A single photograph has become the symbol of North Korea’s utter darkness, moral, political, economic and technological. It shows the two Koreas at night by satellite. The cities of the South are ablaze with electric light. In the North, there is only a single, dim pinprick of illumination, the capital Pyongyang; surrounded by a black void, a country hidden from sight, held prisoner in the dark, a vast memory hole.
Here is another image that precisely captures the nature of life under the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, the self-styled Dear Leader: “There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life ... If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face ... for ever.”
That line is from Nineteen Eighty-Four. George Orwell finished writing his masterwork in 1948, the year that separate governments were formed in North and South Korea. He wrote the short book, he said, out of fear that “totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere”. Some critics pooh-poohed his warnings. By 1984, the New Left Review predicted, the book would be a mere “curio”. The critics were partly right. By 1984 the seeds of perestroika were already undermining the great Stalinist machine of oppression. Saddam Hussein attempted to create his own autocratic dystopia in Iraq, but he was only ever an amateur Big Brother.
There is only one country in the world where Orwell’s fears have come close to realisation, and that is North Korea. Indeed, to outsiders, the totalitarian horror of that brutalised place can seem like fiction. As revealed in a number of new books about North Korea — most notably Barbara Demick’s extraordinary reportage in Nothing to Envy — Orwell predicted almost every aspect of the planet’s nastiest political regime.
North Korea is a state whose very survival depends on propaganda and mass mind control, the threat of war, constant surveillance, brainwashing, censorship, the absence of individual rights and the repression of individuality itself. Kim’s exhortations to his benighted people — “Let’s live our own way”, “Adore Kim Jong Il with all your heart” — are echoes of the slogans ofNineteen Eighty-Four: “War is peace”, “Freedom is slavery”, “Ignorance is strength”.
There is no personal privacy in North Korea. Any perceived transgression against the regime is punishable by death, or at least indefinite incarceration. Evenings are spent in indoctrination classes and factory breaks are devoted to “hate” sessions; spying on the neighbours is a patriotic duty; at political rallies, officials scan the faces of the faithful to detect any hint of scepticism.
The only splashes of colour in the drab landscape are the propaganda posters demanding ever more abject subservience to the absurd, bouffant-haired Kim, who sits in his palace, drunk on power, French wine and Western pornography.
“Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime is death,” Winston Smith writes in his journal. The same is true in North Korea. In the political camps, informers report disloyal “sleep-talk” to the Thought Police. When Winston Smith awakens in his cell, screaming his forbidden love for his beloved Julia, he is sent to Room 101.
While the North Korean version of Orwell’s Ministry of Plenty insists that life for its citizens is steadily improving, the people starve. The famine that engulfed North Korea in 1990s was entirely preventable, a spectacular crime against humanity that left a permanent biological legacy: the malnourished inhabitants of North Korea are, on average, some six inches shorter than their cousins in the South.
Like Big Brother’s regime in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Kim’s power is maintained by a combination of ignorance, fear and racial hatred. As B. R. Myers shows in The Cleanest Race, the North Korean dictatorship is no longer communist but an old-fashioned, race-based extreme nationalism of a sort that Europeans should easily recognise. Kim Jong Il owes more to Hitler than to Stalin.
The “enemy” is depicted as racially inferior, rapacious American “jackals”. This “perpetual war” is what fuels the State, and ensures that negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear capability are doomed: Pyongyang relies on its nuclear tests, not for military purposes but because paranoia is its political raison d’etre.
In North Korean schools, children learn mathematics by totting up tallies of dead American soldiers: “With the guns that I make with my own hands, I will shoot them, Bang, Bang, Bang,” they sing.
Orwell died 60 years ago last month. “Orwellian” has since become an easy cliché of the sort he abhorred, yet even he might have allowed its application to North Korea, the only place where his nightmare fantasy approaches everyday reality.
“There are three stages in your reintegration,” Winston Smith is told. “There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance.” Have the brainwashed North Koreans accepted? Do they love Big Brother? Certainly millions do. In 2004, when a train carrying explosives blew up in North Korea setting fire to nearby houses, it was reported that several people died trying to save portraits of the “Dear Leader” from the burning buildings.
Painting a grim picture of cradle-to-grave indoctrination, Demick wonders: “Who could possibly resist?” Yet as she shows in the stories of six who escaped, resistance is still possible, though virtually impossible to measure in a country without internet or mobile telephones. There are Winstons and Julias in the North Korean darkness, small twinkles of defiance, invisible to the naked eye.
Though they whisper it in secret, there is a saying that North Koreans live “like frogs in a well”. The joke, tragically, is lost on a younger generation of North Koreans: by 1995 virtually every frog in the country had been eaten.