The Four North Koreas

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.

Biographical notes on Yu Deuk-gong (柳得恭 1748-1807)

Below is a biographical overview of the poet-historian Yu Deuk-gong who is regarded as one of the  “practical learning” (實學 silhak) scholars and associated with the Northern Learning school (北學派 bukhak-pa).  Whilst “practical learning” is a relatively loose term applied retrospectively to all of the slightly progressive thinkers of the later Joseon dynasty, the Northern Learning scholars were a close-knit group of genuine friends.  To my knowledge, there is not much information on Yu’s life in English so hopefully it is of interest.

Unless otherwise stated, the information is taken from Jeong (1998), referenced at the bottom.  I include also a quote taken from a letter written to Yu by one of his close friends, Bak Je-ga; this has been skillfully translated by Marion Eggert and is found in Epistolary Korea edited by Haboush (2009).  For the sake of variation lunar months are sometimes referred to by calendar month names, so July means “the 7th lunar month.”

Yu Deuk-gong (柳得恭) was born into a destitute yangban family on the 5th day of the 11th lunar month, 1748 (Yeongjo 24). It is thought he was born at his mother’s house in Namyang (南陽, modern Hwaseong city, Gyeonggi province), Baekgok (白谷). Just four years after his father, Yu Chun (柳瑃 1726-52), died at the age of twenty-seven. He was thus brought up by his mother, Madam Hong of Namyang (南陽洪氏, 土洪 Tohong branch, 1725-1801), alongside his two, only slightly older, paternal uncles Yu Min and Yu Ryeon (柳玟 1733-54 and 柳璉 1741-88; their own mother, his grandmother, having died in 1750), who treated him much as a brother. Many of Deuk-gong’s paternal relatives died during widespread epidemics of smallpox and cholera which had reduced the household to poverty. Alongside affection, therefore, great expectations were placed on Deuk-gong to continue the family line; in 1758 his mother moved the family to Seoul to further his education. They lived in the central district of Gyeonghaengbang (慶幸坊, to the northeast of present day Tapgol ‘Pagoda’ Park) where Yu’s resourceful mother supported the household taking in sewing work from more affluent families.

From around the age of eighteen onwards, Deuk-gong began to associate with the circle of contemporaries known as the Northern Learning (北學派 bukhak-pa) scholars which principally included Hong Dae-yong (洪大容 1731-83), Bak Ji-won (朴趾源 1737-1805), I Deok-mu (李德懋 1741-93), Bak Je-ga (朴齊家 1750-1805) and I Seo-gu (李書九 1754-1825) as well as Yu himself. In particular, Yu Deuk-gong and his surviving uncle were close to Hong Dae-yong who was from a related branch of the same Hong clan as his mother. Hong became the first of their circle to visit Beijing in 1766 where he formed friendships with several Chinese scholars and brought back accounts of the state of development in China to his younger friends who in the meanwhile passed much of their days drinking and composing poetry, self-styling themselves the Baektap-dong’in (白塔同人 ‘White Pagoda Companions’).

Apart from Hong and Bak Ji-won, the others all came from secondary lineages and so were disqualified from seeking high office. In Deuk-gong’s case, his paternal great-grandfather, Yu Sam-ik (柳三益 b.1670), had been born to an unofficial second wife some thirty-two years younger than Sam-ik’s father and as a consequence Deuk-gong’s lineage was officially regarded as an illegitimate line of descent. The effect of this discrimination naturally encouraged the friends to develop a more critical awareness of their society and in a bid to challenge the hardened dogma of their times, they turned to the neighbouring Qing as a model for development.

Yu Deuk-gong married Madam I of Jeonju (全州李氏) in 1770 but shortly after, his grandfather, Yu Han-sang (柳漢相 1707-70), died and for two years he took on mourning responsibilities in place of his own late father. Notably during this time he compiled a collection of ancient Korean poems covering the period from Gi Ja to Later Baekje, titled Dongsimeng (東詩萌 ‘Poetic Buds of the East’), of which only the preface still survives. Yu’s marriage produced two sons and two daughters.

Sometime in early 1773 Yu passed the sogwa (小科) lower civil service examination, attaining the title of saengwon (生員), and in the spring he went on a trip to Gaesong and Pyeongyang for the first time together with I Deok-mu and Bak Je-ga. His impressions were left behind in two short collections, Songgyeong-jabjeol (松京雜絶 ‘Miscellaneous Quatrains of the Pine Capital’) and Seogyeong-jabjeol (西京雜絶 ‘Miscellaneous Quatrains of the Western Capital’) consisting of nine and fifteen poems respectively. After returning he failed the higher mun’gwa (文科) civil service examination and subsequently visited the region of Gongju (公州), one of the former Baekje capitals.

With prospects for his future looking decidedly bleak, a significant event occurred when, in late 1776, Deuk-gong’s uncle, Yu Ryeon, had the occasion to accompany an envoy to Beijing in the position of makgwan (幕官). The emissary of the mission, Seo Ho-su (徐浩修) had been instructed by King Jeongjo to obtain a complete copy of the monumental Gujin Tushu Jicheng (古今圖書集成 ‘Complete Collection of Ancient and Modern Illustrations and Writings,’ 1725) encyclopedia; according to Deuk-gong, it was his uncle who successfully found it.

On the trip, Yu Ryeon took with him a collection of 399 poems consisting of a hundred each composed by Yu Deok-gong, I Deok-mu, Bak Je-ga and I Seo-gu, titled Han’gaekgeon’yeon-jip (韓客巾衍集 ‘Small Collection of the Korean Wayfarer’). Whilst searching for acquaintances of Hong Dae-yong in the Liulichang district of Beijing, Yu Ryeon found a copy of Li Diaoyuan’s (李調元 1734-1803) Huanghua-ji (皇華集) and visiting the author, he received a ‘critical preface’ (序評) for Hangaekgeon’yeon-jip. He received a second ‘title preface’ (題序) from Pan Tingyun (潘庭筠 반정균) and the following year Li Diaoyuan had it published. On the strength of the work’s appraisal, the four young poets became known in Beijing as the ‘new four masters of Literary Chinese’ (漢文大四家) even before they had set foot there themselves. This was in reference to the four poets, I Jeong-gu (李廷龜, 1564-1635), Sin Heum (申欽, 1566-1628), Jang Yu (張維, 1587-1638) and I Sik (李植, 1584-1647) who had been termed the ‘four great masters of Literary Chinese’ (漢文四大家).

In the third lunar month of 1778, I Deok-mu and Bak Je-ga had their first opportunity to visit and they took with them Yu’s recently completed Sib’yukdo-hoegosi (十六都懷古詩 ‘Nostalgic Reflections of the Sixteen Capitals,’ – the number was subsequently revised to twenty-one as it is now known) which won further high praise from Pan Tingyun and others. Yu himself first visited China in the seventh month, separately accompanying an official envoy in the position of makha (幕下) sent to pay greetings to the Qianlong Emperor who was visiting the imperial tombs at Shenyang. Just after setting out, he in fact met his two friends on their return journey at Gaeseong. Yu spent some two and a half months in Manchuria travelling through the former territories of Goguryeo and Balhae.

Upon his return the following year, Yu was then selected to serve as a geomseogwan (檢書官) editor at the Gyujanggak (奎章閣) royal library, established only three years earlier, together with I Deok-mu, Bak Je-ga and Seo I-su (徐理修 1749-1802). These appointments were part of a wider policy enacted under King Jeongjo (r.1776-1800) to reduce official discrimination against secondary sons and offer an alternative route into officialdom for those deemed talented enough amongst them. The position finally brought to Yu’s life some stability and ended his continued state of relative poverty. It also gave him access to many books aiding his study of ancient history which likely contributed to his subsequent volume on Balhae, Balhae-go (渤海考 ‘Study of Balhae’ 1784), today regarded as a seminal contribution to Korean historiography.

After two years’ tenure he was made a civil official and from 1783 onwards served as a regional official, first as the chalbang (察訪) county station master of Geumjeong (金井) and then as gunsu (郡守) county magistrate of Yanggeun (1788) and Ga’pyeong (1792) before becoming busa (府使) of Pungcheon (1800). Throughout this period he would at times return to Gyujanggak to work on editing and revision projects.

Yu finally visited Beijing in 1790 when, together with Bak Je-ga, he accompanied an emissary dispatched for the 80th birthday celebration of Qianlong. They were originally planning to arrive in Beijing for the festivities beginning the 8th of lunar August (all following months refer to lunar months), but after arriving at Uiju (義州) on the border with China on June 11th, where they remained for ten days, they received instruction that their destination had been changed to Jehol (熱河, modern Chengde) and must reach there in time to attend a banquet to be held on July 10th. Hurriedly departing, on 23 June the party divided themselves at the border town of Zhamen (柵門) with Yu, Bak and just four others accompanying their ambassador to Jehol on a road (熱河路) which had never officially before or after been travelled by Koreans and had no rest stations along the way. By July 10th they had barely covered half the distance to Jehol, and finally arrived on the 15th in time for another banquet being held the following day. Departing Jehol on the 21st they subsequently arrived in Beijing. Reentering Joseon on 10th October the total journey was around 135 days; Nan’yang-nok (灤陽錄 ‘Record of Luanyang’) completed the following year is his combined poetic and prose account. Upon his return he was bestowed the rank of jeyonggam (濟用監) judge.

Yu retired from office shortly after his last post in January 1801 (Sunjo 1) and the following month left on a mission to Beijing, his third and final trip to China. Yu was requested to accompany a courtesy envoy dispatched by the Joseon court after a Qing envoy had visited to express condolences for the death of King Jeonjo. Due to hesitation amidst concern for his aging mother, he departed a few days late, catching up with the main envoy near Pyeongyang. In Beijing Yu was tasked with finding a good edition of Zhu Xi’s works (朱子書 – the granddaddy of Neo-Confucianism), but was informed by his Chinese acquaintances that Zhu Xi was no longer studied and despite spending some thirty-two days there he was unable to procure any copies. His record of the roughly 107 day journey is Yeondaejaeyu-rok (燕臺再遊錄 ‘Return to Yantai’).

In his final years he compiled two further significant works, the Gyeongdo-japji (京都雜誌 ‘Seoul Miscellany’) recording descriptions of local folk customs from around the capital, and a historical study of the so-called Han Commanderies, Sagun-ji (四郡志 ‘History of the Four Counties/Commanderies’).

Yu passed away during the 7th lunar month of 1807 and was buried on Mount Song (松山) in Yangju (楊州, modern Nakyang-dong in Uijeongbu city) beneath the grave of his 11th generation ancestor Gamchal-gong (監察公) Yu Seung-jo (柳乘祖).

From Bak Je-ga to Yu Deuk-gong (date unknown):

Rain has drizzled down like cow’s spittle for three days on end.  The lanes around your living quarters must be muddy indeed.  For a long time I have wished to be able to talk to you, my beloved friend, but I would have to sit for such a long time while riding to you.  If I don’t ride, I will have to walk a long way, and so I hesitate.  I should just sell my mule and buy a house so I could live closer to you – how happy we would be!

Haboush, JaHyun Kim, ed. Epistolary Korea. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Jeong Jin-heon 정진헌. Silhakja Yu Deuk-gong ui godaesa insik 실학자 유득공의 고대사 인식. Seoul: Doseochulpan Sinseowon, 1998.

My name is Kim Jong Un and I’ve recently become leader of North Korea – what should I do next?

Having secured your position as paramount leader, at least nominally (but supported by your powerful aunt and uncle), you could and should…

First, in the realms of realistic possibility:

  • Allow people to openly trade and for local markets to operate without major restrictions (this will end much of the widespread hunger and buy you a lot of time from your own people – not that they ever mattered to your father).
  • Implement economic reforms entrusting economic policy to technocrats in the Cabinet who have visited China and know what could be done.
  • Implement agricultural reforms allowing farmers greater freedom to tend their own plots and for cooperatives to sell more of their produce in local markets keeping profits so that they can invest in farm inputs and feel motivated.
  • Ask for immediate food aid and farm inputs (seed and fertilizer) from SK and distribute it fairly.
  • Stop further military provocations and tone down propaganda rhetoric against SK (your only sympathetic friend to balance against China).
  • Not carry out another nuclear test as this is the one thing that can alienate Beijing on whom you most rely.
  • Start to make Military First politics a more abstract notion which is spoken of but practiced less.

In the realms of (our) ideal hope:

  • Stop hunting down and punishing border crossers and release all short-term prisoners.
  • Stop exporting slave labour to Russia’s Far East and China or at least improve their conditions.
  • Allow NGOs already operating in NK greater access to the provinces.
  • Normalize the gulag prison camps to administrative districts; allow in, or supply, aid and alleviate forced labour practices, executions and torture.
  • Implement more dramatic economic reforms following the Chinese and Vietnamese models which technocrats in your regime have already been studying.
  • Renounce pursuit of nuclear weapons (admittedly difficult in the light of Libya) to improve relations with SK and the international community.

In the realms of fancy:

  • Implement political reform along the lines of Burma.
  • Skip breakfast.

Admittedly, if you attempt economic reforms too fast, too early, you would run a high risk of coup d’état. However, this risk is to a large degree mitigated because you’ve already been officially raised to such a position that any attempt, even if successful, would throw the wider regime into chaos, something no one with any current vested interests (i.e. anyone potentially powerful enough to carry out a coup) would want.

Either way, you can strengthen your position by seeking Beijing’s help to initiate economic reforms.  Beijing would be overjoyed to see such developments in NK.  Unlike the West or Seoul, it would not attempt to instigate regime change because this would involve overthrowing its closest ally and lead to the instability it so massively fears.  Beijing wants to see more pragmatic, economically liberal leadership in Pyongyang: you just have to demonstrate the required pragmatism.

First Post!


Welcome to this new blog where I will update the world with some of my thoughts and research (much of it tentative) relating to Korea.

Because I have recently written a short book on North Korea, there will be some emphasis on this area!

Contrary to my natural demeanor there will be some attempt at self-promotion, so to begin with, here is the book North Korea: The Answers.