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Kim Jong Un’s Hunger Games

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SEOUL—After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which marked the beginning of the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe and presaged the collapse of the Soviet Empire, North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung was no doubt alarmed.

There was, for sure, deep concern among the ruling elite in Pyongyang that the growing prosperity of South Korea would have the same gravitational pull that West Germany and the West in general had exerted on the Iron Curtain.

But Kim Il Sung, who ruled from 1948 to his death in 1994 and remains “Eternal President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” had a message for his subjects. Weeks after the wall in Berlin came down (which very few knew about to begin with), he told them a massive new concrete wall had just been built by the South Koreans to keep the peninsula divided.

There was, as everyone knew, the heavily guarded demilitarized zone dating to the armistice of 1953, but Kim Il Sung was talking about a huge physical wall, imposing and medieval. For at least two decades, long after the eternal president’s death, references to that imaginary barrier were repeated and its existence reviled in North Korean propaganda.

Ultimately, the point was to build an impregnable wall in the minds of the North Korean people.

Today, the division remains, and it is not only made of razor-wire barriers at the DMZ or the imaginary concrete structure conjured by Kim Il Sung. It is a wall built of hunger.

Kim Jong Un, the grandson of Kim Il Sung, understands all this perfectly well, which is one reason he may be impervious to the promises of U.S. President Donald Trump, who talks about the development potential of North Korea as if he were selling timeshares in Florida real estate.

People tend to think less about getting rich, and less still about the abstractions of democracy and political freedom, when they are struggling to find something to eat.

“In the rural areas it’s about trying to feed yourself day by day,” says Teodora Gyupchanova, researcher with the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, tracking what’s going on there. “It’s about survival.”

Hunger, she says, is one big reason why most North Koreans outside the elite in the capital of Pyongyang have no notion of life in South Korea—and neither energy nor inclination to defy a system that controls all North Koreans down to the village and family level.

The use of food as a weapon is key, as Robert Collins makes clear in his book, Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System (PDF). Everyone is formally classified depending on family background. Food distribution, like access to a decent job and education, is a privilege from birth.

“The higher the songbun, the better you’re fed,” says Collins. “If you’re on the outside, you’re deprioritized.”

Just to show how pervasive is Kim Jong Un’s power, virtually 100 percent of North Korea’s eligible voters, all those 17 and above, cast their ballots Sunday for five-year terms for members of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament.

There was no doubt as to what the elections for a single candidate from each of nearly 700 districts were all about. They “strikingly manifest the fixed will of our people to firmly trust and uphold to........

© The Daily Beast