According to an envoy I met in a park in Pyongyang, there is one informant for every three citizens in the DPRK. To put that penetration into perspective, the East German Stasi, one of the most pervasive police organizations in history, boasted one informant for every ten citizens. Some experts dispute this figure—naturally, given the astounding implications—but the familiarity of its source with state espionage gave me pause.
Before I traveled to the DPRK, I was told that I would encounter normal citizens, and then I would encounter actors playing normal citizens, and that the obvious distinction would be part of North Korea’s entertainment value. That duplicity seemed to hold up when James Bond Villain probed us about our jobs—asking Jordan, at one point, how many people he has “influence over in your country”—an exchange that might have been genuinely motivated but never quite felt like innocent conversation. The porcelain face, in contrast, reversed my suspicions. Her genuine curiosity about life in America and our impromptu English lessons on the bus resulted in a moving exchange and her crowning achievement: “You’re so money, and you don’t even know it.”
Then I learned that each week North Koreans are required to complete detailed write-ups of their observations, their concerns, even their own shortcomings. That’s when I realized that everyone in the DPRK is, in some sense, an extension and a reflection of the state. The boundary between genuine and calculated, actor and citizen, is—or at least feels—much thinner in North Korea. A model family, whose conspicuously charming flat was the only one we were invited into, made me wonder whether I was in fact in the presence of a real nuclear family spontaneously entertaining visitors.
That institutional paranoia has instilled a fear so deep that revolution seems impossible. But there is always a crack where the light shines through. After all, I had left for Pyongyang just as the smiling faces of Tripoli held up the severed head of Gaddafi’s gilded statue. Surely there must be a few brave souls to lead the DPRK revolution as well.
There appear to be none. The reasons are several: economic, cultural, technical and psychological. First, North Korea’s extreme privation keeps people weak and desperate. That explains some of the lethargy, but begs the question: Aren’t hungry people motivated? That impulse is checked by a deep cultural instinct: deference to authority, a pillar of the country’s Confucianism. The predisposition to obedience helps explain the country’s Stockholm Syndrome on a mass scale. The cult of personality in North Korea is unparalleled, and its grip over the country, reinforced by propaganda and time, has made most citizens automatonlike devotees. The DPRK’s information policy secures that result. State-run media maintain that the world is conspiring at every turn to destroy the DPRK, that war is imminent, that the U.S. is both occupying and seducing its southern half in a vicious game of nationalistic chess. (Remember the critical role that a perpetual external threat plays in a dictatorship.) Without access to the Internet, citizens have no other references — and none of the tools of organized resistance that proved invaluable in the Middle East. If those factors do not keep the populace quiet, there is that one universal deterrent: primal, brutish, deep-rooted fear. Anyone who engages in anything remotely illegal faces ghastly punishments that could take many excruciating forms. The renegade citizens who have escaped the country, taken secret footage to capture the horror, or resisted the regime in any way are incredibly rare. Given the punishments they face, imagine their bravery.
Instead, I discovered another form of resistance in North Korea’s secret pockets of entrepreneurship. A restaurateur who managed to open a second location—approved, of course, by the department of statistics, where the porcelain face once analyzed traffic flow in and out of each establishment to gauge demand—also bought a boat that sits lazily on the Taedong, not far from the captured U.S.S. Pueblo. Another local I met, a sharp kid who loves Anne Hathaway, confided that he sells Chinese goods to locals for a healthy profit. He didn’t know what to do with his earnings except buy a little extra food and treat himself to a round of bowling, alone. These examples of modest ingenuity confirm that the human mind hungers for the self-expression and opportunity of a free market. That is an encouraging sign, to be sure.
Another local confided his nightly routine. After dinner, he logs onto the intranet, a shoddy closed-loop network that connects certain Korean servers together, and plays a version of Counter-Strike with other anonymous gamers. An RPG badass, he boasted about meeting up with his female opponents in cafes in Pyongyang, the closest thing to online dating in North Korea. The women, he complained, left something to be desired. “So fat. So ugly!” That, Jordan pointed out, is one thing North Korea shares in common with the U.S.
“Would you like to play Counter-Strike with Americans?” I asked him.
“Oh my god, yes!”
“So why does North Korea not allow the Internet? You seem to really like it.”
“Ahhh no,” he snapped. “Live and work is very important. Not playing. Bad for children.”
“What about adults?”
“Ahhh yes better for adults. But when I was a child I hated to study and all I wanted was play and this would be bad, very bad, for our children.” He was deadpan now.
“What about not playing? What about research for school, for example?” In my head a Wikipedia page flashed.
“Yes, research very good,” he responded.
“Do you learn about American history?”
“Yes, Revolutionary War, very interesting.”
“Who do you think was right in the Revolutionary War, the British or the Americans?” I asked.
“The Americans, of course.”
“Because it is not fair to tax the Americans and not help them.”
This was blowing my mind. I was dying to draw the obvious parallel with the country we were driving through—a parallel even more immediate than the Japanese occupation, which is still a painful memory—but I wasn’t sure for whose benefit that conversation would be. James Bond Villain had now taken a seat nearby, presumably to listen in on a conversation that was quickly becoming a liability.
“You know a lot about history,” I offered. “Shouldn’t other people also learn by using the Internet?”
“Not possible. Koreans very proud of our culture. We want to protect ourselves. From infiltrating our culture by other countries.”
There it was. He seemed mildly embarrassed, but he continued.
“America is very different. In America, you have gays and l-lesbians, yes?”
“Yes, we do,” I replied.
“In Korea this is very strange for us. We don’t have this here. Me, I am very scared of gays.”
Korea did not build the Internet because it is too expensive,” he explained. “We must to build homes, provide food and tradition.”
I looked at the Brobdingnagian monuments outside and thought of the colossal infrastructure required to run a regime like the DPRK. All of it mocked his argument that the Internet is a question of cost.
“God wants to give people food and housing. Air also very important. Fresh air is normal in North Korea.”
Everyone was listening now to his rant. His voice was shaking, his eyes darting.
“You have short hair.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Hahaha! But he has long hair,” he said, pointing to a friend in our group with thick blonde hair.
“Long hair is a pain,” our friend chimed in.
“Yes,” sighed the boy. “But it is very awesome.”
Then he took my iPod and watched Dumb and Dumber, grinning at Jim Carrey in silence.
These unscripted ramblings reveal that the North Korean mind is far more curious and for more aware than it seems.
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