A K-Drama that I was watching recently revolved around a North Korean soldier. The drama was great, but what stayed with me post bingeing it was the intrigue for North Korea: a country that calls itself the greatest nation in the world while its people suffer from the worst human rights violations; a country that calls itself a democracy with a 100% voter turnout in any election but has the world’s most authoritarian regime; a country built on the ideology of ‘self-reliance’ but heavily dependent on aid from the international community.
On typing ‘North Korea’ in the search bar on Google, you note that the search results are dominated by nuclear weapons and North Korea’s relationship with the US and South Korea. Most of the articles paint them as enemies. However, this is where the problem lies - we equate the North Korean people with its government. While the leader and the high-ranking officials propagate an ideology and a culture that benefits them, the common man bears it. This is a country where there is no scope for upward mobility. Defecting is the only way that allows them the taste of a better life. However, in doing so, they are exposed to the racist world.
Brian Myers notes that an international network on Google Earth is working on identifying structures visible in aerial photographs in North Korea. Yet, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains a mystery to many. He attributes this to people’s view of DPRK via the lens of economics and nuclear weapons, and not via its propaganda and people.
North Korea is effectively a totalitarian state run by a dynastic line of dictators. Its cultural and political ideology is based on devotion to leader Kim Il-Sung, whose eternal Presidential authority is written into the Constitution. Three branches constitute the government– executive, legislative and judiciary. The Premier and the Supreme Leader (Kim Jong-un) control the executive branch. The legislative branch is a congress, called the Supreme People’s Assembly, occupied by unopposed candidates from the Workers’ Party of Korea. They, however, rarely meet and have historically passed nearly all proposed laws without debate. The judicial branch is known for secretive trials headed by judges appointed by the SPA.
It is a gulag posing as a nation. Everything there is about the great leader: books, newspaper articles, songs and TV programs. The flowers are named after him, and mountains are carved with his slogans. In line with this, only ‘state-approved’ content is produced, as books, newspaper articles, songs and TV programs are all censored.
North Korea calls itself a communist country, which it is not, it is also not the last bastion of Confucian patriarchy, as they often characterise it. Rather, it’s guided by a paranoid ideology of race-based nationalism, holding that Koreans are purer than all others. In his book, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, Brian Myers notes that the nation’s race-based ideology has its roots in Japanese fascism. He states the government’s criteria for national identity paints its citizens as innocent and morally virtuous but militarily weak. Thus, they require Kim Il-Sung’s guidance and protection.
The country harbours a population of 25 million, with a low rate of population growth. The population of this ‘mighty’ and ‘prosperous’ is starving. The Soviet Union originally supported North Korea. However, the collapse of the USSR led to DPRK not receiving aid, making food production plummet in the early 1990’s. This, coupled with natural disasters, led to the infamous 1990 famine. In the years since, aid from the US and other countries has helped improve the situation. However, most North Koreans still don’t have access to food with necessary nutrients, subsiding on crops like rice, cabbages, and radish. In poorer regions, boiled grass and ground tree bark serve as food alternatives.
North Korean society is based on a social caste system called–‘songbun’, used to allocate government assistance like housing and rations. The loyalty to the North Korean government is the key factor in determining the ranks of the people, and any real or perceived slight against the government can lead to the demotion of an entire family.
With no source of outside information, the North Koreans have been ignorant. And in this ignorance lies their safety. It’s a common myth that everyone in North Korea is brainwashed. A considerable number of people are brainwashed, as many committed suicides after the death of Kim Il-Sung as they didn’t know what to do without their leader. But the majority knows the nation is not as prosperous as it shows itself to be and thus, have defected. The fear of punishment has motivated the supposed admiration of the Supreme Leader.
The ‘Juche’ ideology has shaped the lifestyle of these people. Every household in North Korea is supposed to display the portraits of the eternal leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. There are strict rules and fines associated with dusting the pictures regularly, and their placement for maximum respect. As a symbol of the North Korean identity, all citizens wear a red lapel pin with portraits of the eternal leaders on themselves 24/7.
North Korea observes an 11-year school for the children. In the formative years, the children are taught the legends of their eternal leader. Subjects like Science and Mathematics are paid less attention compared to North Korean history. Many defectors note that growing up they were taught to believe their great leader was a god working tirelessly for their benefit. The idea of their leader being a god was so deeply entrenched that they used to think he could even hear their thoughts, making them afraid of even thinking negatively about the eternal leader. The students have been simply told what to think, and they obey. In their world, critical thinking isn’t allowed.
A 10 and a 3-year military enlistment is compulsory for all men and women, respectively, after they’ve completed their high school. The government assigns jobs to its people, based on industry needs and location, which they’re supposed to do without fail.
The government claims to provide free healthcare to all its citizens. However, reports say it spends less per citizen than almost any other country in the world. The country has a low standard of care, with nearly all regions suffering shortages of medical equipment and medication.
Public executions are also a common practice in the world’s favourite hermit state. In fact, too common. A defector revealed that her mother was publicly executed for watching a Hollywood movie. It is mandatory for every North Korean, 12 and above, to witness the public execution. Only the Great Leader has absolute human rights; all others are his vassals.
The only way of escaping this regime, other than taking the government’s permission, is by defecting and illegally crossing the border. The most common strategy is to cross the border in northeast China before fleeing to a third country. This third country generally becomes South Korea, the country that is supposed to be their enemy, welcomes them with open arms. If, however, the defectors are caught in China; they are deported back where they often face harsh interrogations and years of punishment or even death in political prison camps. Post the 1990 famine, the number of defectors increased owing to the poor conditions. The number of defectors since then has only been increasing, the reason now being–freedom. To deal with this increase, the DPRK government now punishes 3 generations of the family, if even one member defects.
However, the larger question remains—how does such a country still exist in the 21st century? We can attribute two major reasons for this. First, every conversation in North Korea is overheard, and the propagation of any ideology against the nation leads to immediate persecution. There is also a travel ban in North Korea with permission required from the government for even inter-state transport, hindering collectivisation. The fear of torture and starvation for their entire family has become a deterrent that has forced people to simply follow the government without dissent. Second, if North Korea falls, it will create a massive humanitarian and refugee crisis, a civil war, an insurgency that could have nuclear weapons and a state divided between the ideological difference of South Korea and China. Because of the looming threat of these scenarios, no country has ever done anything more than sanctioning North Korea.
The future in North Korea seems bleak. In an isolated world, these people are simply getting by each day trying to survive. However, amidst the tyranny, the people have created a world for themselves where they support one another. Many defectors note that while the country was poor, and the people were starving, but, they were warm to one another and cared for each other. Unlike its southern counterpart, where capitalism has induced stress and chasing materialistic needs, the Northern peninsula maintains a lifestyle where they are content even if they’re getting a small surplus. The more well off a person is, the more stressed out they are for instead of thinking about survival, they have time to overthink.
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