Suki Kim will be on The Daily Show tonight

More on that here. In a separate interview, Ms. Kim says that “North Koreans are so oblivious of the outside world that even some children of elite families believe that Korean is spoken in the rest of the world.”

“They, first of all, didn’t know anything about the rest of the world. If any of them did, they were fearful to admit that,” Kim said. “Some of the students really thought people spoke Korean in the rest of the world. So the utter, utter lack of information was astounding.” [….]

She said the students, many of them majoring in computer science, did not know of the existence of the Internet.

Kim said she was shocked to see how isolated the North Korean people are from the outside world, how much their lives are controlled by authorities, and how strong a personality cult surrounded the ruling family of then leader Kim Jong-il.

“It’s religious, really. Absolute belief in the great leader, where, you know, this generation — three generations of these men who, these hugely narcissistic men, basically wiped everything out of their culture except themselves. [Yonhap]

Which, frankly, I found surprising, given the amount and extent of subversive information, foreign DVDs, and samizdat literature said to be circulating there, even among the very same demographic:

A series of books considered “subversive” in North Korea have recently been circulating in black markets, with people renting them out at a fixed price, the Daily NK has learned. The books are only lent to those whose identities can be verified and the main clientele–university students–rent out the books for 3,000 KPW an hour, according to a local source. [….]

“The people who first established a black market for books used to be mainly writers, journalists, and teachers, but now, they’re university students,” the source explained. “Most books are translated and printed by students studying foreign languages.”

These students are largely the children of Party cadres, who use their parents’ influence to get traders to bring in foreign literature. After procuring the titles, students make copies of these translations to sell on the black market using copying facilities located in public institutions. [….]

“College students are used to the culture of watching over each other, so they enjoy detective stories to try to understand the social fabric of the North– where you can’t even trust your own friends,” she elaborated. “A lot of the ‘Japanese novels’ are crime stories investigating cases involving serial killers.”

Elements of the works resonate with most who enjoy reading them, “Looking at the rocky relationship between individuals and power, and having to live through complicated times with wisdom and hidden solutions feels so real,” the source said, citing opinions of many students. “It’s like it shows how you have to struggle to survive in a capitalist society, so it’s interesting,” others have said. [Daily NK]

The actual truth of what North Koreans know must vary dramatically between individuals. Not all people are equally curious or inquisitive. In many cases, as Ms. Kim suggests, the students probably know much more than they’ll admit.

Asked about the prospects for North Koreans to overthrow their government, Ms. Kim gets it exactly right, at least as I see it:

“I don’t know how they’re going to rise up. They can’t even get to the next town without a permission. They don’t have the Internet. They have no way of going there, transportation system. There’s just nothing that connects people,” she said. “So I think it is up to us in the rest of the world to do something where the system is not going to be maintained the same way.”

Update: To contribute to gulag survivor/journalist Kang Cheol Hwan’s campaign to do that, see Dan Bielefeld’s post here.

3 Comments

  1. Look forward to watching this episode–just DVR’d it. Her last quote in your post is interesting–in her book she describes how even children of the elite have no real way of contacting their own parents or their ‘best friends’ nor know where they are on a given day. The truth, even for the elite, seems to be an existence of fear and seclusion and forced dedication to the Kim family.




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  2. I remember when Dianne Sawyer went to North Korea she took a copy of Vogue Magazine and she put it on the desk of one student. The student would barely glance at the cover and quickly put the magazine on another student’s desk. There was not a trace of curiosity on this student’s face. They showed no desire to see what was inside…Imagine a system that can condition young people to not show curiosity. I have a 23-month-old and he is curious about a huge number of things. Imagine what it takes to make people uncurious.




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  3. I saw the episode and got a reminder of why I never watch this show.
    Kim seemed ill at ease and Stewart couldn’t stop trying to play the clown.
    Along with the uproarious laughter from the audience at awkward moments, the effect was off putting.




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