was made possible by pushing back the Communist forces.

Until it began a process of democratization in 1987, South Korea was effectively run as an authoritarian—and sometimes dictatorial—regime. Since 1960, it nevertheless has presided over an unprecedented economic boom. Thirty years of unflagging effort has lifted South Korea’s economy from Bangladeshi levels to parity with Spain. The packed-earth roads of Seoul, where little girls once sold their hair, have seen the skyline fill with skyscrapers and the streets jam with cars, most painted metallic silver, and almost all equipped with hi-fi stereos and air-conditioning made in Korea. In very little time, South Korea has grown into the world’s seventh industrial power.

During this period, forty kilometers to the north, an ideological and military hedgehog was being formed, sometimes with the patronage of Mao’s China, sometimes with that of Brezhnev’s USSR, but always under the absolute control of one man: Kim Il-sung. His bloody purges in the 1980s cleared the way for the succession of his son, Kim Jong-il, and helped establish the world’s first Communist dynasty.

Political and economic relations between North Korea and the “capitalist” South remained embryonic, while occasional quasimilitary strikes continued to smolder and flare: in 1968, commandos raided the Blue House (the presidential palace in Seoul); in 1981, a delegation of South Korean government officials came under attack while visiting the Burmese capital of Rangoon; in 1987, a (South) Korean Airlines jet exploded in midair; in 1994, there were submarine intrusions and further commando raids; in 1999, it was a sea battle, and so forth.

In North Korea, a country of 22 million, the police survey every aspect of the citizenry’s life. No travel without authorization. No news that’s not vetted first. A single, mandated ideology, exalting self-sufficiency—even when calling for international aid. Extensive prisons and camps scattered throughout the country. Its economy, modeled after Stalin’s Soviet Union—controlled, centralized, collectivized—crumbled in the 1970s and 1980s and collapsed heavily with the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, the reforms in China, and the death in 1994 of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

Famine gradually has spread across the country, and there’s talk of 3 million dead. Today North Korea is a ship in distress, slowly sinking beneath the waves. Thanks to substantial handouts from the international community, the state—which is really just a party—can save the hard currency it should be using to purchase produce on the international market.

North Korea’s leaders prefer to invest their limited resources in the development of sophisticated armaments. Their missiles are sold in Iran and Syria, and their longest-range model soon will have the capacity of reaching the United States. With understandably little desire to see the Korean peninsula destabilize the region, interested powers seek to mollify Kim Jong-il, convinced—though it’s unclear why—that he can be seduced and even persuaded to see the virtues of political democracy and economic liberalism. The recent show put on by Kim Il-sung’s son—who’s a great fan of the movies—in which he appeared smiling and cheerful in his June 12, 2000, summit meeting with Kim Dae-jung, the South Korean president, has done nothing to change the base facts. After the summit, as before, North Korea’s population continues to die of hunger and suffer from a total absence of political freedom. Children are stunted, thousands of young women are sold across the border in China, and the army parades through the streets of Pyongyang, ever ready to protect its fantastical socialist paradise.

A few have managed to flee. Kang Chol-hwan is one of them. He left North Korea in 1992, before the famine reached its peak. He didn’t leave the country to escape the famine, as so many do today, but because having once survived imprisonment in concentration camp number 15, he was in danger of being arrested again, this time for “listening to banned radio.”

Though it reaches a Western audience somewhat late, his testimony represents the first extended account of a young adult’s life in contemporary North Korea. This is the first detailed testimony about a North Korean concentration camp to be published in the West.

I first met Kang Chol-hwan in Seoul shortly after his defection. I was visiting South Korea regularly as part of my work for the International Organization for Human Rights, interviewing renegades about repression in North Korea. Convinced that North Korea had gained as much from its own population’s ignorance of the outside world as from the international public’s ignorance of its crimes and threats against its own population, I suggested to Kang Chol-hwan that he tell the Western world what it was like to live under the rule of Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. He accepted, seeing it as his moral duty to shed light on the horrors of the Pyongyang regime and, above all, its system of concentration camps.

We met five or six times in Seoul, shutting ourselves up in a hotel room and breaking only for lunch and dinner. We communicated by the intermediary of a South Korean academician, a specialist in French literature, whose role was both essential and irreplaceable. Her modesty was equaled only by her effectiveness in helping me understand the intricacies of the country as a whole, as well as North Korea’s particular contempt for human rights.

This book thus results from the efforts of three people, working together as friends, with the common hope of raising international awareness. All those who would deal with North Korea—be they diplomats, politicians, businessmen—should know that their interlocutor is the planet’s last Stalinist regime, a regime that incarcerates between 150,000 and 200,000 people in concentration camps, flouts freedom of conscience, mercilessly clubs its population with pompous, mendacious propaganda, and is responsible for one of the worst famines of the end of the twentieth century. The most fitting term to describe it has already been coined, but I will employ it here again: the regime is ubuesque. Which is to say grotesque and bloody.

Reading this book is a first step toward making the repression in North Korea a major concern for human rights defenders around the world.

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