In a world pockmarked by radical dictators bent on world domination, North Korea’s Kim dynasty has often occupied a particularly confusing and terrifying position.
Since Kim Jong-un assumed power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, most other nations have begun to take a closer look at the threats posed by the rogue nation through the pursuit of advanced nuclear weapons and reports of widespread human rights violations.
Western Journalism sought to unpack the sordid allegations against this secretive regime, separating fact from fiction with analysis from some of the foremost experts on North Korean policy.
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A family history
While Kim Jong-un has been roundly decried on the world stage for a litany of international provocations, some historical perspective makes it clear the nation — officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — has faced similar accusations since its inception in 1948 under the rule of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
Throughout his invasion of South Korea, which led to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and his actions during the subsequent four decades, the eldest Kim set a standard for totalitarian rule that has remained the norm during the two generations that followed.
The late political scientist R.J. Rummel coined the term democide to refer to the “murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.”
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According to his research, the term accurately reflects the ideology of the Kim dynasty’s first dictator.
In his paper Statistics of Democide, Rummel described Kim Il-sung as “an absolute communist dictator” who transformed the nation “into an Orwellian state.”
His analysis continued with a depiction of the total control the ruler exhibited over all aspects of the nation and its citizens.
“People were so tightly controlled in all their activities, and those visitors that were allowed in were so managed, that comparatively little independent information about the regime’s purges, executions, and concentration and forced labor camps filtered out of the country,” Rummel wrote. “Nonetheless, through defectors, escapees, agents, Korean War refugees, and analyses of Korean publications and documents, a hazy picture emerges of systematic democide little different than that carried out in the first decades of the Soviet Union or early communist China.”
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Allegations of state-sponsored atrocities continued throughout the reign of Kim Jong-il, which lasted from 1994-2011.
In the early 1990s, the Kim Il-sung regime was ostensibly on the verge of negotiating a peace accord with South Korea. After the dictator died in 1994 and his son assumed power, however, the planned summit never took place.
A new constitution implemented a few years later expanded the new ruler’s powers by dissolving the prior office of the presidency and establishing Kim Jong-il as the “eternal president” of the DPRK.
While the younger Kim made early efforts during the late 1990s to at least suggest an interest in restoring ties with South Korea and other nations, he returned North Korea to a state of near-total isolation in the first few years of the 21st century. The dictator reportedly failed to abide by the terms of an earlier agreement and further provoked the ire of the United States with his suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.
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The administration of President George W. Bush categorized the nation as a member of the “axis of evil” in 2002. The following year, Kim made his plans to enrich uranium apparent by announcing North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
A series of fantastic, if unverified, claims surrounding the life of Kim Jong-il were also commonplace throughout his reign. The practice of assigning North Korea’s leader almost miraculous attributes spilled over into the regime of Kim Jong-un.
Outrageous claims about Kim Jong-il, including that his first golf game included 11 holes-in-one, abounded. The tradition continues under the nation’s current leader.
In addition to the extreme artistic achievements attributed to the youngest Kim, North Korean students are reportedly taught he accomplished exceedingly unlikely feats including learning to drive at the age of 3.
Experts say the dissemination of such dubious information has become emblematic of the way the hermit state handles all of its communication.
A legacy of propaganda
Dictatorships have long relied on propaganda to convince citizens of either the righteousness of their own nation or the depravity of enemy states. As it pertains to North Korea, one analyst has been studying the historical impact of state-sponsored media on generations of families living under the Kim dynasty.
John Dale Grover, a non-resident Young Leaders fellow at the Center for the National Interest, told Western Journalism that propaganda has always been central in providing dictators largely unchallenged and absolute authority over citizens.
Beyond the promise of expanded power are the “ideological foundations” of North Korean propaganda, Grover said, noting this aspect is often overlooked in analyzing its effect on the nation and beyond.
“These foundations include the communist language and trappings from the early days when Kim Il-sung’s regime was set up by the Soviet Union,” he said. “But beneath those communist embellishments are a racial nationalism akin to that of Imperial Japan combined with domestic Confucianism and the Kims’ juche ideology of self-reliance, independence and military readiness.”
The result, according to Grover, has been the consistent release of two distinct types of propaganda by the North Korean government. One category is designed for those living in the country while the other is distributed to foreign nations.
“External messages are meant to signal North Korea’s importance in the world as a way to gain attention and generate fear,” Grover said. “Since at least the 1990s, this tactic has been used repeatedly to force the U.S., along with its allies and other regional powers, to grant aid or temporary sanctions relief in return for false promises to suspend their nuclear program.”
Propaganda produced for North Koreans, he said, “is designed to build support for the government and it is more explicit in its ideology.”
He said state-sponsored messages tell suffering citizens that even though their life might be difficult, “only North Koreans are pure enough to be free and led by their great leaders.”
Under a shroud of secrecy and isolation, Grover said promises of nuclear proliferation have given Kim Jong-un another issue to exploit through propaganda.
“To its citizens, Pyongyang proclaims their superiority over all other nations and how North Korea’s great leaders protect North Korea by making other leaders quake with fears of nuclear Armageddon,” he said.
The threat of nuclear attack by North Korea stands out not only as the nation’s most obvious leverage in crafting both internal and external propaganda, it is also an issue governments around the world are devoting increased time and effort to thwarting.
While there remains plenty of skepticism regarding the purported advancements in the regime’s nuclear power, one former Department of Defense appointee told Western Journalism there is ample evidence pointing to possibly devastating capabilities.
David Vorland, who served eight years under President Barack Obama as special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy, said Kim Jong-un presents a clear danger not because he is so much worse than his predecessors, but because the potential impact of his despotism has spread in conjunction with military advancement.
“I don’t think that relations with the rest of the world have necessarily intensified since Kim Jong-un came to power,” he said. “To the extent they have, I don’t think it is because of Kim Jong-un personally.”
Instead, Voland cited “the technological progress that North Korea demonstrated” while he was working at the Pentagon as the real cause for concern.
“During my tenure at DOD, the North paraded a new road-mobile ballistic missile, the KN08, that is capable of reaching the United States,” he said. “While we have good reason to doubt that this untested missile would work, North Korea has demonstrated success in its shorter-range missile programs, and with its satellite launches. Also, beginning in 2009, North Korea has successfully tested nuclear weapons in underground detonations.”
In the wake of recent tests, he noted “the Kim regime still has steps to take to be able to deliver a nuclear weapon by ballistic missile,” although “the potential of nuclear escalation dramatically changes the nature of any conflict North Korea could have with South Korea, Japan or the United States.”
Such a scenario “changes the stakes for China as well,” Vorland said, because “South Korea and Japan could be responding to an existential threat instead of the more limited threat that North Korea posed in the past.”
Devoting precious resources to its weapons program and other priorities of the Kim regime has left the vast majority of North Koreans living in abject poverty.
While Kim Jong-un alluded to a desire for economic reform early in his reign, the lives of those living under his regime have hardly improved.
North Korea reportedly has a relatively healthy flow of capital — in large part through trade with China — with which it can continue expanding its military might. Despite China’s recent vow to curtail trade with the rogue nation, experts believe Kim has set aside significant reserves to fund his programs deep into the future.
With coal as its primary natural resource, news reports have focused on the devastating toll a brutal mining industry has taken on countless North Korean families. Research suggests children as young as 7 have been forced to work in the dangerous environment.
For additional revenue, the regime reportedly turns to even more sinister methods, including hacking banks and sending thousands of its own citizens to other countries as slave laborers.
In a nation whose citizens routinely land on lists among the poorest in the world, reports indicate some of North Korea’s most sought-after jobs offer astoundingly low wages.
A 2013 report by NPR cited one expert who said an industrial complex provided some of the best positions available for North Korean workers with an estimated monthly salary of just $62.
Life in the DPRK
As international tensions mount regarding the threat North Korea presents, the nation’s citizens remain largely isolated and dependent on the Kim regime for information. Likewise, it remains difficult for outsiders to get a clear picture of what life is like within the nation’s borders.
Nevertheless, an array of human rights abuses against North Koreans have been alleged against North Korea in addition to reports of forced labor.
Common accounts include prison camps populated by starving inmates who are routinely tortured and even forced to dig their own graves.
A few escapees have been able to paint a picture of life behind the walls of these camps, which are filled with criminals and individuals deemed to be enemies of the state.
Experiences at one North Korean prison were turned into a musical, Yoduk Story, written and directed by former prisoner and North Korean defector Jung Sung-San.
In 2015, a Getty photographer took a rare trip through North Korea and was able to bring back pictures of the bleak environment in which the average citizen lives. While such visual representations of their plight are uncommon, a composite of the stories that do make it out of the country suggest a hopeless outlook for most North Koreans.
Yeonmi Park, who grew up in North Korea before defecting at the age of 15, recalled her experiences in a 2016 article.
“It was like living in hell,” she wrote. “There were constant power outages, so everything was dark. There was no transportation — everyone had to walk everywhere. It was very dirty and no one could eat anything.”