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Update No: 108 - (26/06/12)

North Korea: Suffer the little children….
June’s main event in North Korea occurred early in the month. The task of building up Kim Jong-eun as a credible leader continues, and Pyongyang’s peculiar political culture adds its own burdens. On the one hand, thrusting a callow twenty-something into the top slot merely because of who his father was compels a relentless emphasis on continuity. Now and for evermore, Kim Jong-eun must be lauded as the political heir and inheritor – the biological link as such goes unmentioned – of his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Jong-eun.


Continuity, but also change
Yet that alone is not enough. Given the DPRK’s problems, ‘same old same old’ on its own would not be a palatable message. Not that anyone is asking the people their view, but even a system as top-down as North Korea cannot wholly neglect the popular mood. So the leaden stress on continuity must also be leavened by hints of change, offering hope for the future.

Faced with these conflicting pulls of continuity and change, Kim Jong-eun or those behind him made an interesting and clever choice: to hold a massive children’s party. Over 20,000 “model members” of the Korean Children’s Union (KCU), drawn from all over the country, came together in Pyongyang during June 3-8 to mark the organisation’s 66th birthday.

Though every child in North Korea must belong, it has been a long time, if ever, since the KCU found itself so much in the spotlight. Founded in 1946 at the very outset of the regime – two years before the DPRK itself was proclaimed – its anniversary was celebrated with pomp and pageantry as only North Korea knows how. Beginning a fortnight beforehand this occasion filled the media, first with eager anticipation and then with the various events, from mass parades to “birthday spreads” provided for a lucky few, and much more. As the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) put it when first announcing these plans on May 21:

[The children] will tour the plaza of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the old home of President Kim Il Sung in Mangyongdae, the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery on Mt. Taesong, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Memorial Tower and other places in Pyongyang and take part in colorful political and cultural events including a concert given by Unhasu Orchestra to mark the occasion, a joint national meeting of the Korean Children's Union organizations, a schoolchildren's TV meeting to tell stories related to their ample knowledge, high morality and strong body and a performance of schoolchildren's art groups from across the country. They will spend happy and pleasant days at the modern funfair of the Kaeson Youth Park, the Central Zoo, Okryu Restaurant, Chongryu Restaurant and other places.

Little kings
The logistics of organising all this must have been formidable, given North Korea’s creaking transport system. On the eve of the festival, KCNA spotlighted how one hotel in the capital was coping (or maybe not quite coping: note the penultimate sentence). “The April 25 Hotel:
has been refurnishing barbershops, bathrooms and laundries to better the children's convenience. Confectionary and subsidiary foodstuffs have been fully secured. Kim Jong Hwa, who has been working at the hotel as a maid for eight years, told KCNA: "The news my hotel will accommodate the KCU delegates has deeply excited me. It is the first time for the hotel to receive tens of thousands of little delegates at the same time. I will make every possible effort in favor of their conveniences with maternal care." Jo Yong Il, manager of the hotel, said: "All employees spend days and nights for the preparations. Senior party and state officials are frequently visiting the hotel to instantly solve knotty problems. Preparations for receiving the little kings of the country have been near to an end."

The “little kings” (and queens) can be seen and heard in action extensively on KCNA, or more conveniently via YouTube. See eg www.youtube.com/watch?v=RP4lP3fx1aQ and many other links in the adjacent sidebar – including scenes of them enjoying the thrills of assorted funfair rides: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7j7m_Qy0SJg&feature=related. (So now we know why Kim Jong-eun was so keen to get the amusement parks spruced up, as reported in New Nations’ last monthly update.) The Unhasu Orchestra’s concert can be watched in full (84 minutes) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhEdDoecKNo. Note that even the octogenarian Kim Yong-nam, the DPRK’s titular head of state, sports a KCU red scarf, as of course does a beaming Kim Jong-eun. Note also that all of the children wear their spotlessly clean KCU uniforms at all times, including their outing to the funfair.

Kim speaks, again
The climax was a mass rally at which Kim Jong-eun gave his second public speech, putting him two ahead already of his late father on that front. (Firmly taciturn in public, Kim Jong-il could be garrulous and indeed witty in private; as witness what seems to have been a lengthy liquid lunch with South Korean media representatives in happier times in August 2000. Even the semi-official version carried by the pro-North People’s Korea in Japan is revealing. See www1.korea-np.co.jp/pk/146th_issue/2000082303.htm. The remarkable uncensored version is at: http://web.archive.org. Apologies for the digression, but it is good – if painful – to recall the hopes of a decade ago.)

Back to the present. Kim Jong-eun seemed at ease speaking to the massed ranks of clapping and cheering children, some sobbing with emotion (extra brownie points for that, no doubt). It can be watched in full at www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_yz97EQILg&feature=related ; or a shorter extract can be seen at http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/world_now/2012/06/kim-jong-un-praises-children-in-second-public-speech-video.html . The young leader praised the “beloved KCU members” as “treasures more precious than a hundred million tons of gold and silver, as they represent hope and future.” But he did not fail to remind them that:
“there were no such great fathers in the world as the Generalissimos who put forward the children as kings of the country and devoted everything to the schoolchildren all their lives … the KCU members should learn from the glorious childhood of Generalissimos Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and reliably carry forward the lifeblood of the revolution holding aloft the flag of KCU after the flag of the immortal sun, always cherishing the trust and benevolence of the Generalissimos.”

The grim reality
One hates to spoil a party, but needless to say the reality for most is very different. In 2009 a South Korean NGO, Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), published a well-documented 500-page report on the real situation of children in North Korea, based on interviews with defectors. Its title “Child is King of the Country” takes the DPRK slogan – and finds the reality otherwise. A 40-page pamphlet summary of this can be downloaded at http://eng.nkhumanrights.or.kr. The section headings of the latter tell their own story:

A. Problems in Education System
a. Overwhelming financial burdens
b. Children used as forced labour by schools
c. High dropout rates and illiteracy rates
d. Barriers to school entrance and choosing one’s own occupation
e. Provision of textbooks
f. ‘Gift politics’
B. Continuous Problems with the Delivery of Humanitarian Aid
C. Health Care and Health Hazards
a. Access to health care hampered by corrupted medical personnel
b. Children employed for the production of illicit drugs
D. Infringements on the Child’s Personal Rights and Freedoms
a. Family environment
b. Juvenile justice and the use of torture
E. Mobilisation for the Army

Primordial child abuse
Laying on a week of fun for a fortunate few is just a gesture. If Kim Jong-eun really wants to improve the lot of North Korea’s children, policies will have to change. That means not just the economy, but also social policy. A new report from the US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK, not to be confused with NKHR: both do invaluable work), published appropriately on June 6, highlights what might be called primordial child abuse. Entitled Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System , this is the first detailed study in English of one of the DPRK’s lesser known pernicious practices. The full report can be downloaded at http://hrnk.org/publications-2. As HRNK explains:

The North Korean government assigns a … status to every citizen at birth based on the perceived political loyalty of his or her family going back generations. While a small, politically loyal class in North Korea is entitled to extensive privileges, the vast majority of citizens are relegated to a permanent lower status and then discriminated against for reasons they cannot control or change.

This is Songbun. (Not to be confused with the better-known Songun, meaning military-first policy as practised by Kim Il-sung, theorised by Kim Jong-il and continued under Kim Jong-eun.) By definition, songbun brands a child from birth for something he or she did not do. In extremis this creates situations like that of Shin Dong-hyuk, actually born in the gulag where his parents were imprisoned because relatives had fled to South Korea. Shin knew no other life from his birth in 1982 – which makes him close in age to Kim Jong-eun – until his near-miraculous and unique escape in 2005. Blaine Harden’s book about Shin published earlier this year, Escape From Camp 14, depicts a feral childhood of unimaginable brutality. See www.amazon.co.uk. (A search online of Shin’s name also leads to several of his talks on YouTube, and other material.)

Concerning children, as on other fronts, we have yet to see how Kim Jong-eun will turn out.

 

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