North Korea’s Illusion of a Strong and Prosperous Nation


By:Ko young Hwan

(Senior research fellow, Institute for national secutity strategy)

Upon his assumption of the chairmanship of the National Defense Commission in 1998, Kim Jong-il promulgated “construction of a strong and prosperous nation” as the goal of his era. This was ostensibly meant for North Korea to “join the ranks of strong and prosperous socialist nations that have strong national might, prosper in every respect, and make its people lead an enviable life by April 15, 2012, marking the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung.” In the 
1990s, Kim Jong-il rejected the global movement of reform and opening and instead pursued politics of extreme isolation. This led to the deaths of two to three million North Koreans due to starvation. Despite the severity of his people’s plight, Kim Jong-il had a “knack” for identifying what was needed to effectively rule North Korea’s population. Thus, he conceived the idea of building a “strong and prosperous nation.” The North Korean populace, mired in extreme hardship like a drowning man clutching at a straw, anchored their hope in creation of a “strong and prosperous nation,” and Kim Jong-il managed to maintain his regime for another fourteen years.

Only a few days remain before North Korea’s planned declaration of a strong and prosperous nation. Far from materializing this vision, however, the country is in even more dire straights than the poorest African nations. North Koreans are suffering from famine and dying of starvation not only in industrial zones including Cheongjin and Hamheung, but also in South Hwanghae Province, an important grain belt. Most of the North Korean people have neither sufficient food for a single meal a day, nor wood for fire. The lack of medicine has left many people addicted to a North Korean drug dubbed “ice” as an expedient to alleviate their pain or forget their despair.

Some people have suffered hallucinations in their hunger and have even resorted to cannibalism. On the streets, young women, often referred to as “cigarette-selling girls”, are prostituting themselves for rice and medicine. Shockingly, even female doctors are joining these “prostitutes.” Where is the promised “strong and prosperous nation”?

Despite the serious famine plaguing North Korea, Kim Jong-un, the third generation of his family to come to power following his father, Kim Jong-il, is preparing for the so-called “Day of the Sun”, i.e. Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15. He is planning an astonishing array of political and military events including a convention of the Workers’ Party delegates, the fifth session of the twelfth Supreme People’s Assembly, launch of the Gwangmyeongseong III, a long-range missile, a political celebration of the 100th Day of the Sun, and a military parade marking the 80th anniversary of establishment of the North Korean People’s Army. The cost of holding a convention of the Workers’ Party delegates and a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly is considerable. Reportedly, 800 artists from 23 countries will participate in the April 15 commemorative art festival. Assuming a cost of US$ 10,000 to cover the airfare, hotel accommodation, and cash prize for a single foreign artist, the total cost to North Korea will be at least US$ 8 million, not to mention the qualifications of participating artists. North Korea needs to spend at least hundreds of millions of dollars to hold a public rally in the morning of April 15 as well as a state banquet and a torch march in the evening, and to stage a military parade to celebrate the 80th anniversary of its armed forces on April 25. More importantly, the planned launch of the long-range missile will cost US$ 850 million, enough money to pay for food to feed North Korea’s entire population for a year.

The fact that Kim Jong-un plans to hold the biggest events ever and launch a long- range missile while failing to provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter to the populace implies that the North Korean leadership including Kim Jong-un is not interested in the starvation of the people at all. They are merely casting the dice on maintaining the regime. Kim Jong-un places the top priority on cementing internal cohesion and garnering support from the Workers’ Party and the military by capturing the North Korean people by an illusion of a strong and prosperous nation. Towards this end, he apparently intends to continue Kim Jong-il’s “military-first” politics, pursue a nuclear program, and develop missiles. However, Kim Jong-un has made one important oversight. The foundation of politics is to meet the daily needs of the people including food and fuel. The North Korean regime can become unstable at any time if the leadership fails to feed its starving people. Though belated, Kim Jong-un must shift from “military-first” to “people-first” and “economy-first” politics. Rather
than deceiving the people with empty promises and illusions, he must take the path of reform and opening to resolve the matter of the mere survival of his people by providing daily necessities.