Thomas Schäfer had the unenviable task of serving as the German Ambassador to North Korea for eight years. His tenure was in two spells, initially from 2007 to 2010 and finally between 2013 to 2018. In his recent book, “From Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un”, Schäfer traces the political trajectory taken by a country known more for its volatility, unpredictability and its leaders’ eccentricities than for mellower economic and socio-political policies. Schäfer begins his book with a thoughtful yet helpless dedication that encapsulates the involuntary plight of the North Korean populace: “For the people of North Korea. They should have a better life.” The nation of North Korea is pickled in Xenophobia and is given over in its entirety to the “Juche” doctrine. For the uninitiated, this doctrine is a relic straight out of the realms of absurdity. As Schäfer reveals, “The consequence of this absurd doctrine is regular warnings against “cultural poisoning” and “spiritual pollution” by foreign countries, the influence of “decadent” and “reactionary” ideologies, and the supposedly corrupting effect of foreign aid and investment. All this is accompanied by the systematic isolation of the population from all foreigners and everything foreign to hide the stark contradiction between state propaganda and North Korea’s backwardness compared to the neighboring countries.”
Despite the shenanigans of such a suffocating regime, Germany did its best to establish lasting and fruitful diplomatic relationships. With the assistance of a few members of the European Union, Germany aimed at moderating the obdurate Korean rule via a policy of “critical engagement.” This policy represented a sincere effort to convince the North Korean politicians about the advantages of international cooperation and the benefits that accrue from according respect for the rule of law. Towards this end, Germany also engaged in a multitude of social, civic and cultural projects. From conceiving “humanitarian aid projects in agriculture, forestry, and the environment, rendering invaluable advice on economic reforms, special economic zones, investment, tourism, and education, to engaging in cultural activities such as the sending of German language teachers, medical training, scholarships, film events, collaborations in the field of music, and support in the restoration of old temples”, Germany adopted a policy of constructive collaboration with North Korea.
However as Schäfer chillingly illustrates, all such efforts amounted to very little as a bunch of absolute hardliners took over the country in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s serious illness (he suffered a stroke) in 2008 and his consequent demise in 2011. As Schäfer informs his readers, North Korea has always found itself uncomfortably situated between the devil and the deep blue sea. On one side of the chasm, there exist the moderates, who even though, unwittingly forced to toe the party line, are in favour of market based reforms and the limited opening up of the economy. On the other end of the continuum function the rabid hardliners. Placing unrelenting emphasis on economic self-sufficiency and protectionism they are against every bit of international cooperation on matters economic, social and political. The revival of the “Chollima Movement”, a work campaign that had been the North Korean equivalent of China’s “Great Leap Forward” in the 1950s, under the claims that North Korea was a “socialist fairyland” right on the threshold of the “ideal society” bears ample testimony to the hardliner’s bent of mind and an utter lack of vision.
Kim Jong Il himself was a bundle of contradictions. Even though an acolyte of dynastic rule and a devout follower of the xenophobic tradition, he was at the same time not averse to welcoming international economic aid and collaboration. This was reflected in the “Six-Party Talks” that concluded on 19th September 2005 between North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the US. The outcome of such a multilateral dialogue was, inter alia, North Korea committing itself to denuclearization. It was a totally different matter altogether that in the very next year (9 October 2006), Pyongyang proceeded to conduct its first nuclear test. But in September 2007, Pyongyang agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in exchange for humanitarian and economic aid, and also to submit a list of all nuclear facilities and programs, and to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to review them on the ground.
However, the ascendancy to power of the rotund and corpulent Kim Jong Un was accompanied by a sudden and spectacular stiffening of reformist attitudes. The years 2009 and 2010 witnessed a troika of deadly incidents on the disputed sea border in the Yellow Sea, all the results of unprovoked aggression by North Korea. “In November 2009, a South Korean warship responded to North Korean shelling and severely damaged the attacking ship. In March 2010, the South Korean frigate “Cheonan” was sunk. Forty-six sailors died. In November 2010, the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong was the target of a North Korean artillery attack. It was the first time since the end of the Korean War that North Korean artillery shelled South Korean territory. Several people were killed, including civilians.”
But is Kim Jong Un actually the baby faced assassin presiding over a regime of sheer terror? Schäfer feels that there are other insidious forces at work, a devious collectorate in whose hands Kim Jong Un is only a pawn. This theory is also vindicated by the proclamations of Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il. Nam, in a piece published in the Japanese newspaper Tokyo Shimbun, ostensibly alleged that his younger half-brother Kim Jong Un was not the true ruler, but merely a “symbol” used by the ruling elite to secure their power. Schäfer also postulates that the very fact that pictures of a corpulent and tired Kim Jong Un are circulated to the public alternating with those of dominating postures are a chilling indication of the fact that nobody is indispensable. This vice like grip of the hardliners might also have been the reason for the crumbling of rare talks between North Korea and United States when Kim and Donald Trump met twice, once in Singapore and again in Hanoi, Vietnam. North Korea’s obstinate demands of reduced US-South Korea military exercises and removal of all sanctions imposed by the international community put paid to any hopes of a meaningful discourse. The militaristic Government has also shut down the Kaesong Industrial Zone, an inter-Korea industrial workplace in addition to closing the tourist zone in the Diamond Mountains. These were two projects in which Kim Jong Il was personally interested. The very fact that Kim Jong Un was forced go against the wishes of his own father’s ‘pet projects’ in spite of his family being glorified as belonging to a divine lineage speaks volumes about the murky power struggles characterizing the North Korean ruling elite. Two almost vaudevillian murders also added grist to the rumour mill.
Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle and Head of State Security was considered to be one of the voices advocating a limited opening up of the economy. “In December of 2013, Jang Song Thaek himself fell victim to a purge. “He was charged with a variety of crimes and publicly executed. By 2015, the number of purged senior officials had steadily increased, according to South Korean findings.” A similar fate befell Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam who was killed by a chemical substance at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017. Paraphrasing Schäfer, “I once asked a well-informed South Korean if he believed it was Kim Jong Un who had had his brother killed. When the South Korean denied it, I asked him, “Who then?” He reflected and then said, “Well, the system.””
Trapped in between this dangerous power struggle is a population that has no voice, is subject to extraordinary repression and is fed with a constant dose of powerful indoctrination. The degree and strength of such propaganda is so psychologically debilitating that people lose all capability of distinguishing truth from fiction. Schäfer makes us realise how fortunate most of us are as children of both beneficent geographies and benevolent governments/democracies. The North Korean citizens “live in constant fear and submission. Even members of the ruling elite do not lead a self-determined life but must repay privileges with special loyalty. As a result, they are often—voluntarily or not—perpetrators and victims at the same time.” Ridiculous regulations usurp into areas such as traders’ gender and age, the opening hours, the product range, and the trading currency. Traders are also forced to be clad in special clothing. Women are forbidden to ride bicycles. Even Providence is not spared from the vicissitudes of the Orwellian propaganda machinery. At a service that Schäfer attended the sermon went like this: “God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are a unity, just as our people form one. If we want the true peace of God, we must unite North and South Korea. That is why we have recently tested a sea-based missile, for which South Korea has criticized us, even though we are doing so to serve peace. … The powers of evil, US and South Korea, are currently preparing a nuclear war of aggression. But with the help of God, we will fend off every attack and, in his name and with his blessing, we will initiate the Great Holy War to unify the fatherland, liberate the entire peninsula, and carry peace to the south. Kim Jong Un will lead us.” A collection bag was then passed around. The foreigners donated; the members of the “congregation” sitting behind them pretended to do so, all using the same, apparently rehearsed hand movements.” Constantly subject to surveillance, the North Koreans are absolutely prohibited from maintaining contacts with foreigners, except where it is absolutely necessary, such as diplomatic interlocutions.
So, is there redemption in sight for the repressed North Koreans. Unfortunately not in the short run, confesses Schäfer. A Confucian society in which life experience and age are given a higher significance than in Western countries, North Korea is also “a callous society in which lies, and deceit are the order of the day and in which many people have become cynical.” Advocating the international community to initiate measures such as opening up of liaison officers and encouraging student cultural exchanges, Schäfer also goads the world to take the human rights issue with North Korea in all earnestness and seriousness. “Even when sanctions are lifted, foreign companies wanting to deal with North Korea should take into account that they will be getting involved with an unjust system. This holds true for trade, investment, and the employment of North Koreans abroad. Foreign employers—whether embassies, non-governmental organizations, or foreign companies —cannot choose their employees; they are assigned to them. All employers must pay the wages to a government agency, which only passes on a small part of it to the employees. North Korea is renting out its largely disenfranchised citizens. Even if such employees earn above-average wages, foreign employers are faced with the question of whether they want to become accomplices in a morally questionable process—regardless of the possible damage to their brands’ image.”
At the end of the day, there is only so much that the international community can do to bring about a munificent change in an oppressive regime. For a collective set that is more obsessed about enhancing nuclear power than embellishing the living standards of its populace, only a miracle is capable of providing the magical impetus that leads to a revolutionary transformation. In the general interest of the helpless and hapless North Korean populace, we can only hope and wish that such a miracle occurs sooner rather than later.