Most of us who have read George Orwell’s 1984 finish the disconcerting tale with a sense of relief and maybe an idealistic, “I’m so glad life isn’t really like this.” Orwell’s dystopia may be fiction in the developed world, but there is a place with frightening parallels to the dystopian novel.
Where, in the 21st century, do people live like those in Orwell’s Nation? And how can human rights violations reminiscent of those that Adolf Hitler commanded take place under the developed world’s collective watch? Perhaps unsurprisingly, that cesspool of terror and torture is one of America’s most fearsome adversaries: North Korea.
In the U.S., many of us have long accepted that North Koreans consider us their foe, and hate us for no good reason. We know that their patriotic songs spew vitriol at America; displays of anti-American propaganda are rampant in the streets, and buffeted by the fourth-largest army in the world (despite having a population of under 26 million) they regularly threaten us with nuclear war.
Why does an entire population share the same sentiments towards a country they know nothing about? Therein lies the problem: North Koreans don’t know anything about the world beyond their own borders, or even the realities of the nation in which they live; their government shrouds the truth intentionally to cover up their wrongdoings and the nation’s intense poverty, justify the enormous relative size of their military, and maintain complete power over its people.
How do they do this? It begins with the indoctrination of the most vulnerable: children.
Religion is banned in the country, and children are instead raised to worship the late Kim Il-sung, who was made “president for life” after his death. The country’s Mass Games – an enormous, oft-presented show of love for the nation, hero-worship for its leaders, and, of course, hate of the West – is largely performed by young children who may not know what they are preaching at the time but will grow to blindly accept as does everyone around them. Every home is required to hang posters of Kim Jung-Il and Kim Il-Sung, the two last leaders before Kim Jung-Un, and has a designed government-provided towel whose only allowed use is to shine the visages every morning.
In school, students play with fake weapons and practice attacking America or its people and are taught that Americans. referred to always as “American imperialists,” started the Korean War, lost to the intense might of the military, and remain bitter about it – so much so that the U.S.’s only goal is to kill and rape innocent North Koreans and take over the country. (Children also wear identical uniforms, but not just in school: all citizens are required to stay in uniform and possibly walk in step.)
Despite the facts that 70 percent of North Koreans are labelled “food insecure” and that electricity is so scarce that the whole country is subject to blackouts at any time and is the only nation in the world that goes completely dark at night, kids also learn that everything past their borders is an utter apocalypse swarming with evil, disgruntled Western imperialists.
As they grow up, North Koreans are never exposed to anything that might challenge what they’ve been told. Few citizens own cell phones and none outside of the highest echelons of government have access to the internet. The only media they can consume is run and monitored by the North Korean state itself: one TV channel for those homes lucky enough to be given a television, one state newspaper, and an intranet network that consists only of government-approved North Korean sites. Being caught consuming Western movies or other media was once punishable by death, but now results in sentencing to labor camps that have been compared in severity and depravity to the concentration camps that spelled the doom of so many Jews and other “undesirables” in Nazi Germany.
Other serious crimes include becoming pregnant by a Chinese man – for which the punishment is forced abortion, rape, and/or death – attempting to leave or help someone leave the country, speaking ill of the government or the state, or even being related to or a friend of someone who has committed such a crime. Neighbors and family members are encouraged to spy on each other and report crime suspicions to law enforcement.
North Korea is a terrifying dystopia, an undeniable threat, and ultimate example of why freedom of press and government transparency is so vital to democracy and human rights.