Gulag of the Mind: Why North Koreans Cry for Kim Jong Il

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Shows of mass sorrow for the leader's death, whether genuine or staged, show how this regime holds such unlikely power over a people who should hate them

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North Koreans cry in front of the Statue of the Sun in Pyongyang / KCNA

It doesn't really matter whether the thousands of North Koreans meant it when they wept openly, convulsively, and often convincingly in front of cameras over the death of Kim Jong Il. A New York Times article on the mass mournings suggested much of it was genuine, though many may have cried "as they think they should or because they are being watched," according to a South Korean analyst. Some writers dismissed the grieving as staged obedience, others saw it as an effect of "airtight propaganda."

The distinction is academic. Mourners who acted earnestly were shaking with grief for a man who had devastated their society several times over and made everyone who does not share his last name dramatically worse off. Those who played along, many of them so skillfully that even the most unconvincing acts seemed to rapidly become authentic, were surrendering even their own emotions to the implicit commands of the state. Whether someone is aware that he is enslaved, not just in action but in thought, to a family that has done more harm to him them than any other individual or group in the world, he is still a slave.

The power and totality of North Korean propaganda is so transformative that even the small number of people who are so disillusioned with their country that they risk their lives to escape will, once free, often continue to praise Kim Il Sung, the country's Soviet-installed founder and architect of its Orwellian police state. Last year, activists arranged a meeting between New Yorker writer Barbara Demick and a North Korean who had just escaped into China. Though the young woman had abandoned her home country, she could not leave a lifetime of propaganda behind so easily. On meeting Demick, she panicked: "evil Americans are our enemies," she said.

Life in the camps is a metaphor for life on the outside

North Korea is saturated with state propaganda and little else. Outside radio signals are jammed, while radios blasting state messages are installed in every home and impossible to turn off. Fax machines and internet access are both illegal except for a small cadre of trusted elite. Computers must be registered with the police as if they were hunting rifles. Schools double as indoctrination centers; children are taught songs with titles like "We Have Nothing to Envy In the World" as soon as they can speak. Many towns in North Korea have no cars or little food beyond cornmeal, but every single one has a movie theater, where the 40 films produced every year by state-run studios depict the greatness of the Kim family and the awfulness of the outside world.

Expression is so limited that even certain colors are off-limits for personal use. Without exposure to any ideas or version of events from outside North Korea or even from fellow North Koreans not directly involved in disseminating propaganda, people have no reason to doubt the official version: they are living in the happiest, richest country on Earth, and they are constantly beset by an external threat that could end everything if they are not vigilant. The American threat is portrayed within North Korea as ever-present and horrifying. Even if you have doubts about the Kim family's rule, surely they are preferable to the American monsters who, the murals and broadcasts remind North Koreans at every opportunity, will commit unspeakable crimes if the regime lets down its guard to, for example, address the 2009 currency devaluation crisis that saw most North Koreans lose all of their savings overnight.

The regime's most powerful instrument of control is not propaganda, however, but the loyalty, often unwitting, it has painstakingly engineered into every level of society. All citizens are divided into three classes -- the "core" of loyalists at the top, the middle half or "wavering" class," and the bottom "hostile" class -- and from there into 51 sub-classes. You are demoted at the slightest disloyalty (many are worked to death in camps for failing to prevent a relative from defecting) and may be promoted for service to the state, for example by informing on a neighbor or family member. Few things are too small or too basic to be held back as "privileges" for certain classes: enough cornmeal to feed your family, a rice cooker if you prosper in government, or perhaps just knowing you are less likely to be sent to the camps.

North Korea's forced labor camps sprawl over areas the size of Houston or Los Angeles and hold an estimated 200,000 prisoners, or one percent of the North Korean population, although no one can know for sure. Many are never told why they were arrested, though a common cause is having a relative who defects; some are born in the camps and will die there. Life in the camps is an exaggerated metaphor for life on the outside. People are imprisoned with their families but turned against one another by the relentless competition for food; informing is the surest form of currency. Inmates are told that their only allies are their jailers, who though brutal are the only reliable providers of food and shelter. If an inmate commits an offense, everyone associated with him is punished severely; so cooperation with fellow inmates is dangerous and uncertain, but cooperation with the guards is safe and profitable.

Much as members of North Korea's elite "core" are driven to cutthroat competition over fear of descending to the middle "wavering" class, and likewise members of the "wavering" class over fear of bring driven to the utterly destitute "hostile" class, even concentration camp inmates have something to lose. There is an underground prison beneath at least one of the camps, where inmates are starved and tortured over petty offenses or to force confessions against family. When Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person to ever escape from Camp 14, was dragged out of the underground prison to watch his mother and brother executed for attempting to escape, his response was not grief for his family or anger at his torture, but relief to be returning the camp. Back above ground, he continued informing on other inmates because it was the only life he knew.

The prison guards probably think of themselves as the masters, but they could be called inmates themselves. Most are on the fringes of their own class, exiled to work at the remote camps rather than in Pyongyang. Resources at the camps are scarce and competition between guards is fierce. Like the inmates, they must turn against one another if they want to advance or even be certain of survival. Like most in this country, only the state has ever provided for them. Loyalty to friends and family is conditional in a way that the state's hand is not. The stories it tells them about Dear Leader's virtue and the outside threat he protects them from must resonate in a way that little else -- often, not even family allegiance -- could. To lose the state would be to lose everything, and Kim Jong Il was the state.

A scheme as massive and complicated as North Korea could not possibly function without the consent of most of its 25 million people. That's not to say that North Koreans support Kim Jong Il's regime or like watching his son take over. Their consent comes in the smaller, day-to-day ways that an authoritarian society functions: when a farmer sends his grain to the state-run markets, when a member of the middle "wavering" class buys a jacket produced by slave laborers, when a child informs on her peer to get a few extra kernels of corn for her hungry siblings, when someone ambivalent about Kim Jong Il's rule cries at his death anyway. None of them are necessarily seeking to bolster the Kim regime. North Korean society has been so carefully engineered that simple survival can often require consenting to Kim's rule in the small, hourly ways that seem insignificant in isolation but, taken together, continue the regime's unlikely rule uninterrupted.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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