5 Ways Growing Up in North Korea Is Crazier Than You Think
Of all the Koreas in the world, North Korea has the most murderous dictators per capita. We’ve had a lot of fun riffing on the craziest facets of the Hermit Kingdom, but beyond all the hilarious propaganda and somewhat less hilarious threats of nuclear war, North Korea is a nation of 25 million people living very weird, awful lives.
We wanted to know what life was really like for those people, so we sat down with an escaped North Korean refugee, an American journalist who spent time exploring Pyongyang, and the grandson of an anonymous Asian nation’s ambassador to North Korea. They told us …
#5. It’s Wall-to-Wall Propaganda – and People Know It’s Bullshit
North Korea’s number one export to the world is unintentionally hilarious propaganda, but when you’re living there, those bombastic pro-Kim messages are the background noise of your entire life, and it’s a whole lot less funny. For Mr. Lee (the refugee we spoke to), each morning of his childhood started the same way: A loudspeaker blared the accomplishments of the Kim family and their regime. Sun up? “Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger!” Sun down? “Kim Jong Il is the world’s greatest golfer!” Combine that with radios that don’t turn off, and you’ve got a whole nation’s worth of captive audience.
So the next question the average Westerner asks is “Do the people there actually believe Kim Jong Un has magic powers?” Not all of them – Mr. Lee grew up with a great-aunt who had zero time in her life to take shit from the government. When the loudspeakers started up, she’d say, “Oh there they go again, spreading their lies.” Mr. Lee’s family had never been counted among the party faithful, and by his teen years he realized that his national government ran on bullshit. He felt like most of his countrymen bought into most of the propaganda, but Michael Malice (an American journalist who spent time in Pyongyang) had another suggestion: Most North Koreans know the propaganda is ridiculous, but they’re too scared to say anything. “When you are in the public space you’d better sound like a true believer. An actor immersed in a role is going to be better at it.”
And that training starts early – overall, Mr. Lee says about 30 percent of his education was useless because it only pertained to the Kim family. There were classes when he was younger on the lives of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, but when he got older, the teacher would spend 10 minutes talking about the Kim of the day and his accomplishments and then sprinkle more stories during other classes. Imagine if your algebra teacher had to link every lesson back to George Washington, and also George Washington was a living, ridiculous-looking little man.
North Korean schools treat world history as an afterthought, the way American schools treat art classes. He learned about World War I and II and the Allied and Axis powers, but not the Italian Renaissance. He’s aware of things like Sputnik, but he wasn’t aware that an American was the first man on the moon (he was aware that someone landed on the moon, but they never specified whether it was an American or a Russian). You’re also forced to participate in mass games, from middle school on.
Well, ever wonder how those kids get so precise with their movements? It’s because they start training for it at a young age (including on weekends), and North Korean teachers don’t hesitate to use corporal punishment.
And the parents know to do their part. Another of our sources, who lived in North Korea for several years as the grandson of an ambassador, relayed this story:
“All over Pyongyang are pictures of the Great Leader surrounded by flowers, and regular flocks of adoring citizenry … they would go to these little kiosks to buy flowers, and then set those flowers out at the shrines. Later in the day people with push carts come, pick up the flowers, and bring them back to the kiosks to resell to more people.”
And the great circle of foliage goes on. “One time I saw this little girl, maybe 4 or 5, she trundled up with a pretty big bouquet – almost as big as her, but she carried it to the shrine one-handed. Her parents rushed in, screaming at her. Dad slapped her full on the face. The crime? Not using two hands to lay down those flowers. So they bought her a bigger bouquet, this one was even bigger than the little girl, and she laid that down with both hands.”
That’s what happens when the punishment for a public fuck-up is prison camp. For you see …
#4. Resistance Is Mild, and the Punishments Are Dire
People in North Korea are taught from childhood to inform on anyone they see being the least bit dissident. So forget about staging a mass protest or sit-in – you don’t even dare raise objections in private conversation. As Mr. Lee explained, “It is something you never talk about in public places, maybe to your closest friend you might mention you aren’t happy with the Kim regime, and even then only after a drink or two. Even with your wife you want to be careful.” Booze: Subverting totalitarianism since forever.
Before Mr. Lee escaped, he witnessed several of his neighbors get deported to camps. North Korea isn’t a big fan of the whole “disappearing people in the night” thing popular with so many repressive regimes. No, soldiers just take away whole families at a time, in full view of everyone. They all get to watch while the newly doomed deportees load their stuff onto government vans.
The locals are aware that this isn’t business as usual everywhere in the world. But what can you do? If you’re imagining yourself going Braveheart on the evil king, keep in mind that crimes like “treason” and (more commonly) “looking like you might be about to commit treason” are punishable by life imprisonment or execution … for both the accused and three freaking generations of his or her family. You’re not just dooming yourself. You don’t just watch your words, but your inflection.
“Upturned lips can mean sarcasm. Send her family to the famine mines.”
Our source in the [anonymous nation’s] embassy recalls the time a high-ranking North Korean officer took him aside and – in English – came shockingly close to criticizing the regime:
“He said, ‘It’s a shame, what’s happening … but our leader will take us to the right path.’ He left a pause in the middle, and I think the first half was to share his opinion with me and the second is what he had to say … I saw his assistant look at him during the pause, and I kind of worry about him today. I never saw that guy at another event.”
#3. The People Get Glimpses of the Outside World.
The weirdest thing about North Korea, aside from, well, all of the other things about North Korea, is the sheer concept of an isolated country in the 21st century. When Ukrainian protesters are live-tweeting their revolution and half of us have personal Internet friends who live on the other side of the planet, it’s bizarre to think about this quarantined population that’s totally in the dark about anything outside their own border.
The truth is, some material does leak in. The North Koreans that our diplomatic source met at Kim Il Sung University would share their contraband:
“One guy in particular told me he’d read '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’ I was surprised, 'Is that book allowed?’ 'No!’ He’d smuggled it in. And he asked if me if people had built underwater settlements yet. I told him there were underwater hotels in the world now, and man, the smile on his face was great. It was like seeing my little brother on Christmas.”
But in general, subversive devices like cellphones, DVD players, and modern movies aren’t readily available to locals. Possession of any of those things is punishable by death for you and anyone who happens to be standing nearby when you’re caught. You might expect North Korean citizens to do without. If so, you’re drastically underestimating the human need to watch badly dubbed bootlegs of the latest Iron Man movie. “Tony Stark is a capitalist pig, but I like how he drinks while operating military-grade hardware.”
Mr. Lee told us that foreign movies and gadgets are smuggled into North Korea regularly, but not out in the open. Dealers will spot a likely buyer and approach them in the market. “They’ll start with Chinese movies, and then maybe if you’re receptive move on to the American stuff.” In other words, Hollywood films are the heroin of North Korea’s black market (along with actual heroin, of course).
All this adds up to a hermit kingdom that’s much less isolated than you might expect based solely on the news. Mr. Lee was able to speak with family members in South Korea, including a sister who escaped several years before he did. North Koreans are quite aware that famine isn’t an everyday fact of life in America, or even South Korea. And rather than just shooting everyone who figured this out, the North Korean government has adapted their propaganda.
Michael Malice, Kim Jong Il’s unofficial biographer and one of the rare Americans to visit Pyongyang, explained, “The propaganda used to be 'We have nothing to envy.’ Now that the outside is creeping in, they claim they’re "Maintaining the idea of Korea while South Korea is being raped by America.”
Once Mr. Lee’s sister made it to South Korea and confirmed that this “rape” by America was more of a “friends with benefits” sort of thing, he began to plan his own escape. That’s when he found …
#2. Getting Out Is a Long Series of Terrifying Escapes
Any North Korean who escapes does so accepting the risk that their whole family might wind up in a labor camp if the government catches on. Mr. Lee (who used a fake name and would only Skype us with his face obscured by shadows) had to craft an elaborate web of lies before he fled the country. Our translator described it as essentially the same thing as telling your parents you’re “staying the night with a friend” so you can go out and party. Only instead of getting grounded, your entire family is worked to death in a labor camp if someone finds out.
Mr. Lee made his escape two years ago. Fortunately, smuggling refugees out of the Kim family’s own personal murderous Disney World isn’t just something that happens from time to time – it’s a bona fide international industry. Lee’s sister set him up with the man-smugglers and paid for everything, because people actually living in North Korea don’t tend to have the kind of money anyone else might care to use. And if you think it’s just a matter of someone sneaking you across the border to South Korea, think again. Even if that’s your destination, you have to take the long way if you don’t want to get shot several thousand times before you even see the fence.
Mr. Lee was smuggled out through a network of brokers, via a journey consisting of hiking, buses, and cars from North Korea into China, then to Vietnam, and then to South Korea. Each portion of the trip had a different broker who specialized in smuggling North Koreans along a set route. Mr. Lee followed each broker’s instructions and had to trust that none of them would deliver him right back to the Thought Police. At various points along the trip, he’d call home to say “I’m safe in Beijing” or “I’m safe in Saigon.” Once his sister heard from him, she’d wire the next portion of cash, and on it went.
Obviously, the business of smuggling North Koreans is illegal in North Korea, but it’s also illegal in every single country along that route. If you can make it to South Korea, you’re safe, but the broker networks are illegal there, too, so it’s not like there’s any quality control or ability to complain if they, say, abduct you into slavery. As the backer in South Korea, you risk paying thousands and thousands of dollars for the privilege of having a loved one betrayed or murdered.
But that didn’t happen. Mr. Lee was delivered into a part of the world with soap operas instead of mass games, Internet gaming cafes instead of labor camps, and the sport of competitive eating instead of regular famine. That’s when he found …
#1. To Someone Who Escaped, the Outside World Is a Shock
“It was just a completely different reality,” said Mr. Lee. In North Korea, you’re taught that countries with capitalism are filled with people dying in the streets. Even though he was skeptical of this (he’d seen plenty of American cities on DVD, and the car chases usually didn’t have to steer around piles of starving vagrants), he still had the feeling that capitalism was “a bad school of thought.” He was shocked to see that South Koreans get to live pretty much as they please and quickly experienced the new concept of actually getting paid for his work. It turns out most people prefer not being literal slaves of their government.
Likewise, Mr. Lee arrived with a pretty negative attitude toward South Korean women, after decades of seeing them portrayed as sex-obsessed airheads. He’d been led to believe the women of South Korea would be made up like “clowns or prostitutes” – basically, state propaganda had him convinced that the girls of Seoul look exactly like rich people in The Hunger Games.
He was also surprised about human rights. Like, the very concept that humans have rights, and that they can assert them to their government. The North Korean government’s solution to the problem of “human rights” was just not telling their people the subject existed. You can’t demand something that you didn’t know was a thing. “Wait, you mean not doing this is an option?”
Keep in mind, Mr. Lee had grown up being taught that mere curiosity about his leaders was a moral failing. That’s why arriving in South Korea also brought some shocking realizations about the Kim family. He hadn’t believed all the crazy propaganda about Kim Jong Il’s accomplishments, but the real facts of the Glorious Leader’s life were far different from what he imagined. “During famines, the state propaganda said Kim Jong Il was suffering through the worst of it with us, subsisting on only a bowl of rice a day.” The reality is that while it’s impossible to say how much rice Kim ate during the famine, we do know he spent $600,000 a year on his personal brandy stash.
If this were a movie, the evil iron-fisted dictator would get his comeuppance before the closing credits. In real life, the Kim family has been oppressing their starving little country for 65 goddamned years, with no end in sight, and getting steadily crazier with each passing day.
“You don’t need a gun. The government will protect you. You can trust the government.”
Do I think I’ll be rounded up an put in a FEMA camp? No. Do I believe there are secret underground government prisons? No. Do I think the government is preparing for a civil war? No. Do I speak for the Ukrainian protests? No, but if i was in their shoes I would want my AR.
“Christos Stylianides, the European commissioner for humanitarian assistance, said the Ukrainian government and humanitarian aid groups never expected such a prolonged conflict, and were caught unprepared.
‘The overall picture is a country that for a very long time believed this would be a short-term crisis,’ Mr. Stylianides said. ‘Now, everybody, the people, the central government, it dawns on them that this may go on. So it challenges everybody.’
Vasily Droganov, head of the rural council that controls nine villages southeast of Donetsk, said, ‘People have run through the money they had and now many of them have nothing.’ Hunger and the bitter cold are constant threats, he said, and many homes’ only heat comes from chopped firewood.”