I was struck by the images coming from North Korea of last week’s funeral of their leader, Kim Jong Il. The huge scale of the plaza in which the public service was held, with thousands of soldiers standing bareheaded in formation in freezing conditions, was an unforgettable image.
And yet, by all accounts, North Korea is a sad and poverty stricken country, ruled oppressively by an unprogressive Stalinist regime, an economic disaster where many babies die of hunger and most street lights are turned off at night to save power. So, what motivates such vast crowds of men and women to obey and support such dismal leadership? Is it fear? Is it years of demoralisation and brainwashing, of living in a society where dissent invites persecution and death?
That would be my first guess, watching from afar. But I suspect that there is an additional dynamic at work under the surface. People have a desire to survive, to live, to get by as best they can, and the leaders of North Korea have harnessed that force. The thousands of soldiers assembled in the cold in Pyongyang, even bare handed, and despite any security measures put in place, could likely have mutinied and overwhelmed their dictators in a few minutes. But instead, they bowed meekly and returned to their barracks and homes in the poorest country in their region.
To see this open display of the capture of the energy and force of the people of North Korea was stunning. It drives home the truth of the basic principle of constitutional law: that human force is powerful enough to set up a new government or group of rulers, but cannot maintain freedom over time. Only the establishment of a system where the force is channelled into balancing and inter-correcting parts can do that. It has been said that it is more difficult for a people to keep than to gain their freedom.
I am not referring only to John Locke’s concept of checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial parts of a formal government structure. There are other embodiments of human energy and force in our societies: the military, the banking sector, business and industry of different levels and sizes, organised workers, rural communities, womens groups, ethnic and indgenous groups, and religious groups.
If these groups can all make their contribution, then we might see a different result to when a society is dominated by one group only. But what does it take, really, to make the difference? A voice, a right to be heard? Respect? Compromise by others? Protections from exploitation? A fair share of our nation’s wealth?
Therefore, we must not forget to ask ourselves, as we view the images from Pyongyang: in our country, who controls the lives of others? Are we all truly free people, or do too many of us live our lives bowing to the dictates of the powerful? And if we think, on reflection, that our lives are being overly dominated by the interests and power of a few, then we can ask a further question: are we giving to those powerful ones the weapon they use to subdue us, our own force and energy?