The National Geographic’s documentary Inside North Korea (currently streaming on Netflix) is not only a harrowing look at the country but it also provides important insights into the mindset of the North Korean people. The filmmaker is Lisa Ling who received access to the country when she accompanied a Nepalese eye surgeon on a humanitarian mission to perform cataract surgery on 1000 North Koreans.
Due to rampant malnutrition and poor medical care, cataract induced blindness is alarmingly present even among young people in the population of North Korea. The suffering of the North Koreans is unimaginable as they live at a subsistence level in a giant prison camp. Our hearts go out to them for their suffering; but as we learn in the film and in books such as Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, they are not exactly innocent victims of the mass-murdering despots Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il.
The North Koreans readily embrace the idea of Juche which is the Kims’s doctrine of self-sufficiency. The North Koreans see themselves as having been imposed upon by the rest of the world, and the antidote to that is said to be extreme self-reliance. Of course, in reality Juche is only for the bulk of population—the Dear Leader and his close minions import cars, fine food and liquor, electronics etc. for their own use with whatever hard-currency the rest of the enslaved population can earn.
The closing scenes of the documentary are particularly instructive. The bandages are being removed from the patients who have had cataract surgery. As with every dwelling in the country, portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hang on the walls of the room. One-by-one, as the bandages come off, patients bow and weep before the Kims, while ignoring the medical staff who restored their eyesight. They proclaim new oaths of praise and obedience: “I will work harder in the salt mines to get more salt and bring you more happiness.” “Because you brought us your light and greatness, I swear I will serve you.”
Of course, some of those who have had surgery may be acting; but to my eyes and ears, the sincerity of their devotion is palpable. Generations of living in accordance with a neo-Confucian doctrine of serving the leader has left the population believing that whatever scraps they have are due to the benevolence of the Great General. All of this is compounded by the mad belief that the Kim’s have supernatural powers and can plan and direct the country with 100% control.
It is almost impossible that Americans will ever shift their belief system to anything resembling the madness of the North Korean population.Yet, there are many lessons to learn from the North Koreans about the horrors of Juche. For sure, if a closed society comes to the United States, its effects will not be as crippling. This is because we are bigger country with more resources, and because it is unlikely that we will ever accept complete central planning of our economy. Nevertheless, an American-style Juche would severely reduce our own standard of living.
It only takes a moment of reflection to realize that as human beings we are completely and utterly dependent on others. Without trading and the specialization in labor that is the result of trade, we would all be reduced to subsistence poverty. The more we engage in trade, the more wealth that is created.
In coming years as our economic crisis continues, it is likely that American politicians ignorant of the principles of free trade will try and impose an American style Juche on the United States; and they will be supported by those politicians playing a populist card. Of course, the focal point of the protectionist attack is likely to be China. Even now, The Wall Street Journal reports that Sen. Charles Schumer has said he will reintroduce a bill “to punish China for its currency manipulation.”
A recent study by the Asian Development Bank Institute’s economists Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert points out that trade statistics are misleading. For example, an iPhone is assembled in China, but only $6.50 of the wholesale value of the $178.96 iPhone come from parts manufactured in China. Yet, the entire $178.96 wholesale value ends up being attributed to China in the trade statistics.
But these trade statistics are misleading for an even larger reason. In truth, these statistics do not matter at all. Consider a situation in which because of your life circumstances, you are eating in restaurants or buying take-out for all of your meals. Are you not made better by doing so? You could be eating out because you are buying time needed as you begin a new project at work, or perhaps you are relying on take-out while adjusting to a new baby in your life. Does it matter to you that you have cost a family member the job of cooking meals? Does it matter that you are running an imbalance of trade between the restaurant and your family? If New Hampshire imports all their grapefruits from California, are New Hampshire citizens better off or worse off? If the rest of the world imports Windows software from America, are they better off or worse?
These are rhetorical questions because the answers are clear. I could ask another series of rhetorical questions concerning what happens when trade is prevented. I do not need to ask those other questions because North Koreans, through their suffering, are teaching us those lessons. Through their ignorance they support a system that has brought them inconceivable misery and tragedy. Before we start a trade war with China, let us learn from the insanity of the North Koreans.
If an American policy of Juche ever plagues us, we will not be its victims. We elect the Charles Schumers of the world. Their ignorance is a reflection of our own ignorance.