The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a destitute and reviled state, yet it endures. Despite periodic foreign predictions of imminent collapse, the Kim family regime manages to carry on from one year to the next.
How can the world’s worst government continue to exist for more than six decades? The standard explanation has been that its rulers, three generations of the Kim family, have been able to wall off their society. As a result of the isolation, Kim Il Sung, who founded the miserable state, was then able to convince his subjects that he had mystical powers.
God in the human form of Kim Il Sung created a new reality. He convinced the Korean people he could control the weather, arrange bountiful harvests, and transcend both time and space. “We were told that he crossed the river on a bridge of leaves and then he threw pine cones and they turned into grenades,” says Ahn Hyeok, a North Korean and former political prisoner. “We heard this over and over, and we really believed that. So naturally we idolized him.” The charismatic Kim exploited his people so well they did not feel oppressed.
But of course they were. Kim Il Sung, with an obsessive thoroughness, built the most repressive totalitarian system in history. His overlapping security organizations were efficient, ubiquitous, ruthless. The regime had, in the words of the Peterson Institute’s Marcus Noland, “an astonishing capacity for coercion.”
Today, the state relies on its security services more than at any time in its history. Why? Because the Kim family’s monopoly on information has eroded. Recent years have seen a proliferation of smuggled radios, DVDs, and USB drives. Along the border with China, North Koreans can plug into Chinese networks and talk to their relatives in South Korea on illegally possessed cell phones.
Legal cell phones in North Korea are not so useful. Most of them cannot dial out of the country or even be used outside the city where they are registered. Many phones have been disabled and no longer have their video camera, memory card, and Bluetooth functions.
Despite these restrictions, information is inevitably spreading around the country. And as North Koreans learn about the outside world and even their own country, the regime is becoming more dependent on its security services to maintain control. Ken Gause of CNA, a non-profit research organization based in Alexandria, Virginia, has just released Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State, which details exactly how the Kims have been able to successfully repress millions of their fellow Koreans since the end of the Second World War. As his report (PDF), released by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, notes, Kim Il Sung established his security apparatus with Moscow’s assistance in the 1940s and modeled it on the Soviet secret police.
Today, three organizations—the State Security Department, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Military Security Command—rule over “an all-pervasive system” that purges “enemies of the revolution,” “enemies within the revolution,” and everyone outside the Kim family circle. As Gause’s report notes, “North Korea’s internal security agencies rely on constant surveillance, a network of informants in every neighborhood, and the threat of punishment in North Korea’s notorious prison camps to ensure the Kim regime’s total control.”
North Koreans do not believe Kim Jong Un, the current ruler, is a god, and many do not want him in power, but it does not matter. He has inherited the world’s most comprehensive police state.
Photo Credit: Gilad Rom