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North Korea, officially recognized as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK is a country situated in East Asia that is home to approximately 25 million people. It constitutes the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and was established in 1948 in the aftermath of Second World War due to the tug of war between US and USSR. Many deem North Korea as the most oppressed and hegemonized society in the world today that has remained stable, isolated and unthreatened for years. It is believed to have outlived any other totalitarian regime.
After the Korean War and the establishment of the DPRK in 1948, Kim IL Sung became the sole and constant leader of North Korea. Kim IL Sung adjusted his country in compliance with the nationalist philosophy of ‘Juche’ that focuses on the idea of self-reliance. Economy was brought under state control; the state usurped agrarian land and successfully nationalized all the private property. Travel bans and state-owned media withheld North Korea’s political and economic operations from disclosure and helped to preserve its isolation from the rest of the world. The nation's populace would remain predominantly Korean, with the exception of few Chinese people. With assistance from the USSR, Kim transformed his armed forces into one of the worlds mightiest.
After Kim IL Sung died in 1994, his son, Kim Jong Il took the reins. He introduced the Songun ideology that implies 'the military first politics'. It renewed the status of the Korean People’s Army as the dominant political-economic stakeholder in the country. In other words, the North Korean government grants the Korean People's Army the highest economic and resource- allocation priority and positions it as the model for society to emulate. This aims to cultivate loyalty of the army that in turn serves to guarantee the loyalty of the people. Between 1995 and 1998, North Korea went through a phase of extended famine due to rampant flooding, agricultural mismanagement and inefficient economic policies. Huge number of people starved to death. After the death of Kim Jong Il died in 2011, his son, Kim Jong Un assumed control as the supreme leader. Portraying himself as a contemporary adaptation of his grandfather, Kim Jong Un initiated measures to strengthen his power; He commanded the capital punishment of his uncle and rivals, be it political or military. It is also rumored that he was involved in the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong Nam. His government’s continued operations with regards to North Korea’s nuclear program that invited much criticism from the West.
Perhaps, the most interesting thing about this autocracy is that it actually has a precursor in literature. George Orwell's seminal dystopian novel 1984, published in June 1948. Orwell produced the novel with the intent of warning future societies of the dangers of totalitarian governments. The novel portrays a dystopian society in the nation of Oceania where the government or the ruling Party controls everything: its people, their thoughts, and even their past. Big Brother is presented as the supreme ruler of Oceania and the leader the Party. In order to ascertain whether the kind of dystopia depicted by Orwell in 1984 has any possible and realistic underpinnings and how much of it is close to reality and relevant to the contemporary world, it is imperative to draw parallels between Oceania and today’s North Korea and explore its effects on the individuals and society as a whole.
To begin with, both 1984 and North Korea have a totalitarian “leader” and ruling party. In 1984 it’s the Big Bother and the ‘Party’ whereas in Pyongyang it’s Kim Jong Un (Kim Dynasty) and the “Worker’s Party of North Korea”.
First major similarity can be categorized as the use of state-sponsored propaganda. In 1984, Inner and Outer party members idolize the almighty character of perspicacious Big Brother. The entire popular culture is swayed towards this cult of personality. On the other hand, the North Korean government controls its people through emotional dictatorship by enforcing loyalty towards their leader, Kim Jong-un. The reverence shown by North Koreans for individuals of the Kim dynasty is perfervid and obsessive. The authoritarian regime has quite successfully deluded its people into believing that their entire society is one huge upper class in contrast to the rest of the world via Kim Il-Sung’s ‘Juche’ philosophy, drafted to “build better people, to reshape human nature”. Caste systems like N. Korea’s are designed to establish government’s hegemony over its citizens by stripping them off their privileges.
The world inherited by Winston in 1984 is of nothing but propaganda; the autocratic government of Oceania regulates everything, be it any image, sound or even a piece of writing. Similarly, the citizens of North Korea are encompassed by the propaganda of their own authoritarian government. Stories such as stormy seas calmed when sailors sung songs praising Kim II-Sung and of trees blooming and snow melting when Kim Jong-II walks by are just a mere reflection of it. Moreover, in 1984, the inner-party makes up a person by the name of Comrade Ogilvy. No one has any idea whether he is real or not, but the people are required to accept that he exists. The party manufactures this war-hero and exemplifies him as an extraordinary citizen in order to foster patriotism within society. “He refused all toys in childhood except for a machine gun, a drum, and a toy helicopter.”(Orwell 42) In North Korea, Kim Jong Il could be identified by the title “King of Propaganda”. Mike Chinoy (CNN news) wrote that when he entered across the border to North Korea he instantly read three large posters saying: “OUR GENERAL IS NUMBER ONE”, “SUNSHINE OF THE 21st CENTURY”, and “OPPOSE AMERICA”. These statements are very redolent and evocative whose objective is to elicit hatred against the country’s enemies. North Koreans are constantly indoctrinated to believe that America along with other Western powers are harsher and more brutal than they are and are continuously fed lies about their economy and food supplies. Former North Korean propagandist, Jang Jin-Sung, states that, “[the government promotes] the leader to be the sun. If you go too close, you burn [and if] you go too far, you freeze to death. You think of him as incredibly god-like” (Secret State of North Korea). By emphasizing that Kim Jong-un is as significant as the Sun or God, North Koreans view their leader as a superior who is a necessity for their survival and are obliged to love him. Similarly, the citizens of Oceania are conditioned to love Big Brother as a form of public manipulation. During the Two Minutes Hate, “[Winston’s] secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector” (Orwell 17).
Furthermore, controlling the truth is another example of propaganda in both the novel and North Korea. The Party had tasked the Ministry of Truth to regulate the information flow to the citizens; they did this by altering newspapers, books, to promote their personalized account of the past events and because no data that contradicts their version of information is permitted to exist due to thorough censorship, the Party successfully manages the reality itself. Same is the case with North Korea, where, by law, North Korean libraries are restricted from keeping books that are more than fifteen years old – they have to be re-edited and reprinted after every five years. Hence 1984 and North Korea bear a striking resemblance when it comes to government propaganda.
The second predominant similarity comprises the aspect of intrusive surveillance mechanisms by the government. In 1984, total subservience of the citizens is a pre-requisite for the regime to function and survive. For this purpose, there are cameras installed inside citizens' telescreens to keep an absolute check over their activities, which is a breach of privacy rights and restricts individualism. The Party also employs a secret police known as the Thought Police that has the capability of observing and punishing “thought crimes” through the use of psychology and technology. Moreover, there’s an association of kids by the name of ‘Junior Spies’ that brainwashes children into monitoring the activities of their families. Correspondingly, North Korea practices absolute omniscience, as every aspect of its citizen’s lives is placed under scrutiny. “Seemingly, every aspect of a person's existence in North Korea is monitored. This oversight of citizens has extended beyond wired microphones and wiretapping of fixed-line and mobile phones. Microphones are now even being used outdoors to pick up conversations.” All computers are subject to random checks by authorities and must be registered with the government. Some computers may access the national intranet, called Kwangmyong, but true Internet access is restricted to the 'super-elites'. The three major surveillance organizations in North Korea are the State Security Department, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) that supervises telephone conversations, and the Military Security Command. North Korea operates a massive network of informants rewarding informers with gifts. The Organization and Guidance Department of the Workers' Party of Korea is responsible for investigating and spying on senior officials. The Military Security Command of the Korean People's Army (KPA), the country's armed forces, is tasked with monitoring 'the activities and political loyalties of [North Korean] military commanders 'identifying anyone seen as disloyal'.
North Korea’s bombarding of their peoples’ consciousness with pictures of “Eternal President” and “Supreme Leader” evokes the same feelings of paranoia as the continuous flooding of “Big Brother is watching you” in 1984. This visual prompt keeps the citizens cognizant of the fact, that regardless of wherever you go and whatever you do, you are constantly under surveillance.
Third similarity can be identified in terms of appalling social conditions. Everyone in 1984 is famished, poverty-stricken, overworked partly due the ‘Physical Jerks’ and paranoid, and the party's coercive persuasion makes sure that even family ties and relationships are hollow and pointless. Available means of recreation and sources of leisure are either trivial or witless, or downright propaganda and the Party's eugenicists are even trying to quell natural impulses such as sex and orgasm. In North Korea too, social conditions have deteriorated along similar lines. People are cannot have a religion because Kim Jong Il is their god just like the Big Brother. The economy has suffered sharpest decline in 20 years just recently. It is hardly able to afford to nourish its own citizens since the bulk of resources is dedicated towards the glorified army. Like 1984, certain privileges like cars, meat, coffee, chocolate and other luxury goods are only accessible to the elite class while the working class have no option but to survive on rations in extreme destitution; 33 percent of North Korean children are victims of inhibited growth due to malnutrition. According to a report by the Korea Institute for National Unification: 'The standard of living has deteriorated to extreme levels of deprivation in which the right to food security, health and other minimum needs for human survival are denied.' A journalist Christopher Hitchens, who once visited North Korea, explained: North Korea “has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves [North Koreans are on average six inches shorter than South Koreans], living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult.”
Torture and Brainwashing
Then there is another similarity that is characterized by torture and brainwashing with the aim of controlling the will of the people. Ministry of Love in 1984 ensures absolute obedience and total submission to Big Brother through a massive apparatus of repression and systematic brainwashing. O’Brien coerces Winston to accept “Two plus two equals five” (Orwell 219) and Winston ultimately agrees that two plus two equals five. Big Brother is always right, no matter how things actually are and that’s how cognitive dissonance is imposed on the people of Oceania. In Room 101, Winston is brutally tormented and his spirit is so broken once he is introduced to his worst fear, which is rats that he eagerly surrenders his lover Julia, begging his detainers to 'do it [to her!” While in North Korea, Kim Jong Il ensures that no one has the audacity to question his government by ordering execution of any internal threats to his position and imprisonment of any people that he is skeptical of. Possible revolutionary citizens and regime opponents are tortured into total submission in gulags/prison camps all around the country. People are indoctrinated and brainwashed into conformity in the reeducation camps. Winston’s final fate reflects the case of North Korean man Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known North Korean prison camp survivor. He snitched on his mother and brother after overhearing them making getaway plan and as a result they were executed by the authorities. Shin confessed that he deceived his mother and brother solely because he was optimistic that the guards would allow him to have a full repast for the first time in his life.
The last similarity between Oceania and North Korea is the perversion of media to portray the regime as a reliable administration that enriches people’s existence. For instance, in the novel, “the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of bonds for the quarter at a hundred and forty-five million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston’s however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to forty-seven millions… Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot.” (Orwell 41). The controlled media of Oceania fooled people into believing that their living standards had significantly improved as compared to before. Similarly, the North Korean regime reinforces North Korea’s purported superiority to its citizens via media indoctrination and spin-doctors. The Workers’ Party misleads its people into believing that North Korea’s communist economic system is successful and cultivating prosperity. The Korean Central News Agency, the dominant source of media in the country plays an instrumental role in spreading the state-sponsored propaganda. There have been numerous cases where the regime has altered pictures of its military to make it seem more majestic than it actually is to blow smoke into people’s eyes. One prominent occasion was the distribution of photographs showing the communist state carrying out hovercraft missions in reaction to ongoing military exercises of United States and its Southern neighbor. According to the Guardian, “several of the eight hovercrafts in the photo appear to be digital clones, speculating that at least two of them had simply been copied and pasted elsewhere. Another craft raised suspicions due to its soft edges, lack of visible wake, and color oddities” (McCurry).
North Korea epitomizes a flawless depiction of the very authority that Orwell ad warned against. Communist regime of North Korea closely resembles the society in 1984 in their oppression of their people. It has fulfilled almost all the prophecies that Orwell had predicted in his novel 1984. Psychological manipulation and physical control of the people have been the ultimate goal of all the similarities listed above through which the totalitarian regime maintains its influence and majority but this comes at a heavy cost to the society. Individuals are stripped of their consciousness and robbed of the independence of their minds. The ebb and flow of ordinary life has been disrupted. There seem to be no prospects of bright future or personal growth and development as it is impossible for any kind of individualism to flourish. In order for North Korea to avoid a tragic ending like the novel, North Korean people will have to stand up for themselves against their government to bring about change. All eyes of the world are on the small communist state and its future.
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