When discussing North Korea in any context, it is essential to bear in mind that there are four distinct realities being experienced by those born inside the country.
The first is Pyongyang, the bastion of the regime. The country is currently being governed – more accurately misgoverned – by military junta with Kim Jong Un as nominative leader and figurehead. Pyongyang is the show piece of North Korea from which its bombastic brand image of statuary, military parades and mass games events is projected to the outside world; allowing foreign tourists and journalists on controlled visits has proved effective in diverting attention from the infinitely more malign nature of the regime.
As the home of the elite, the right to live in Pyongyang is a privilege which can be revoked. Pyongyangites enjoy access to better hospitals and schools and are shielded from the worst of the country’s food shortages but with unreliable water and electricity supplies, and without winter heating, comfort remains a relative concept. Behind the monuments and murals, much of the city is in a state of dilapidation with more extreme reports even of pigs being raised inside some domestic apartments. There are reportedly, however, newer signs of increasing affluence amongst the upper strata of the elite including more cars, luxury shops and restaurants. In short, a wealth gap has emerged, even within Pyongyang and grossly so compared to the provinces.
As is well known, during the 1990s the North Korean economy collapsed but the dynastic regime survived and in recent years has supported itself through exports of weapons and human labour. The country possesses a workforce cheaper than any of its neighbours together with significant mineral deposits, including currently trumpeted rare earth metals, which both South Korea and China (for starters) are eager to exploit. Thus presiding over a potential resource boom, in the next decade the city-state of Pyongyang which includes a handful of model farms and revolutionary sites outside of its limits, is set to get richer and as a consequence, stronger.
The second North Korea constitutes the greater part of the country outside of Pyongyang and has a population of around 20 million. It is largely inaccessible to aid agencies and even Pyongyang residents who are kept unaware of the severity of its deprivation and suffering. The citizens of this North Korea were most directly exposed to the famine of the 1990s and are still afflicted by chronic malnutrition today. They are unable to rise up against the oppressive state apparatus because, aside from the debilitating influence of ideological indoctrination and informational isolation, they physically lack both the calories and freedom from hunger to consider anything other than daily survival. Where unrelenting propaganda and study sessions fail to inspire absolute loyalty, they are subject to the spectacle of public executions and at the mercy of marauding army units the wretched lower ranks of which are plagued by similar degrees of hunger.
Food shortages, especially outside of Pyongyang, have been an acute problem for some twenty years now. Even at the best of times North Korean agriculture is unable to sustain the population and harvests are regularly decimated by drought and floods, exasperated through extensive deforestation and soil erosion. Weather, though, is not to blame for ongoing starvation. If the regime desisted from its confiscation of farmers’ harvests allowing them to sell their produce at market prices, there would be greater motivation to work the fields instead of secret mountainside plots, and much of the population would gain access to food; in the meantime the regime has only to allow international NGOs unfettered access and fairly distribute food aid received from China and South Korea to end hunger in a matter of weeks. But feeding the disgruntled and potentially rebellious citizenry of the provinces has been far from a priority of the Kim kleptocracy. The astronomical cost of the regime’s ongoing weapons programs, including a failed long-range rocket launch this past April, the expensive embalming and maintenance of Kim Jong Il’s corpse together with lavish spending on building projects in Pyongyang are all clear testament to this.
The third North Korea is that of its extensive prison camp system. The most notorious of these are heavy labour penal colonies, euphemistically referred to as gwalliso or “management places.” There are six known gwalliso, estimated to hold some 200,000 inmates; this number is not an accumulated total but only the figure thought to be alive at any given instance. The gwalliso are a key component in the wider system of institutionalized terror that has underpinned the regime’s grip on power since the 1950s: anyone who expresses dissent or is deemed disloyal will disappear in the night together with their families from whom they are subsequently separated inside the camps. Gwalliso inmates are thus political prisoners though often they are unaware of their crime. Used as slave labour, kept barely alive on starvation rations and exposed to subzero temperatures throughout winter, death rates are high. Rape by prison guards, torture and executions are documented as common occurrences. The gwalliso and other prison camps are known about through a large corpus of consistent eye witness testimonies collected from both former guards and inmates whilst satellite photography has further confirmed their existence. Those held captive in this third North Korea are currently regarded as a people beyond help. Seoul and other foreign governments have consistently failed to confront Pyongyang on the issue. The only hope is the continued exposure of an atrocity now constituting one of the longest running crimes against humanity in modern history.
A fourth North Korea that also should not be forgotten now consists of the population of refugees hiding in China. The majority are women, many have previous experience of prison camps and all face torture and further punishment ranging up to execution if returned. Younger women who escape into China quickly become victim to traffickers; some are sold as brides to rural farmers, others into the sex industry. They are especially vulnerable to this because Chinese authorities not only refuse to recognize their refugee status, denying them legal protection, but continue to actively cooperate with North Korean security agents in tracking them down. The subsequent act of forced repatriation violates international law and the tragedy is that Beijing need only not cooperate with Pyongyang in order to save many lives. The number of North Koreans in China is thought to be in the tens of thousands; during the latter half of the previous decade, more than 2,000 were reaching South Korea each year but in 2012 the flow has dramatic decreased. Owing to enhanced border security since the death of Kim Jong Il, it is currently harder than ever before for North Koreans to escape and cross through China to reach the safety of a third country.