The trouble with a vision for society is the body count. The more specific the outcome you want to impose, the more dissent you’ll stir up. So you’re going to have to find a lot of places for all the bodies, or give up your grip on power.
There’s a silver lining for the State, though: “If a government is willing to kill as many people as necessary to stay in power, it usually stays in power for a very long time.”
So says Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea, in the Frontline documentary Secret State of North Korea.
But the story here isn’t what the documentary has to say about the nature of totalitarianism. That’s worth documenting, of course; it’s difficult to believe such horrors are or ever have been real. But that’s not what makes this Frontline special.
That comes from the video shot on the down-low by a network of North Koreans and smuggled out to the rest of the world. We see Jiro Ishimaru, editor of Rimjingang, a Japanese magazine staffed by North Koreans reporting in secret, meeting with his sources. One, a State employee, freely acknowledges that he’ll be killed if he’s caught. “But I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this, no matter what. I’m just one person. Even if I have to sacrifice my life, someday something is going to change.”
The footage is often little more than jittery scenes of people going about their daily routine. But such is life under totalitarian rule: The mundane is fully shot through with politics. So any image of it, generated outside of State control, is a threat.
The footage itself will either break your heart or give you new faith in humanity. Probably a little of both. Consider this exchange between one of Ishimaru’s reporters and a group of homeless kids huddled around a tiny fire:
Reporter: Does anyone here work so you can have food and a bed?
Child: What work do you mean?
Reporter: Do you know how to chop wood?
Child: I don’t have an arm, so I can’t.
Reporter: You don’t have an arm? Why don’t you have an arm?
Child: It got cut off by a train.
From the looks of it, there’s a good chance they spent their day begging for anything from passersby—that is, when they weren’t picking through piles of garbage, occasionally lifting something and taking a bite.
So the obvious reasons why this footage would be considered treason have to do with compliance: If people saw how bad it really is, they might question the regime.
Individual malcontents aren’t that much of a problem for rulers this brutal. But then that’s another reason why non-State accounts of daily life pose a threat: People might find out they’re not alone. Others are unhappy also; some even show defiance. And sometimes, they get away with it.
For instance, the filmmakers mention that private enterprise has taken root and is being tolerated. As reported earlier in The Economist, the women of North Korea are doing much of the heavy lifting. In this documentary, we see a woman who runs a private bus line angrily shouting back at—even slapping—a soldier who tries to interfere. “If you’re an officer, where are your stars then?” she says. “You bastard! You’re an asshole!” she adds a bit later.
The next scene shows a woman being hassled for wearing pants on the street. One officer hits her. Another says, “Stop it, bitch!” when they tie on an armband describing her offense and she rips it off. She tells the officer to watch his mouth, and even when a senior officer steps in to intimidate her, she challenges him: “Why aren’t you telling off those people wearing pants?”
Much of what’s shown here runs counter to the narrative I used to think I knew: The Kims had shut their country off so successfully that North Koreans were brainwashed into believing the regime’s propaganda.
And besides, they wouldn’t be able to communicate and organize if they did become discontented. Between the social breakdown that always accompanies totalitarian rule and the stunted technological development of the country, there isn’t going to be any Twitter-fueled Arab spring or Orange Revolution rocking Pyongyang any time soon.
That may turn out to be the case. But then again, we hear Su Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst, telling us that the CIA knew nothing about Kim Jong-Un until he was suddenly brought forward as the new ruler.
And Victor Cha, a former member of the National Security Council, points out that nobody saw either the collapse of the Soviet Union or the Arab Spring coming—but that afterward, both looked obvious.
Secret State adds to the stories of the Kim dynasty’s devotion to brainwashing. But it also discusses the execution of Kim Jong-Un’s uncle, carried out shortly before the documentary aired. Some analysts think this indicates conflict between hard-liners and reformers. It certainly seems like a guy with no military background and such big shoes to fill (at least according to the party’s propaganda) needs to let people know he’s not to be trifled with.
Taken together with the scenes of North Koreans learning to fend for themselves, I started to get my head around the one question that always crops up when I read accounts of life under dictators: Why? Why do the jailers keep the cells locked up? Why do third- or fourth-generation rulers continue to tighten the fist?
I doubt it’s a short answer. Or rather, there’s no short answer that really gets to it. But I think fear is right in the middle of all of it. There’s the conventional type, at least for dictatorships: Jang Jin-Sun, a former State propagandist, describes North Korea as an “emotional dictatorship”: The State seeks to dominate people’s thoughts and feelings. North Koreans are told their rulers are like the sun: Get too close and you’ll get burned, but get too far away and you’ll be cast into the void. Then there are constant “news” reports about an imminent American attack from which the party can keep them safe—but only if they give it absolute obedience, even love.
This stuff is the carrot; there’s no telling how effective it is. But there’s the ever-present stick as well. My guess is that everyone in North Korea knows someone who disappeared suddenly. One defector describes life after her family began slipping away for a shot at the border: “I was always being watched. The people watching weren’t just from the government. The people who were watching me were my friends and neighbors. I knew all of this but had to act as if I didn’t.”
Or consider this surreptitiously recorded conversation between a group of North Koreans:
Woman: There can’t be a rebellion. They’ll kill everyone ruthlessly. Yes, ruthlessly. The problem here is that one in three people will secretly report you. That’s the problem. That’s how they do it.
Man: Let’s just drink up. There’s no use talking about it.
Things like the execution of Kim Jong-Un’s uncle send the message right down the chain: Nobody’s safe. Kang Chol-Hwan, a North Korean defector, described in The Aquariums of Pyongyang how his family—staunch party members who donated a fortune to the party—wound up in Yodok concentration camp. They were untouchable until, suddenly, they were not.
This documentary made me think that the fear starts at the top, and the security apparatus, the propaganda, the gulags—all of it—amounts to little more than an attempt to placate that fear. For one thing, there are the consequences: Losing power in a totalitarian environment usually means torture and death, even if you escape.
And power could be lost at any time. The State’s authority rests on a fragile base: The consent of those who are ruled. Left to their own devices, they’re fickle. But ruled with an iron fist, any crack in the State’s power can quickly fracture the entire edifice. I wonder if Kim Jong-Un knows this, and lays awake and night wondering when it will all shatter. Maybe he buys his own propaganda and sleeps like a baby. I hope he doesn’t survive long enough for us to find out.
The Revolution Will First Be Televised
But this is what makes the documentary truly compelling, beyond the novelty value of the smuggled footage. The State is no longer the only one peddling images. There’s Ishimaru’s network of covert reporters, but smuggled DVDs and thumb drives full of movies and TV shows do a brisk business.
The documentary accompanies Jeong Kwang-Il, a defector living in South Korea, on one of his regular drives up to the Chinese border to drop off his contraband. We see him meeting, at night, with a border guard he’s bribed. Jeong demonstrates how to work a new item: hand-cranked radios.
These are especially important, because other defectors have organized a radio station in South Korea, Open Radio North Korea, aimed specifically at those they left behind. Still more of them—we’re told there are more than 20,000 defectors living in South Korea alone—broadcast On My Way to Meet You, a slick-looking variety show that, without the narrator describing the action, looks much like much of the rest of South Korean TV. This is a compliment: These are people who’ve suffered terribly, and they speak of that, but life afterward is possible. They sing, they get goofy, they experiment with different hairstyles and makeup and fashion.
Which brings up another fascinating point: Something as simple as a run-of-the-mill travel program can be a powerful agent for change in the context of North Korea, where its audience is seeing an entirely different world than the one they’ve been told is all there is. Watching two teenagers discuss what’s going on in a DVD of a group of middle-aged South Koreans touring Europe is simultaneously tragic and endearing.
Heroes of the Revolution
I was living in Seoul in 2006, when Kim Jong-Il—father of the current putz-in-chief—tested a nuclear weapon. I didn’t react particularly reasonably, though I managed to make it through my day’s work. While waiting on a bus near city hall and wondering whether to pack my bug-out bag as soon as I got back home, I noticed a mass of people marching down one of the main thoroughfares. The cops were out in force. After a moment’s panic, I realized the cops were just minding traffic and the crowd was demonstrating on behalf of the disabled. A generation before, not too far south of there, the military rulers of South Korea had massacred people doing much the same thing.
The memory recurs for me now because, as powerful as State political theater might be, there’s an even stronger message: It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s nothing inherent in the North Korean situation that means the North Korean people have to suffer like this. It can get better, much better, and relatively quickly. More and more people are sending this message—the defectors’ networks, sure, but also the smugglers of SIM cards and the people on the inside scratching out spheres of private action. And more and more of it is getting through.
The fact that the images are now flowing both ways, though, is cause for reflection. There’s the issue I mentioned earlier, of the consent of the governed. It sounds very simple: cease to consent, and go in freedom. But then few of us have ever been subject to people who will “kill as many people as necessary.”
But for those who are? They find themselves confronted with nearly impossible dilemmas: Do they preserve their own lives despite the oppression? Do they sacrifice their lives in what might turn out to be a pointless act of defiance? Do they flee, knowing that—at least in North Korea—the punishment is likely to fall on family members (one defector describes being shipped off to the gulag because of the actions of a third cousin he didn’t even know)? What about those who wind up in the police or army? When they’re told to haul this guy off and torture that woman, do they choose to be the agents of oppression—or decline and immediately become victims of it?
This is the real meat of Secret State. Not the ample opportunities it provides for histrionics about the broader world context (like, say, juxtaposing the gulag with America’s prison population). The story here is, in every sense, life on the street, at the level of individuals facing down these dilemmas and forming up with others who’ve had to weigh these same questions and take these same risks.
Which means this documentary shows us real heroes, and I generally take pains not to use that word. Those who recorded the footage and smuggled it out, those who smuggle the videos in and around, the people bringing in and distributing cell phones, the women refusing to be cowed by a brutal regime and its brutish enforcers—all of them became heroes the instant they decided not to comply any longer. Even the former propagandist eventually came out on top of a situation that requires heroism simply to make decisions that, from the comfort of a blank, uncensored word processor document, can be made to look relatively simple.
So it’s ultimately encouraging, this documentary, though the hope comes at a terrible cost.
And at the risk of looking foolish later, I’d like to offer a prediction: North Koreans are unlikely to be freed by U.S. diplomats, U.N. sanctions, or a sudden change of heart (or maybe discovery of one) by China’s ruling party. North Koreans are going to be freed by North Koreans, like the defector who tells us, “I was very scared, but I thought it’s better to die than live like an insect.”
He wasn’t the first person to think that. And he won’t be the last.
ABOUT MICHAEL NOLAN
Michael Nolan is the managing editor of The Freeman.