SEOUL- Despite excessive hand-wringing over falling birth rates, women in the workplace, and students with a propensity for eschewing the guidance of the dominant Seoul daily, Chosun Ilbo’s, editorial page and voting liberal, the fact is that South Korea remains an intensely conservative and traditional society. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the continued strength of the bedrock of Confucian values: the family. Hordes of 20-something Koreans may head out to Seoul’s infamous Hongdae club district for nights of excessive drinking and debauchery but most of them are safely back at their parent’s homes by the time the sun rises. Those same youngsters may be actively cruising the Seoul “singles scene,” but unlike in many Western countries, they are not doing it out of ‘love for the game.’ Rather, they are scouting for potential mates with which to marry and have children. There is a well known Confucius-era phrase that translates roughly to “When a family is happy and harmonious, all things can be achieved.” Clearly, the strength of this sentiment endures in South Korea.
The same cannot be said about that enigmatic and generally nightmarish state north of the DMZ, however. Over fifty years worth of the Kim dynasty’s leadership has both directly and indirectly caused the destruction of the North Korean family – and with it, a central tenet of Korean culture and history.
As Bradley K. Martin demonstrates in his excellent book Under The Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, (a volume that I recommend to anyone with even the remotest interest in the DPRK) from the beginning of his rule, Kim Il Sung sought to alienate people from their biological families. The government gave and continues to give new mothers extremely short maternity leaves, forcing them to return to work shortly after giving birth. After that, North Korean mothers are essentially forced to surrender their parental authority to the state. Children are taken care of at government-run nurseries (obviously, there can be no other kind in North Korea), and taught exactly where their loyalty is to lie: with the state, and, more specifically, with the Kim family. The most personal connection between mother and child, feeding, is out-sourced to the government. When a small child receives food at a nursery, who is he to express his gratitude to but to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il? The government must realize that parent/child ties are formed at a very young age, and, in my view, primarily through feeding. Therefore, they seek to deflect the parent/child love from the mother and shift it to the government. This tactic makes perfect sense in a totalitarian state like North Korea in that it serves to build up loyalty between the citizenry and the government. Quite sinisterly, it creates a family environment in which children have no qualms about reporting the ‘disloyal’ actions or beliefs of their parents to the government. (What could be less Confucian than that?) After all, they are taught to revere Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il more than their own mothers and fathers. Actually, more than that: North Korean children are taught that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are their parents. Just look at the language the government uses when describing the leaders: ‘Fatherly Leader,’ ‘Great Father’ etc. North Koreans are constantly reminded that the Kim Il Sung was the ‘Father of the Nation’ and the ‘Father of the all the People.’ Perhaps this governmental tactic is employed with the traditional importance of the Korean family in mind. Perhaps it is used simply because of the natural human instinct to build and be a part of a family unit. Either way, it represents a government sponsored perversion of one of Korea’s most enduring traditions. (Note: I didn’t have enough space in this article to detail all of the specific ways that North Korea’s leadership seeks to alienate family members from one another. If you are interested, I would refer you to Martin’s book)
Yet more erosion of the family hasn’t occurred at the specific behest of the government, but rather as a side effect of the government’s policies and the horrendous poverty they have wrought. A North Korean defector by the name of Choi Il Gyun (a pseudonym) helped to illuminate the situation in a recent interview. Choi, who hails from Saebyong City in North Hamgyong Province, said “My parents were divorced so my Father was away. In order to make money my mother would leave me and my younger brother alone for months while she would walk from city to city, vending things to make a little money.” Bear in mind that Choi was around 14 at the time; to live alone and fend for oneself at such a young age is clearly unthinkable in both the West and South Korea. As the North’s economic situation continued to deteriorate in the late 1990s, it became increasingly arduous to simply survive. Choi’s mother decided that her only chance for salvation lay north of the Yalu River in China. “One day my mother decided to go to China” Choi said, “and I didn’t want to go. So my mother and brother went without me.” Again, actions such as these – those that divide parents and children at such a tender age – are completely anathema to the Korean principle of ‘family first.’ Even though Choi eventually joined his mother in China, the reunion did not last for long. “She gave me some medicine and clothes and then I left,” he said. Stories like Choi’s are not unique. The North’s Kim dynasty has actively fostered a society where the only family worthy of loyalty is the country’s titular head, the dynasty itself. But the country’s crippling poverty and famine has even served to undermine this; an “every man for himself” ethic has taken hold. At a February North Korean human rights conference held at Sogang University in Seoul, a defector told of personally witnessing a father sell is daughter in order to raise enough funds to eat.
It is worth noting that these disturbing developments are not without a small dose irony. When Kim Il Sung seized power in North Korea he was more of a Nationalist than a Communist. After decades of suffocating under Japanese colonialism, North Koreans were eager for deeply patriotic leadership; they wanted a return to traditional ‘Koreanism,’ and Kim Il Sung promised just that. Over fifty years later though, one can add ‘family’ to the list that already includes basic freedoms, a sufficient amount of food, clothes to wear, heat in the winter, employment, of things that the Kim dynasty has succeeded in destroying. It is indeed ironic that it has been the North Korean leadership, always so keen to act the part of the Korean nationalist, which has achieved this.