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Blind Loyalty Based on Mythical Self-Reliance

North Koreans may have been trained to be tough, but the socialist nation has always depended on the aid of China and others.

October 12, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Faced with a starving population, an economy that is a shambles and longtime Communist allies tripping over themselves to embrace free-market capitalism, North Korea's leadership long ago turned weakness into strength by steeling its population for permanent war.

The years of spadework have paid off, experts say. With tighter restrictions on oil, food and other goods a near-certainty after Monday's announced nuclear test, Pyongyang seems confident that its long-suffering people -- battered by famine, floods and economic mismanagement -- will bow their heads and continue to suffer in silence. This is an important surety in the regime's decision to detonate an apparent nuclear device, a major gamble.

Many of the intimidation tactics employed in North Korea to keep its population in line are common to totalitarian regimes elsewhere. But North Korea has taken them to the extreme, analysts say, maintaining a tighter lid on its society than East Germany did in its darkest days.

For decades, North Korea has subjected its population to a propaganda assault centered around the concept of juche, roughly translated as "self-reliance." In recent years, scholars say, the term has also come to connote unquestioned trust in the "living god" leadership of national founder Kim Il Sung and his son, current ruler Kim Jong Il.

This link between sacrifice, national glory and the neardivine leadership is evident in the smallest details. During a tour of Pyongyang's Tower of the Juche Idea last year, guide Park Gyong Nam explained that the 560-foot-high monument was built in 1982, the year of the 70th birthday of Kim Il Sung, using more than 25,000 granite blocks -- one for every day of Kim's life, he said.

The truth is that socialist North Korea has never been self-reliant, depending since its formation on the Soviet Union, then China and the United Nations and other international donors to feed itself. But the myth is part of the glue that binds North Koreans to the regime.

"This has a huge impact on people's ability to withstand hardship," said Cui Yingjiu, honorary director of Peking University's Institute for Korean Culture Studies. "For most of the past 100 years, North Koreans haven't had enough to eat or wear. This gives them enormous tolerance for hardship," added Cui, who attended university with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in the early 1960s.

The idea that North Korea has joined the club of seven nations that are declared nuclear powers is also a huge source of honor and confidence for the average North Korean.

"If I were still in North Korea, like ordinary citizens, I would be proud to hear that the nation succeeded in conducting a nuclear test," said Seo Young-seok, 26, a university student living in South Korea who defected in 1999 with his mother and two older sisters. "This is by far a totally different dimension than succeeding at a missile test."

North Korea has no opinion polls, making it difficult to gauge how deeply North Koreans believe their government's propaganda. But a recent project involving North Korean refugees in China provides a clue.

Interviews with 1,300 North Korean expatriates, many of whom had been living in China for months or even years, found nearly 20% still believed North Korea was better off than South Korea, a key claim of the regime. In reality, North Korea's economy is less than one-thirtieth the size of its southern cousin's.

"This gives you some sense of the degree of the socialization in place," said Marcus Noland, a senior fellow with Washington's Institute for International Economics, who was involved in the study. "People may be angry, and there's lots of anecdotal evidence to suggest they are, but that doesn't translate into political action."

Nor would the disaffected have much internal or external support, even if they dared speak out. The state's iron grip on society means there is no domestic institution that might serve as a focal point akin to the role played by the Solidarity labor movement in Poland, the Catholic Church in the Philippines or American-supported nongovernmental assistance organizations in Ukraine, analysts say.

The North's neighbors China and South Korea hardly welcome use of their territory as a base for anti-regime activities that might ultimately give voice to the suffering of ordinary citizens. Far from working against the North, both neighbors have helped prop up the regime, fearful of the refugees and social problems that would flood their countries if Kim fell.

Both dispense unmonitored food aid they know goes mostly to the military rather than ordinary people, fearful of the cost of an implosion. China arrests and harasses North Korean refugees, sending many back. And while in theory any North Korean is entitled to South Korean citizenship, Seoul sets up huge hurdles to control the numbers and has shut down anti-North radio stations after Pyongyang complained.

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