'Where then is truth' declaimed Bedap, and yawned,
'In the hill one happens to be sitting on.'
(From 'The Dispossesed' by Ursula K Le Guin).
Have we got the DPRK wrong? Yes there are serious human rights abuses, food shortages, no freedom of movement, no freedom of expression. But what if you look at the DPRK within its own terms, a Juche state that has held out against American imperialism for 54 years. The state has survived the effective collapse of the economy through playing off various powers against each other. Yes 1-2% of the population exist in gulags, but what proportion of Americans are part of the US prison industrial complex?
I have never been to the DPRK but, like many people I am curious about it. I have read a number of journalistic and survivor accounts of life within the DPRK. It still remains a mystery. But what shines through strongly in accounts like Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick's collection of defector stories, 'Nothing to Envy' is that love, friendship, passion still exists beneath the monotonous facade we are presented on news channels. Daily life, family life, matchmaking, angling for a promotion, passing an exam, the small p politics of life all carry on.
The DPRK is a relic of the great dislocations of the 20th century and whilst it was a Stalinist puppet state, especially in the early years it is also a reminder that disaffection with 19th century capitalism eventually led to Marxism and an ideological rift in world politics.
Ideas about how to run society are still violently contested and there is no reason why these ideological dramas that led to the conditions for the creation of North Korea and the Kim dynasty could not be re-run in East Asia or in different parts of the world.
I think the DPRK is interesting as an object lesson in how far autocracy can go. As Paul French states in 'State of Paranoia' his analysis of the politics of the DPRK the regime must still enjoy significant buy in from large sections of the population otherwise it would have been overthrown long ago. French argues that was certainly the case in earlier decades where the peasant farmers, who had a torrid time under the Japanese occupation had quite modest goals to 'eat rice every day, have silk clothes and live in a tile roofed house'.
With pro-democracy protests coming to the end of the first phase in Hong Kong what is the future of the Asian century. Which of China's satellites might be a model for C21st society, HK or DPRK?