When does poverty push back?

by Justin

Our government is far from perfect. In the past years we’ve seen flagrant obstructionism and the disproportionate weight of the wealthy elite tipping the scales of representation. We’ve also seen the fanaticism of willful ignorance on the far right create a hostile political environment and place the truth in the center of tea soaked crosshairs. To huge extent we’ve seen the great engines of bipartisanship and compromise that once existed buckle and break. People from all demographics, all economic echelons, all sorts of ideological backgrounds rail against the government for ignoring their needs and favoring the opposition. I get that. I participate in that same outrage. For all the frustration, I enjoy marveling at the koan-like nonsense of Sarah Palin and wondering how corporate greed can dedicate absolutely no thought to the plight of future generations. It’s luxurious, really.

Imagining, then, a government that in a single day can cut one’s life savings from $1560 to $30 with a radical currency revaluation throws things into a different perspective. The New York Times offered up an incredible piece drawing the disastrous policies of the North Korean government into focus. I’d been seduced by the sinking of a South Korean warship and what seemed to be a more and more likely military conflict. What struck me about that situation was that it seemed entirely plausible that the North would declare an end to the armistice and attack South Korea – totally plausible and totally insane. The South Korean military is much stronger than that of its neighbor, the United States would immediately intervene on behalf of SK and bring its allies with it, and North Korean could only conceivably emerge broken and occupied. The broken part would be par for the course, and that Times article leads one to believe that its citizens would welcome any change in regime. The trick with an insane despotic ruler is that certain failure in a military campaign is not necessarily a strong deterrent. The death of Kim Jong-il’s soldiers might amount to exactly as little as the starving civilians in his country – which is to say very little. I do wonder, though, about the conscience of this particular tyrant. I wonder if the South Korean propaganda campaign along the DMZ, comparing the extreme poverty of the North to their own soaring economy, invades Kim Jong-il’s mindspace at all or if it just registers as war mongering. Can their fearless leader be so out of touch as to think that this account from a teacher is a recipe for strength and prosperity? Can he possibly have a plan?

She taught primary school for 30 years in Chongjin, North Korea’s third-largest city, with roughly 500,000 people. What once was an all-day job shrank by 2004 to morning duty; schools closed at noon. At least 15 of her 50 students dropped out or left after an hour, too hungry to study.

“It is very hard to teach a starving child,” she said. “Even sitting at a desk is difficult for them.”

The article is a real heartbreaker. Life savings reduced to nothing overnight, fathers stricken with grief because they denied their children comfort believing they were saving for a brighter future, mothers consumed with guilt after sneaking into China to find work and leaving a starving family behind. For all the reckless bombast of the North Korean government, the human rights violations and suppression of information among the civilians deserves much more attention and immediate action. This amazed me:

What seems missing — for now, at least — is social instability. Widespread hardship, popular anger over the currency revaluation and growing political uncertainty as Mr. Kim seeks to install his third son as his successor have not hardened into noticeable resistance against the government. At least two of those interviewed in China hewed to the official propaganda line that North Korea was a victim of die-hard enemies, its impoverishment a Western plot, its survival threatened by the United States, South Korea and Japan.

South Korea’s charge that North Korea sank one of its warships, the Cheonan, in March was just part of the plot, the party official’s wife said.

I want to know more about how revolutions happen. Another North Korean interviewed said that he thought invasion was inevitable and death in battle seemed as likely as death by starvation – to what desperation have you been driven when you accept those scenarios? How crushed are the spirits of the North Koreans? Why would they fight? As far as I know, the South Korean propaganda doesn’t inspire protests and defections on any real scale. The United States government has trusted to isolation and sanctions in the hopes that the Kim Jong-il’s regime would crumble, but it hasn’t. And a third generation is lined up to inherit the party leadership. People are starving, terribly impoverished, and only this past November’s currency revaluation seems to have driven people to publicly voice their discontent. I wonder if it takes new ideas and a real awareness of how much better things could be, and I wonder how airtight the communication blackout is in North Korea. If all the people are scraping by, uneducated and desperate, what hope can there be for a coordinated revolution or challenge to the establishment?

As terrible as war is and as infinitely tragic as its casualties, maybe the sudden devastation of the North Korean government is necessary. I believe that North Korea’s 2009 withdrawal from the armistice that ended the Korean War was a clear testament to their intentions. If and when war breaks out, no one will stand with North Korea and I believe that the combined, coordinated might of China and the United States would smother any outbreak immediately. Whatever damage the regime does with its final breaths will be feeble and soon forgotten. Unless they’ve actually got the unhinged stones to throw a nuke into the mix.

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