Jang Jin-sung knows what is means to be brainwashed as a child in North Korea. As he reports to the website Frontline January 14, he has only happy memories from his childhood but that is because he did not know better. I had not seen the outside world. I had no points of reference to allow me to distinguish between good and evil.
As a young man Jang was appointed to the position of propagandist by the North Korean Communist regime. His job was to write editorials and commentaries on how good everything was in North Korea compared to South Korea. In addition he penned epic poems about the Great Leader and became Kim Jong-ils favorite poet. As a privileged government propagandist Jang had a unique opportunity to read South Korean books and watch TV shows that were forbidden to normal North Koreans.
Jang notes that his entire way of thinking changed the moment he got access to this information. He realized how more developed South Korea was and how far behind North Korea was: The more he realized this, the more alone he felt.
Sue Mi Terry, former analyst with the CIA specializing on North Korea, tells Frontline: North Koreans have lived for so long with an absence of real information about the outside world. One of the ways that the Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un regimes have been able to continue with this system is by a monopoly of information, by really excluding outside unwanted information from coming in and educating the public.
This state of affairs, however, is changing. Kim Jong-uns regime will not be able to keep its people in the dark for much longer as information technology is developing. The question is how this will influence the Stalinist regimes iron grip on the North Korean population. Perhaps we are even approaching a North Korean spring?
Recent happenings in Kim Jong-uns North Korea indicate that the regime is seriously worried. This autumn the North Korean leader ordered the execution of twelve prominent musicians and artists including his former girl friend Hyon Song-wol.
Shortly afterwards the government ordered the execution of approximately 80 people for such crimes as watching South Korean TV programs and possession of Bibles. As is the North Korean custom, the executions were done with automatic gunfire and in front of crowds commandeered in seven cities.
Then came the much publicized execution of Kim Jong-uns maternal uncle Jang Song-thaek, who was seen as a potential rival. According to hitherto unsubstantiated claims that have not repudiated by the government Jang and five of his accomplices were torn to pieces by 120 starved dogs in front of 300 members of the North Korean party elite.
These events indicate that Kim Jong-un, whose father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung were elevated to almost godlike status is desperate to keep his position as autocrat in an extremely closed country. He is thus in keeping with a historical tradition that earned North Korea the name The Hermit Kingdom due to its extreme isolation from the rest of the world.
It has, however, proved problematic to maintain this isolation. However much the worlds dictators try, it is impossible to completely close the door to the world outside. To be sure, North Koreans are not permitted to buy foreign DVD videos but they can be obtained at some markets. USB sticks make it even easier to share data. Cell phones sold in North Korea must be registered by the state and cannot be used for calls outside the country but creative people have succeeded in modifying them so that they may be used to call China. Such cell phones may be rented to others. It is a fact that every glimpse from abroad offers the North Koreans an opportunity to question what their own regime is up to.
According to Frontline, information has become a sort of social currency, at least in some circles.
Victor Cha, a professor who served as chief of the American National Security Councils department for Asian issues during the George W. Bush administration, is quoted as saying: Its actually quite in vogue youre not part of a conversation unless you can bring pieces of information of whats happening outside the country into a circle of friends. Thats very interesting because that creates a collective way of thinking about how the government is falling short on the social contract with its citizens. You get much more independent thinking.
So far, however, this way of thinking has not materialized in the shape of determined opposition to the dictatorial regime in Pyongyang. There is no question of a North Korean Spring largely because is next to impossible to organize any protest without being arrested. In that case one may expect to be executed or transported to one of the countrys feared concentration camps where hundreds of thousands of people are wasting away in the most inhuman conditions.
Nor does the regime lack resources to track down persons believed to be a threat to the current order. In a report from May 2013 the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimated that the Kim Jong-il government had at its disposal approximately 50 000 internal security agents tracking spies and dissidents. And Kim Jong-un, who is still working to consolidate his regime, is desperate to secure the survival of the Kim clan. During a speech at the Ministry of State Security shortly after gaining power, young Kim encouraged his agents to firmly and mercilessly smash impure, hostile elements within the country.
The question is what the North Koreans really want. Despite all the misery, conditions in North Korea have improved since the 1990s when crop failure and starvation engulfed the country and caused the death of two to three million people. Freedom is unknown to the absolute majority of North Koreans who have been carefully brainwashed during three generations of Kims that have been in power since the founding of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea in 1948.
David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, points out that many defectors from North Korea have become disillusioned with South Korea despite their newfound freedom. They experience crass materialism, a loss of family values. The North Korean government has worked hard to impose the notion that North Koreans are the True Koreans, and for some, that message has stuck. They may not like what their government is doing but many consider it unsafe and dangerous to tear down all they have become accustomed to.
Meanwhile information keeps passing to and from North Korea thanks to dedicated defectors in South Korea and dissidents inside North Korea. Jang Jin-sung, the former propagandist, felt a desperate need to share information he received from the outside world with his friends and family but doing that would be considered treacherous and lead to imprisonment, torture and perhaps death. Instead he chose to flee to South Korea via China in 2004 with a North Korean security team hot on his heels.
Since then Jang has established himself in the free, democratic and prosperous South Korea, where he works for New Focus International, a media group producing information on what is really going on in North Korea. Kim Jong-uns Ministry of State Security has threatened to crush the operation but Jang believes that he has already confronted the worst dangers when he fled and is not worried about the future. Kim Jong-ils former favorite poet considers the truth to be his strongest weapon in his struggle against the inhuman dictatorship in Pyongyang.
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