Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

An interesting look at North Korea

I have always been fascinated by totalitarian dictatorships, not because I want to live in one – perish the thought! – but because the games the leaders play with reality to keep the population in line are just so fascinating.

Many years ago, I read a book, “The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the 20th Century,” by Zbigniew Brzezinski. Written in 1990, the book noted that the Soviet Union and its system was basically doomed because it (and its system) would not be able to change to adapt to the changing world being brought about by democratic powers in the world like the United States.

Probably the biggest failure of the communist system, I believe, was that it just could not keep information about the larger world from seeping into the supposedly closed societies of the Warsaw Pact nations. When their people found out how the people in the West were living, efforts to emulate that kind of life and keep the populace under control were increasingly ineffective without massive repression.

For example, trying to limit the influence of rock music was done by creating communist rock bands. Look, the Beatles are the Beatles, and The Who is The Who, and no one is going to accept a government substitute.

The demise of the Soviet system today is viewed by some as basically cultural imperialism by the West as for-profit enterprises invaded the former Iron Curtain countries and turned things upside down for them and their populations.

So in a book I recently read I found it fascinating to see how North Korea is trying to enter the modern technological era, without actually entering it. In “Without You There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite,” Suki Kim tells about life in a totalitarian regime that didn’t fall when the Soviet Union and other communist dictatorships fell.

I’ve read other books about how people have fled North Korea and shared their perspective on life there, but this one was fascinating because amid the repression and the efforts of the government to limit information, there is an effort to educate some people on computer technology and the Internet.

Kim notes that the students, all boys and all sons of the elite of North Korea, are not only comically misinformed about the situation in the West, but even their cultural knowledge is very deficient and seriously outdated. For example, they love basketball but their American basketball hero is not LeBron James but Michael Jordan, who has not played a game in many years. They’ve heard of Bill Gates but not Steve Jobs.

One woman, a fellow teacher of Kim’s, finally cracks her façade one day and tells the author in frustration that while the boys are supposedly graduate students in computer science, her 9-year-old daughter knows more about computers and the Internet than they do.

Kim interprets the system as designed to keep even the North Korean elite in thrall to the Leader, even if they appear naïve and silly to outsiders.

Technology that we take for granted, like iPhones and Skype and so much more, is viewed when it’s revealed to these boys as almost miracles.

Kim at one point starts using the lit-up New York City skyline as a screen saver, and discreetly tries to show her students – most of whom adore her – that there is a much larger world out there, and it’s much different from what they’ve learned before.

She feels a lot of sadness as she tries to break through and tell the boys that their country is not an innovator of anything, but mostly a laughing-stock despite the many threats aimed at both South Korea and the United States.

I still wonder how North Korea manages to keep going, with a leadership that deludes the population and has to use threats and intimidation to keep them down.

But the hope I saw is that even amid all that, the people have a hunger for knowledge. Secret laptops, TV, DVDs and thumb drives bring the outside world in, and the word is getting around that the outside world is far different from what the Great Leader says it is, and that things can be different.


August 2, 2015 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Politics | , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Reblogged this on Legationes.

    Comment by Gennaro | August 3, 2015 | Reply

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