This concern [to improve the lives of the citizens] was in my heart, but I lacked the ability to see these dreams to fruition and spent the last year in regret and guilt.
If I ask you to guess who the quote above is from, what name comes to mind first? I wouldn’t blame you for assuming that it’s from one of Park Geun-hye’s televised addresses to the South Korean public. After all, she apologized again and again late last year for the scandal surrounding her; it got to the point where people were blasé about the idea of yet another public apology.
You’d be wrong, though, to say it’s Park. This line was from the leader of the other Korea, north of the DMZ. Near the end of his annual New Year’s Day address, after all his rhetoric about nuclear weapons that the international observers fixated on, Kim Jong-un made the closest thing to a public apology North Korea has ever seen.
Earlier, during an official visit to an island outpost, he was filmed bowing ever so slightly to the gathered crowd multiple times, a truly exceptional occurrence.
What could have brought this about? Has he suddenly learned the error of his ways? Was he struck by a fear of god?
That doesn’t seem likely. In North Korea, he is like God. The people may fear God, but God fears nothing.
Rather, December marked the end of the “200-day battle,” a period of intensified labor which Kim Jong-un had called for during the momentous seventh congress of the Worker’s Party back in May of last year.
Seeking an easy explanation, a morning news program on TV Chosun, a conservative South Korean cable channel, looked to this ‘battle’ to explain Kim Jong-un’s sudden South Korean-style “meekness,” as they put it. It’s a nice little theory from an outside observer, but it completely missed the mark on this one.
I was a university student in North Korea in the late ’90s, at the height of the famine known euphemistically as the Arduous March. When the trains were crowded I sometimes had to climb on top, riding with the train’s high voltage power lines inches above my head.
From that vantage point I could see into the villages the train passed through, and even into the houses. I saw so many people lying down, motionless, slowly dying from starvation. The scenes that laid before me felt like the aftermath of a tragic battle.
As many as three million people died during those four years, or roughly 14 percent of the total population, but not once did Kim Jong-il, the late father and predecessor of the current leader, say “sorry” to citizens for the famine they endured. Instead of apologies, the regime offered us more propaganda about the evils of American imperialism.
I can remember only one action from the government that could be interpreted as an admission of guilt. That was the execution of Pak Nam-gi in early 2010. Three months earlier the regime had enacted currency reforms that turned out to be disastrous, bankrupting many and leading to hoarding and starvation. The regime put Pak, a financial official, in front of a firing squad, in part to assuage public anger. But even this wasn’t a true admission of guilt. In North Korea, the Kim family are revered like gods, and gods don’t make mistakes.
Effects of the Candlelight
There have been 13 candlelight demonstrations in downtown Seoul to decry Park Geun-hye and her administration, many of them with over one million attendees. The events captured international attention, not only for their size but also for how orderly and peaceful they were. There were no arrests, no violence, minimal police action, and, critically, no reprisal from the government. Kim Jong-un, too, can’t help but take notice of something like this happening just south of the border.
North Korea has, hands down, one of the worst human rights records in the world. To say that the government suppresses its citizens is a laughable understatement. For the regime, then, their biggest fear is over a possible uprising or revolution among their subjects, meaning there must be constant efforts to control and suppress the population. They pay constant attention to major world events, analyzing them and learning from them. They are quick to respond to social movements and events elsewhere in the world that could threaten their control.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the regime showed videos to all the elites in North Korea, which I also had to watch many times. The videos depicted former high-ranking officers in the Soviet Union as now suddenly unemployed, homeless, and even selling their medals in marketplaces just to secure their next meal.
When the Berlin Wall was dismantled and East and West Germany reunified, the regime panicked. The notion of a peaceful reunion between two countries long separated is not something they want the populace to dwell on. It runs counter to their propaganda, which proclaims South Korea to be a land under the control of a puppet government, a territory that must be taken back by force.
Believing that the agitators in Berlin were from the well-educated class, the regime created propaganda slogans targeting those same groups in North Korea: “You are loyal supporters, excellent advisors, and eternal companions of the Worker’s Party of Korea.”
So what can North Koreans see from the candlelight vigils in South Korea? In a rare move, the regime allowed reporting on the protests in both newspapers and television broadcasts. Not one to miss an opportunity to depict the south as a failed state, the regime’s mouthpiece news organizations focused on condemning Park Geun-hye and her administration. And, true to form, the images shown in the North were carefully chosen to depict the protests as being much smaller than they actually were.
However, telling the citizens in the North about Park’s incredibly low approval rating, the weekly peaceful demonstrations, and her impeachment also puts in their minds the idea that these things are possible in certain countries. That there are places where citizens are free to march in the streets, challenge the central government, and effect change at the highest level.
I can’t help but notice that rather than ordering an information blackout, Kim Jong-un chose to share this information with the people. The regime is always learning and adapting. They know that it’s no longer possible to block all contact with the outside world. There are 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. Many of them, myself included, are able to contact family members in North Korea who live near the Chinese border.
Despite having no internet access or legal means to make international calls, it’s much easier than even in the recent past for the average North Korean to find out what’s going on in the world beyond the borders. Cell phones were rare when I escaped in 2010, but now three million people in North Korea have access to cell phones and can easily communicate with their comrades within the country. Access to information has spread beyond the regime’s control.
The powers that be in the North aren’t foolish enough to think that the light from candles lit in the South could never make its way northward. News of the protests would have reached the North eventually. The regime’s best chance of weathering the storm was to share the news first and show how they are different from Park Geun-hye, the uncaring monarch hiding in her palace while her subjects roil below. The regime’s fear of a mass uprising led Kim Jong-un to include that line — “for me the last year was spent in regret and guilt” — in his speech, echoing Park’s apology to South Koreans over the scandal — “I cannot forgive myself and am saddened to the point of being unable to sleep.” It is as if to say, “I tried my best, guys. Please don’t be upset at me the way people in the South are at their leader.”
This is how candlelight protests in the South did what no one could have imagined, to make God bow to the people and apologize for his shortcomings.
If I could say one thing to Kim Jong-un, it would be this: God is but one but candles are numerous.
Cover Image: The anti-government protest in Gwanghwamun Plaza, Seoul, on Dec. 3, 2016, was one in a series of massive “candlelight demonstrations” that called on President Park Geun-hye to resign. (Jun Michael Park/Korea Exposé)