On North Korea

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on July 28, 2010


No matter how much I have read on the country, its bizarre nature never fails to amaze or appall:

. . . A kindergarten teacher reports that the hardest part of her job was watching her pupils die of starvation. A pediatrician says much the same about her patients.

Yet most of these survivors acknowledge that for a long time they believed what the regime told them. They were persuaded, for instance, that South Korea was suffering terrible deprivation — one reason children sang a song beginning, “We have nothing to envy in the world.”

Refugees described Public Standards Police who would often visit private homes to be sure that the mandatory glass-framed portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were kept clean. Each household was provided with a white cloth, to be used exclusively for cleaning the portraits. Demick quotes a Grade One arithmetic book: “Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many children are singing in total?”

Kim Il-sung, whose uncle was a Christian minister in pre-communist days, banned Bibles, closed churches and turned himself into a divinity. Government newspapers described miracles. A turbulent sea suddenly grew calm when sailors sang hymns to him. When he attended a meeting in the demilitarized zone, a mysterious fog descended, saving him from potential assassination by South Korean snipers. At the birth of his son, Kim Jong-il, a radiant star illuminated the sky.

Efficient, relentless brainwashing worked. Demick’s witnesses say many North Koreans embraced the idea of Kim Il-sung’s godliness. In 1994, when he died at the age of 82, they were surprised and dismayed. A young man Demick interviewed read 1984 after he escaped to the south. He was startled to learn that George Orwell, back in the 1940s, had perfectly understood the thinking of modern North Koreans.

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