For 60 years, North Korean dictators have promised their people prosperity and progress. But even the best of what they can offer amounts to pretty slim pickings.
- By Adam CathcartAdam Cathcart is assistant professor of Chinese history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and editor of SinoNK.com.
North Korea has promised that it will be a “strong and prosperous” nation by April 15, 2012. It’s doubtful whether anyone inside or outside North Korea actually believes the country could possibly reach its goal this weekend; afterwards the regime will probably just move the goalposts.
Even if North Korean leaders had delivered what they promised, its citizens would have received a thin soup of interminable “glorify the leader” musicals, basic higher education, and hot sugar water on a cold day. Here’s what represents unattainable prosperity to a country whose people have lived on the brink of starvation for most of the last two decades.
Although North Koreans might not be able to afford consumer products, in a prosperous society they would never lack for the leisure of entertainment. The government is lavishing resources in 2012 on North Korea’s performing arts sector: building new theaters, sending ensembles abroad, and holding mega-concerts of new works intended to glorify Kim Jong Il’s memory. North Korean propaganda at various times has already called musicians, sculptors, artists, and writers in Pyongyang the most loyal servants of Kim Jong Un (possibly because arts were one of the few subjects where the youngest Kim is said to have scored high grades in his school). Unless one’s idea of entertainment is a laundry list of Kim family exploits, the shows can be a bit tedious.
A reported 3,000 soldiers and police officers are working around the clock to finish these 3,000 new apartment units, the showcase of a 2012 renovation in Pyongyang. Mainly being built for regime elites, they allow North Korea’s aspirational class something to strive for: the units reportedly offer 24-hour the rare luxury of 24-hour hot water.
Before Kim Jong Il died, the powerful new Organization and Guidance Department promised that 24-hour electricity would be available in the capital by the New Year to “stabilize people’s lives,” according to sources inside North Korea. Power shortages, unfortunately, remain all too common.
Kim Il Sung’s promise that all North Koreans would be able to eat meat soup and sleep under tile roofs by the 1960s rings especially hollow today; sadly, Kim Jong Un allegedly said it would take him three years to get the North Korean consumer economy back to the level of the 1960s. Hunger in North Korea remains widespread. In late December, state propaganda praised the youngest Kim for providing cold mourners with hot sugar water.
North Korean youth are supposed to enjoy a “fine socialist educational system.” Unfortunately, many students apparently have not been in class for nearly a year, subject to very onerous manual labor requirements related to building a Pyongyang that appears prosperous. It’s a vicious cycle that defectors say happens in part because the regime fears protests.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
When a country with a GDP the size of Zimbabwe’s uses it to build the world’s fifth-largest military, some imbalances are bound to occur. Life remains spartan at best for most members of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), but this week’s missile launch — and Kim Jong Un’s busy routine of honoring army units with on-site inspections — indicate food will likely continue to flow to the KPA, so North Korean people can be proud their army has “no limit to [its] striking intensity and range.”
North Korean asserts that growth in the monument sector is equated with actual material prosperity. Yesterday, North Korean officials unveiled a 25-meter tall statue to Kim Jong Il, with more planned. In the realm of bringing oversized monuments of their leaders to the people, North Korea has succeeded.
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Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at email@example.com.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.| The Cable |