Erratic! Dangerous! Brainwashed! Theocratic! Whichever epithet is ascribed to North Korea and its people, the common image cast of the rogue nation has been a very distinct one. Widespread belief about the country depicts a credulous population that worships its Supreme Leader as a deity, undeterred by the institutional sadism atop which the government is founded upon. The emergence of such a dramatic narrative is not surprising; the pictures widely circulated of the country show masses of patriotic North Koreans passionately crying and cheering in displays of devotion to their Supreme Leader (see this picture). In the West, these images stand in stark contrast (or even in opposition) to values of democracy and free expression; North Korea has become a caricature that offers an ominous reminder of the perils that result from piety and despotism. This juxtaposition is why the popular image of North Korea has been such an oddly thrilling one, fit for reproduction in modern cinema and entertainment. However, today this portrait of North Korea is little more than a mirage induced by the North Korean regime and propagated by the Western mainstream media. By engaging with this illusory depiction of North Korea, the West has inadvertently impaired the effort to supplant one of the most oppressive regimes in the world.
While the global community has responded to the North Korean regime’s abuses and extreme totalitarianism with almost unanimous denunciation, it has done so on the terms of the Supreme Leader. That is, while politicians, journalists, and pundits have been swift to decry the use of propaganda and “brainwashing” by the North Korean government, they have largely done so while simultaneously ignoring their susceptibility to this very propaganda. Since the North Korean government has strategically situated itself as an intermediary between its people and the global community, correspondence between or about the former and latter is inevitably revised by our ever-deceitful courier. So while the Supreme Leadership may tell the North Korean people that Kim Jong Il is loved all over the world, invented the hamburger, cured dwarfism, and is even hailed as a global fashion icon, it simultaneously broadcasts the notion that this faux history is actually believed to the international community. Put simply, the regime manufactures misinformation about the outside world domestically while espousing a false image of its people internationally. When we see North Koreans gathering to support their Supreme Leader and maintaining uncompromising loyalty to their leaders despite abject conditions and oppression, we are witnessing a portrait of the country that has been concocted by the most unreliable source on the matter: the state’s leaders.
This has had a very pernicious effect on the movement to combat the Supreme Leadership; the widespread acceptance of the ruling party’s hyperbolic narrative has encouraged international political apathy. While there has been no shortage of condemnation and dissent, the assumption that North Koreans are irreversibly brainwashed and unreachable from the Western world and its global institutions is one that has fiercely impaired our ability to combat the ruling party and its Juche ideology. Moreover, this image has become widespread and dramatized within the West. For instance, it was not long ago that President George W. Bush frivolously dubbed North Korea as a member of the “Axis of Evil.” Even the late Christopher Hitchens couldn’t refrain from engaging with this image, describing the North Korean people as “starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult” (see: “A Nation of Racist Dwarfs”)
The real danger of these notions is that they embolden policies of inaction. International efforts to help the global community engage with the North Korean people (not the tyrants who lead them) have been inhibited by the belief that such a movement would inevitably lead its participants to unresponsive and deaf ears. So when we hear the morning pundit, flippant politician, or ostentatious political science student talk about the “brainwashed” and “crazy” North Korean people, their comments should not simply be dismissed as rhetorical flourishes. On the contrary, they are subtle injunctions for passivity and inaction in the face of totalitarianism and ought to be condemned. Moreover, by emboldening and propagating this passivity through our engagement with the North Korean government’s narrative, we have been deluded into inadvertently aiding the autocratic regime we have hoped to combat.
Our understanding of North Korean people cannot be one drawn from the government itself or Western journalists who venture into the country; we need a more direct connection to the people that our policies seek to aid. A great way of establishing such a connection and truly gaining insight into the culture and attitudes of North Koreans is to listen to what defectors have said about their mother nation. When we make this effort, the portrait cast of North Korea is entirely different from the popular image of the country in politics and the mainstream media. For instance, NK News, an online publication focused on news and analysis of North Korea, has compiled profiles of many North Korean defectors and conducted interviews with them. When they were asked to estimate the percentage of people who still believe the official government propaganda, the defectors produced estimates ranging from less than 20% to 50%. The consensus was clear: there is widespread skepticism of the Juche ideology and the personality cult within North Korea.
According to defectors, this shift is a recent one: the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011 greatly diminished the effectiveness of government propaganda. So when the title of “Supreme Leader” was passed on to the politically inept Kim Jong Un, the drapery began to fall, replaced only by vast disillusionment. As defector Lee Young-guk, a former bodyguard of Kim Jong Il, has commented, “[when] power was handed down to the third generation, it became crueler. Kim Jong Un has created loyalty, but it is fake and based on fear.” But why was the North Korean government unable to maintain its vicious facade?
One explanation is that after spending decades deifying a tyrant, the absolute credulity needed to make a propagandistic transfer of power to a successor is extremely difficult to conjure. This is why North Korean defectors have overwhelmingly asserted that the personality cult began to collapse upon the death of Kim Jong Il. So ‘brainwashing’ is not what has practically upheld the North Korean regime in the last five years. On the contrary, defectors feel certain that disillusionment has filled the air of North Korea’s streets. And through it, an ambience of fear has emerged.
During a visit to the University of Edinburgh, defector Jang Jin-sung agreed to an interview on this very topic. As a defector and former “propaganda poet”, who now has a bounty on his head by the North Korean government, Jin-sung was responsible for propagating the dogmas of the personality cult through poems in praise of the Supreme Leader. In the interview, he stated, “The only criteria for a propaganda poem is how much you praise the leader and how much the poem evokes praise from readers. What matters most is what the Supreme Leader thinks of it. Although it’s a bureaucratic and complicated process, it doesn’t matter if everyone thinks the poem is awful as long as the Supreme Leader thinks it’s good. And also it doesn’t matter if everyone thinks it’s great, if the Supreme Leader thinks it’s bad.”
After lending a friend a South Korean book – a crime punishable by death – and subsequently having to flee the country, Jin-sung has attempted to combat the systematic oppression of the North Korean people. However, he has found such efforts obstructed by attitudes Westerners have towards his country. As he pointed out in our discussion, “Most of North Korean study has been based on what the West thinks of North Korea, which misses the picture because people draw errant conclusions about what the North Korean people think. The idea that the North Korean people are brainwashed is what the North Korean leadership wants other people to think their people are like. However, people don’t really believe in the propaganda.”
As Jin-sung has highlighted in his ongoing efforts to challenge North Korean totalitarianism, the West has not been immune to the propaganda expelled from his former country. On the contrary, by accepting the mainstream depiction of the North Koreans as a brainwashed people, the West has propagated the very same fiction that the ethically bankrupt regime hopes to spread; we have been deluded into inadvertently aiding the North Korean regime. If we are serious about preventing intolerable human rights abuses wherever they appear and challenging them in a thoughtful and tactful way, we must avoid engaging with propagandistic narratives. The abjection of the North Korean people is a modern tragedy that can be countered by the global community, but only if we repress the urge to imagine the country as an infernal prison in which an indoctrinated people ceaselessly hail the name of their oppressor.