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North Korea 'prepared to return to the Stone Age' if need be

The specter of sanctions risks dealing a severe blow to modernity that accompanied economic reforms introduced by Kim Jong-Un

North Korea 'prepared to return to the Stone Age' if need be

A North Korean military parade in Pyongyang, in this file photo. (Photo by AFP) 

Dorian Malovic, Pyongyang
North Korea

October 30, 2017

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UCAN’s partner, the French Catholic daily La Croix International has just published a three-part series on North Korea, part of the "hermit kingdom” by their reporter Dorian Malovic. In his first article, Malovic reports that people may no longer be dying of hunger, even if parts of the center and north of the country are plagued by malnutrition that is hard to quantify. But a focus on their leader and the country’s perceived enemies is everywhere.

  

The effects of multiple economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations since 2016 are far from being felt in North Korea and the population seems more determined than ever to take up the challenge launched, in its view, by Donald Trump’s America. 

In the long run, however, the economic reforms implemented by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un since 2012, which have improved the lives of the population, are threatened by these sanctions and the people risk suffering from them.

"We are prepared to return to the Stone Age if need be, but the American sanctions will never starve us out!" The firm, determined tone of Ryu Bong-ok, 54, president of the Dongbong cooperative farm, leaves no room for ambiguity.

Located more than 200 kilometers east of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, this highly mechanized model cooperative — with its 32 tractors manufactured in China and North Korea and its plow made in Italy — and its 1,224 farmers are already anticipating the future effects of severe economic sanctions approved by the United Nations since September 2016. However, they do so without trembling.

 

Leaders for "development and modernization"

Born on this collective farm in Hamju, Ryu Bong-ok, a mother of two boys, proudly presents the many medals of honor received from the highest authorities. Her elder son is doing his military service (10 years for boys, 6 for girls) while the younger one still works on the farm.

The medals include those of the Three Revolutions and the 26th of May Movement, named after historic events. Dressed in a pretty mauve hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, the farmer is full of praise for the supreme leaders who, for decades, have visited and supported "the development and modernization" of this work unit, which is ready to face the sanctions.

"Without fertilizer or gas, we shall use the force of our arms and the sweat of our brows," she stresses, "and we shall produce our own manure as in Ancient Times."

In the late Autumn afternoon breeze, the golden rice ears sway to and fro, ready for harvesting, just like the maize fields further to the west. In Dongbong, machines will do the work, but in the vast majority of cooperative farms we pass through on the 200-kilometer drive from Pyongyang to Wonsan, capital of Kangwon Province, harvesting — rice, maize, sorghum, soy, and wheat – is already being done, by hand.

For about a decade now, collective ownership and work have allowed each farmer a private area to grow food for consumption or for sale on the local market. This private economic circuit has allowed daily living conditions to improve, with goods and money circulating within the provinces.

Looking at the immense cultivated spaces, even if North Korea is not self-sufficient in food, the terrible days of the 1995 famine, which the regime calls "the arduous march" and which claimed more than a million lives at the time, look like a distant nightmare. People are no longer dying of hunger in North Korea, even if parts of the center and north of the country are plagued by malnutrition that is hard to quantify.

 

New hydraulic plant

Ox carts and bicycles share the roads with Chinese-brand trucks or Japanese Toyota minibusses. Electric wires are connected to villages where mini-solar panels and small windmills have graced each home for three or four years now.

These renewable energy sources were imposed by necessity in an economic context accustomed for a long time to shortages and limitations. People walk or ride a lot, but while the countryside may be poor, it is not destitute.

About 20 kilometers away, in the mountains, the new "Army-People’" hydraulic plant of Wonsan was just inaugurated, that same morning, after years of relentless work that mobilized more than 5,000 workmen and countless volunteer soldiers.

Chief electrician Chu Myong-Kil, 54, features drawn but eyes shining with pride, welcomes you in front of a big technical diagram representing the two generators installed on the mountainside. "Energy has always been a big concern in Kangwon Province, but now with the new plant, the city of Wonsan (350,000 inhabitants) has electricity night and day without fail," he explains.

Electric cables, turbines, generators, an automated control room run by computers "made in Korea’"(North Korea) or Taiwan (Windows 10 operating system), well installed and functioning, show the technical and IT skill of the North Korean engineers. 

"When you have the capacity to send missiles and manufacture nuclear bombs, you’re able to manage electronics," my interpreter-guide remarks in flawless French in reaction to my astonishment.

Chu Myong-kil, who shook Kim Jong-Un’s hand when he visited here last year adds: "Our great leader has ordered us to introduce the best foreign technology and adapt it to our Korean reality but, especially, never to let in foreign ideologies."

 

Fighting the "American imperialist"

The specter of sanctions risks dealing a severe blow to this modernity that accompanied the economic reforms introduced by the young leader Kim Jong-Un since he came to power in 2012, and which are often underestimated or not known abroad.

Scarcely has the word "sanctions" been pronounced in front of the chief electrician, dressed in a dark beige suit, then a flood of invective pours from his mouth. "Because of those American bastards, we cannot import anything more, but we don’t care," he says. "We can do everything for ourselves, with our own materials."

So, in the absence of steel rails for driving through tunnels, workers manufactured wooden rails.

This unanimity on sanctions can be explained. Facing an enemy, the Korean people have been ready for over 60 years, determined to fight against the "American imperialist", seen as the major threat.

It’s no surprise to hear Cha Jong-ok, director of the provincial shoe factory in Wonsan, which has 180 workers and 157 machines, say spontaneously: "Trump talks nonsense and with his sanctions, we will keep the factory going; all our raw materials are Korean."

Educated and raised from kindergarten onward to revile the historical Japanese (colonization from 1905 to 1945) and, especially, American aggressors, small wonder North Koreans speak the same language in that regard. The regime’s official messages feed everyone’s thinking.

Since last August, they have been disseminated on the nation’s sole radio station, four television channels and the Rodong Sinmun daily, but also via hundreds of thousands of posters pasted on all store windows, schools, offices, factories and workshops in the country.

A poster specially devoted to sanctions shows two muscular hands furiously tearing up the text of the UN resolutions, with a slogan running across the picture: "Let us reject violently and denounce pitilessly!" 

Finally, the inflamed rhetoric of Donald Trump since January and his speech at the UN last month, announcing his will to "totally destroy North Korea", only serve to fuel Pyongyang’s propaganda. This helps to cement the population even more profoundly around its "great leader", capable of protecting and defending it without the shadow of a doubt.

"Luxury goods for all Koreans"

Back in the heart of Pyongyang between an electric cable factory and a brand-new building, a factory churning out Galaxy-brand beauty products – foundation, lipstick, moisturizing cream, shampoo, toning lotion, hair gel – seems highly improbable in the North Korean context.

"Our leaders have taken great care of the female military units since the end of the war," says Pak Chol-un, the factory’s director, who met last year with the directors of Chanel in Paris for talks on cooperation … which failed. "But today these luxury (sic) products are destined for all Koreans, whose living standards have risen in the past few years."

Competing with the country’s second factory, based in the Sinuiju Special Economic Zone on the border with China, Galaxy has announced a production increase of 15% each year. This statistic cannot be cross-checked, but the existence of these beauty products reflects the vitality of North Korea’s economy and trade, which has given rise to a new class of businessmen, the Donju ("Money Masters"), who pay cash in Chinese, American or European currency.

While the effects of the sanctions, which are still recent, are not yet being felt daily, they could jeopardize the economic liberalization reforms if the money flows dry up.

"These sanctions will have an impact on our economy, that’s for sure," a North Korean official admits lucidly. "The hundreds of expatriate workers worldwide (China, Russia, Qatar, Kuwait, Poland…) who have to come back early to the country, will make us lose revenue. 

"But we will survive. We don’t need butter or cheese like the French; plain rice and corn will be enough for us. The people will suffer; our nuclear and missile programs will continue, but we shall not die of hunger."

 

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About these reports from North Korea

Reporting from North Korea is so exceptional that it is essential to explain the framework in which it could be done.

This was not an "all-expenses-paid" invitation from North Korea. After years of patience, Dorian Malovic obtained an 11-day journalist’s visa to go to the country. He was welcomed in North Korea by an accompanying guide who spoke perfect French.

The guide never left his side and traveled with him for 1,200 kilometers in a Toyota, with a dedicated driver, through much of the south and east of the country: provinces, the countryside, villages and the militarized coastal zone.

A contract of trust was established between our journalist and his guide about photos and filming: "You tell me what I can film or photograph and what is prohibited."

It’s all about playing transparently and bending to local rules, not about taking photos behind the back of the guide, which would be idiotic and useless, or wanting to slip away from him for a solo escapade, which would be even more idiotic.

At the end of this stay, and despite the expected constraints.

"I was able to see, hear and feel a multitude of realities which, in retrospect, enable me to convey a perception of North Korea that is partial, but relevant and credible," Dorian Malovic says.

La Croix International provides unique insights on issues that matter — on politics, society, religion, culture, education and ethics. To receive informative and engaging content with a distinctive Catholic viewpoint, click here. 

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