[Feature] Life in the North Korean Theatre: Performing to Survive in the DPRK
When it comes to surviving in North Korea, you really have to act the part. It’s the only way that North Koreans can stay out of trouble and live anything like a quiet life.
Kim Ji-man, who left North Korea in 2011, told us, “Back home, my hardest times were when I was feeling ill. Here in South Korea, the idea of “feigning ill” is something that everyone might do once in a while. But in North Korea, it’s the opposite – the only way to survive is to pretend to feel well, even when you feel sick enough to die. This is especially the case with people who work for state companies. They must drag their bodies to work even when they’re really ill. Missing even one day of work will cause trouble.”
Chongjin native Choi Chi-hoon defected only a few months ago. He said, “North Korean men don’t show their feelings. We tend to be brusque, and hardly cry. So it was incredibly hard to squeeze out my tears when Kim Jong-il died. It wasn’t just me, but most other men I worked with. You knew it was getting really dire when colleagues began to wail, in the hope that it would make them cry.”
He added, “The funny thing is, pretend wailing can cause terrible headaches. I thought there was something wrong with me, but after a while lots of people confessed they experienced the same.”
Kim Min-jong, who left in 2011 told us, “A while ago, I saw a parody video about North Koreans watching Titanic. Everyone kept crying. I know how absurd such fake crying looks to the outside world – that’s why the parody exists. But that kind of acting is exactly what we have to do to live a normal life in North Korea.”
Lee Hong-jin, who left in 2010, said, “When you go to work, you have to pretend you’re the most loyal person on earth. No matter how loyal they may be, North Koreans have to put up a false front in order to stay out of trouble. “
Kim Moon-suk left North Korea in December. He told us, “Before crossing the border, I had to carry a hoe around with me and pretend I lived in the area. When it was time for me to be escorted over the border by the broker, there was no sign of him. I knew I couldn’t walk around pretending to be a local for ever, and I was terrified of getting caught by the border guards. In the end, I finally met up with the broker and escaped over the border, but I still feel terror when I think about it.” For Moon-suk, it was literally the performance of his life – and for his life.
In this way, North Koreans live theatrical lives, learning how to hide their inner lives, and pretending not to know things they are perfectly aware of. It’s what they have to do to survive under a regime that punishes those who fail to put on a good show.