North Korea: totalitarianism in action

When I was young, I was haunted by the specter of totalitarianism—the idea of an all-powerful state that not only could regulate its subjects’ every action, but get inside their minds and convince them this was normal.

As a college student, I read Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and George Orwell’s 1984 and most of his essays.

I thought the future held three great perils: (1) the collapse of civilization due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion, (2) the destruction of civilization through nuclear war and (3) the triumph of totalitarianism, as manifested in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China.

None of these fears came true, although the first two are still very much with us.   As for totalitarianism, there are many cruel and bloody governments in the world, but they are not, in the strict definition of the word, totalitarian.   Totalitarianism exists in only one place—North Korea—where it has endured for 70 years.

I got an inside view of North Korea by reading WITHOUT YOU THERE IS NO US: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.   She is an American of Korean heritage who taught English for six months in 2011 at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUSH).

The title of the book is taken from an anthem the students sang at different times each day.    The “you” was Kim Jong-il, then the ruler of North Korea, and the “us” is everyone else in North Korea.

Suki Kim said the whole idea of individual thinking was alien to her students.   For example, they found it incredibly difficult to write a five-paragraph essay, because this involved stating an argument and then presenting evidence in support of the argument.   What they were accustomed to writing was unstructured praise of their country, their leaders and the official Juche ideology.

PUSH was founded and financed by evangelical Christians, many of Korean extraction, who agreed to build and staff a university at no cost to the North Korean government, and to refrain from proselytizing.   Presumably their hope was that they could subtly plant the seeds of Christianity and that they would be on the scene when and if North Korea ever granted religious freedom.

The students were the children of North Korea’s elite.   They lived in Pyongyang which had electricity, running water and heat in the winter (most of the time) and where people had enough to eat, unlike in most of the country.

Although PUSH was in theory the North Korean MIT, the students had no idea of modern science.   They thought  North Korean scientists had invented a way to change Type A blood to Type B.   One student claimed to have cloned a rabbit while in fifth grade.  They had no idea what the Internet was; they thought it was the same thing as the North Korean intranet.

They thought Kim Jong-il was one of the world’s most revered leaders, Pyongyang one of its greatest cities and the Korean dish kimche the world’s favorite cuisine.

They were more fortunate than the vast majority of North Koreans, but their lives were completely regimented.   They never had vacations; they never had unstructured time, although they were allowed at certain times of the day to play soccer, basketball or volleyball without supervision.

Students were assigned buddies, who were supposed to watch each others’ behavior.   They could get into serious trouble for saying the wrong thing.   They were not allowed to leave the campus, which was fenced in and had a guard-house, like a prison   During semester breaks, students were either assigned extra study or sent to work on construction sites.

The faculty’s mail and e-mail was censored.   The faculty had counterparts who reviewed every lesson plan and course material weeks in advance.   They could not travel without special passes, and then only to specified destinations, such as a museum devoted to the gifts supposedly given Kim Jong-il by the world’s peoples.

Ordinary North Koreans also were unable to travel in their own land without special passes, and there were checkpoints to make sure every traveler had a pass to be where they were.    Suki Kim never had any chance to talk to any ordinary person.   She could only guess, from their emaciated appearance, how hard their lives must be.

Suki Kim had to walk a fine ethical line in her teaching.   She wrote that giving her students forbidden knowledge or arousing curiosity about forbidden questions could literally get them killed.   But she couldn’t resist doing it, mainly in the form of answering questions about her personal life.   She said later, at the end of a TED talk, that she hopes they would not take her lessons to heart, but will conform and survive.

She liked her students and, by her account, they liked her—in spite of being indoctrinated with the idea that South Koreans, which she was by birth, and Americans, which she was by citizenship, are the enemy.   They were in many ways very childlike, and responded to affection.

North Korea’s ruling ideology is called Juche, whose principles are national independence, economic self-sufficiency and military self-defense.   It is ideology of a nation under siege.

Its founders were guerrilla fighters against ruthless Japanese occupiers.   North Koreans survived the killing of thousands and maybe millions of their people during the Korean War of 1950-53 and a famine in 1994-1998 without abandoning that ideology or their independence.  Now they are threatened by the world’s leading nuclear weapons power.   So long as the nation remains under siege, it is unlikely they would abandon that ideology.

What makes the North Korean government a threat to peace is the possibility that it will try to unify the Korean peninsula by force, as it did during the Korean War and in acts of terrorism in the years after.   That’s what the outside world has to persuade them to change.

Suki Kim in her TED talk said there is no possibility of North Korea changing from within.   There is no chance of rebellion, she said; any hint of independent thought is quickly stamped out.  So it is up to outside powers to bring about change.

But how could that be done?  She wasn’t sure.   She thought making known the truth about “the gulag posing as a nation” is a good first step, which is true.

If North and South Korea could agree not to go to war, then North Korea would be open to some extent to the influence of the outside world.   Even its ruler, Kim Jong-un, is fascinated by American basketball and other aspects of our culture, good and bad.

In time, this could lead to change.   I agree this is a vague hope.   But threatening the country’s survival will do no good.    The past 70 years of history shows this will only make their regime more like it is.


Undercover in North Korea: “All Paths Lead to Catastrophe”, an interview of Suki Kim for The Intercept.

Statement of the DPRK Government on August 8, 2017.

The Political Philosophy of Juche by Grace Lee for the Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs.

The Risk of Nuclear War With North Korea by Evan Osnos for The New Yorker  (Hat tip to Jack Clontz)

The Russia-China plan for North Korea: stability, connectivity by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: