The Defectors and the Damned
A very intelligent friend and coworker of mine inadvertently said something silly yesterday.
“I was listening to the radio and they were playing a clip from North Korean TV,” he said as I was about to pass him on my way to the break room. “Did you hear this? There were all these people crying about Kim Jong-il, and it was all so forced.” He started to laugh a bit at his observation. “How much do you wanna bet it was fake?”
I felt my (very unattractive) self-righteous bile rising, as it so often does when matters of the Korean Peninsula come up in casual conversation. I took in a breath and spoke calmly.
“That shit was not forced,” I said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about North Korea, it’s that it’s a society that has proven that humans respond to things other than economic incentives. You can mold them. You can brainwash entire societies. Those people genuinely love the Dear Leader.”
I rambled on for a good three minutes and then walked away with a flourish. Not my most polite moment, in retrospect. Ugh.
But still! I stand by my point! And before we move on to, I don’t know, the next budget crisis or whatever, it’s worth reminding ourselves about some of the more incomprehensible, non-funny aspects of Kim Jong-il’s reign as Worst Human Alive!
Case in point: the tale of the North Korean defectors who came to visit my history class at Seoul’s Ewha University in the summer of 2008. I was in the country primarily to work on a senior thesis about Korean nationalism, but sidebar incidents like these were what made the whole endeavor worthwhile.
The first few minutes were supremely awkward. One of the former subjects of the Kim Dynasty — a beautiful, perpetually smiling thirtysomething lady — popped a CD into a small boom box and, over a tinny karaoke track, and earnestly sang a traditional tune about meeting new friends. We all appreciated the gesture, but there were only, like, 15 people in the room, tops, and it was the first thing that happened, so things were off to an uncomfortable start.
We heard her tale through a translator. She had been born into what one could farcically describe as the “middle class” of Pyongyang — meaning she sometimes had access to electricity or running water and was allowed to dream that she could someday do something vaguely glamorous (as opposed to tilling rotten dirt out in the countryside). In her case, she had a dream of singing at some kind of regime event.
She had talent as a little girl, but never got noticed by the higher-ups. Her dreams were for naught and by the time she was twenty or so, her family was in dire straits. One of her relatives got sick and couldn’t get access to decent treatment.
What followed was a version of the eternal via dolorosa for North Korean refugees. She snuck into China for what she thought would be a quick trip to grab some medicine from a black market dealer and bring it back. She ended up targeted by Chinese authorities who would have (as is their horrible, horrible policy) handed her over to her country of birth, where she would be branded as a traitor and sentenced to death by gulag, firing range, or other unnamed horrors. She kept her wits about her and eventually found safe haven in South Korea.
But here’s the thing. The thing that baffled everyone in the room.
Up until her arrival in South Korea in her early twenties, she genuinely didn’t know that North Korea wasn’t the greatest country in the world.
In a bout of cognitive dissonance that puts one in awe of the human mind’s capacity to self-destruct, she didn’t see it as a mark against the Dear Leader that, oh, you know, her family had no access to sufficient medical care and that she had to illegally enter another country to get basic medicine. It simply didn’t occur to her.
We got roughly the same rundown from the other defector! This fortyish guy had gone to China (remember: it’s nearly impossible to get to South Korea from the North, and the Chinese authorities are complete monsters when it comes to their devil-may-care attitude toward the Northerners they come across) to get clothing and other basic necessities that he could smuggle back to his family.
It took him longer to reach the South than it did for the first lady, and he had his “Holy shit, whoa, whoa, Kim Jong-il isn’t a demigod?” moment while he was still in China, but the principle is the same.
There’s a decent doc that Lisa Ling (sister of that other Ling — they just can’t stay out of that little nation, can they?) put together for National Geographic in 2006, right around the time of the big nuke test. She used a South Asian eye doctor as a Trojan Horse — he had been invited into North Korea to treat a bunch of folks who were suffering from horrible and preventable blindness. Ling and her crew posed as folks who just wanted to film this doctor in action.
Long story short, the doc’s climax comes when the North Korean patients take their bandages off in a typically drab, Spartan, stained-tile common room. They start to sob with joy, turn to the obligatory portraits of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, and immediately start bowing and praising the Great Leader and the Dear Leader for curing them.
This is just a smattering of vignettes that have raced through my mind’s eye in the past 36 hours. There are way better sources out there for info on life in North Korea (like this and this and this and this). I’m not claiming to be an expert here.
But I want to impart two points to my fellow millennials:
- Kim Jong-il was not a comical cartoon character. Sure, there was all the stuff about Hennessey and moviemaking and superhuman athleticism. And yeah, Matt and Trey did a great job using him as a really loose starting point for Team America. And of course, Margaret Cho was pretty funny in that one 30 Rock episode. And yeah, he looked goofy and liked looking at things or whatever. But this man oversaw the deaths, through action and inaction, of upwards of 3.5 million people. He imprisoned countless others in gulags that would have made Solzhenitsyn shudder. He aggressively blighted a nation that was once a promising industrial center. He allowed millions of people to become so malnourished that they come out shorter than their genetic brethren to the south. In a culture that puts the highest value on family, he upheld the cripplingly tragic separation of families arbitrarily torn apart by the Korean War. He created a state that was completely unprecedented in its totalitarian scope. Perhaps most horribly, he and his father broke the spine of a noble people — and then made them forget they had a spine in the first place. Which brings me to the fact that…
- North Koreans, by and large, have no idea how bad things are for them. The state apparatus in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is fucking incredible. They’ve created an almost 100% hermetically sealed society with virtually no access to any information that they aren’t force-fed. Like, literally none. There is no history of organized resistance. There is no history of widespread cynicism or reluctant acknowledgment that the state can’t be overhauled (meaning NK isn’t like the bygone Eastern Bloc states that we think of when the word “repression” comes up). The citizens and the body politic have been mutated beyond recognition. It’s proof that the worst is possible.
Not only is it possible; it’s currently happening. Every day. Your average Pyongyang resident probably doesn’t understand the concept that one could not weep about Kim’s death.
As another friend of mine put it in a little comment online: “i can’t believe i live on the same planet as North Korea during the same historical period.” Indeed. It shouldn’t exist, and yet it does. And it’s not funny. And it’s not something to ignore. It’s a tragedy beyond comprehension. It would be an alternate universe, if it weren’t real.
Great, I went and got all self-righteous again. Ugh.
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- yanglindayang said: Reminds me of this article: theatlantic.com/nationa… No, you would not be any different if you were a NK citizen.
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