DPRK: The Paradox Kingdom

By Nitin Bajaj

At a time of modernization, when the most populous communist country like China has abandoned the socialist structures to take a path of capitalism, how does one come to terms a country, about the size of Mississippi with a population of 24 million people which still exercises the extreme forms of central planning reigning under one of the most radical forms of authoritarian government structures. North Korea is the only state in the world with a dead president, essentially deserving the label- Necrocracy. As I type the word Necrocracy, even the Microsoft word spell check ominously underlines the word in red, feigning that the word doesn’t exist anymore. Probably, the programmers who wrote the spell check program were oblivious to the fact that North Korea still exists and hence sustains the meaning of the term. It’s a set of paradoxes that make North Korea a fascinating, and at the same time a grotesque subject of study in the contemporary world. The paradox of North Korea essentially starts from its name DPRK, in which the D is an acronym for Democracy.

This country honors an eternal president who has been dead for more than eighteen years. This is a country with a GDP of only $40 billion, and its people are starving and living in dark without electricity. Yet, this country spends about $6 billion annually to maintain the third largest standing army in the world. Christopher Hitchens, touring the strange peninsula in early 2001 raised the question whether it’s a country with-in an army or an army with-in a country? This country, which lost an estimated 3 million people in the famines of 1994-98, spent an estimated $2.68 billion on monuments and ceremonies to mark the death of a single individual, Kim Il Sung. This country with an underlying ideology of “masses being the masters,” (called the Juche idea) and still maintains the idea of an eternal supreme leader. This country was once colonized by the Japanese and it is perceived as one of the most anti-American countries in the world. This country, with an estimated gross external debt of $20 billion, celebrates April 1 of each year as the “Tax Abolition Day” and takes pride in declaring itself the only country in the world that doesn’t levy taxes on its citizens. This country remains separated from its fellow Koreans by the Korean Militarized Zone (KMZ), the most heavily militarized zone in the world.

Decades of bad governance and high military spending coupled with the extreme natural disasters, has reduced North Korea to the stature of one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. This country, nonetheless, is one of the only eight countries officially in possession of nuclear weapons of mass destruction. This country has a past of Confucian enlightenment and has managed to keep its masses under an elongated period of illusions that is unequal in the world. Is there a clue to understanding the Northern Korean peninsula?

The North Korean government structure is a system of an absolute monarchy. In a way it follows the approach to a national-socialistic regime and the closest regime structure that it can be thought to resemble is the Nazi. It is a resultant of extreme nationalism with xenophobia and other paranoid measures stemming from the original authoritarian North Korean leaders. And a distinctive feature that makes it even closer to Nazism is its past of racism, much like the Nazi idea of a superior Aryan race. The word authoritarianism, in the influence of the North Korean authoritarian leaders, has acquired new resonance. A resonance that has the quality of making silence sound noisier than the clamors of the free world. North Korean leaders living in their ironclad citadels, while smiling their secret smiles have inflicted enough misery and pain upon their people in the last few decades.

 In the Western minds, so much at peace with the ideas of democracy, there certainly is no hint to solving this puzzle of North Korea. As Jeffrey Bader, a senior director of Asian Affairs in the Obama Administration wrote in his book, Obama and China’s rise, “the George W. Bush administration always believed that anything short of regime change in Pyongyang was a poor stopgap at best.” It truly is what President Bush might have called an “Axis of Evil ” country. As the country starves and dark rises, don’t be caught off guard when the North Korean lights go off permanently in the months to come.