Korean Propoganda promoting Kim Il Sung’s popularity. Picture by Yeowatzup, FlickrYou’re in a foreign country. Water, food, and supplies are rationed. The Government deliberately starves people yet everyone is unquestionably loyal to the political party in power—the only party in power. This may seem like an Orwellian dystopia, but for those living in North Korea, it’s reality.
On April 6th, 2010, Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) and its Dartmouth chapter, the North Korea Project (NKP), hosted a screening of the documentary Inside North Korea. Inside North Korea differs from other documentaries in that it tries to vividly show the lives of North Koreans, albeit only the privileged ones, as opposed to Kim Jong Il’s craziness or the lives of the refugees. Considering the dearth of information about the most secretive nation in the world and its people, a peek into the lives of North Koreans was a rare chance to understand the political situation in North Korea.
But of course, North Korean officials did not grant such a rare chance graciously. In the documentary, Kim Jong Il invites Dr. Sanduck Ruit to treat 1,000 North Koreans suffering from cataracts in order to maintain the loyalty of his people. Ruit, a Nepalese eye surgeon, regularly travels to third-world countries to heal penniless patients. Because North Korea is hostile to foreigners entering the country, especially American journalists, National Geographic Explorer host Lisa Ling accompanies Dr. Ruit into North Korea disguised as a member of his medical team. Six North Korean officials accompanied Lisa Ling and her cameraman, escorting Ling, Ruit, and their crew from Kathmandu, Nepal to Pyongyang, North Korea and back. Any suspicious activity endangered the entire medical team.
Despite the constant supervision of the officials, the footage Ling and her cameraman filmed officials is nothing short of shocking. Ling paid particular attention to the extent in which North Koreans were brainwashed to believe in the greatness of their Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. Ling’s cameraman was almost kicked out of North Korea when he lay down to get a single shot of the 82-feet statue of Kim Il Sung. The officials warned in rage that no human being is worthy to take a picture of the Great Leader while lying down.
In another scene, the officials allowed Ling to visit one of Dr. Ruit’s patients, a privileged North Korean citizen. But in the house, Ling didn’t find family photos or pictures of beautiful landscapes. Instead, numerous portraits of the Dear Leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung decorated the walls. Ling asked the family members a few questions about Kim Jong Il. When asked what the hardest part of being blind was, the patient replied without hesitation that her blindness prevented her from admiring portraits of the Great Leader. When Ling asked what were the origins of North Korea’s willingness to stand apart from the entire world, one family member replied, “Our unity is stronger than nuclear weapons, and we serve the greatest leader in the world.” Finally, Ling inquired whether Dear Leader Kim Jong Il could ever be wrong. The family responded with confusion. They genuinely could not grasp the idea of their Dear Leader ever making a mistake or doing something wrong.
The most shocking part of the documentary came towards the end. All 1,000 patients were waiting in an enormous room with a large portrait of each Dear Leader. They had all finished their surgeries in the past week, and waited for Ruit to take the bandages off their eyes and bring light back into their worlds. Ruit walked up to each patient, greeted him or her warmly, and took off the bandages. What ensued was a scene not witnessed in even the most extreme personality cults. Each patient determinedly walked up to the portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, bowed to them, and delivered a brief speech vowing to dedicate his or her life to the well-being of the Dear Leader and vanquish all enemies of Kim Jong Il, including Americans. After each speech, a thunderous roar of applause and cheer followed. Many in the crowd were moved to tears. I couldn’t help recalling George Orwell’s 1984 and Winston Smith’s four last words: “He loved Big Brother.”
Is North Korea a brutal dictatorship? Perhaps. When we normally think of North Korea, we naively conjure up the image of an insane Kim Jong Il oppressing poor, starving people. But Inside North Korea shows that it’s more than just that—Kim Jong Il brainwashes his citizens in order to further his political agenda. He intends to be worshipped as God. It’s hard to imagine an entire population of a state worshiping and defending an individual, especially in America where extreme, blind loyalty to anything is feared and frowned upon. But the message of Inside North Korea is clear: there are millions of people who now genuinely believe in the North Korean political system and are ready to defend the system with their lives. Due to this devotion there is the possibility, often overlooked, that the self-sustaining system of North Korea may continue even after the death of Kim Jong Il.
This message sounds obvious, but it isn’t—the way our governments normally approach North Korea is through unsuccessful attempts at sanctions or coercion through the United Nations. North Korea occasionally or temporarily yields to our demands depending on its needs and wants, but soon reverts back to threatening to test missiles. Of course, I’m not saying that our government is not doing anything productive, but we should also make efforts for longer lasting change in North Korea. And to bring about that long-lasting change, we need a bottom-up, grassroots movement that can change not just Kim Jong Il and his co-conspirators, but also the brainwashed cataract patients whose only wish is to open their eyes up and admire the portrait of Kim Jong Il. That means we need more people like Dr. Ruit who are willing to reach out to North Korea through their expertise and directly interact with North Koreans. We need more Lisa Lings who are willing to venture into North Korea and bring to the outside world more information about what really is going on there, so that we can plan our actions. In order to make this happen, we should take North Korea more seriously than simply giving it an indifferent glance while reading newspapers over morning coffee. We should care.