The Committee to Support Journalist website (www.cpj.org) lists North Korea as the second most censored country. North Korea’s political history since Japan’s surrender ending World War II, with its effort to become an independent nation, has created a culture which is incredibly censored. Like the familiar novel 1984, for over thirty years North Korea’s government’s systemic manipulation of its citizens and self-imposed isolation has successfully kept many North Koreans unaware of what actually happens inside and beyond their country’s borders. While there is evidence of more citizens illegally obtaining non-censored material, the fact that North Korea remains so high on the censored list indicates there is still much to be done.
Dystopia is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives” (Meriam-Webster 2015). George Orwell’s novel 1984 is categorized in the dystopian genre of literature. However, in both Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea and Andrei Lankov’s book The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, North Korea is compared to Orwell’s 1984 repeatedly (see, for example: Demick 2009:11; Lankov 2013:45, 61). While reading 1984, the reader understands the story is an imagined place with imagined situations. North Korea is not an imagined place and the real situation inside its borders eerily resembles 1984. Demick was able to capture four former North Korean’s thoughts on how this actually happens. Lankov, as a Russian, provides a detailed history of the current North Korean regime. Between the two, we can see the effect and role censorship plays in North Korea.
North Korea is located on the northern half of the Korean peninsula which has a history of close to one thousand years (Song MinJi 2015, personal interview). Most recently Japan invaded and ruled this peninsula from the 1910’s until their ouster as part of their surrender which ended World War II. With the removal of Japan, Korea felt they would finally regain control of their country. To simplify the description of the ensuing events, it was not theirs to decide. The emerging Cold War world powers divided Korea into two countries, this taking place thousands of miles away, consulting neither Koreans nor their history. As a result, South Korea’s government became aligned with the United States and its allies, and North Korea aligned themselves with the Communist bloc countries of The Soviet Union and China, often playing the two against each other. After a failed attempt by North Korea to recapture South Korea and thus reunite Korea, the 38th parallel was reinforced, barring movement between the two parts of Korea in 1953. As a Soviet client state, Kim Il Sung, the new leader of North Korea, sought to create a nation that was independent and enviable.
Creating social structure similar to a caste system (Lankov 2013:41) and other social restrictions, North Korean’s government sought to control and socialize every part of the North Korean citizen’s life. Challengers were aware they and their immediate families would face discrimination for years. Not many were willing to risk their futures, and far fewer were willing to risk the futures of their families, which would have included generations yet to be born. In addition, North Korea began creating extreme isolation policies around 1960 to shield North Koreans from being influenced by their southern brothers and other liberal ideas. As time passed, so did the gap between the two Koreas, reinforcing the need to keep North Koreans isolated. (Lankov 2013:43).
This isolation was accomplished through several state regulations. Since 1960, North Korea has banned the use of all tunable radios. All radios purchased in North Korea have a preset ability to tune only the few official North Korean radio stations. If a radio is purchased outside of North Korea, which is legal, it must be immediately turned over to the police who will disable the tuning mechanism, rendering it capable of only transmitting the approved stations. All radios are sealed and checked often during random household raids. The control of these radios controls the ability of North Korean’s to access foreign radio of any kind. In addition to radio, books were targeted in the late 1960’s. Privately owned foreign books were destroyed. The libraries keep foreign material in special collections, accessible only by those who have special clearance. Of note, other communist country’s books were equally banned.
In addition to media, contact with any foreigner, which also includes relatives or friends in South Korea, is illegal and extremely dangerous. Even if a North Korean would desire to have contact with someone outside of the country, the lack of telephone and internet service would make this difficult. Crossing the heavily armed and guarded border between the two countries is impossible. One of the reasons North Korea is listed so high on the censored list is its treatment of foreigners. Rarely is a foreigner, especially a western one, granted permission to enter the country. If granted entrance, the foreigner is shown only pre-approved staged areas of North Korea open for foreign viewing. A journalist is provided two minders. Both North Korean minders will accompany the foreign journalist at all times. Two minders are required to reduce the chance of one being bribed.
One of the most shocking correlations between 1984 and North Korea is its penchant for not only isolating itself from outside influence but also rewriting its history, including official publications of past years. Magazines and newspapers are not available for the common North Korean citizen. North Korea’s leader extolled Soviet ideologies in decades past but has since distanced himself from such ideologies. Those periodicals would have contained speeches and headlines regarding the former allegiance have disappeared from public circulation. The official history books of North Korea have removed mention of Kim Il Sung’s birth place, which was in Russia, and his activity in the Soviet army away from Korean soil.
Another similarity to 1984 is the constant bombardment of government positive propaganda which North Korean citizens are subjected to. North Koreans are only able to access state TV stations which provide continual videos reflecting the virtues of the North Korean state and its ability to provide for its citizens. Newscasts report malady from around the world but particularly focus on South Korea. South Korea is often portrayed as a destitute American – those disgusting Yankees – colony, “a land without light, a land without air” (Lankov 2013:58). In contrast, China is portrayed as the happiest in the world with North Korea a very close second.
While many characters in 1984 seem to accept the situation as normal, the informed reader has a hard time imagining it so. Are they blind? However, Demick and Lankov both relate stories and situations in which an overwhelming number North Koreans believe what they are told. They have no reason to doubt because, for the most part, prior to a famine in the 1990’s, North Korea, supported financially by both Russia and China, maintained a somewhat viable, if state-owned, economy.
As North Korea has suffered financially due to its inability to support itself, the people have become increasingly dehumanized and, thus, skeptical of its government and its leaders. In response, there are more and more common citizens seeking and obtaining media from outside North Korea’s borders. Unapproved music and movies from South Korea are smuggled in and played on approved DVD players. When first exposed to foreign media, many North Koreans do not believe them to be real. While watching the North Korean propaganda, they know that the visions on the film do not reflect the realties of North Korea but are just perfect stage sets created by the government. While watching South Korean films, initially North Koreans assume the nice homes depicted are sets as well. It is only after seeing panoramic scenic views they realize the South Korean reality. Just as feared, this breakdown in isolationism and exposure to foreign ideas has started to crumble the control of the North Korean government over its citizens.
Written in 1949, 1984 was a warning about a distant year and an imagined situation. George Orwell could not have known the dystopian culture he wrote about would actually become a reality in the 1960’s and last several years past 1984. North Korea continues to be one of the most censored countries in the world. Seeking to control its citizens in an effort to become a self-sustaining nation, the North Korean government deemed propaganda and isolationism, among many other social controls, to be the best avenues to accomplish this task. While effective for several decades, the inability for the government to reach utopia through such strict control has exposed themselves to mounting discord. Outsiders hope this falter in the government will lead to the demise of censorship in North Korea.
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