A Rising Wind of New Ideas

One of the things that spurred my curiosity about North Korea was wondering what the citizens thought of it.

My perceptions of North Korea have evolved over time. My first experience with it was in 1990, when I was stationed in South Korea at Camp Carroll. This is toward the southern end of the peninsula, where the stations were more relaxed. I trained in the field once in my entire year, spending the rest of the time drinking and seeing the sights around Waekwon. It was nothing like being stationed up north on the DMZ, where maybe you came out of the field for two weeks each year.

Me and a KATUSA, Camp Carroll, 1990.

Well, one weekend a dozen of us went up north to cross-train in other weapons at Camp Casey, right on the DMZ. We fired M203 mounted grenade launchers, sending dummy rounds of orange day-glo chalk at a mountainside, to get a sense of firing power and trajectory. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready for the kick on my rifle: upon pulling the trigger, my M16A2 jerked up and hit me in the face and I collapsed in my foxhole. The sergeants hauled me out and made me sit out the rest of that day’s exercises. I was pretty disappointed, but to be fair, there was a little chunk of my eyebrow in the front sight of my rifle. I made up for it the next day, when despite language barriers I called in a brush fire that was spreading on our targeting range.

Anyway. There was a quiet moment that first day on the DMZ, when we soldiers were standing in front of our Blazers and HMMWVs, and in the distance we could hear a PA broadcast. I could only make out that some of it was in English and some in Korean, but one of my sergeants informed me it was an intimidation program from the North Koreans. For 24 hours every day, they would talk about how wonderful life was in North Korea and how we should cross the Bridge of No Return and join them. Then they would recite the names of all the guards on the U.S. side, plus their Social Security numbers, their hometowns, the names of their family members, and other factoids.

They had a setup called Impossible City. It was essentially an enormous stage set, made up to look like a small town. Nobody lived there, but each morning North Koreans would drive to it and enact daily life there, looking happy and keeping busy all day long, then drive home at night and abandon it once more. The point was to show anyone who could see it how wonderful the typical North Korean city operated. That sounds pretty elaborate to me, and I’m unable to find any online evidence to corroborate this, so perhaps it was just another bullshit story soldiers liked to share and inflict on the naïve.

But I did wonder what the citizens up north were like. I knew, like everyone did, that the government kept a tight lockdown on news and information. They had to: they were raising everyone to believe the U.S. had started the Korean War, the better to foment hatred and nationalism. To perpetuate a lie like that, however, should take much less effort than to convince people they were well-off when it was clear to them they were impoverished. This sparked in me the need to understand exactly what the DPRK was feeding its citizens, and I craved to know how many of them believed it.

A child plays at combat for International Children’s Day. Image: Associated Press

Slope-browed right-wing war hawks in the U.S. prefer to believe all of North Korea is united as one against us, and to support this belief there is no shortage of photos portraying children attacking posters bearing ugly caricatures of American soldiers, and no shortage of film clips of people swearing vengeance upon Americans. They gloss over the fact that kids don’t know any better and trust the adults for their information, and the adults operate under duress, in the knowledge that they and their family will be driven out to a kwan-li-so if they don’t register sufficient enthusiasm or recite the right words in their programmed vitriol. (Meanwhile, these jackasses say the most awful things about their own fellow citizens in news comments and blogs, entirely of their own free will. Who exactly is the enemy?)

What’s coming out now is that there are pockets of resistance in North Korea. Barbara Demick’s excellent book Nothing to Envy reveals, in a series of interviews with defectors, that average citizens are starved for information. They understand the logical discrepancy between singing about a land of plenty while they’re starving in the streets. They form suspicions about their own government, and when information seeps in across the borders, it confirms what they already suspect: their nation is suffering and their government is corrupt. This isn’t something you can act on in North Korea, however, and it’s not usually safe to share it with even your most trusted friends: you have no idea who the rat or the informant is or who else is listening to you.

Uncle Jang was executed last month, and ever since the news about him has been frothy and ever-changing, for he was a cunning strategist and an independent operator. Some resources suggested he was unpopular with the citizenry for his strident socialist underpinnings, but recent analysis suggests that the man on the street curses his name for selling coal so cheaply to China (which he did): “Jang should have sold the leftover coal that our people don’t use,” opined an anonymous truck driver. “He’s a bad person. How could a good person sell coal to China for a few cents when North Koreans are freezing in their homes?”

In that same article, a woman who was allowed to visit family in China was stunned at their apparent opulence: electricity running all the time, and even the beggars don’t go hungry. Yet she couldn’t mention these revelations back home, not to friends or family, lest she be accused of spreading anti-revolutionary propaganda. But she knew the difference, and that information is going to fester inside of her, and there are hundreds like her.

Much hay was made over Dennis Rodman’s recent visits to North Korea, for which he drew criticism for entertaining a bloody-handed dictator and abnegating himself of any responsibility to petition on behalf of a U.S. prisoner. Yet personages like L.A. Times journalist Barbara Demick and senior analyst Daniel Pinkston believe any benign U.S. presence in North Korea is a positive influence. Even in Pyongyang, the capitol city where the elite from around the country are groomed to look and behave their best, even among lifelong propagandists it is helpful to show that Americans aren’t monsters, that the rest of the world is friendly and waiting to accept Koreans… if only their government would permit it. Because the mere reality of a tourist in the middle of their country contradicts something in the programming and encourages a quiet thought in the back of the mind.

On the outside, Asia Press has made a reputation for itself as staffed by risk-taking journalists who break into North Korea and document the forbidden territories, the starving villages. Filmmaker James Jones is working with this network of guerrilla journalists to produce a Frontline documentary (airing tonight!) on the nascent pockets of resistance forming throughout North Korea.

This is all hopeful to me. The DPRK is swift and ruthless in quashing (suspected) insurgence, but there are still people who want to be free and there always will be. Citizens are fleeing the country, more and more each year, and wide-eyed tourists bus in to gawk and throw their money at this murderous dictatorship, and information leaks out and information leaks in. Something has got to change, and soon I believe it will.

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