I'm one of the only people who has gone round North Korea without minders – this is what I saw

The common caricature of Northerners is based on the images we see in the DPRK’s propaganda – jackbooted and marching through Kim Il-Sung Square, or overcome with emotion at the latest triumph of their god-emperor. But when you talk to them, you realise that's complete nonsense

Andrew Lowry
Friday 08 September 2017 11:07
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Servicepersons of the Korean People's Army and the Korean People's Internal Security Forces, civilians, school youth and children visit the statues of President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il
Servicepersons of the Korean People's Army and the Korean People's Internal Security Forces, civilians, school youth and children visit the statues of President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il

Kim Jong-un’s recent escalation of North Korea’s twin missile and nuclear programmes has prompted even more hysteria than usual. Donald Trump has been weighing in with his usual measured tone on Twitter, and is best ignored by anyone looking for sensible cues for American policy intentions; from Secretary of Defence James Mattis on, the more sensible administration figures have been downplaying their president’s bellicose stance.

Whatever the likely outcomes – which range from the merely awful to the downright apocalyptic – intervention is still very much on the table, with Mattis saying on Sunday: “Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.”

What would a “massive military response” look like? Any speculation on what renewed conflict on the Korean peninsula would entail tends to focus on the tens of millions of South Koreans and tens of thousands of US troops within easy artillery range of the border, and how they are effectively hostages, only minutes away from fiery death in response to any strike against the Northern regime.

What gets talked about less are the 25 million people of North Korea, a decent proportion of whom, if things go wrong, would be slaughtered in a war they never chose and whose causes would remain shadowy to them. They are the regime’s hostages just as much as anybody else within missile range, and their interests have been totally ignored in the debate about how to handle their portly leader.

The common caricature of Northerners is based on the images we see in the DPRK’s propaganda – jackbooted and marching through Kim Il-Sung Square, or overcome with emotion at the latest triumph of their god-emperor. The regime presents them to the outside world as drones, mindlessly rejoicing in the glory of their leaders and unquestioningly obedient to their diktats.

This portrait is, like all propaganda, nonsense.

North Koreans react to latest nuclear test

I visited North Korea for 10 days last year, and unlike almost all visitors to the country, I was able to move around more or less as I pleased, free from a regime minder or itinerary determined by a regime-approved tour group.

The first gap between image and reality is in the built environment: those spectacular new skyscrapers you see in images of Pyongyang are often crumbling up close, with no glass in the windows and no lights at night. The poverty the tourists and their cameras aren’t allowed to see is staggering, with endless shanty towns making up the suburbs of Pyongyang – a city that is, in theory, the playground of the elite.

Once out of the capital, travelling via potholed and empty roads, you’ll find lifeless, dilapidated villages where the only signs of activity are brand new, gleaming statues of Kim Jong-un’s father and grandfather. Many of the people, if they’re to be seen at all, have been bussed out to the fields for ad hoc agricultural work, squatting down in work groups of a few dozen with no tools bigger than trowels.

The regime tries to project modernity, but even the likely exaggerated economic figures it releases mask a reality where the government, even now, can barely feed its own people. The people are visibly stunted, and everybody is skinny.

Talking to them, you’re quickly disabused of the notion that these are legions of brainwashed fanatics chomping at the bit to give the imperialist puppets to the South a drubbing.

In 90 seconds: North Korea and Kim Jong-Un

The North Koreans I spoke to were necessarily a self-selecting group, as only those judged to be sufficiently loyal are allowed to learn English (I don’t speak Korean). You’d get boilerplate rhetoric of course – one waitress told me a recent missile test was a “sword of vengeance” against the Americans – but that was largely rote stuff, spouted because people dumb enough to complain about the regime to a foreigner wouldn’t last long.

They were surprisingly aware of the outside world, talking in detail about Barack Obama and which Western movies they enjoyed (Disney was popular). It’s hard to know how successful various campaigning groups have been in infiltrating contraband information into the country, but it’s safe to assume anybody with two brain cells knows their government is a questionable one. They just can’t express it, unless they want a trip to the mountains. The existence of any dissident movement is possible, but there’s been next to no evidence for it.

Change is coming very slowly, with the long-term effects of the government’s recent recognition of the grey market that arose after the famine of the Nineties potentially leading to China-style market reforms – but not any time soon, and not without the regime loosening much, much more.

North Korea state broadcast: US faces 'thousands-fold' revenge following new UN sanctions

Otherwise, North Koreans just have to go through the motions, unable to do anything about their freezing homes or empty bellies.

There’s a sub-genre of journalism that involves going on a state-sponsored trip to Pyongyang and sticking a microphone in someone’s – usually a student’s – face and yelling questions about the nuclear programme. All this really results in is a clip flattering the journalist’s vanity and likely a lengthy self-criticism session for the student, who would be clueless about the scheme anyway.

The truth is that the people of North Korea will go through the motions of paying fealty to the Kim dynasty, but this bulls***ter wasn’t taken in by half of their bulls**t. It’s easy to passionlessly express support for a regime that will shoot you if you don’t.

Now these unfortunate people are caught in the crossfire between a dynastic criminal family and some of the most powerful militaries in the world. And not one of them has chosen to place their heads on the block for one man’s strategic calculations.

The war, if it comes, will be a massacre. The North Korean military is vast on paper, but most of its troops are more state odd-job men than warriors – every building site in Pyongyang is manned by “soldier builders”. I’m not a big man, but I towered over even the supposedly elite troops at the DMZ. Short of fuel and resources, with a military based around old Soviet gear, the army wouldn’t last long.

Which means the regime, in desperation, would resort to its only chip left – its own people.

It’s hard to know what would happen, but be under no doubt: the people of North Korea are the regime’s primary victims.

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