Distorting your people’s psychology – the case of North Korea’s “People’s Republic”

Suki Kim
Suki Kim

Suki Kim was brought up in Seoul, went to Barnard College in New York, and then went to North Korea to teach English to the sons of the North Korean elite.  Her fellow teachers were religious Christians, but her own motivation was curiosity.  Out of her experience she wrote a book called Without You, There is no Us. The book title is a line from a North Koreans song.  “You” is the great leader.  His picture is everywhere, and cannot be moved.  His name is carved into mountain sides.   His ideology, Juche (which roughly means “self-reliance”) was taught daily to her students.

The Calendar in the DPRK starts at year zero, that year being the birth of the original great leader.  There have been three generations of leaders, each the son of the other, the first Kim Il Sung, the second Kim Jong-il, and the third Kim Jong-un.

Kim_Il-sung and Kim_Jong-il statues
Kim_Il-sung and Kim_Jong-il statues

These great leaders are very careful to censor what their people know of the outside world, and not to let them leave the country.  These leaders don’t seem “great” from our point of view, given that eighty percent of their citizens experience food shortages and hunger.  It is estimated that forced labor, executions, and concentration camps have claimed over a million lives since 1948 (A 1990s famine killed an additional three million).

Suki had to spend most of her time on the school campus, which was guarded by female guards – not against outside threats, but to keep the teachers from leaving except on authorized trips.  On one of these trips – to an apple orchard, she witnessed gaunt and emaciated people in the countryside.  The most interesting aspect of her stay in the DPRK was not the poverty, which she expected, but the effect a regime like this has on its people’s psychology.

For instance, it was impossible to teach her students how to write an essay, because an essay starts with a proposition to prove, and the rest has to marshal evidence for that proposition.   But these students had not learned critical thinking. In fact critical thinking was dangerous.
Suki did not want to endanger her students by telling them facts they were not supposed to know.  She says

..I hope they have forgotten everything I inspired in them and have simply grown to become soldiers of the regime…I do not want to imagine what might happen if they …began questioning the system.  I cannot bear the idea that any of my students, my boys who so eagerly shouted, “Good morning, Professor Kim! How are you?” every time I walked into the classroom–might end up somewhere dark and cold, in one of the gulags that exist all over North Korea.

When she first entered her classroom, she found herself standing in front of twenty-six young men, all of them neatly dressed and sitting up very straight.

Something about that first moment in the classroom felt so clean and serene…They were young, and I remember them as beautiful.

These students were the sons of the ruling echelon of North Korea. They were friendly and orderly and enthusiastic.  They were indoctrinated: spending their afternoon studying Juche, and they wore badges of the Eternal President over their hearts.
They played sports in the evenings, but

group spirit dominated everything…They came to the cafeteria in groups and lived on assigned floors in groups…Being divided into groups and ranked in hierarchies–that was what they knew.  An individual action was unthinkable.

Suki says they did not like to volunteer answers in class, though when they were called on, they would immediately answer.  They were baffled by the pronoun “my”.  Pyongyang was “our” city, and the DPRK was “our” country.

The teachers were under surveillance, and Suki says:

…how quickly we gave up our freedom, how quickly we tolerated the loss of that freedom, like a child being abused, in silence.  In this world, there were no individual demands, and asking permission for everything was infantilizing.  So we began to understand our students…The notion of following your heart’s desire, of going wherever you chose, did not exist here…

There was a terror in North Korea – even the well fed students of the elite showed sudden fear in certain situations, though of course they were extremely patriotic.
On a drive back from an excursion to a mountain, things went wrong, the time was late and the bus was driving at night, which it wasn’t supposed to be doing.  Suki looked out.

There were no lights on in any of the houses we passed…Either they had no electricity or there was a blackout, which was not uncommon in this country.  But I had never experienced a scene so entirely devoid of noise.  By “noise,” I do not mean literal sound, but the noise of life…I saw no running dogs or children, no chimney smoke, no flash of color from a TV set…what troubled me more was the fact that I did not know and would never know the truth of what I was seeing.

Near the end of the summer semester, Suki was told that she would be attending the ceremony for the 58th Anniversary of the Great Victory (over South Korea and America). When she went to the stadium, she describes how about a hundred men wearing army uniforms came out on the stage, their jackets covered with gold medals.  There were two women among them…It seems likely that one of them was Kim Kyung-hui, sister of Kim Jong Il and wife of Jang Sung-tack, then the second most powerful man in North Korea.  (In 2013 Jang was executed for treason.)

One of the men walked to the podium and read a speech about the glorious achievements of Kim Il-sung and the heroic way he had fended off the attacks of the American imperialists and won the war.  Curse words directed at the United States and South Korea were scattered throughout the speech. He warned that if South Korea continued its aggressive behavior, Seoul would turn into a “sea of blood” filled with “death and corpses.” Ironically, this patriotic man was removed from his post in 2012, and it is believed that he was either sent to a prison camp or executed.

Let us leave Suki’s narrative here, and think a little. How did the DPRK become Communist?  It started with Japan’s conquest in World War-II. When Japan was defeated, America was worried that Russia would occupy the entire peninsula.  The American made an agreement with the Soviets so that the U.S. would have a occupation zone in the south, and the Soviets in the north.   Kim Il-sung, who had spent the last years of the war training with Soviet troops in Manchuria, became the first great leader.  So the system was imposed on Korea from without.  The Korean war started with the Communist forces pushing the South Koreans and the Americans to the south. Under General MacArthur, the U.S. Marines executed a surprise attack at the port of Inchon that almost won the war, until the Communist Chinese invaded and pushed back the U.N. forces. The war ended up with the status quo – the country split into two very different systems. The Communist coalition had lost an estimated 1.6 million soldiers in order to preserve the paradise of North Korea.

So is it our problem?  Consider this (from Daniel Sobieski’s article at AmericanThinker):

Both [North Korean] satellites now are in south polar orbits, evading many U.S. missile defense radars and flying over the United States from the south, where our defenses are limited. Both satellites — if nuclear armed — could make an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that could blackout the U.S. electric grid for months or years, thereby killing millions.

It might seem rash to believe that this would happen, but they constantly teach their people that the United States is the enemy.

Is there anything good about the DPRK?  After all, Suki did like her students.  In the U.S. 145,100 public school teachers were physically attacked by students at their schools in the course of a single school year and another 276,700 public school teachers were threatened with injury by a student in that school year.   Can we point fingers?

I would say that maybe there is more safety of one kind in this type of country, but if you are always terrified of saying the wrong thing and paying terrible consequences for what you said, and if your knowledge of the world is severely filtered by ideologues, and if you have never learned critical thinking, then I am glad I am not in your shoes or your country.

The West has its intolerant youth, and the right to disagree is in danger on college campuses.  For instance, conservative speaker David Horowitz, liberal pro-Israel speaker Alan Dershowitz, and an anti-feminist speaker [Christine Hoff Summers] have to have armed guards when they speak on campuses in the U.S.  In England, a government-backed study found that some schools are dropping both the Holocaust and the Crusades from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils.

North Korea is a specially successful example of people who are willing to put millions under total and absolute control.  If millions die in the process, the regime admits to no fault. It is remarkable in the near-worship of the leaders that is required. Intellectual honesty is not prized in that country. We should be as different from that country as possible, so lets hold on to the ability to have peaceful debate, the ability to revise beliefs based on empirical facts, the ability to question authority, and the ability to be honest with others and with ourselves.


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