Attempting to Understand North Korea

The difficulty of making generalizations about what North Koreans are “really” like…

People are not their governments. This can be very easy to forget, because we casually blur the difference between states and populations all the time. “China is devaluing its currency.” “France won’t join the coalition.” “Iran is building a nuclear weapon.” The vast majority of people, though, have very little to do with any of the acts attributed to their countries as a whole. The gap between the Iranian leadership and the Iranian populace is striking, for instance. The government are hard-line religious fundamentalists, while a substantial portion of the people themselves are laid-back cosmopolitans. The names “Putin” and “Russia” are often used interchangeably, even though one is a country of 144 million people and the other is, if you did not know this, a single individual among those people. It’s not just something we do to other people, either: Many Americans abroad have been treated to resentment and mockery that is more properly directed at our president.

We tend to see countries as undifferentiated blobs. There are “the Spanish,” and they have Spanish characteristics like tardiness and exuberance. Everyone gets their stereotype, even if judging the French by its haughtiest Parisians is as unfair as judging the United States by its most insufferable Manhattanites. Sometimes a distinction or two gets drawn: After a few million Iraqi casualties, Americans finally just about understand that the country is divided into Sunni, Shia, and Kurds. But to go one step beyond and actually treat people as individuals, to really set aside whatever prejudices and generalizations one may have about their race or nation, well, good luck.

The tendency toward flattening and stereotyping is at its worst with a country like North Korea. After all, even if “people are not their governments” holds true most places around the world, if there’s one place where the opposite is true, it’s the DPRK. We noble, prejudice-free humanists may not want its citizens to be “monolithic” and “indistinguishable,” but that’s exactly what the Kim family has spent the last decades trying to ensure, so it’s easy to find justifications for the popular stereotypes of North Koreans as either cowering prisoners or robotic servants of the state. There is also an information problem: In a closed society that punishes independent thought, the private opinions of individual North Koreans are beyond reach. All accounts must necessarily be stitched together from a mixture of defector testimonies, parsed propaganda, and eyewitness accounts from visitors exposed to a state-curated view of the country.

Yet while some of the difficulties are inherent, it’s also true that most of us don’t try nearly as hard as we should to understand the country, and to figure out what is actually going on there. Until recently, if you asked me to jot down all of the things I knew about North Korean life, my answer would have been pitiful: empty streets, no electricity, malnutrition, inordinate quantities of both soldiers and political prisoners. The rest of my knowledge amounted to: (1) basic knowledge about the history of diplomatic (non)-relations between North Korea and the U.S. and (2) “fun fact” type bits of depressing trivia, like the fact that penthouse apartments in North Korea are actually the least desirable because the elevators seldom work. Realizing how scattershot and lazy my understandings have been, I have been trying to get beyond propaganda, to access, if not the “real” North Korea (whatever reality is), at least a version of it with slightly less of a barrier between me and the real human beings who inhabit the place.

One way to realize how much people have in common is to examine that which is most mundane. Nicholas Bonner’s book Made In North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life In The DPRK offers a gallery of the most “boring” North Korean objects, the bits and pieces that get thrown away, but which Bonner has spent years stuffing in his pockets and smuggling out out of the country. The collection he has amassed includes: hotel welcome cards, coasters, toothbrush containers, receipts, candy wrappers, luggage tags, biscuit boxes, stamps, boarding passes, ticket stubs, wrapping paper, toys, instruction manuals, airline safety cards, notepads, guidebooks, cigarette cartons, tinned food labels, beer logos, sugar packets, and air sickness bags. All of this “rubbish” is easily overlooked. But Bonner insists that in these scraps, we can see thoughtful and elegant graphic design. He says there is “a great understanding of harmony and beauty” in these products and that the country “punches above its weight” in design.

He’s right. These little scraps are mesmerizing. There is a coherent aesthetic to many of them, and Bonner draws attention to the repeated use of the country’s “traditional motifs and color palette.” It’s no surprise that that should be the case, since authoritarian rule provides an easy shortcut to aesthetic consistency. But the fact that there should be “things of beauty” at all is at odds with the idea of the country as a place of unmitigated bleakness. It’s true that you constantly feel the hand of the government, sometimes implicitly and sometimes less so (the box for a toy gun depicts an armed hedgehog shooting a U.S. soldier). Yet looking at the designs makes you wonder about the designer. Even a luggage tag was designed by somebody, and it’s impossible for a state to actually eliminate creativity even if it is channeled toward political ends. Propaganda itself often displays striking artistic skill and ingenuity.

Because North Korean product packaging is not designed for “branding” purposes (with a few exceptions like beer and tobacco, there are no brands), it has an unusual simplicity, directness, and even elegance. Everything is what it says it is: A can of peas just says Can of Peas and a container of chicken has a picture of a chicken on it. The package replicates its contents, which means that instead of trying to sell you a LifeSaver, it will be informing you that it holds sweet candies. Instinctively, of course, that’s depressing, because a world in which there is one kind of soap called Soap is monotonous. But Bonner says that we should avoid the easy temptation to overlook the virtues of North Korean design. Pyongyang itself, he says, is in its way more beautiful than Beijing, thanks to its wide avenues and orderly design. That beauty may have been built on a mountain of human suffering, but, if we’re being honest, so have many of the world’s aesthetic treasures. If we see these works as sullied by the circumstances of their creation, and refuse to acknowledge their virtues, we are once again allowing the state to take credit that properly belongs to the people themselves.

All graphics from “Made In North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK,” from the collection of Nicholas Bonner, courtesy of Phaidon

Those people have far more dimensions to their character than their government’s (or, for that matter, our government’s) propaganda would have us believe. In North Korea Confidential, Daniel Tudor and James Pearson go through various aspects of daily life, and try to give a sense for what it is like to be a North Korean. It is not, in fact, entirely a life of unremitting misery for all. For one thing, any use of the category “all” North Koreans flattens the crucial class distinctions that exist in the country. Like every communist state, it is not communist, and there are those who live very well and those who are destitute and malnourished. In Pyongyang, there are latte-sipping urbanites, while in rural areas farmers still plow with oxen.

According to Tudor and Pearson, black markets are increasingly making many North Koreans more “international” than the regime would like, and parts of the country are now “awash with luxury goods.” Thanks to the smuggling in of DVDs and USB sticks, North Koreans watch a lot of films and television shows from outside the country. North Korean tablet computers may not be connected to wifi, but they exist, and some even come pre-loaded with Angry Birds. North Korea has its own ludicrous brand of K-pop, but it isn’t considered cool, and music from elsewhere is preferred. Perhaps most incongruously, many North Koreans are partiers by nature, and the generally heavy alcohol intake means that social evenings can get raucous. Pointing out that “fun is not actually prohibited by law” does seem to reinforce our dismal picture of the place. But to have a full understanding of the place, we should remember that every day there are some young North Koreans playing CounterStrike and reading comics. There is irony. There is laughter. And there is love, as Barbara Demick touchingly documents in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which tells of smitten teenagers sneaking out of the house, slipping through the endless darkness, and finding their way to one another for a romantic rendezvous.

Human beings are much more similar than they are different, and if you could get inside the minds of North Korean citizens, you’d recognize familiar feelings. Poet Jang Jin-sung, in his memoir Dear Leader, recalls his time writing poems in honor of the state. He anguishes over his assignment, which is to create an epic poem that somehow explains why the reunification of Korea under DPRK leadership will actually benefit South Koreans. It is tense work, especially considering that another poet was allegedly banished to the countryside for referring to the Leader’s tears as “dewy.” Eventually he pulls it off, through the use of a clever pun, and is feted by the Leader. But there is one tiny moment in his narrative that I knew absolutely: When he arrives at the government arts office to start work, the other poet he will be working under says: “I’m sure you’ve heard of my poem ____.” Jin-sung, of course, says he has, even though he hasn’t. Everywhere you go, there are certain universals. One is people lying about having read each other’s poems.

No state is able to completely stamp out the humanity of its citizens. Some of them have come close. But even when resistance remains in people’s heads, and almost nobody dares give voice to it, it’s there. Tudor and Pearson suggest that the subversion of the state on a minor scale is actually quite routine. Bribery is ubiquitous, and the search for higher-quality consumer goods and more entertainment leads to all kinds of surreptitious rule-breaking. It may not be politically motivated, but it is a demonstration of the obvious: Many, if not most, North Koreans are ordinary human beings doing what they can to survive under a monstrous totalitarian regime, rather than automata who exist solely to serve their Leader.

That’s not to say that patriotism is coerced rather than sincere. A lot of it surely is sincere. Chol-hwan Kang, in The Aquariums of Pyongyang, recalls that as a child, he sincerely saw Kim Il-Sung as a kind of Santa Claus, who neither urinated nor defecated. One of the most frightening aspects of nationalism is how easy an instinct it is to activate: Witness Berlin’s rapid transformation from 1920s bohemian enclave to 1930s Aryan dictatorship. G.K. Chesterton, in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, gives a fictional account of the birth of a nation: In a time when patriotic sentiment is a relic of history, a mischievous English king decides to make the various boroughs of London into their own nations, complete with individual rituals, flags, and founding myths. The whole thing seems ridiculous for a few decades, but in the next generation, the leader of Notting Hill begins to take it all very seriously. What looked too absurd to believe, when seen from the outside, looks too obvious to deny when seen from the inside. It can’t simply be taken as a given that the people of the DPRK are privately dubious about their government. 

If they do believe it, we should be very worried, according to B.R. Myers’s The Cleanest Race. Myers says that the DPRK’s governing ideology has been misunderstood by the United States. We think of it as “authoritarian communist,” thanks to its all-powerful state and various Stalinist trappings. But Myers says this is misleading: The regime is closer in character to fascism, because of its racism and nationalism (Stalinists have many unappealing qualities, but they do not build their ideology around race and nation). The communist elements, Myers says, are window dressing. Even Kim Il-Sung himself knew little about Marxism, and he dismayed the Russians when they quizzed him on it. And strictly speaking, the regime operates as a monarchy. Myers says that “socialism” is not the right term, because it doesn’t describe the self-image we see in the state’s propaganda, which heavily emphasizes the purity of North Koreans and their need for a protective parent-leader. Demick acknowledges that Kim Il-Sung “rejected traditional Communist teachings about universalism” and “was a Korean nationalist in the extreme” who treated Koreans almost as a “chosen people.”

Myers is pessimistic about the future, because he believes the North Korean state is determined to reunify the peninsula, and is driven by an ideology that may be even more frightening than totalitarian Marxism. But different North Koreas are portrayed by different analysts. Tudor and Pearson, for example, depict a regime that is actually somewhat fragmented, where Kim Jong Un is only one among several power factions, and where a class of elites seems more interested in preserving status and wealth than in a grand race-based reunification project. Their prediction is that markets will slowly penetrate North Korea, though without much effect on the regime’s structure, since “the new, rising capitalist class generally seeks to join the existing elite… rather than undermine it.” (Shocking, I know.) Myers portrays an alarming fascist threat, while Tudor and Pearson show us a corrupt state with a population that mostly seeks to get along with life.

It’s very difficult to know how to negotiate among the different available pictures of the DPRK. But however we choose to resolve the discrepancies, it’s worth remembering and trying to account for our inevitable biases. For example, personally, I find Myers’ explanation appealing. If I’m being honest, though, that’s probably partly because it lumps Kim Jong Un in with right-wing fascists, and distances him from the left. I’ve always felt that “socialists” have no more responsibility for dictatorships that call themselves socialist than democratic republicans have for, well, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Since I oppose dictatorships universally, pointing out that there have been “leftist” dictatorships poses no actual challenge to my politics. Instinctively, though, I confess that I’d feel relieved if Kim Jong Un was lumped in with the right rather than the left.

Everyone will look at North Korea through their own lens, and it’s hard to keep myself from projecting my own sense of human nature onto the people of a country I’ve never visited and know barely anything about. I see human beings as inherently creative, differentiated, and resistant, thus I like to think of the individual North Koreans who privately mutter to themselves “Oh, God, not another bloody parade in honor of the Leader.” But for others who see humans as inherently compliant and sheeplike, and who believe the state has a great power to mold its subjects, my “individualistic” perception will be seen as a delusion. Without access to the consciousnesses of those we are talking about, we are left speculating based on our own preexisting understandings.

It’s important to try our best, then, to remember the actual people we are talking about, and to be careful not to “use” them as a tool for proving ourselves right. I’m wary of being too interested in North Korea, because I am not sure that interest always comes from a defensible motive. There’s something luridly fascinating about a country so dark and peculiar, and the volume of “escape from North Korea” books published suggests to me that some of them are being read the same way “true crime” books are read. One can get fascinated by North Korea the same way one can get fascinated by Nazis. These are the morbid fascinations, the ones we have not because we’re actually being compassionate about those subjected to atrocities but because it can be strangely enjoyable to read about the terrible things that happen to people. (That is, after all, half of why the Daily Mail sells papers and gets clicks.)

In looking through books like Made In North Korea, we can also get the urge to treat the country as quaint and lovely. I even found myself slipping briefly into justifications, the charming objects seeming like they mitigated or excused the brutality necessary for their creation. I have to constantly remind myself that if I met an escaped North Korean dissident, and said “Yes, but you have to admit that the hotel restaurant napkins are just darling,” I would rightly be met with a “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

It is not a country of adorable curiosities, then. It is not a country solely made of prison camps and starvation, but it is a country where prison camps are significantly present, with a history of famine and continued problems of malnutrition. It is not a country of servile robots, but it is also not a country of heroic cynics who privately spit on the Leader’s portrait. It is just a country of people. People who lie about having read a poem, people who sneak off in the dark when they’re not supposed to, people who are brutal and people who are kind, people who inform on their neighbors and people who don’t, people who embrace the power structure and people who loathe it. Try as it may, a government cannot erase its people’s humanity, because even a government must be made up of people.

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