In October 2018, the leaders and citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea celebrated the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic, founded in 1948 by Kim Il-Sung – the grandfather of the current ruler, Kim Jong-Un. Only three people have ever been at the helm in North Korea: Kim Il-Sung (1948-1994), his son Kim Jong-Il (1994-2011), and his son Kim Jong-Un (2011-). Its longevity is astonishing: in 2022, the rule of the Kim dynasty will have outlasted that of the Bolsheviks and the Communist Party in the USSR – the most (in-)famous example of a communist experiment. The question for this article is: why? To answer, we delve inside North Korea’s mind and explore its political psychology.
The North Korean regime, as is well-known, has, for decades, been a grave and consistent violator of even the most basic human rights.
After a brief stint at 179/180 in the world for press freedom, North Korea this year took the ‘top spot’ back from Turkmenistan. A 2014 report from the UN on human rights abuses in the country, based on interviews with defectors – which, quite incredibly, ran to 400 pages – accused the state of “unspeakable” abuses, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, and a litany of other grave abuses. Five political prison camps – one of which, Hoeryong, was named the most brutal in the world by Chinese state media – imprison more than 100,000 people.
Citizens experience a complete lack of personal or economic freedom; they are completely isolated, both physically and digitally. Subject to a form of political apartheid through the “Songbun system”, every North Korean is categorised based on their perceived political loyalty, dictated by their family background; an unfavourable ranking can prevent students from going to the best universities or entering the best jobs.
The economy is dire, healthcare archaic, and poverty high. North Korea’s GDP per capita is about 6% that of its southern neighbour. The Bank of Korea (South Korea) estimated that the North’s economy shrank by almost a third from 1991-96. An estimated 43% of the population – more than ten million people – are malnourished. Healthcare spending is the lowest in the world: almost unbelievably, the government spends less than $1 per person per year on healthcare. When approximately one million citizens died from famine in the late 1990s, Kim Jong-Il’s government responded by restricting attempts by aid organisations to respond to rising hunger. In 2005, it kicked out the World Food Programme. The cost of maintaining a gargantuan military machine contributed to the famine.
While many women still have no choice but to use dried leaves as sanitary towels, Kim Jong-Il spent up to $800,000 per annum on Hennessy Cognac; his son, the current Kim, allegedly spent $4bn on luxury goods in his first seven years in power. And yet, despite small-scale protests in 2009 after a botched currency reform which wiped out people’s savings, the citizens of North Korea are largely pliant.
What impacts North Korea’s mind?
Practically, of course, there is the fear factor: dissent and, to put it frankly, you may well end up dead, or at least find yourself wasting away in a prison camp. The three rulers of the Kim dynasty have proven themselves to be some of the most depraved and cruel dictators anywhere in the world. Those who speak out about their rulers, or do not conform, fear the consequences – and for good reason.
On a single day in 2013, Kim Jong-Un’s regime executed 80 people for violating laws that prohibit the consumption of foreign media. A 1972 rule dictates that if one violates such rules, three-generations of their family will be punished in order to wipe out the “seed” of class enemies. Clearly, the sadism of the Kim family is a long-standing tradition.
As is well-known, evidenced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), external information can significantly undermine autocratic regimes. In the case of the latter, this was particularly pronounced as a result of its juxtaposition to the prosperous and democratic Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), perhaps comparable to North and South Korea’s border sharing.
Presumably, with an understanding of this phenomenon, the North Korean regime has become particularly adept at restricting the flow of outside information: as above, it is the worst-ranked country in the world for press freedoms. It earned itself the name the “hermit kingdom” for good reason indeed. Instead, citizens are plied with state-produced propaganda. This is, after all, as Jieun Baek argued, a totalitarian society where the authorities’ legitimacy and power depend to a large extent on their ability to delude the population. The Kims have held on to power for seven decades largely thanks to their airtight control on information.
Such control is born out of rampant paranoia, cast by Coolidge as one of the top-rated characteristics for Il-Jung. Given the heritability of such traits, the continued suppression of information throughout the existence of the DPRK becomes more understandable. Authorities regularly carry out inspections of DVD players in order to ensure that citizens are not consuming illicit media from China, South Korea or further afield. Since the current Kim came to power, he has cracked down on cultural influences from South Korea and beyond further. Almost all citizens are barred from using the internet; instead, they have access to a state-controlled intranet. Every household has a state-sanctioned radio which cannot be turned off entirely.
Like East Germany’s secret police – the Stasi – the North Korean state too controls a vast network of neighbourhood-level informants; rewards are offered to citizens who expose anyone criticising the government. Hugo Mercier has urged those who may think this farcical to consider that citizens’ indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centres; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung. Professor Coolidge explained that, in such extreme scenarios, people will tend to believe anything they are told; they will simply succumb. It seems, then, that North Korea’s mind is made to become weak.
Although much compliance is clearly forced, certain ideological aspects do indeed contribute to the acquiescence of the North Korean citizenry.
Juche, the ‘national ideology’ of North Korea, entails an extreme autarky born out of nationalism with a xenophobic slant. Indeed, Il-Jung, as Coolidge chronicled, prided himself on his nation’s independence, irrespective of the extreme hardships it inflicted on his people.
Regime pronouncements are straight out of the dictators’ playbook. Their state, they argue, is under attack from the U.S., in particular, but also from South Korea and Japan. This often shades into blatantly mendacious rewritings of history: Kim Il-Sung claimed that the Korean War of 1950-53 was started by the Americans – a mistruth anyone with access to a basic Cold War history book could unpick in minutes. The U.S. was allegedly out “to make the Korean people their slaves and turn Korea into their colony.”
Posters reiterate this: the U.S. will soon invade North Korea “once again”, they claim. Presumably, in response to the said fantastical threat, the DPRK now has the world’s fourth-largest standing army. America, then, is the perennial and existential threat that the regime uses to justify its brutal control and its excessive military spending which, as above, contributed to the deaths of one million citizens – and likely many more. This “siege mentality” seems to keep North Koreans in check as the leaders, as Coolidge veraciously noted, create threats where none previously existed.
It is perhaps little wonder, then, that members of the Kim family, both dead and alive, are lauded as the protectors of the North Korean people against the bourgeois imperialists. Every adult must wear a badge of Kim Il-Sung over their heart in a 1984-esque show of loyalty. Portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are mandatory in every home; the title ‘President’ was retired in deference to the former.
Coolidge argued that Jong-Il’s title of ‘Dear Father’, and the cult of personality that surrounded (and still surrounds him) him, borders on the delusional. Fascinatingly, as referenced in the afterword of this article, Coolidge’s paper found that Hitler, Hussein and Jong-Il shared antisocial personality traits, including sadism and narcissism.
In our discussion, he emphasised that such traits are heritable to an even greater degree than intelligence, thus implying that Kim Jong-Un is most likely of a very similar ilk to his forebears. The position of the successive Kims is reinforced by the “God archetype”, whereby, as, effectively the “son of God”, each Kim’s authority is buttressed to a level of unquestionability.
In a thoroughly disturbing incident that demonstrates the depth of reverence for the family, in 2012, a 14-year-old girl drowned while trying to keep said portraits above water. While anecdotal, incidents such as these demonstrate the deep roots of indoctrination in North Korea – and that some citizens do appear to believe in Kim’s dynasty holiness.
Prospects for North Korea’s Mind
Given the litany of unsettling information above, what, then, do the prospects of freedom for the citizens of North Korea look like?
Arguments that foreign information is undermining juche’s traditional grip on North Korea’s mind, especially those of the young subjects, for now at least, seem overblown. China, and even South Korea, continue to prop up the regime: the former buys 90% of its exports, and forcibly repatriates defectors. They both fear the regional tumult that collapse would undoubtedly foster.
When we posed this question to Professor Coolidge, his forecast was unpromising: the longer the Kims remain in power, the less likely there would be a change in the regime, he predicted. The seven-decade entrenchment of the regime will not be easily uprooted from North Korea’s mind. In contrast to Jerrold Post’s suggestion that severe character disorders are inconsistent with sustained leadership, the Kims, for now at least, appear as if they’re here to stay.
As part of our research for this article, we interviewed Professor Frederick L. Coolidge, Ph.D., from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Professor Coolidge is a titan of the field: his paper comparing the psychological personality profiles of Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong-Il underpinned our research.