REFLECTIONS AFTER A WEEK IN NORTH KOREA
John B. Cobb, Jr.
The images and captions below are from a photo gallery offered by Time Magazine: "A Rare Look Inside North Korea." The photos were taken by We are grateful to him and to Time Magazine for these materials, and we encourage readers to r
A week in North Korea (the end of July) does not an expert make! Nevertheless, it is enough to confirm that we Americans have been egregiously uninformed and misinformed about this country. I have long understood enough about the propaganda that poses as news in the American media, that some of the contrast between the reality and the American picture of North Korea did not surprise me.
Still, I was surprised. I thought that the economic isolation of North Korea and the economic sanctions we have repeatedly imposed upon it, combined with its primary focus on military defense against the American empire, would necessarily have made the people poor. And, of course, as measured by GDP per capita, they are poor. A visit to its department stores confirms that it is not a consumer society! The apartments in which most people live are small. Very few have private cars. But North Korea does not look or feel poor. I found that amazing.
Some countries that do look and feel poor still have fancy modern airports. The Pyongyang airport, in contrast, looks and feels poor. The most serious conversation I experienced was as part of a small American delegation visiting with the vice-president of the North Korean parliament. The government building in which we met looked and felt poor. But the buildings for the public, the library, the university, the recreation facilities, the boulevards, the spacious parks, the public transportation, and even the restaurants did not. The extensive use of marble contributes to the magnificence of many of these buildings. One gets the strange feeling that the government serves the people rather than exploiting them. That was not what I expected in a virtually totalitarian nation.
More in keeping with my suspicions is the fact that the most beautiful building in the city is the mausoleum for Kim Il Sung, now shared by his son. It is not called a “mausoleum.” It is called a “palace” because it is held that Kim Il Sung is forever alive. He is the “eternal president” of the nation. The years are numbered from his birth. His pictures and statues are everywhere, and no public pronouncement can fail to honor him. His writings function as scripture. Christianity and Buddhism are extremely marginal, and the religious feelings and imagination of the people are focused on this man.
I hardly need to say that the worship of a man made me uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable when Christians worship the human Jesus as well. However, practically speaking, in both cases, the role this idolatry plays is more positive than negative. In North Korea the collective focus on the collective well being of the people is constantly reinforced by attention to the life and teachings of Kim Il Sung. This religious focus gives a solidarity to the people that they would not have if they were divided among traditional religions. It makes the people deeply nationalistic and proud of their collective accomplishments, but it is a nationalism that aims at peaceful reunification of Korea and discourages hatred of enemies. As idolatries go, this is a good one.
Pyongyang is a beautiful city. Some of the many apartment buildings scattered throughout the city are old and dingy in appearance, but they are being replace by new buildings, and there are no slums. There are also – no suburbs. Public transportation is good and cheap, and I suppose that most people live fairly near where they work. The paucity of private cars adds to the beauty and enjoyment of the wide boulevards. Their scarcIty seems less a problem to be solved than a solution to one of the worst problems in the United States.
The beauty and relative prosperity of Pyongyang are too obvious to be doubted by North Korea’s enemies. The propaganda has, therefore, represented this as a showcase which in reality obscures the misery of the rest of the people. A week in North Korea does not enable me to respond with confidence to such judgments. We were taken to other cities in the vicinity of the capital. They were certainly not as beautiful as Pyongyang. But there, too, there were no slums. People were housed and fed. They dressed well. If there is massive misery, it is indeed skillfully concealed, and I have been totally deceived. Perhaps things are worse in more distant regions of the country. I doubt, however, that the difference is extreme.
Probably the most important socio-cultural separation is between urban and rural development. In most of the world, urban development has been at the expense of the wellbeing of peasants. This has been true in both Marxist and capitalist countries. I assume it has characterized North Korea to some extent at least. The land, which once belonged to feudal lords, now belongs to the state, and peasants work for the state. In developing countries, profiting from agricultural production and feeding the urbanites have taken priority over justice for the peasants. Probably this has occurred in North Korea to some degree. As one drives through the countryside in the vicinity of Pyongyang, while the farms seem lush, the peasants live in tiny homes in tiny villages.
Marxist countries have had difficulties dealing with peasants. One general discovery has been that agricultural production rises when peasants individually gain more from their efforts. I was told that the government now allows peasants to keep 70% of what they produce. My guess is that this is highly motivating. But my knowledge of these matters is very limited.
Mountainous North Korea was not self sufficient in food before its separation from the south. Given its isolation and the barriers to trade, feeding its people has always been a problem. On one occasion, for two consecutive years there were massive famines caused by drought and floods. Millions died. The failure of the government to make the concessions needed to procure food for its people has been fixed in the minds of the global public. The government considered its military defense a higher priority than feeding its starving people. This appalling event has been used to demonize the North Korean government. It has also left the impression of massive hunger in North Korea as an ongoing problem.
A week’s visit does not enable me to speak with authority. Feeding its people is an ongoing problem in a nation determined to maintain its independence. When crops fail, I do not doubt that there have continued to be problems. But the terrible famines that led to its reputation as a place of starvation have not recurred. My guess is that currently hunger is not as great a problem in North Korea as in the United States.
The terrible war, chiefly with the United States, that ended with an armistice sixty years ago, left North Korea devastated. It began anew with a nearly blank slate. Those who opposed the Marxist regime had fled south; so there was little political opposition to the hero dictator. When the Americans saw that they could not hold North Korea militarily, they had bombed it back to dust. Even small towns were leveled. So an unopposed government had a free hand to rebuild from scratch. The beauty and convenience of Pyongyang owes much to this situation. It is a well-planned modern city.
What calls for our reflection is that with very little money North Korea rather quickly rebuilt despite giving priority to military defense. One lesson we learn is that homelessness and joblessness are the result of an economy based on the unnecessary scarcity of money. We have empty houses and homeless people, work to be done and those eager to do it. We cannot put the people in the homes or jobs because we lack money. But a government need not be limited in its programs by lack of money. It can simply create the money it needs. All that prevents this is the control over money creation by private banks. That was no problem in North Korea. Of course, lack of money did and does limit purchases from abroad. So North Korea has gone a long way toward a strictly national economy.
Now for an appraisal. Under the leadership of Kim Il Sung, North Korea recovered rapidly from near total devastation, while devoting much of its resources to military defense. Today everyone is clothed, fed, housed, educated, and medically cared for. North Korea fulfills the ideals of a socialist society, ideals that are also a goal for many of the rest of us. The vast majority of the people revere Kim Il Sung. My guess is that there is no other government in the world as much trusted and appreciated by its people as that of North Korea. North Korea also shows that basic human needs can be met with a fraction of the contribution to climate change that characterizes capitalist/consumerist cultures. One must stand in awe of such accomplishment.
What is the cost? The homogeneity that allowed this to happen without massive ongoing oppression of internal enemies came about through a war that was very costly indeed. This homogeneity also expresses a collectivity that discourages the kind of individuality all-too-prized in the United States. Much as I admire the achievement, I would be very restive in such a society. The maintenance of a satisfied public also depends on preventing the celebration of the “rich and famous” and the advertising that shape the understanding of the good life in the United States. This requires blockage of Western movies and advertising and limiting contacts with the outside world.
Are the accomplishments worth the cost? Given the situation and the real options North Korea faced both then and now, I believe that the answer is Yes. I think Kim Il Sung was a great man and a great leader. I am glad that I do not live in North Korea. I wish the world were such that one would not have to sacrifice free communication and full expression of individual differences in order to meet basic human needs without a major contribution to climate change. Perhaps such a world may yet emerge. Meanwhile let’s take the North Korean experiment seriously and appreciatively.
Additional articles by John Cobb:
Deliver us from Evil, including Our Own GO
Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street? GO
American Gun Culture GO
Beyond American Gun Culture GO
Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet GO
Prayer and Planetarity GO
The Economics of Happiness GO
Can we find God in Organized Religion? GO
God and the Sendai Earthquake GO
Faith and the Stock Market GO
Whitehead and Relativity GO
Whitehead and Mind-Brain Relations GO
Whitehead and Evolutionary Theory GO