[Viewpoint] Are North Koreans really Korean?

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[Viewpoint] Are North Koreans really Korean?

North Korea’s Dear Leader and my own Dear Wife share a birthday, which I find a lot funnier than she does. I don’t know what Kim Jong-il thinks about the coincidence.

Anyway, the day passed last week. News reports said the Dear Leader was feted with an extravaganza of dancing, flowers and military parades, but the promise of an extra day’s rations for the hungry populace was unfulfilled.

In my household, it was pretty much the opposite. On her birthday, the Dear Wife dined fabulously, but lacked for parades, flowers and dancing.

These days, it’s much more fun being a mother than a tyrant. The Dear Wife got phone calls from her children and grandchildren. I wonder if even China sent the Dear Leader a congratulatory twitter.

An ancient Chinese curse supposedly runs: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, we do. The Arabs certainly do. Could interesting times spread to the Korean Peninsula?

The obvious answer is, “Of course not!” The Egyptian government did not trust its army to shoot to kill, so the protesters grew in confidence. That couldn’t happen in North Korea, where a more trustworthy army is disciplined enough, we think, to kill its fellow citizens.

“Cowed” is the word. Egyptians refused to be cowed, but North Koreans are cowed and will not resist their government.

Interesting word, “cowed.” A cow is an animal, of which there are increasingly fewer in either Korea because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. And “cow” is also a verb more or less synonymous with “intimidate.”

Could there be a connection between “cows” and “cowed”? That is, between the dwindling supply of beef and pork and the intimidation factor? After all, the unrest in the Middle East began with food insecurity when prices rose.

Surely not. For 15 years now, the North Korean populace has oscillated between stark famine and mere malnutrition, and it has remained cowed all this time. What has changed that would transform cowed subjects into proud citizens capable of demanding their dignity?

Then again, what changed in Tunisia or Egypt, and latterly in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya?

Some credit is given to new communications technology - cell phones, the Internet and, not least, the Al Jazeera television network, which by broadcasting to Arabs events in other countries, in their own language, emboldened listeners.

These conditions do not yet exist in North Korea - quite. A South Korean official told an audience in Washington recently that 20 percent of the North Korean population watches or hears smuggled recordings of South Korean television and pop music. With a smuggled telephone, any North Korean near enough to a Chinese cell tower can talk across the border.

Of course, China has been no more forthcoming than Pyongyang in admitting news of the events in Tunis, Cairo and beyond. Ignorance is bliss, or at least ignorant citizens make for blissful despots.

But there is also the matter of character. On the whole, Arabs have contact with the non-Arab world. They have known the truth, and still it did not set them free. For half a century they felt powerless to challenge their kings, military councils and presidents-for-life. Can this be because their predominant religion, Islam, a word whose meaning is “submission,” has taught them that fate is the ultimate arbiter of human affairs?

Koreans are different. They have an ornery streak that has at times led them into fratricidal strife - see the Three Kingdoms period, the Jeju massacres of 1948, and particularly the Korean War. Think of the March 1, 1919 independence movement, the Gwangju uprising in 1980 and the bloody student demonstrations.

South Korean dictatorships eventually learned that even with deadly force it is damnably hard to cow Koreans. So eventually the dictatorships went away and South Korea became a vibrant democracy.

Not that democracy cowed the Korean spirit - think pyrrhic labor strikes, farmers burning tractors in front of the National Assembly, fist fights and hair-pulling on the floor of the legislature.

Are the North Koreans also Korean? Are they as intelligent and resourceful as South Koreans? What spark would it take to recall them to the ancestral spirit of Tangun, founder of the Korean nation?

The Dear Leader and his father the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, were great friends of the Ceausescus, Nicolae and Elena, who ruled Romania before the liberating revolutions of 1989.

As the story goes, Nicolae, confronting an angry mob, flinched and took a half-step back. That single act broke his mystique. Within 24 hours, he and his wife were stood up against a wall and summarily shot.

And so last week, at the Dear Leader’s 69th birthday bash, there were flowers, parades, dances - and on his television screen angry mobs halfway around the world.

Not to worry. The Dear Leader, even beset as he reportedly is with stroke complications, diabetes and kidney failure, will never flinch and take a half-step back. He can rely on his trusty army and his cowed citizens.

So much depends on whether soldiers are willing to kill their civilian brothers, sisters and mothers.

*The writer is former chief editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

By Harold Piper
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