The following is my original intro to a piece I just published in Seoul after some substantial carving down. In other words, the intro was cut, but I think it still stands up, so now you can read that particular argumentative flourish here on SinoMondiale with no paywall, and accompanied by my preferred images and links.
Youth Work and Class Education under Kim Jong-un
Certain messages in English get repeated so often with respect to North Korea that to write them risks little disagreement. Among these statements are three gems, which we can take in turn: “Kim Jong-un is still consolidating power”, “China needs to do more to stop North Korean nuclear weapons development”, and “North Korea should be flooded with outside information.”
For opponents of the Kim family regime, the real work gets done at the sub-levels of these otherwise sleep-inducing axioms.
If Kim Jong-un is still consolidating power, then one has to drill down into the Party structures and the military political bureaus where that activity is presumably taking place. Where is power being consolidated, and how is it demonstrably different from the previous Kimist incarnation? One has to recognise the meaning of new slogans, understand how Kim Jong-un’s presumptive military genius is depicted internally, and track the ouster or the temporary re-education of whatever generals or elite cadre who have failed to recognise the urgency of the task of establishing, consolidating, and continuously re-c0nsolidating Kim Jong-un’s personal power.
Likewise, if China is intended to hurt North Korea through secondary sanctions, then advocates of that policy need to explain why they think the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is likely to actually take action against the DPRK in the delicate border region, further inland in Shenyang, or against North Korean enterprises in that fertile ring for economic activity around Hong Kong.
While they are at it, perhaps those same opponents could explain the political path forward whereby Xi Jinping could back down from his opposition to the THAAD deployment in South Korea — and still remain unscathed within the notoriously treacherous power structure of the Chinese Communist Party while riding the tiger of nationalist public opinion.
Finally — and to the subject of this essay — the question of outside information and its promise in North Korea. Defector memoirs tell with greater and lesser degrees of emotion the importance that outside information has had for individuals in need of a spark of consciousness of the world beyond the rigid physical and ideological boundaries of the DPRK. For some, it was a Dvorak symphony that triggered a desire for exodus; for others, a Hollywood film or a South Korean drama. Indeed, as I write these sentences, the US State Department is collecting applications for an increase in funding for projects whose purpose it is to penetrate North Korea with information.
What goes unspoken in much of the discussion of outside operations, however, is Pyongyang’s counter, and the generational component of the North Koreans who ought to be reached with such data.
To push for greater informational penetration of North Korea without delving into questions specific to youth in that country, and the multiple fail-safes which the regime has developed over the past decades for youth work, is in a certain sense to engage in activities which are not unlike those of the leaflet bombers over North Korea in the 1950s: These are acts of faith which help the propagandist shape his or her own self image as a democratic apostle, but they cannot concern themselves with the questions of reception and internal dis-incentives for even so much as acknowledging outside information if such activities (and the budgets that sustain them) are to continue.
North Korean youth strategy goes well beyond suppression and forbidding of foreign media — it drives to the heart of Kim Jong-un’s strategy for a long-term grip on power.
Lead image: Voting in unison at the Ninth Congress of the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League, Pyongyang, 29 August 2016. Courtesy Chosun Central Television.