About the Author
View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Chinese officials, in both Washington and Beijing, tend to shake their heads in feigned disbelief and cite the Mandarin phrase “mei banfa” (沒辦法) when speaking about their petulant North Korean ally. This term loosely means “no way” or “nothing can be done.” It also, however, gives the implication of releasing the speaker from any responsibility for an obviously messed-up situation.
The Chinese public, on the other hand, tends to have a strongly negative view of their northern neighbor, which can be at odds with the leadership’s reluctant tolerance of its incorrigible buffer state. This lack of fondness for North Korea among the Chinese man-in-the-street was clearly demonstrated by a recent anti-Kim Jong-un demonstration in the northeast city of Yangzhou.
As reported by UPI on September 30th: “In images that were captured prior to their removal from the internet (by government censors), protesters were seen holding red banners that read, ‘Let’s overthrow the Kim dynasty,’ and ‘hang Kim Jong Un by the neck in an execution.’”
Yet there is also a clear fascination with a society that seems odd even by post-Mao-era Chinese standards. Large cruise ships ply the docks on the Yalu River in the Chinese northeast city of Dandong waiting to take Chinese tourists, cameras in hand, on a river cruise.
These tour boats move toward the opposite shore, which is North Korean territory, so that the tourists can gawk at their beleaguered, famished North Korean allies waiting on piers to be transported to some low-level, undesirable job along the river border. As they point and chatter excitedly in Mandarin, one can almost hear the words “there but for the grace of Deng Xiaoping go I.”
Yet there is also a clear fascination with a society that seems odd even by post-Mao-era Chinese standards
NOT SO DIFFERENT
And that is clearly the point. For a China cut loose from the xenophobic extremism of Chairman Mao and his Gang of Four only a little more than a generation ago bears a clear responsibility for the way North Korean society has evolved. It is obvious, of course, that without Mao Zedong’s decision to have Chinese forces intervene in the Korean War in October, 1950, when Kim Il Sung had his back to the wall, there would be no North Korea as we know it today.
Nationalist Koreans, including North Korea’s Kim family, would have a difficult time admitting this. But it is also true that Chinese cultural themes have been a major underpinning of Korean society for well over a millennium. Not only major cultural currents, like Chinese characters, calligraphy, Buddhism, and Confucianism, but also everyday cultural items like chopsticks, rice, tea, and jade pendants permeate contemporary Korean society.
As far as the cult of the personality is concerned, one should recall that before there were ever Kim Il Sung pins there were Mao buttons. The New York Times reported in an October 19, 2003 article titled “The Last Emperor” that “In the early 1970’s, North Koreans began wearing lapel pins bearing the likeness of the Great Leader, as the official media described Kim Il Sung; he was portrayed as, basically, infallible.” Mao buttons and the Little Red Book “
Mao buttons and the Little Red Book “Quotations from Chairman Mao,” of course, preceded this, showing up with the Red Guards at the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966.
STARVATION BY DESIGN
And before regime-induced starvation ever came to North Korea in the form of the Great Famine of the mid-1990s and beyond, there was Mao’s famine – linked to the irresponsible Great Leap Forward’s economic policies which left an estimated 30 million dead during a 1958-62 grain shortage.
The replacement of family plots by communes as part of the socialist collectivization of agriculture and the political pressure to inflate crop harvest statistics because of unrealistically high production quotas were key contributors to the resulting mass starvation.
Mao’s famine is chronicled in detail in journalist Jasper Becker’s epic work Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (1996), based on hundreds of interviews with peasant survivors in the countryside. Jasper paints a grim picture of Maoist fantasy-like agrarian policies: “The leadership insisted that the harvest of 1959 would be as good as that of 1958, so county officials strove to outdo each other in reporting good results…(they) declared that despite the drought, the 1959 harvest in (the) region was 3.92 tonnes, double the real figure…By the start of winter,” Becker wrote further, “it was clear that the peasants had nothing to eat but tree bark, wild grass seeds and wild vegetables.”
…the movement of persons from a deprived China under Mao into a then more prosperous North Korea was completely reversed
In his review of Becker’s book for the New York Times, Richard Bernstein noted: “At the larger, horrific center of Mr. Becker’s account is the widespread resort among the Chinese people to that most sickening form of desperation: cannibalism, the selling of human flesh on the market, the swapping of children so people could use them for food without committing the additional sin of eating their own.”
Sound familiar? I remember well the disputed reports of cannibalism in North Korea that reached the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in the late 1990s when I was serving there.
Almost four decades after the Great Leap Forward, similarly misguided policies would produce another largely man-made famine in North Korea. Known for ideological reasons as the “Arduous March,” (Mao Zedong preceded the North Koreans in being a big fan of sloganeering), the famine was caused by systemic failures as much as by historic flooding “of biblical proportions.” Pyongyang’s inflexible, centrally planned system had no effective response.
FAILURE OF CENTRAL PLANNING
As a result, the movement of people from a deprived China under Mao into a then more prosperous North Korea was completely reversed. Now the population flow involves refugees risking life and limb to leave their poverty-stricken North Korean homeland to reach the bright lights on the booming Chinese side of the border.
In rural China “food was distributed in communal mess halls free of charge according to individual requirements,” a system very similar to the Public Distribution System (PDS) in North Korea. PDS was introduced in the DPRK initially for employees of state companies upon the state’s founding in 1945 but was expanded to the larger population by the mid-1950s.
Unlike China, where food rationing was phased out as part of Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Modernizations,” which included agriculture, in 1978 (Deng famously proclaimed to the peasants that “to get rich is glorious”) PDS continued until it broke down as a result of the Great Famine of the mid-1990s.
In an article appearing in the Asia Times on January 15, 2005, Andrei Lankov wrote: “The collapse of the PDS in 1993-95 is remembered by most North Koreans as a turning point in their lives… Indeed, the end of the PDS (which was never formally abolished) heralded the start of a new life.
“Old certainties were gone, and nobody could take for granted even one’s own physical survival.” Private plots arrived as a direct result of the PDS’s demise. In an article titled “Small Plot Farming in North Korea” Eunjeong Suh noted: “With the famine in the 1990s and persistent food crises in the decade following the famine, private plot farming has become widespread in North Korea.”
The North Korean system of classification of individuals by class, the so-called songbun system, also has clear ideological antecedents in Maoist ideology.
Maoist class divisions based on one’s ancestry and previous social status preceded North Korea’s songbun. After mainland China fell to Mao’s Red Army forces in 1949, captured Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) POWs were used as cannon fodder by the so-called People’s Volunteer Army when it intervened in the Korean War a year later.
At least one million, and perhaps as many as four million, were killed in the Land Reform campaign (1947-52) in which land in rural China was forcibly taken from the landlord class and the peasants were encouraged to kill their former overlords.
Up to two million then died in the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries (1950-53), in which former Kuomintang supporters, businessmen and intellectuals were purged and subjected to mass trials. The Three-Antis Campaign (1951) was directed specifically at “capitalist roaders” while “the withdrawal from the sects” movement (1951-53) went after religious believers.
The famed “Hundred Flowers” campaign (1956-57: “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend“) was designed specifically to root out approximately half a million intellectuals by lulling them into a false sense of security to speak out before sending them to labor camps. (These camps were likely a partial inspiration for North Korea’s own gulags, the kwaliso.)
North Koreans, however, can thank Chairman Mao for even more than just a legacy of famine and class labeling
This was followed by the famed “Anti-Rightest Movement” (1957-59) which specifically targeted ideologically-suspect “experts” such as engineers and technocrats. Then came the complete social breakdown and mass killings of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) where teachers, university professors and suspect party leaders were paraded through the streets in dunce caps before being tortured and killed.
Mao dryly observed in one of his famous quotations: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.” North Korea’s songbun system seems one of the ideological offspring that the Chairman’s infamous quote helped to spawn.
North Koreans, however, can thank Chairman Mao for even more than just a legacy of famine and class labeling. The particular strain of peasant-based rather than worker-based Marxism which Mao designed has shown a particular disdain for the urban and the intellectual. “Red” over “expert” was the watchword. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 17 million were shipped out of the cities to perform “re-education through labor” and to learn from the uneducated peasants in the remote countryside.
Career diplomat David Dean chronicled an eye witness account of this in his work Unofficial Diplomacy: “Mary and I were witnesses, watching from a window in our apartment in Beijing, to a sad ‘ceremony’ sending hundreds of students to the far-reaches of China…And there were crowds of parents weeping bitterly as their children boarded special buses. Some would never see their son(s) or daughter again. Being sent down to the countryside frequently meant permanent exile.”
North Korea also has a long record of sending “undesirable” or “suspect” elements to Hamgyeongdo and other far-flung, rural corners of the nation. The most egregious example of the “emptying of cities,” however, occurred when those Maoist copycats, the Khmer Rouge, took Phnom Penh in 1975.
They then proceeded to empty the Cambodian capital, shooting many suspected intellectuals, identified by the wearing of eyeglasses, for good measure. The late Academy Award-winning actor Haing Ngor, who starred in the film “The Killing Fields,” observed this in his autobiography: “Except for their dark skins, everything about the Khmer Rouge was alien, from China.”
“They had borrowed their ideology from Mao…like the concept of the Great Leap Forward. Sending the intellectuals to the countryside to learn from the peasants was an idea of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Their AK-47s and their olive green caps and their trucks were Chinese. Even the music they played from the loudspeakers was Chinese, with Khmer words.” Some two million Cambodians died in the resulting genocide, a number comparable to the up-to-two million who perished in the Great North Korean famine.
Jasper Becker discussed North Korea’s famine, and its similarities to the famine in Mao’s China, in a 1998 postscript to his book Hungry Ghosts: “This famine, which resembles so closely the the famine that killed at least 30 million Chinese may be even more deadly…the death toll in North Korea may represent a larger proportion of the population than the Chinese famine.”
Both the genocidal killings in Cambodia and the mass starvation in North Korea can arguably be laid, in an ideological sense, squarely at the doorstep of Chairman Mao. And what would be the Chairman’s likely response? Mei banfa!
Feature image: Thoughts of Hyungjk