On the second day of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ North Korea week, Mr. Kim Heung Kwang, the Executive Director of the North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, gave a lecture entitled “North Korea’s Domestic Situation in 2012.” At the beginning of his remarks, Kim stressed that he tried to capture the “real picture of North Korea,” using real facts gathered from colleagues still in the country, so as to make the lecture more “meaningful” for the participants.
Kim briefly explained his background on North Korea, highlighting how he worked as a community college professor for thirteen years but ultimately decided to leave because he, “couldn’t find a bright future of the nation.” Kim then commented on Kim Jong-un’s recent rise to power. Specifically, he highlighted how to date, the young leader lacks any official accomplishments and therefore has been imitating his grandfather with the hopes that the North Korean people will embrace him as their leader. Kim concluded that after a temporary period of people having “hopes for a better future”, the North Korean people are now “losing hope about the future.” Despite the regime’s ability to remain solvent, Kim said he believes the situation is “declining slowly.”
Following up on this, Kim identified supporting elements that play a role in sustaining the North Korean regime and social system. Kim said that North Korea is led by its Juche ideology which he described as the “main engine that enlists support from the North Korean people,” underscoring Pyongyang’s copious use of propaganda. He also pointed to Juche’s significance in securing the military’s support, which is undoubtedly a necessary asset in solidifying a power base in North Korea.
The second supporting element Kim chose to talk about was class struggle within North Korean society. Kim pointed to Communist Russia as an example with which the attendees could compare and contrast the gradual disappearance of social mobility. He continued to speak about how subsequent generations were increasingly divided by level of effort and competition among classes. Kim explained that those at the bottom rungs of society “couldn’t have hopes” while those towards the top of the social ladder created their own struggle. Kim said that while during the early stages of this process social mobility did exist, now there is “no movement in the social system or stratification,” which makes it “a very important element of the North Korean system.”
North Korea’s unique relationship with China was third on Kim’s list. When talking about this unusual connection, he said, “North Korea has blood ties with China.” Kim explained that he chose to use “blood ties” to describe this relationship because the dynamics between the two countries go far deeper than typical diplomatic relations between friendly nations. This description might have been analogous to his comments regarding the large oil pipelines that run through Sinuiju and China’s ability to literally cut off the flow of oil to North Korea. Kim said that if North Korea didn’t have access to heavy oil all the factories would stop and there would be no cars on the road. Therefore “China is also an important factor.”
The last element on Kim’s list was North Korean market places. Kim said that North Koreans now live in a society where they eat and produce goods and services, which he noted is indicative of a “market socialist society.” According to Kim even large state conglomerates sell their products in market places that did not exist before. He added that if a North Korean needs rice or clothes or other necessities for survival, they no longer rely on the public distribution system.
Kim continued to talk about several other topics, one of which was his support for grassroots movements in North Korea. He said that change in North Korea must come from the “bottom up” and that by doing so the “themes of change can be rooted in North Korean society.” Kim’s organization, North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, produces digital content for distribution in North Korea, which he thinks is “very meaningful.” He continued by citing some remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about bringing positive change to North Korea by disseminating information to the people. Kim continued by saying “we cannot use force to collapse North Korea. We cannot put pressure on North Korea, that wasn’t useful. Therefore, we have to pursue positive change we have to enlighten the North Korean people.”
In closing Kim said that North Korea’s socialist ideology and system have been “turned away by the North Korean people.” He continued to say that “now the only thing North Korean people are thinking is how to make a living and provide a good environment for their children.
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