Oh those silly North Koreans …

by Jennifer Collins

Recently, I started reading up on North Korea because I wanted to know more about life inside this hermetically-sealed country.* It started with one article and has turned into a fully-blown obsession. I’m consuming anything I can get my hands on: books, articles, eyewitness accounts, documentaries.

What I’ve read and watched disturbed me. Deeply. Perhaps, I was naive — or just willfully ignorant — but I hadn’t realised the extent of the regime’s brutality nor how numbingly oppressive life is in the country.

Not a lot is written about everyday life in North Korea and even less about the Gulag-style labour camps, where people are worked to death. Some 20,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since famine hit DPRK in the 1990s, killing millions; but just a few will speak about their experiences, for obvious reasons.

Mostly we see what North Korea wants us to see. Any visiting journalists, tourists and foreign dignitaries are brought on a guided tour and never let out of the sight of their minders. Media images and soundbites extend to the leadership’s increasingly shrill and bombastic proclamations about the foreign enemy, lies about how well the country is doing, failed rocket-launches, nuclear ambitions and wailing citizens.

And we laugh at it.

We see press pictures of Kim Jong-il touring factories and looking at things and somebody creates a tumblelog — and it’s hysterical. The little man with the wiry barnet and over-sized glasses was the perfect figure to parody. He just looks so “ronery”. Chubby-cheeked, newly-minted leader, Kim Jong-un, already has his own Twitter parody account @kimjongnumberun. One of the latest tweets reads: “That awkward moment when a fly honey asks if your missiles are fake or not. #NorthKoreanProblems.” And, of course, after the failed rocket launch, the memes rolled in.

We hear stories of how North Koreans are told that Kim Jong-il could control the weather based on his mood and that his trademark style set off a global fashion trend and we scoff at the gullibility of these people. How could they believe this stuff? But consider the position of North Koreans for a moment. As Barbara Demick, US journalist and author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” writes:

“North Korea invites parody […] But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity.”**

On top of that, the country is subject to strict social controls to keep the population in check. The state carries out eight background checks on each North Korean in an elaborate attempt to classify everyone according to their politically reliability (such is the paranoia of totalitarian states, in particular).

Your rating — or songbun — takes into account the background of your parents, your grandparents and even your second cousins, writes Demick. This has resulted in a sort of caste system where the only social mobility is downward. The core class is reserved for top party officials and their families, who can easily be demoted for bad behaviour. Once you move into the hostile class, you’re there for life. Your status is permanent and hereditary. Your children will bear the weight of whatever crimes the regime has found you guilty of committing (not that there is any due process in DPRK). The very bottom class — the undesirables, which make up around 1 percent of the population — are permanently banished to one of the country’s six labour camps, where “they live in the most inhumane conditions imaginable”.

Prisoners are forced to work in near slave-like circumstances and are frequently subject to torture, rape, medical experimentation, forced abortion and other cruel and degrading treatment.

Children are born inside these camps and are forced spend their lives there, never knowing that another world exists beyond the fence that hems them in. Shin Dong-hyuk, who claims to have been born in and to have escaped from such a camp in 2005, says he thought the whole world consisted of prisoners and guards. What he describes is similar to what we know of Nazi concentration camps and Soviet Gulags. His scarred body tells the story of the torture he endured there.

It’s really difficult to get a hold of accurate figures, because North Korea is so isolated, but according to the The International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity around 10,000 people die in these camps each year; some 40 percent of malnutrition and another 20 – 25 percent from forced labour.

North Korea is a surveillance state worse than the German Democratic Republic. It is estimated that there is one informant for every fifty citizens. Neighbours denounce neighbours, husbands denounce wives and children denounce their parents. Considering that even a minor infraction can get you shipped off to a Gulag for life, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to voice any criticism of the regime, even if you know it’s all lies. Who can you trust? Such an atmosphere breeds fear and paranoia. There is little or no room for dissent and no civil society exists.

Political parody is important, but laughing at and lampooning North Korea distracts from the the horrific suffering the regime inflicts. The nightmarish camps are largely ignored by US and European politicians and the media, and, therefore, by the general public, who instead laugh at the absurdity of it all without being aware of the regime’s brutality. In Camp 14, where Shin Dong-hyuk lived for most of his life, inmates are beaten for laughing.


*  This all happened after a conversation with my podcast buddy and friend, Tam Eastley. Tam wrote her thesis on a Cambodia-related topic, but initially toyed with the idea of writing about North Korea.

** Demick, Barbara (2009): Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Random House: New York