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A Look at North Korean Society


Kim Il-song's North Korea

By Helen-Louise Hunter

Praeger Publishers Westport, Connecticut; 1999

ISBN #2-275-96296-2


Review by Jerry Winzig


Kim Il-Song's North Korea is not pleasant or enjoyable. In fact, it is disturbing and may leave you depressed. It could hardly be otherwise, since it describes the strange totalitarian cult society of Kim Il-song that makes up the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. But it is well worth reading, for an understanding of North Korea is important for all of us with ties to the Korean peninsula or are concerned about current and future world events.


The book has an intriguing background. In 1980, when Congressman Stephen J. Solarz, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, was preparing for on a trip to North Korea, he was briefed by Helen-Louise Hunter, who at the time was the chief analyst of North Korea for the Central Intelligence Agency. Several years later he read a classified study of North Korea that Hunter had just completed, and felt it was a "stunning sociological analysis" and a "brilliant and breathtaking dissection of the inner workings of a country about which we knew virtually nothing."

Congressman Solarz was so impressed by Hunter's work that he tried to have the study declassified, writing to every CIA director from William Casey onward until he left Congress in 1993. But it took well over a decade to convince the CIA that U.S. national security would not be jeopardized by publication of the study.


Even though Kim Il-song died in 1994 and has been succeeded by his son, Kim Chong-il, Hunter's work still focuses on Kim Il-song's North Korea, because his totalitarian cult still holds sway over North Korean society. It is hard for citizens of a free society, whether in South Korea or the United States, to imagine how much Kim Il-song dominates North Korea. Hunter points out that, even today, persons, places, and objects associated with Kim are revered because of their connection to Kim. "His parents, grandparents, wife, and oldest son are still worshipped, as extensions of Kim. Objects that he touched on his visits to collective farms or factories or universities are covered with glass or draped with a veil."


The International Friendship Exhibition Hall in Myohyangsan, north of Pyongyang, has a huge white marble statue of Kim, seated, lit, and displayed in a manner that is as impressive as Abraham Lincoln's statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Then Hunter asks us to "Imagine the effect on the populace, and on the leader as well, of a majestic national shrine like the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorial constructed during the lifetime of the leader himself. Imagine it all the more in a small country like North Korea [the size of Pennsylvania] where all schoolchildren can easily be brought on school trips to visit the shrine whose monumental excesses, financed out of the meager resources of a bankrupt nation, simply emphasize the gap between the leader and the led."


The most disturbing aspects of the book, however, are Hunter's description of how Kim's dominance filters down into daily life. Consider these examples:


         In North Korea, one's songbun, or socio-economic and class background, is extremely important and is primarily determined at birth. People with the best songbun are descendants of the anti-Japanese guerrillas who fought with Kim Il-song, followed by people whose parents or grandparents were factory workers, laborers, or poor, small farmers in 1950. "Ranked below them in descending order are forty-seven distinct groups in what must be the most class-differentiated society in the world today." Anyone with a father, uncle, or grandfather who owned land or was a doctor, Christian minister, merchant, or lawyer has low songbun.

         After songbun, the next most important influence on North Korean life is Kim-Il-song sangsa, or the thought of Kim Il-song. Within certain narrow limits, one's devotion to the thought of Kim Il-song can improve one's songbun, and disloyalty can lower one's songbun.

         The Communist Party describes people's suitability in terms of "tomatoes," "apples," and "grapes" to describe the chosen versus the unchosen. "Tomatoes, which are completely red to the core, are considered worthy Communists; apples, which are red only on the surface, are considered to need ideological improvement; and grapes are considered hopeless."

         North Korea's rush hours are from 7 to 8 a.m. and from 10 to 11 p.m., six days a week. The work day is long in part because of a three-hour rest period in the afternoon. But the work day also begins with an hour of meetings and political study sessions and ends with two hours of evening study sessions and self-criticism meetings.

         North Korea's cultural life is controlled to a greater extend than it ever was in either China or the Soviet Union. There are no books except for Kim Il-song's collected works, school textbooks, and official propaganda. There are no dissident North Korean authors, as there were in the Soviet Union. "Even the most educated North Koreans have never heard of Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, any famous Russian or Chinese writers, or any modern European authors of note." The average North Korean is not exposed to traditional Korean literature and is likely to have read nothing but Communist revolutionary literature written since 1948.

         Elevators are extremely rare in North Korea, even though many people live in high-rise public apartments. The buildings have elevator shafts, but elevators were not installed because the intervals between floors are not uniform. Many older buildings do not have running water; in those that do, water is often available only on the first floor, due to poor water pressure. As a result, residents carry water, groceries and other household items up ten or more flights -- on an outside stairway.

         North Koreans grow up with no knowledge of U.S. or British involvement in World War II in Europe. They are taught that the Soviet Union defeated Germany and Japan, and the United States only bombed Japan late in the war to occupy it for its natural resources.

         Western visitors who have taken copies of U.S. catalogs to North Korea report that people are fascinated by products such as electrical appliances, televisions, tape recorders, calculators, electronic games, and hand tools, and do not believe such products are readily available to the average American.

         Unruly students are dealt with severely. First, the student notifies the parents. If the student's behavior does not improve quickly, the student's food ration is cut. If that doesn't work, the police are notified. If warnings and discussions with the police don't work, the student is simply picked up and disappears, and the parents may lose their jobs and be sent to the countryside.

         Students are required to participate on volunteer labor during rice transplanting, rice harvesting, winter break, summer vacation, on school afternoons, and on Sundays. This can easily add up to more than 150 days per year.

         Food grains, the staple food in a country where most people eat meat less than once a month, have been rationed since 1957. Those rations have not been increased significantly in 30 years, and the disastrous harvests of recent years have brought drastic cuts in rations. At the same time, most North Koreans believe "the government's claim to be stockpiling rice for distribution to the starving South Korean masses on the happy day of reunification."

         Most North Koreans do not have refrigerators and shop for food on a daily basis. There are no privately-owned automobiles. Most roads outside of Pyongyang are unpaved; as a result, there are various "wash points" where buses and trucks are washed before entering the city.

         The average daily wage of 2-1/2 won is half the cost of a kilogram of peanuts, but is equal to the cost of one meter of cotton cloth, or one toothbrush and toothpaste, or one private bath in a bathhouse and a cake of soap. The cost of the poorest quality overcoat is equivalent to two months' salary of an average worker.

         The traditional Korean custom of men gathering after work or on weekends for drink and song has been virtually abolished. Beer and hard liquor are very expensive and most North Koreans can only afford to enjoy a drink on national holidays and at weddings and funerals.


The lives of the elite are far different from that of most North Koreans. Cabinet ministers and their families live in an exclusive complex in Pyongyang, surrounded by a concrete wall and security guards. The elite are driven to work in chauffeured limousines provided by the government. They have access to better medical care at the semi-secret Ponghwa Clinic. They may have other perks, such as a private secretary, medical corpsman, cook, and bodyguard. The sons of the very privileged have access to cars, and, since there are no private automobiles, have been known to drive at fast speeds on deserted roads late at night.


The details of Hunter's book leave the reader with serious questions. How does this national cult affect North Korea's decisions? Could it lead to another Korean war? If it does not and North Korea collapses instead, how will South Korea and the rest of the world cope with the aftermath? How will the people of North Korea cope with rejoining the world community?


Since the people of North Korea don't have access to information about us, it behooves us to learn what we can about them, so we can at least be understanding when change does come.



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