North Koreans Find Institutional Life More Difficult Than Hunger

North Koreans celebrating the results of a nuclear test.

North Koreans celebrating the results of a nuclear test.

Escaping From The Institution Of North Korea

“The happiest thing I found after coming to South Korea was the fact that I was no longer constrained to a communal life, framed by compulsory lectures and learning groups.”

This statement is a universal testimony among refugees who have escaped from the North. When asked to reflect on what they most appreciated having left behind in North Korea, defectors in South Korea and China alike reported that they were happiest about their psychological freedom from institutional life.

It’s now commonly held that North Korean citizens put their lives on the line and defect from their homeland to escape hunger, rather than for ideological reasons. While this may be the case, the truth is more complex than that: in the background, there was always back home the unsettling mental anguish brought about by institutional life and omnipresent surveillance.

Looking back, what many defectors wanted even more than food in North Korea was to taste life away from this type of pervasive institutional control. This is especially true of those who don’t have the luxury of occasional escape from the straitjacket of such a life, a luxury afforded only to elite North Koreans.

Kim Ji-ae*, who defected five years ago from Chongjin and arrived in South Korea in 2010, says, “I was very scared while I was in hiding in China, after defecting from North Korea. But I felt relieved that I didn’t have to take part in self-criticism sessions and lectures. On Saturdays especially, the thought that I didn’t have to attend these sessions helped me to endure life on the run.”

Though it’s unable to provide basic needs to its people, the North Korean regime harasses them by enforcing all sorts of compulsory political participation. Criticizing oneself and one’s neighbors is a common practice. The regime also attempts to exercise control over its citizens’ emotions through ‘learning groups’ where citizens must memorize facts about the Kim family and their holy teachings.

Park Ju-min* is a North Korean defector who arrived in South Korea in 2002. He told us, “In North Korea, one cannot opt out of state-enforced institutional life. From an early age, passing through the ‘Children’s Union’ and ‘Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League’ are fundamental steps in growing up. After that, it is on to the ‘Work Unions’, the ‘Farmers’ Brotherhood’, the ‘Korean Democratic Women’s Union’ and other organizations. One cannot throw off the way of the institution. Everyone is involved: men and women, young and old: all have to participate in self-criticism sessions.”

He added, “If you miss a session, you’re subjected to a ‘thought examination’ and to severe public criticism from your peers.”

It is as if one had to spend an entire life in a correctional institution.

The DPRK Theatrical Production, With The North Korean People As Conscripted Actors

The North Korean state strongly controls minds and indoctrinates people through institutional life and self-criticism. Outsiders often ask, “If they are unhappy, why don’t North Koreans demonstrate?” Although the answer is complex, a large part of it is because of the ingrained routine of institutional life.

It’s not simply that the North Korean people are voluntarily acting in unison and shedding tears out of genuine emotion, neither are they conforming out of pure terror. Rather, it’s that each individual is putting on a show, acting out of a mixture of habit, genuine feeling and fear. The persistent fear that the tyranny of a dictatorial regime elicits from people results in a habitual theatre, from which there is no escape as long as one remains within North Korea’s borders. The regime showcases its production in propaganda, as an expression of the people’s loyalty.

The public actions and words of North Koreans are nothing more than what they have been forced to memorize and repeat over and over again in learning group sessions. Observing the people looking upon him with admiration, Kim Jong Un may say, “We are a people united as one heart, one mind.” If he actually believes this, he has been fooled by his own production.

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