For a text to be successful, elements of the setting must be recognisable.
“If you look at satellite photographs of the Far East by night, you’ll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” So begins the semi-fictionalised novel Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea, set in North Korea during the period of the Arduous March (the extreme famine of the 1990s). It follows the stories of six North Korean defectors, told to author and journalist Barbara Demick when she was living in South Korea and working as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Demick interviewed almost a hundred defectors, and from these, crafted a realistic window into the almost unimaginable world they once inhabited. While the people and the horrors that they’ve endured create an eye-opening piece of literature that should be required reading, the most impactful and successful part of the novel is its setting. The aspects of manipulation and control that are associated with the North Korean leaders by outsiders are nothing compared to the reality. And perhaps the scariest part of this text is that these elements, considered alien and evil by many, are easily recognised in almost every government in the world. Yes, this story offers a glimpse into the harsh realities of a modern-day communist dictatorship, but it also forces us to look long and hard at our own realities. The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea employs many methods to ensure the continuing subservience of its subjects; amongst them, the fear and vilification of their enemies, control over the media and reporters, and continuing, repeated lies. All of which can be found, to some degree, in the governments of democracies the world over.
Perhaps the most easily recognisable element of manipulation and control in North Korea is the vilification of enemies; to its citizens, almost the whole world is the enemy. The public is firmly influenced by the government to dehumanise these enemies, justifying their typically inhumane treatment. Prisoners in the North Korean prisoner of war camps, most of them captured during the horrific Korean War, “…were housed in squalid camps where they were not permitted to bathe or brush their teeth. Their hair became infested with lice; untreated wounds swarmed with maggots. They were fed one meal of rice and saltwater a day.” They were, and are, objectified and seen as less than human – despite the fact that often, they are not even ‘real’ enemies. Americans, for whom they hold a particular hatred after the Korean War, are the “…incarnation of evil…”; all throughout their lives, North Koreans are taught to hate them, and their pathetic South Korean lackeys. At school, their textbooks “…were full of stories of people burned, crushed, stabbed, shot, and poisoned by the enemy.” Everyone who isn’t North Korean is lesser, and lumped into this group are the lower North Korean classes, known collectively as the ‘hostile class’. This includes drug dealers, petty criminals, murderers, prostitutes, and the very poor. Also included are the politically suspect, defined as “People from families of wealthy farmers, merchants, industrialists, landowners, or those whose private assets have been completely confiscated; pro-Japan and pro-U.S. people; reactionary bureaucrats; defectors from the South … Buddhists, Catholics, expelled public officials, those who helped South Korea during the Korean War.” North Koreans of these lower ranks are “…banned from living in … Pyongyang or the nicer patches of countryside … where the soil was more fertile and the weather warmer…” and “…couldn’t dream of joining the Workers’ Party, which … controlled the plum jobs.” If you are classified as a member of the hostile class, you will remain there for life. The stain will be passed on to your children and grandchildren. You will be denied the best education, the best jobs, the best land, and the best opportunities. In this way, the North Korean government can carry out the most atrocious of actions without fear of public repercussions or protest – and can even be encouraged to do so. The leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea can do what they like to whomever they like at whatever time conveniences them because everyone who doesn’t fit with the North Korean regime’s idea of perfect and non-threatening is treated as less human than the rest.
Unfortunately, this is a mindset that is echoed throughout the world. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, all fit under this banner. A particularly relevant example is the treatment of Muslims by many in today’s society. These people share a prejudice – that all Muslims are evil, that they all hate white people and non-Muslims and want to kill all of them. In their prejudiced opinion, believing in the Muslim faith and being part of ISIS are interchangeable. This bias against the enemy was also seen in both World Wars, and on both sides. Japs, Nazis, Jews, Brits, Americans, all were objectified in propaganda and public belief to justify their sickening treatment of each other and the continuing horrors of war. The disgusting conditions of the German, Japanese, and Russian detention and prisoner of war camps are well-documented; perhaps not as well known are the Japanese internment camps in the USA, where all Japanese citizens – even those who were only of Japanese descent – were forced to reside. And of course, the treatment of indigenous peoples throughout history – and in places like Australia, Canada, and the US, to this day – has been a shameful travesty. After World War II, we declared that we would ‘Never Forget’. But these issues are just as prevalent in society today as they were then. The only way to fight them is by the consistent defence of human rights and freedom; by protesting when these rights and liberties are threatened; by self-education and awareness of your privileges. Only once you know the ‘enemy’ can you make a call as to whether they are all the monsters they are purported to be. Everyone agrees that North Korea must be stopped, that atrocities such as the inhumane treatment of US student Otto Warmbier must be prevented from happening again, and that soon, something is going to give. But if we go about this the same way the Allies stripped Germany of money, territories, and rights after the First World War, the chances are high that this will only result in stoking hatred; that we will set the stage for our own Second World War. If we remember anything from our histories, it is that we are all human, no matter our actions, and punishing only the perpetrators of this regime, not its victims, will neuter this threat – and future ones – more effectively than violence ever could.
Violence is an everyday fact of life in Communist dictatorships. When they are mentioned, most envision red propaganda posters and the extreme brutality with which countries such as China and the USSR crushed any resistance. North Korea is itself an undoubtedly violent country, but its government has also perfected the art of keeping its citizens suitably subdued. They indoctrinate their people from birth to death, force-feeding them propaganda at every possible moment. In fact, “Every town in North Korea, no matter how small, has a movie theatre, thanks to Kim Jong-il’s conviction that film is an indispensable tool for instilling loyalty in the masses.” Media ownership is central to the manipulation of the people; you manipulate the people, you manipulate their votes, beliefs and actions. This, in turn, gives you almost unlimited power. The media people consume influences their sense of justice and their views on the world. Knowing this, the “Prices [for the cinema] were kept low – just half a won, or a few cents, about the same as a soft drink.” This ensured that the films, which were “…pure propaganda…”, were available to as many people as possible – until, that is, the lack of electricity forced them to shut down. The propaganda invades every aspect of life in North Korea; the landscapes are mostly devoid of colour, while “Images of Kim Il-sung are depicted in … vivid poster colours … Rays of orange and yellow emanate from his face: He is the sun.” The red lettering of the propaganda slogans – “LONG LIVE KIM IL-SUNG. KIM JONG-IL, SUN OF THE 21ST CENTURY. LET’S LIVE OUR OWN WAY. WE WILL DO AS THE PARTY TELLS US. WE HAVE NOTHING TO ENVY IN THE WORLD” – reside on the top of every public building and “…line the roads like mileage markers…” This is a government that maintains its control over the country by controlling everything its people do, say, or think.
Admittedly, media in democracies and the Western world is not be entirely influenced by the government; however, almost every single media outlet strives to entice its consumers to one viewpoint or another. Liberal voices mainly share facts and figures that tally with their views, while those in the Alt-Right report their own ‘alternative facts’. It is almost impossible to find a completely unbiased media outlet today, and this mirrors how impossible it is in North Korea to find any information that isn’t specifically designed to manipulate its consumers to believe in the regime. This impossibility means that North Koreans live in their own little bubble, believing that even if it’s bad in their country, everyone else has it worse off – believing that they have “…nothing to envy in the world.” The propaganda is so ingrained in their lives that it’s almost impossible for them to break free. Even when faced with facts that should sway them, when they were forced into terrible poverty during the Arduous March, the citizens of North Korea continued to believe. The fact that there is a better way to live doesn’t ever occur to them because that’s just how things have always been. They live their lives similarly to Truman Burbank, the title character of Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show. The premise is startlingly relatable to North Korea: Truman, adopted and raised by a corporation inside a reality show on his life, is unaware that everything in his world is simulated and influenced by a single creator. North Koreans, born and raised in a communist country isolated from the rest of the world, are unaware that everything in their world is simulated and influenced by their Beloved Leader. So how, in a world where almost everything you consume is designed to control you, do you determine what is right and what is not? You must be careful that your sense of truth and justice is not solely based on what you see on TV or see circulating through social media. You mustn’t believe everything that you are told. Instead, you must search for the truth – every side of it.
This is a search that is becoming increasingly difficult in Western societies and remains exceedingly dangerous in North Korea, where lies are perhaps more common than facts. Every report – about things both inside and outside the country – is manipulated to shed a positive light on North Korea itself. At the beginning of the Great Famine of the 1990s – known in North Korea as the Arduous March – the North Korean government offered many different explanations for the food shortages. People were informed that “…their government was stockpiling food to feed the starving South Korean masses on the blessed day of reunification. They were told that the United States had instituted a blockade against North Korea that was keeping out food.” Posters were put up with slogans such as “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day.” And no matter what, the government was quick to assure the people that “…the food shortage was temporary – agricultural officials quoted in the newspapers reported that bumper crops of rice were expected in the next harvest.” It seems outrageous to us that anyone could believe the things that the government says in a situation like this, but these lies were repeated over and over and passed on by people thinking them to be true. This all promotes an environment where truth is hard to come by, and everything is covered up. And while democratic governments don’t tend to lie to their citizens as much as dictatorial ones, they are facing a new threat on this front: the increasing presence of fake news outlets.
According to Wikipedia and a variety of other articles, fake news is old news. From the anti-semitic blood libel stories – in which Jews were accused of killing Christians and using their blood in religious ceremonies – to the propaganda of the World Wars, highly sensationalised stories intended to shock or anger have existed forever. The modern digital age has brought fake news to new heights, with articles – true or false – just a click or two away. This has been particularly evident during the recent Presidential Election, in which Donald Trump competed against Hillary Clinton to become the leader of the US. A Buzzfeed investigation found that during the election, 20 top-performing fake news articles generated more shares, likes and comments than the 20 top-performing election stories from 19 major news websites. The same analysis found that all but three of those fake news articles were overtly pro-Trump or anti-Clinton. This seems to link in with the attitude of Trump himself; a New York Times article examined Trump’s statements throughout his presidency and showed that for his first 40 days in public office, he told an open lie or falsehood every day. On 20 of those 40 days, he told an outright lie. The stark difference between Trump and previous Presidents comes under focus when comparing Trump’s falsities with Obama’s. Obviously, no President is perfect when it comes to this, but Trump’s record is appalling. The website Politifact examines statements made by Presidents and determines what percentage of them are true, mostly true, or whopping lies. 2% of Obama’s remarks were pants-on-fire lies; Trump’s current score is a massive 16%. In a world where even the President of the United States – a nation that prides itself on its freedom of speech and democracy – lies regularly and seemingly without consequence or care, the actions of regular citizens seem meaningless and too small to make a difference. However, a population that remains doubtful and critical of everything they read until it is confirmed by multiple sources, which educates themselves on current issues and remains aware that the phenomenon of alternative facts does exist, is a population that is extremely hard to deceive.
History has been filled with examples of manipulation and control being used by governments and ruling bodies to aid in their power and prevent uprisings. There are multitudes of dark dystopian novels filling the shelves in bookstores and libraries today, and even more by historical – and political – authors such as George Orwell. In most – if not all – of these tales, the government or a similar power has succeeded in controlling the minds of the masses through propaganda or other means and has grown bloated with unchecked power. This is a future that is becoming exceedingly more possible and, unless the population bands together against this kind of control and manipulation, perhaps even probable. The key to a continuation of democracy and freedom as we know it and have known it is the independence of mind, values, ideals, and opinions. If we remember the mistakes of our predecessors, are critical of the information we receive, and aware that it most likely contains bias, then we can limit the effect that the growing culture of falsities and half-truths, interpreted to match personal beliefs, has on our society and our world. This is why Nothing to Envy is such a successful text – while it educates us on the truth about North Korea, it also serves as both a mirror and a warning: manipulation and control are present in every government in the world, and unless you are vigilant, North Korea’s current reality could be your future.