Alice Friedemann, Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy. Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Collapse of Industrial Civilization, Cuba, Ecological Overshoot, Energy Descent, Financial Elite, Gross Inequality, Inverted Totalitarianism, North Korea, Peak Oil, The Elite 1%, unwashed public
Empires take what they want, first through diplomatic and economic pressure, then through the use of jackals and mercenaries, and finally with the shock and awe of military might dressed up with the appropriate propagandistic slogans of rescuing a resource-cursed country from its now out-of-favor dictator. ‘Regime change’ has become an acceptable TV euphemism for overthrowing governments. However, when those foreign oil taps start to run dry, important environmental regulations in the homeland get reinterpreted and scaled back in order to open up resources that once were thought of as undesirable. The elite systematically cannibalize their own societies while at the same time extracting massive profits by shredding the social safety net, criminalizing poverty and dissent, stripping away environmental protection, and gutting scientific research. In order to protect their ability to loot the commons, the elite circle believe it is more advantageous to keep the masses ignorant about the true extent of the planetary crisis their policies have created. If science gets in the way of “progress”, then it is summarily dismissed by outright denial, defunding, and deletion from public records as Apneaman points out:
…the gutting of Environment Canada by the Harper gang was an effective strategy in silencing scientists whose research was causing “sufficient embarrassment”. It was not violent, but they are just getting started. Then there are the non violent environmental protesters who are being sent to prison. Could you imagine that 20 years ago? Just getting started. As the benign dog points out, when the dollar hegemony slips even further it won’t be just the government and the rich looking to silence the critics. Does anyone one here really think people like the neo-cons are going to give up the reserve currency status without a fight?
For those countries who are located down low on the totem pole of energy wealth such as North Korea, the coffers of the State are filled by criminal activity of a more mundane variety such as drug smuggling and currency counterfeiting:
North Koreans began to produce meth in “big state-run labs.” The Los Angeles Times reports that narcotics investigators said the North Korean government controlled the production of meth and opium, as well as other drugs, in the 1990s in order to bring in “hard currency” for Kim Jong Il, the late North Korean leader. The government was engaging in the drug trade in order to save and improve its economic state as a nation. I do not by any means agree with the actions North Korean government chose to take. Instead of tending to its people’s health issues, it chose to spread life-threatening drugs throughout the world. In such a heavily government-dependent political system, the people have no hope to turn to a government official and ask for help. Individuals and families turned to the drug in times of desperation, leading to many North Koreans becoming fervent methamphetamine addicts. This situation is devastating and should not be overlooked. According to CNN, a majority — two-thirds to be exact — of the North Korean population has used methamphetamines. It is reportedly accessible in restaurants and has “become the drug of choice of high-ranking officials and the police.” http://www.centralfloridafuture.com/opinion/north-korea-s-meth-addiction-could-spell-disaster-for-us-1.2853884#.U0jHJyhRY20
It is no secret that North Korean diplomats and embassies are self-financing. In fact, they are profit earning and they must remit funds back to Pyongyang. While this means that DPRK diplomatic relations are not a drain on the treasury, as is typically the case with other countries, it does mean that the DPRK’s official representatives are more likely to make headlines for their business dealings rather than political statements. http://www.nkeconwatch.com/2009/11/22/dprk-diplos-arrested-for-smuggling-again/
Liu had been convicted of conspiracy and fraud involving millions of dollars made not by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing but by counterfeiting presses in a foreign country, presumably North Korea. The quality of these “supernote” forgeries is so high that he’d managed to pass enormous quantities through the electronic detection devices with which every Vegas slot machine is supposed to be equipped. The prosecutor was asking the judge to give him close to 25 years, and in the end Liu would receive more than 12. Liu’s crimes threatened not only the integrity of America’s currency but the very fabric of international peace. They were part of a vast criminal enterprise believed to be controlled by the North Korean state, set up and used to finance its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs. All of this, intelligence analysts say, is coordinated by a secret agency inside the North Korean government controlled directly by “the Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, himself. The agency is known as Office 39. (Given the opacity of anything inside North Korea, experts differ on whether “Office” should be “Bureau” or even “Room”—and they also suspect that the number itself may change.) http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/09/office-39-200909
Cuba and North Korea are two interesting examples of countries that are both energy poor but also very different on the sociopolitical spectrum. Cuba appears to be closer to an ideal model for how energy descent should be handled, and North Korea is a much more frightening view of how things are run by a tiny, coddled elite. What follows is a review by Alice Friedemann of “Nothing to Envy. Ordinary lives in North Korea” written by Barbara Demick…
North Korea and Cuba were the first countries to lose oil, the lifeblood of civilization. Since we will all share that fate, it’s interesting to see what happened, though keep in mind that how severe the consequences are will depend on the carrying capacity of the region you’re in, how much civil order can be maintained, and the effectiveness of the leaders in power (i.e. see “Lessons Learned from How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” that compares California to Cuba).
There are enormous differences between the fates of Cuba and North Korea. Cuba had many advantages — a benign climate with year-round rainfall where three crops a year could be grown, a culture of helping one another out, and Castro prevented middlemen and speculators from charging astronomical amounts for food. For a detailed understanding of what happened in Cuba read this Oxfam analysis.
North Korea couldn’t be more opposite – a cold mountainous nation with only 15% of its land arable, and dictators so crazy and cruel they’re almost unmatched in history. North Korea might be the only nation with more prisoners per capita than America. There are many kinds of prisons, from detention centers to hard-labor camps, to gulags where your children, cousins, brothers, sisters, and parents would also be sent to for a crime you committed for generations to come. About 1% of the population– 200,000 people –permanently work in labor camps. The threat of these prisons has made it impossible for organized resistance to happen.
It’s hard to escape, and if you do, then your relatives end up in labor camps. Other nations aren’t keen on refugees – South Korea fears a collapse of North Korea and being overrun by 23 million people seeking food and shelter, and China has their own problems with 1.2 billion poor people.
The consequences of peak energy in North Korea are worse than what’s likely to happen initially in America, though some regions of the United States are likely to suffer more than others. On the other hand, when times get hard, group-oriented cultures that depend on a large network of people tend to do better than highly individualist cultures, which is as you can learn more about in Dmitry Orlov’s Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century.
The only good aspect I could find about North Korea was that the women there are less repressed than in the past. A century ago Korean women were so completely covered in clothing that the Taliban would find no faults. In one village north of Pyongyang women wore 7 foot long, 5 feet broad and 3 feet deep wicker hat constructions that kept women hidden from head to toe. Perhaps even more than Muslim women, Korean women were imprisoned in family compounds and could only leave at special times when the streets were cleared of men. One historian said that Korean women were “very rigidly secluded, perhaps more absolutely than women of any other nation”.
After the Korean War ended, North Korea lost most of its infrastructure and 70% of its housing. It was amazing that Kim Il-sung managed to create a Spartan economy where most were sheltered and clothed, had electricity, and few were illiterate. Grain and other foods were distributed as well. In autumn each family got about 150 pounds of cabbage per person to make kimchi, which was stored in tall earthen jars buried in the garden so they would stay cold but not freeze and hidden from thieves.
North Korea became utterly dependent on the kindness of other countries for oil, food, fertilizer, vehicles, and so on.
What happens when the oil stops flowing?
In the early 1990s North Korea suffered a double blow at a time when they were $10 billion in debt. China wanted cash up front for fuel and food while at the same time the Soviet Union demanded the much higher price of what oil was selling for on world markets.
The nation spun into a crash. Without oil and raw materials the factories shut down. With no exports, there was no money to buy fuel and food with. Electric plants shut, irrigation systems stopped running, and coal couldn’t be mined. The results were:
- Power stations and the electric grid rusted beyond fixing
- The lights went out.
- Running water stopped so most went to a public pump to get water
- Electric trams operated infrequently
- People climbed utility poles to steal pieces of copper wire to barter for food
- There were few motor vehicles
- And few tractors, farming was done with oxen dragging plows
Hunger struck, which made people too exhausted to work long at the few factories and farms that were still surviving.
Oil is liquid muscle. One barrel of crude oil (42-gallons) has 1,700 kilowatts of energy. It would take a fit human adult laboring more than 10 years to equal one barrel of oil.
Perhaps this is why many nations have had no choice but to rely on muscle power after an economic crash or during a war, which means putting many people to work on farms. After the energy crisis, North Koreans over 11 were sent out to the country to plant rice, haul soil, spray pesticides, and weed. This was called “volunteer work”. Now that they couldn’t afford to buy fertilizer, every family was expected to provide a human bucketful of excrement to a warehouse miles away. The bucket was exchanged for a chit that could be traded for food.
Like Mao’s crazy schemes, North Korea’s dictators lurched from one mad idea to another — one day it was goat breeding, the next ostrich farms, or switching from rice to potatoes.
Food staples were grown on collective farms, and the state took the harvest and redistributed it. The farmers weren’t given enough to survive on, so they slacked on their collective fields to grow food to survive on, making the food crisis even worse. In the end, it was people in cities with no land to grow their own food on who ended up starving first. Every year, rationed amounts of food went down.
People were told the United States was at fault, and propaganda campaigns encouraged Koreans to think of themselves as tough, and that enduring hunger without complaint was a patriotic duty, and kept everyone’s hopes up by promising bumper crops in the coming harvest. The Koreans deceived themselves like the German Jews in the 1930s, and told themselves it couldn’t get any worse, things would get better. But they didn’t.
Worse yet, instead of spending money on agriculture, the defense budget sucked up a quarter of the GNP. One million men out of 23 million people were kept in arms – the 4th largest military in the world.
The only place to get food became the illegal black market, where prices were terribly high, sometimes 250 times higher than what the state used to sell food for.
Natural disasters made harvests even worse – in 1994 and 1995 Korea was struck with an extremely cold winter and torrential rains in the summer that destroyed the homes of 500,000 people and rice crops for 5.2 million people.
People began picking weeds and wild grasses to stretch out meals, as well as leaves, husks, stems, and the cobs of corn. Children can’t digest food this rough and could end up in a hospital, where doctors advised the rough material be ground up fine and cooked a long time. It wasn’t long before malnutrition led to increasing numbers of people with pellagra and other diseases. Hospitals soon ran out drugs and other supplies.
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