Geopolitics

Is North Korea Moving Toward A Post-Totalitarian Regime?

Recent pictures of Kim Jong-un and his wife attending public events is just one sign that has insiders wondering whether North Korea has started to shift toward a 'post-totalitarian' regime.

Skyline from the Monument to Victorious Fatherland Liberation War
Skyline from the Monument to Victorious Fatherland Liberation War
Philippe Pons

Beyond the eye-catching anecdotal – Kim Jong-un and his wife linking arms while attending a Walt Disney show at the opening ceremony of a theme park – one may seriously begin to ask if North Korea is quietly shifting toward a post-totalitarian regime.

The answer to that question won’t come from Pyongyang: the propaganda media have just swept away all speculations over the country initiating “reforms”, referring to them as “hallucinations” – a statement that is not to be taken literally as the politically loaded word “reform” is prohibited in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Since everything in the DPRK is “perfect”, those can only be called “adjustments.” Yet, it is undeniable that the country is changing. But to what extent?

Since Kim Jong-un’s ascent to power after his father’s death last December, the DPRK has been trying hard to polish its image. That was the goal of the PR operation organized last April to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the “eternal President” Kim Il-sung (1912-1994) and covered by hundreds of foreign journalists. But the regime is mostly concerned with internal affairs: economic recovery and social stability.

North Koreans were badly hit by the 1995-1997 famine (from 600,000 to one million deaths) and the economic collapse. The population is still experiencing shortages and the government can hardly push for any more sacrifices, especially since the new leader’s coming into office yields so much hope for Koreans.

Kim Jong-un’s obvious resemblance with his grand-father is no accident: for many North Koreans, the Kim-il Sung era, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, is still regarded as a Golden Age: people, including those who fled south of the border, still feel nostalgic about the modest yet decent life enjoyed by most at the time. In his first public speech last April, Kim Jong-un promised that North Koreans “will never have to tighten their belt again.”

According to the South Korean news website Daily NK, recent developments suggest that North Korea is changing: the country recently revised its law on foreign investment – as new projects like special economic zones with China are in progress - and announced “a new economic management system in our own style.”

Adjustments and reforms

This new management system, as it was with the July 2002 “adjustments” which granted more autonomy to state-run companies and initiated salary deregulations, claims to be neither based on the Chinese nor the Vietnamese model. It should have a big impact on agriculture and industry. In 2002, the DPRK ended up freezing “reforms” because of growing tensions with the United States, which only led to more isolation for North Korea and was marked by two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

The current evolution seems to be confirmed by the rehabilitation of two of the main initiators of the 2002 measures – Roh Du-cheol, former vice prime minister and Pak Pong-ju, who served as director of the ministry of light industry. Economic affairs have been handed back to the cabinet, which had been replaced in its decision-making role by the army.

The recent sacking of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho as head of the Korean People’s Army illustrates the will the give more responsibilities to civilian institutions (the party and cabinet), a move he himself would have certainly opposed.

During Kim Jong-il’s era (1994-2001), the military enjoyed special treatment, as showed by the "Army First” slogan. With 1.2 million members, the army was seen as the legitimate heir of Kim il-Sung’s anti-Japanese guerrilla and maintained a considerable power. It has also been an economic stronghold. The army is financially independent and receives funding from factories, agricultural cooperatives and trade houses (which are in charge of arms and mining exports). The military benefited from the underground economy, which has developed this past ten years and now co-exists with the planned economy.

This de-facto “free-market” underground economy is difficult to measure but is believed to account for 50% of North Korea’s total supplies. It has led to deep and irreversible social changes. The rise in participants, the creation of a business class and the growth in corruption has made society more flexible and weakened the coercive system. As more Chinese goods enter North Korea, more information also flows in.

In 2002, the regime tried to get on top of this chaotic free market, created to meet the needs of the starving masses, by implementing reforms. Yet from 2005 onward, the government decided to fight the system but failed to eradicate the growing business activity. Even though the state has a very efficient repressive instrument (between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians are held captive in work camps), it cannot afford to tackle the underground economy without worsening the country’s situation.

A new economic system aimed at offering better living conditions and regulating the underground economy is likely to be implemented but North Korea has only just begun to improve its ties with the rest of the world.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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