Monday, April 15, 2013

North Korea's ideology

North Korea is in the news again for all the wrong reasons. By now the country’s reputation as totalitarian, anachronistic, backward, isolated and wacky has spread even here in China, although the Chinese government goes on giving North Korea far more support than anyone else in the world.

I will not engage in geopolitical speculation regarding the ongoing crisis, since others have already done so more and better than I can. Rather, I would like to use this space to review an interesting book I have read recently on North Korea, which seems to offer some insight into the country's internal discourse. The book is “The Cleanest Race: how North Koreans see themselves, and why it matters”, by B.R. Meyers.

Meyers is an American academic who has lived for years in South Korea and speaks Korean fluently. He has spent years pouring over the archives of North Korean propaganda available in Seoul, which are apparently quite extensive, since until recently the North went on sending its own propaganda to the South in the hope of ingniting a nationalistic rebellion against the “Yankee invaders”. Basing himself thus mainly on propaganda for internal consumption in Korean, rather than the propaganda in English which is released for foreign consumption, Meyers comes up with his own thesis on the ideology which underpins the North Korean regime.

Meyers claims that the common description of North Korea as a Stalinist regime is wrong, as is the less common claim that it is in fact based on Confucianism. According to him, the real ideology of the North Korean regime is a form of race-based nationalism which has most in common with the fascist regimes of the Second World War, and was initially inspired by the racist ideology which the Japanese regime foisted on Korea during the thirties.

The main source of internal legitimacy of the North Korean regime derives from the line that the South of the peninsula is occupied by the US, and that Pyongyang is on a glorious nationalist mission to free the whole of Korea from the foreign occupiers. Open racism and xenophobia, and the image of Koreans as a pure, innocent, child-like race which needs a strong leader to protect it from the cruel outside world, are the ideological basis of the North Korean world view. Memories of US atrocities during the Korean War, which the regime constantly nurtures, help to prop up its support.

Meyers claims that in this sense, North Korea has always been ideologically different from China and the Soviet bloc, even in the past. One finds almost no references to proletarian internationalism in North Korean internal propaganda, and only perfunctory ones to Marxism-Leninism. In fact, North Korea’s new constitution from 2009 doesn’t make any reference to communism. What’s more, Meyers claims that even North Korea’s official state ideology of Juche (“self-reliance”) is a sham, created mainly to draw attention away from the real ideology of racial nationalism.

According to Meyers, North Korea’s people basically still embrace the regime’s world view, which is why it manages to remain in power. Since the terrible famine of the mid-nineties, North Korea has become a very different place, and the people are no longer completely cut off from information about the outside world the way they used to be. It is now common knowledge in the North that South Korea is actually much more prosperous, and even the regime's internal propaganda no longer denies this. However, as long as the populace goes on believing that the South is a “Yankee colony”, and that its people want to drive out the Americans, the regime will retain its legitimacy.

From this point of view, the North Korean government is different from the East German one, which based its legitimacy on being able to offer a good standard of living for its people, and could not survive when its people realized that West Germans actually lived much better. Meyers even makes the eye-catching claim that the people in modern Pyongyang give a much happier impression than the people in East Berlin did in the eighties (a place which he visited), and that this is because the regime’s ideology has not lost its legitimacy in their eyes.

Although Meyer’s thesis is interesting and based on a deep knowledge of the subject, I can’t help wondering how much one can really draw a line between the ideology of the Soviet block and the kind of racist nationalism he is describing. After all, most of the “Socialist” countries made use of nationalist feeling and even racism. In Maoist China, in particular, much propaganda centered on leading China to a great national renaissance after it had been divided and mistreated by evil foreigners. Xenophobia certainly existed, although it probably wasn’t fundamental to the regime’s legitimacy the way it clearly is in North Korea.

Perhaps some of North Korea’s extremeness is rooted in is history. Korea is a country which is historically far more ethnically homogenous than China. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century it adhered to a strict isolationist policy which earned it the nickname of “the Hermit Kingdom”. Koreans could be put to death for just speaking to a foreigner. From this point of view, I suppose it was easy to turn resentment against foreigners and self-reliance into the pillars of North Korea’s ideology, especially when the Southern half of the peninsula is indeed covered with US military bases.

The extreme version of Neo-Confucianism practiced in Korea up until the nineteenth century, which was more rigid and hierarchical than Confucianism in China ever was, might also have made it easier for Kim Il Sung to foist such an extreme authoritarianism on his country.

The book ends with a prediction that the most dangerous thing for the regime would be if the North Korean masses became aware that the South Koreans are actually quite happy in their own Republic and would never want to live under Pyongyang. There is simply no way that the worldview which the government has fostered could be reconciled with this fact. However, Meyers also makes the dire prediction that the regime will counter any sign of internal dissent by attempting to increase tension with its external enemies, the US and South Korea, and the result might even be a serious conflict. Perhaps this prediction is now coming to pass.

(a statue of Kim Il Sung clutching a firearm in Pyongyang)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Visit to Yujiacun, the stone village

An Italian friend of mine visited Beijing for a conference last week. He had already been to China two times previously, but had only seen the major cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Tianjin) and told me that he wanted to see something of the “real China”. I suggested we use the weekend after his conference finished to go on a trip and go see the “real China”.

If you live in Beijing, only have a weekend available, and don’t want to spend a fortune by taking planes, the logical way to see the “real China” is to go somewhere in Hebei. Hebei is the province which surrounds Beijing. It is almost as large as Great Britain, and has a bigger population. The province’s proximity to Beijing does not make it a particularly prosperous or “happening” place. On the contrary, it is relatively backward and agricultural, just like most of Northern China.

Looking through the list of Hebei’s tourist attractions, I decided on Yujiacun (于家村), a village whose well preserved old buildings made of stone have turned it into a minor attraction. I wasn’t expecting too much from the village itself, since many Chinese tourist sights turn out to be tacky and commercialized places with a Disneyland feel overrun by hordes of Chinese tour groups, for whom the authenticity of what they are seeing is of no interest whatsoever. However, I thought that the village’s remote location right on the border between Hebei and Shanxi would at least make the journey to get there more interesting, and might have kept it a bit off the tourist trail.

(the village of Yujiacun as seen from above)

The first step of the journey was taking the high speed train from Beijing to Shijiazhuang, Hebei’s provincial capital. After spending the night in this non-descript city, the next day we made off for Yujiacun. To get there, we took two different buses and travelled for two hours. The rickety buses took us through some very poor rural scenery, dotted with coal mines and quarries. What was most striking was the amount of dust in the air, and the amount of lorries on the road. I have literally never seen such a lot of lorries on a single day.

Due to the dust and the dryness of the North Chinese winter, the scenery was overwhelmingly brown. The air was brown, the villages were brown, and the people brown. Although I wouldn’t exactly call the landscape beautiful, it had a certain grandiosity, and it was certainly fascinating for my two friends, who were getting their first taste of the “real China”.

After a last stretch on a bumpy country road, we arrived in Yujiacun. The village was founded by a grandson of Yu Qian (1398-1457), a Ming dynasty defense minister who helped defend China from the Mongols, and was executed by the emperor in return for his efforts. The place’s name means “the village of the Yu clan”, and indeed almost all the inhabitants share the surname Yu, which was passed down by the original founder. “Clan villages” where everyone shares the same surname are common in China.

The village’s particularity is that all the houses are made of stone, meaning that they are well preserved. Winding little lanes take you past courtyard houses built during the Ming and Qing dynasties. In a place like Italy a village where the houses all date back to a few centuries ago would be the norm, but not so in China, where old houses are actually quite rare. In the countryside dwellings were often made of wood, and in cities much has been destroyed in the last decades to make way for modern housing blocks.

My low expectations of our trip’s destination turned out to be quite unfounded. Yujiacun was genuinely interesting and peaceful, and the atmosphere was not very touristy at all. The place’s remoteness means that few visitors actually make it there, and even less so in March, when temperatures are still quite low. We only met three other obvious tourists, who were Chinese. Although Yujiacun is mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide I am pretty sure few foreigners make it there, and it would take some serious guts to attempt the journey without speaking Chinese.

Unlike other sights I have visited in Hebei, nobody tried to rip us off or charge exhorbitant entry prices. There was a single ticket valid for all the village's sights, at a very reasonable price. Most of the locals happily minded their business in their ancient stone houses, since visitors are too few for them to have turned to the business of milking tourists for cash.

An interesting sight we came across in Yujiacun is the sixteenth century Qingliang Pavilion. The odd structure was built by a madman called Yu Xichun, who wanted to see Beijing from the top. He allegedly built the three storey pavilion on his own over 16 years, working only at night. It was obviously built by an amateur architect, since it has no foundation and its stones are all of different sizes. The building is full of shrines to Guanyin and other Chinese religious figures, and a graphic pictorial depiction of what awaits bad people in the Chinese hell, which is remarkably similar to the hell of Western tradition.

I left feeling pleased with my choice for an outing. It is good to know that there are still some attractions left in China with genuine old buildings and sights, no hordes of Chinese tour groups wearing identical red hats, no kitsch souvenir shops and nobody trying to rip off weary travellers. One just has to go a bit further off the beaten route to find them.

(Scenes of the tortures of hell painted on the walls of the Qingliang Pavillion)