A few weeks ago, I read The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan. I do recommend it, as it was a powerful and perceptive personal account by a man sent to the camps for eight years when just nine years old. The boy did nothing wrong: the standard policy was to send three generations of relatives to the camps with the offender for any political crimes. In his case, his well-placed grandfather was the wrongdoer, guilty of too loudly criticizing some in the food distribution system he managed.
Although The Aquariums isn’t deeply philosophical, the author’s recounted experiences and general observations do often integrate well with the Objectivist view of the moral, psychological, economic, and political effects of totalitarianism.
For example, in speaking of the total seclusion of his camp (Yodok) from the outside world, he writes:
Our isolation seemed almost normal to us. We also knew that isolation was a feeling shared by prisoners everywhere, throughout the ages. Yet unlike in many prisons, we were not allowed to receive packages. (I didn’t receive a single package during my entire stay.) The feeling of being isolated in the very place where I lived, to the point of not knowing who else was there or even where the camp was located, seemed particularly inhumane. It wasn’t just a way of keeping me in the dark about where I was, it was a means of attacking my identity. After a decade in Yodok, my knowledge of the camp boils down to this: of Yodok’s ten villages, four were for redeemables and six were for irredeemables, or political criminals. The latter group lived in a high security zone that was separated from ours by several hills, as well as by rows of barbed wire rolled out along the valley floor.
His point about the degrading effects of total isolation, to the point of attacking his identity, is significant for it points to the importance of the integration of knowledge. Without any contact with or connection to the outside world, a prisoner would feel isolated from everything else that he knew about life — and thus from reality itself. Elsewhere in the book, Kang describes the shocking sight of the dirty, half-starved camp prisoners upon his arrival, then his own gradual physical transformation, and then the shocking appearance of new clean, fat new arrivals to his camp. Just on that basis alone, the camp seemed to exist in a totally different dimension than the world he had known. In fact, the only continuity in this young boy’s life was the presence of his family, albeit not his mother or his grandfather. (His mother remained a communist in good standing, while his “criminal” grandfather was sent to a much worse camp.)
Shortly after reading The Aquariums, I read Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, a lengthy history of communist North Korea under both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. Although the book contained a wealth of information, it was not a consistently reliable source. The author Bradley Martin — who spent some time in North Korea as a journalist over the years — sometimes seemed determined to believe whatever the Korean authorities told him about the happy lives of its citizens, even though he knew that he was being carefully exposed to only certain areas and certain people. Other times, he was very appropriately skeptical about those “official” sources of information. I suspect that he was sympathetic with many of the altruistic and collectivistic ideals of the regime, woefully ignorant of rational economics, and virtually unable to think in principles. (There’s a painful example of that in the quote below.)
The book did contain countless fascinating interviews with defectors of all kinds. I was astonished to learn that almost all still revere Kim Il-Sung, particularly for his (exaggerated) role in liberating Korea from the Japanese. The fact that he did so in order to enslave the country by totalitarian communist dictatorship isn’t so significant, apparently. From what I gathered, that persistent reverence is largely a result of the careful indoctrination of children from a very young age into the cult-worship of the Kims. As Mr. Martin describes it:
The basis of the [state] system [of education and indoctrination] was composed of nurseries followed by compulsory education from kindergarten through tenth grade. Matriculation came when a baby, only a few weeks old, was sent to a nursery at the mother’s workplace. The children would stay there from early morning until late evening. The mothers were permitted breaks from their work to feed them. After regular classes, the state kept school-aged youngsters busy with supervised activities. Youngsters might end up spending only an hour or two a day with their parents, if that much. [Yikes! Here it comes!] North Korea had been one of the first Asian countries to extend free public education as far as grade ten, and that in itself was an undeniably impressive accomplishment. As a Westerner, though, I could not help finding a sinister aspect to the system’s near monopoly on children’s upbringing and the direction in which it guided them.
I visited a Pyongyang weekly boarding nursery, whose tiny charges spend only Saturday nights and Sundays with their families. The director said enthusiastically that they “grow faster and learn more than if they were at home.” Meanwhile, tots in her nursery competed in a relay race to see which of two teams could be first to complete sentences such as “We are happy” and “We have nothing to envy in the world.” Two-year-olds in the showplace nursery were counting apples displayed in a visual aid: “These are four apples and one more makes five.” In a room decorated with models of President Kim’s birthplace, little ones shows the proper attitude to the Great Leader by reciting stories of his childhood and bowing before his boyhood portrait. By the time the children reached kindergarten age, they would have learned to say, when they received their snacks, “Thank you, Great Fatherly Leader.” (166)
After indoctrination into the mystical worship of the Kims and the altruism and collectivism of communism via the state educational system, young men are sent to the army for ten years. During those years, outside contact — even with family — is forbidden.
In a critical 1971 speech, Kim Il-Sung said that North Korean children must be taught to “reject individualism and selfishness, love the organization and the collective, and struggle devotedly for the same of society and the theory and the party and the revolution” (167) The author then writes:
I saw just how seriously North Koreans took that struggle for uniformity and against individualism when I went to the Taedongmung Primary School in Pyongyang. Teachers in classrooms I visited were posing questions to classes studying, variously, birds, evaporation and the revolutionary deeds of President Kim. Upon hearing each question, the pupils, sitting perfectly erect and still at their desks, all raised their hands, barked in unison, “Me!” and then instantly fell quiet again. Whenever any pupil was called upon, he or she marched to the front of the room, stood at attention and shouted our the memorized answer in a high-pitched monotone like the one used by West Point plebes to address upperclass cadets. Among the pupils who were not called upon, no one stirred; no one whispered.
That was likely a staged performance, but it nonetheless indicates the thoroughly collectivist ideal of North Korea’s educational system. Perhaps more amazingly, the North Koreans are proud of such demonstrations, almost totally unaware that people from more-or-less free countries find them creepy, if not repugnant.
Perhaps the single most revealing account of life in North Korea was found in Chapter 22, which concerned the North Koreans who volunteered for logging jobs in the bitter sub-zero cold of Siberia, Russia. Logging in Siberia wasn’t exactly a coveted job for the Russians, but North Koreans regarded such work was highly desirable, volunteering for it in droves. Even though the North Korean government took two-thirds of the income, the jobs still earned about fifteen times more than work in North Korea.
For many North Koreans, the experience of life in the significantly freer [!] and wealthier [!] Soviet Russia encouraged them to defect. They realized that the whole world didn’t worship Great Leader Kim, as they had been taught, when the Russians made fun of their Kim Il-Sung portrait badges and other forms of cult-worship. They marveled at the Russian stores, so well-stocked with food and supplies. The North Korean officials had to forbid its workers from watching Russian television, since that offered some modicum of truth about the abject poverty of North Korea compared to South Korea. The North Koreas also saw that the Russians has cinemas, discos, and other forms of entertainment unheard of in North Korea. Although most logging workers returned to North Korea, many defectors did come through those logging camps. Similarly, many North Korean students studying abroad in other communist countries defected after gaining some basic facts about the actual state of the world.
On occasion, I hear people arguing that poor, young Americans growing up in urban ghettos aren’t responsible for their choices. “They don’t know any better. They’ve never known any other kind of life” — or so the argument goes. That’s obviously false on its face, given that the alternatives can be seen all around, including in cheap and/or free movies, books, and television. Even just walking a few blocks or talking to the neighborhood grocer can be very instructive. However, the contrasting case of North Korea is helpful for understanding this point, in that it shows just how much isolation is required for a person to be truly, hopelessly, and innocently ignorant of critical facts about alternative ways of living. And even still, many people do manage to see enough to question their years of indoctrination.