A North Korean Views South Korea

by

It has been more than a decade since I left North Korea, but every time I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm I am reminded of my life back ‘home’.

The novel points to the North Korean regime’s hypocrisy without using complex language. Published on 17 August 1945, just two days after Korea became independent, the book eerily predicted where North Korea would go and what it would become.

The Animal Farm is created for the equality of all animals. North Korea’s main claim is equality among its citizens. The Animal Farm insists that various classes and social structures do not represent strata but merely function to serve citizens. So does North Korea.

But in truth, there is no equality, not at the Animal Farm and certainly not in North Korea. Like the “Pigs” in Orwell’s depiction, the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) thrives on the exclusivity of its membership and its alleged ideological supremacy over other North Korean institutions. And to justify its continued existence after the collapse of the USSR and the economic hardship that ensued, the WPK has consistently emphasised threats from external enemies and imaginary traitors within, thereby creating a climate of fear and blind submission.

My father was one of those ‘traitors’ who were made examples of by the WPK during Kim Jong Il’s time. He simply disappeared one day, received no trial that I know of, and was never seen again. I do not know what happened to him or where he is. I may never even find out whether he was sent to prison or executed.

Among North Koreans it is this fear — of losing one’s country to an enemy state, one’s family to a purge, and one’s own life to ever-present danger both definable and abstract — that compels them to obey the regime.

That fear is reinforced by the “Puppies”, or the State Security Department, the State Police, and the National Military which are vital to managing the behaviour of North Korean citizens. Such state apparatus serves not to protect people but to legitimate its very existence, continuously creating and punishing internal dissenters. Much as the Pig regime used and consumed a character named Boxer despite his loyalty, the North Korean leadership feeds on enemies of its own making — even those who could be as innocent as Boxer and my father — to ensure its survival.

I was fortunate never to go to a political prison camp, though the entire country of North Korea might be called one big prison. I see this now because I left it and can see it from a distance both in time and space.

But am I free now? I would argue most countries are prisons in some form or another, even those that claim to be free. As Snowden’s disclosures — and Orwell’s subsequent work 1984 — have shown us, the panoptic society is real. Everyone, including so-called free citizens, is under constant surveillance, and an invisible web constricts our thoughts, speech, and actions even as we sit unaware of the control imposed on us.

Being in South Korea, I sense acutely the absence of free will in people, whose views are shaped by their limited experiences and who do not perceive that they live within a particular socio-political construct. Although they and I may live the same reality, our understandings of it are very different.

I was lucky to escape the Animal Farm and have no love for the North Korean regime. But the more time I spend in this ‘free world’, the more I realise its flaws. Everyone is yeolsimhee — ‘hard-working’. Everywhere I see service workers smiling at me whether they want to or not, everyone striving to achieve something, to be a success, to make something of themselves, but not because they themselves decided to want these things. It is a lot of pressure, and does it make anyone happy?

The South Korean system dehumanizes us and treats us as machines that must endlessly pursue certain desires. Degrees. Marriage. Mortgage. Children. There is no time to simply live in South Korea. Even dying requires careful preparation in the form of a funeral insurance to which one would contribute money for years.

When I bring up my criticism I am often met with resistance and scorn. Rather than exercising their freedom, members of the system I have come to join refuse to discuss the possibility that their world, too, might be repressive. I am barraged by a chorus of narrow minds who are capable only of saying that socialism is a total failure so I should be grateful to have a place in this capitalist society.

Capitalism does offer many things such as technological advances and material abundance. But you see, with them also comes the decimation of the human soul. The ideology of profit maximisation breeds no purpose but endless desire and consumption for the sake of consumption. We all know that having more does not guarantee happiness because deep down, people want more than just meaningless goods. Yet I see few people question South Korea’s cult of capitalism. I see even fewer who recognise they live in an ideological prison that constantly hungers for even more prisoners.

My name is Gyoon Heo and I am what you would classify as a defector, refugee, or new-settler. Whatever terminology you want to use, I am also a citizen of the Republic of Korea. You have been free for longer than I have, but I see what you do not see because I am from the North.

Do you also see the truth now?

Gyoon was born in the DPRK, leaving his hometown during his adolescence. He is now a student in Seoul. He can be reached at gyoon.heo@8d2.359.myftpupload.com

  • Misu

    I am glad there is a forum where people can discuss their views openly. Very well articulated situation of defectors and the state of free will in South Korea.

  • JK

    Loved the essay.

  • Yorgos

    The important point is that in the South- you can *choose* to play the game or not. You might be an outcast, but you have a choose that isn’t necessarily between “life” and “death”. To compare the two lifestyles demeans and lessens the reality of life in the North. IMHO

    • dervin

      But if the penalty for being an outcast is so strict, is it really a free choice?

      • Yorgos

        So you can have ” no choice” and be subject to ” objective violence” or ” no choice” and have to eat your ramen alone on Saturday nights. It’s absolutely better.

      • Cherry

        That just sounds like choosing the lesser evil, even though it’s still evil.

      • wangkon936

        Well, you can always emigrate (to America or Canada) if you don’t “make it.” At least you have that choice.

      • RichP

        Only if you can fulfill the requirements needed to emigrate, which many can’t…

  • wangkon936

    There was once a refuge from Vietnam (the reunified communist country) that worked washing dishes in a restaurant in America. He was also frustrated at his life in America. In Vietnam he was a pampered student and not use to hard work. He was upset that there wasn’t an “iron rice bowl” in America and he had to start from the bottom-up. He eventually defected back to Vietnam.

    His American boss said, “Listen America doesn’t guarantee you happiness but the potential or pursuit of happiness. You have to work for it. You have to earn it.” It would seem like this Gyoon Heo has a similar mindset as this Vietnamese political refugee.

    • michaelu

      Many, many, many people in Korea work very hard and don’t “make it.” Those that don’t “make it” often feel the need to “act as if” they have made it to keep up appearances–to avoid outright ostracism. Not “making it” is far more frequently perceived as a moral failure than of bad timing, bad luck, or not meeting the “right” person or having the “right” TOEIC score. These are far more frequently the determiners of success, not hard work. The writer here is a student saying “hey, look at this.” If you don’t want to look, don’t look. No need for ad hominem attacks.

  • This an interesting viewpoint, Even though what you say about capitalism is true, in South korea it is at an extreme level. if you visit other countries, like India for example – there isnt so much pressure in being a consumerist or even a ‘looks’ oriented society and to do what the society says. Thought provoking article.

    • Yorgos

      You’re right. While their are issues of consumerism and superficiality in all modern cultures- it seems to me how close the mainstream is to ” pre modernism” that determines the level of obsessive conformity. This seems especially true in societies with absolute hierarchies like Korea and China. I can’t speak to India. In that sense it would seem the issue is ” Korean culture” and “modern culture ” not finding a happy coexisting median.

  • nysaehee

    This is such a simple view of it all, and I expected far more nuance from this site. Not all capitalistic societies are the same, first of all. You seem to take for granted that it’s really capitalism that makes us feel enslaved and unhappy, that brings about the “decimation of the human soul.” Who knew, Voldemort should have used The Wealth of Nations as one of his horcruxes. And what, the average North Korean family might not get to go on holiday on the French Riviera, but at least their souls are in tact and their hearts pure? You’re telling a fairy tale, in the key of hyperbole.

    The real story would say not just that South Korea is a capitalistic society, but also a collective society that places an uncountable importance on cultural conformity. It would acknowledge that Koreans value “yeolsimhee” not just since the relatively recent age of capitalism but from the age old teachings of Confucius, which preach a steadfast work ethic and competence in whatever the task before you.

    It would acknowledge that the modern Korean’s motivation to work themselves to misery and even death is not disconnected from the fact that 30 or so years ago South Korea was an unrecognizably poorer country on the mere margins of the world stage. It would acknowledge that because we are such a traditionally collective culture, at least subconsciously we may work so hard so that we can finally say not just that I’ve personally risen in the ranks, but that my country has as well. The hot-blooded nationalism Koreans are famous for is evidence of how important the nation’s “face” remains to modern Koreans. If we are “enslaved” to our roles, whatever that role is, it is in part because staying in our roles is a very old Korean tradition.

    It might even acknowledge that while South Korea’s star has indeed started to rise, we still remain a shockingly repressed kind of society where mental illnesses like clinical depression are written off as just the natural consequence of living under capitalism.

    The author claims that “the ideology of profit maximisation breeds no purpose but endless desire and consumption for the sake of consumption,” but frankly, this is bullshit. Is being a richer, better-off country (in whatever measurable ways a nation can aspire to) a purposeless pursuit? We drove ourselves to consume more because we needed to consume more. Or should we be nostalgic for that South Korea of decades ago? There’s a way to voice concern over the potential pitfalls of Korea’s globalization without resorting to these kinds of extremes.

    I mean, if you’re going to talk about the cult of capitalism which Korea has readily embraced, why wouldn’t you talk a little about HOW we supposedly got here, mug of kool-aid in hand? Why don’t you think it’s important to examine why Koreans have become so enamored of the ability to consume? Or is it only important that we simply stop doing what we were doing, with no awareness of how we got to be shopping mall zombies?

    This reads like a well-meaning high school manifesto. And here it is–the one simple trick to make us all existentially happier!

    • michaelu

      Unfair, unfair. Did the author suggest an “simple trick” to make people happier? No. Was he setting out to demonstrate how the ROK got to where it is? No. All he seems to have wanted to do was to point to a darker side of the current culture in the country. Do I agree with everything he wrote? No, but this dark side of the “cult of capitalism” can be a real thing if not coupled with compassion. Let’s face it–not everyone can be a “success” in capitalistic terms. It’s not possible. Capitalism by its nature requires a working class, who will of necessity be less well-off than the “higher” classes. This must be true, or else goods could not be produced at a cost where it is affordable. Workers somewhere must make a pittance and/or work long hours. Now, in a society where the only measuring stick is “material success,” what does that do to the class of workers? It dehumanizes them. What effect does this have on the consumers, who have to show their success in material ways in order to “look better”? Especially in a society where nearly every relationship, every transaction, is carried out in terms of there being a “senior” and a “junior”? A “better” and a “lesser”? And where to “not play the game” instantly puts you at the inferior position in all of these relationships? Well, people compete in order to compete. Consume in order to consume. With no real purpose other than to demonstrate that they can. Now, does that disturb you? Maybe it should, I don’t know. Maybe not. But if you can honestly look around and then tell me this isn’t what you see, I have no idea what to tell you. Is Korea the only place where this is true? Don’t be silly; of course it’s not. But the household debt numbers and the plastic surgery numbers, and the suicide rate numbers don’t lie.

  • Kyle Melder

    As a Korean-American, I remember coming to the Republic of Korea for the first time and loving it at first. Three years later, I see this. Everyone is forced to ‘fit-in’ and they have to have a degree. However, most Koreans I talk to also notice this and despritally want to change it, or leave the country.

    Even though the RoK says it’s free, and open criticism of the government is welcome, the go out of their way to shut down dissidents. I’ll see a group of people talking about the harsh conditions in one of Korea’s huge companies (Korea seems to truly be run by these corporations. You know, Samsung, LG, Lotte, SK, etc…) only to quickly be surrounded by the police, then beat down. Every. Day. It’s insane.

    It’s made me more thankful that I was able to be born in the U.S.A. instead of here. In the U.S.A., we are taught to not take freedoms and rights for granted, and that they are worth fighting for. I know that recently things have come to light, but that is good. Every country is doing things like this, but Americans feel the need to fight it and bring it to light.

  • NYCrean

    Nice. Well written. Thought provoking. I lived in USA for almost my entire life. SK is more nakedly materialistic it seems. It may be part of the Korean DNA – to compete, to better, and of course to konsume. (Among the Asians in USA I would say that Korean people rank among the top in materialism, and I dont say that to be disrespectful or denigrating.) BTW, animal farm is here in USA as well. Its much more subtle and nuanced. The 1984 Orwell is real. Your different perspective on SK is due to your ability to see these things from outside. But, there are lot more layers. Capitalism and democracy does not equate with freedom. Cheers.

  • Cody Rose

    I lived in Korea for 2 years. My observation is that it is not capitalism which oppresses the people, in fact SK is not really capitalist in the sense of free trade and private property, but more a fascist or corporatist state where some degree of trade is allowed but all the important services are monopolized by those who have license from the government to provide them. But the real oppressive force in SK, like in so many other places in the world, is the parenting and the education. They absolutely fear and distrust their children, and feel this hysteria to constantly watch over them, tell them what to do and what not to do, mold them into the right kind of people, as if children are broken adults who need to be fixed. But the truth is that this mentality breeds adults who are really broken children inside. I really appreciate your courage in defecting and in talking about this in your culture and writing this article. I ask you to look to childhood as the source of cultural ills, and I hope that if you have children you raise them to be free thinking.