Tuesday, 3 February 2009

A Closer Look at North Korea

To a person living in a full-blown capitalist country, North Korea might look like an extremely bizarre place. As one of the few places left on Earth that still believes in the importance of constructing socialism in order to move towards communism, North Korea is subjected to a barrage of very hostile criticism from various capitalist governments as well as opinion leaders. This should not come as a big surprise; whenever a country's government attempts to do things differently, many people often react by exhibiting distrust and destructive criticism. The capitalist economic model currently prevails in most of the world's countries and any nation that dares to challenge such a model risks being regarded as a gross irregularity by countless capitalists; something that is totally unacceptable.

To many people born and bred in the highly-competitive and excessively individualist cultures that are encouraged in capitalist countries, any discourse praising collectivism and co-operation over cut-throat competition might sound rather odd. In a discourse entitled Abuses of Socialism are Intolerable (1993), Kim Jong Il had stated "Collectivism is an essential quality of socialism and a source of the latter's superiority and validity. Collectivism is, in short, the concept of valuing the interests of the collective more than one's own individual interests. In socialist society, where all the working people have been transformed into socialist working people, the whole society becomes one big family whose members are united with one another through their common interests. Collectivism in socialist society finds expression in a high regard for the interests of the state and society. Socialist collectivism does not set the interests of the state and society against those of individuals; it ensures that they coincide....Socialist collectivism is against the pursuance of only individual interests at the expense of those of the state and society, yet not against the interests of individuals" (pp. 142-143).

Apart from reading North Korean government literature, I have also read other material about the country; material written by individuals who have lived and worked in North Korea. Indeed, I have recently finished reading Michael Harrold's Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea(2004). Mr Harrold was the first UK citizen who spent more than 5 years working in the country. Although he never became an enthusiastic supporter of the North Korean government, he did admit that "Despite the propaganda bluster about battling to raise production output and resisting the enemy to the last drop of one's blood, life was peaceful, if not idyllic, and far less frenetic than what I was used to back home. There weren't the pressures associated with finding and keeping a job. There were none of the financial concerns of paying mortgages, taxes and bills. Housing was guaranteed, the children's education would be taken care of; medical treatment was provided free of charge" (pp. 347-348). On a similar note, Kim Jong Il had asserted the following in the same discourse mentioned above: "In our country there are no jobless people, nor anyone who cannot receive education and medical treatment, nor are there vagrants or beggars...In our country our Party, a Juche revolutionary party, bears the responsibility for the destiny of the people as a political guide of society, leads them forward and takes meticulous care of all aspects of their life..." (p. 145).

I do not believe that this world has any perfect government or country. One can always identify things that could be improved or changed. In the case of North Korea, although capitalist supporters might use every mistake or problem as an indicator that "socialism does not work", it is fundamental to bear the country's specific circumstances in mind. With thousands of US troops stationed in South Korea and with talk of using aggression against North Korea in the US, one should not be so surprised to read about the importance given to the North Korean military forces by the region's government. How would you feel if you knew that the world's strongest military power was toying with the idea of bombing you to smithereens???

As far as the capitalist countries are concerned, it is amazing to notice that whilst thousands are losing their jobs (please see the Layoff Tracker for more information), the millions of individuals whose well-being depends on their monthly salaries are still almost constantly exposed to countless articles as well as TV features about the holiday destinations of various celebrities and about the exclusive dresses that are going to be worn by a very small percentage of the world's population during the Oscar ceremony. As one hops from one TV channel to another, it seems much easier to find the same celebrity on different channels than to witness the difficulties faced by thousands of individuals as they struggle to find jobs and to stay away from the grip of poverty. Such a situation brings to mind the following words uttered by Kim Jong Il during his 1993 discourse: "The long-cherished desire of the people to live free from any worries can only be realised in a socialist society in which the party and the state take responsible care of the people's life. In a capitalist society a carefree life for the working people is inconceivable. In this society even those who are fairly well-to-do are always fearful of sudden bankruptcy, job-loss and poverty. Living a prosperous life in idleness without any thought for others cannot be regarded as a genuine human life...The most important aspect of people's lives is to realise the demand of their political integrity to unite and cooperate with one another amid the love and trust of the social community. People cannot lead a life worthy of human beings and develop their political integrity in capitalist society in which the dignity and personality of the working people are trampled underfoot without scruple because of the privileges enjoyed by capital...Destroying the socialist order of life is a criminal act which makes the popular masses the victims of crime and social evil" (pp. 137-138).

All the photos shown above were taken by Eric Lafforgue during his visits to North Korea in 2008.

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