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The Face of Pyongyang

kim jong il un north korea pyongyang politics totalitarian fascism brainwashThis summer, Pyongyang unveiled a bronze statue of "comrade commander" Kim Jong-il for the first time in North Korea. The event was announced with much fanfare by Gen. Kim Jong-gak, the vice director of the People’s Army’s General Political Bureau.

The publicity generated by the government evoke memories of Kim Jong-il’s ascent to power when he launched a statue campaign for his father, Kim Il Sung, some sixteen years ago. Many in Pyongyang recognize the significance of the newly anointed statue. Speculation is growing about when Kim Jong-il’s third youngest son, Kim Jong-un, will inherit the Juche ‘republic.’

But there are places in North Korea where Koreans are not as jubilant. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children reside in one of any number of concentration camps that litter the countryside where they are tortured, experimented on, and re-educated in a ‘revolutionizing zone.’ Others do forced labor and eventually starve to death in the ‘total control zone’ where they serve life sentences.

North Korean refugee Shin Dong Hyok, who was born in and spent twenty-three years in Yodok concentration camp before escaping to China in 2005, recalls that while imprisoned he did not know who Kim Jong-il was, or what Pyongyang was. Dong Hyok was serving a life sentence because he had the misfortune of being born into a family that had collaborated with South Koreans during the Korean war.

Others have been imprisoned because of their critical views on North Korea’s poor management of the economy, which has resulted in mass starvation. Indeed, the current famine in North Korea has produced hundreds of refugees fleeing to China, bringing grizzly stories with them. Malnourished children desperate for food run to the country to subsist on grass, while reports of the sale of human flesh in markets point to an increasing murder rate. Starved bodies collapse in the road and are thrown into the river which are found downstream at the South Korean border.

Yet, Pyongyang remains intact, although it is haunted by a sickening nostalgia. Architecture duller than the Third Reich but no less pretentious is decorated with analog clocks on the facade, while expansive propaganda murals molest the inner walls. The Moscow-inspired metro stations run tram cars imported from East Berlin, and the railways run crude Czechoslovak locomotives from the 50s. All the physically and mentally handicapped have all been long since been expelled and liquidated in camps, and ordinary citizens of North Korea are prohibited from accessing the city. Although food supplies in Pyongyang may diminish, foreign visitors will never see anything other than a potpourri of beer, snacks and fruits. Thankfully, tweedy Soviet-style uniforms float ubiquitously around the city to ensure no visitors talk to anyone without a state-sponsored aid.

This is why when Kim Jong-un succeeds his father, citizens of Pyongyang will indulge in hallucinatory celebrations that may rival even the sacrosanct Mass Games.

But the real propaganda is to believe that these people are merely brainwashed. Against the backdrop of a cold war kitsch aesthetic, the citizens of Pyongyang keep up a facade of support to preserve the lives of their families and friends.

It would be easier to believe they were drones who lacked perspective, indifferent to reality, but cracks are beginning to show. Uncoordinated acts of civil disobedience flourished briefly in the wake of the currency reform program of 2009 before being brutally suppressed. Refugee testimonies continue to fill in what was once an incomprehensible puzzle, and foreign media seeps in through the borders and the airwaves at increasing rates.

For a brief moment during regime change, Pyongyang might show that true revolutionary action -- against the Kim dynasty -- is possible. North Koreans will not feel happy and proud of this succession.  Don't believe the propaganda.

Dave Zeglen is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.


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