Peter Popham: The Arab Spring has had no effect on a country immune to outside influences

North Koreans are inculcated from infancy with the belief that the world is against them

Share
Related Topics

Even more than the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring has sent shivers of fear through the world's despots. Muammar Gaddafi has come and gone. Bashar al-Assad has slaughtered his way into a bloody cul-de-sac. The kleptocratic Burmese generals, masquerading as civilians, now consider it prudent to start going through democratic motions.

Yet North Korea alone remains immune to outside influence and impenetrable by foreign intelligence. We know, having learnt about it 48 hours later, that Kim Jong-il is dead, but nobody has a clue what to expect next. How does this impoverished, artificial state manage to remain such a tight ship?

One reason is that the sort of anxiety attacks provoked in other authoritarian states by dramatic events abroad are a permanent way of life north of the DMZ. North Koreans are inculcated from early childhood with the belief that the whole world is against them and that the nation must remain constantly on guard against foreign intrigue. Even China, the state's most dependable financial and diplomatic prop, is regarded with perennial suspicion.

This posture reflects Korea's long centuries of isolation during the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted almost until its annexation by Japan in 1910: for much of the 19th century it was the mysterious "hermit kingdom". Isolation required permanent vigilance: the peninsula had repeatedly suffered land invasions from the continent as well as by sea from Japan.

History also helps to explain why the outside world, even South Koreans who shared all the north's historical experience up until the peninsula's partition after the Second World War, finds it impossible to prise open the country's élite. Marxism provides the state's rhetoric and imagery but the moral underpinnings go all the way back to the Neo-Confucianism imported from China in the 14th and 15th centuries. More than a religion, this was a moral and ethical system that provided a steel frame for the state's development, founded on such values as chung (loyalty), hyo (filial piety) in (benevolence) and sin (trust). Although the formal apparatus of Confucianism was retired when Korea was shunted into the modern age by Japan, its colonial master, the mental and moral structure is still intact.

Filial piety helps explain the degree of mass devotion to Kim Jong-il and that he was into his 50s before he assumed power: North Koreans would have been uncomfortable with anyone significantly younger taking over from the "Great Leader". This also explains why even the experts hesitate to pronounce on the state's immediate future. Kim Jong-un's exact age is unknown but his cupid lips and chubby cheeks are not those of a father figure. That's why a lot of attention is being paid to his uncle Jang Song Taek, 65, a close adviser to Kim Jong-il and a shrewd survivor; some are casting him in the role of Pyongyang's Deng Xiaoping.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Representative

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To promote and sell the Company...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Civil Engineering

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Business: This company is going thro...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS1 & KS2 Teachers Required

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment are currently working...

Day In a Page

Read Next
John Rentoul outside the Houses of Parliament  

If I were Prime Minister...I would be like a free-market version of Natalie Bennett

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea