15 July , 2014
N. Korean No Longer Robot
Andrei Nikolaevich Lankov
In 1986 or 1987 while reading Nodong sinmun (gosh, I subscribed the paper in those days – it was so cheap for the Soviet citizens!) I came across an article which described a North Korean journalist’s trip to a village somewhere in Africa – perhaps, in Zimbabwe, I do not remember for sure. The intrepid traveler told how he arrived at a small village by boat, and “by chance” discovered that the local kids were engaged in a very important lesson. What did they study at the local school? Biography of Kim Il Sung, of course!
Other stories in the same paper told about suffering of the South Korean people under the “imperialist yoke”. Eight million South Koreans (roughly 35% of all employable population) were said to be unemployed. This was in the heydays of the Korean economic miracle when the unemployment level seldom exceeded 2%.
Another article said that quarter of all South Korean females were prostitutes who had no choice but to sell their bodies to those lustful American soldiers. This would amount to three or four million women (even if we are talking only about women aged between 18 and 45 only). It is a fairly large number to serve some 40,000 US troops stationed in the country at that time, isn’t it? A hundred prostitute per just one serviceman… Actually, camptown prostitution is a problem in Korea, but the number of those women in recent decades has been below 10,000 – few hundred times less than North Korean propaganda insisted.
But the question is: do they believe all this? Does the average North Korean man or woman indeed think that the Dear Leader is widely admired in African villages and Central American towns? Does he or she believe that every GI is followed by a dozen Korean prostitutes, ever ready to satisfy his lust?
The only honest answer to this question is: we do not know for sure. But we can surmise, relying on some patchy evidence and experiences of other similar regimes. It seems that initially the North Koreans accepted official propaganda as true – not least because it was far closer to the truth at those times. Indeed, in the early 1960s the South was indeed dirty poor, and in the late 1960s North Korea was seen as a model to emulate by some radical dictators of the Third World (and their leftist admirers in the Western academia).
However, in the course of time the beliefs were getting thinner. The promised prosperity never materialized, and from around 1975 it became clear that living standards, never really high, began a steady downfall.
The information blockade was never quite complete, and some information about the outside world filtered in. Sometimes, the North Korean propaganda mongers themselves made mistakes – like when they showed the footage of the Kwangju rebellion in 1980. The North Koreans were surprised to see how well dressed and well-fed their allegedly destitute brethren appeared.
And some 15 years ago the cracks in the walls developed into huge breaches. The cross-border movement with China, the relaxation of the government controls, growing corruption and, above all, easy access to the DVDs – all these contributed to dramatic change in the people’s views about their country.
From what we know, it seems that nowadays few North Koreans reject the official dogma completely, but even fewer take it as an unconditional truth. People suspect that they are told lies and exaggerations, but they probably do not quite understand the degree of those lies.
They guess that the South is doing better than North, but they do not appreciate how great is the difference between two Korean economies. They might be skeptical about leadership qualities of the Kim family, but they still tend to blame the corrupt officials for most of the wrongs they see around. They are sincerely hostile to the US, fervently nationalistic and proud about their country’s nuclear program, but they suspect that not all problems of their country are produced by the malicious schemes of the perfidious foreigners.
The hold of ideology and propaganda is still strong, but the North Korean people are not brain-washed robots. As a matter of fact, they never were, but only in recent years they got some access to the information which makes critical analysis possible. They will get more of it, to be sure…
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