Suki Kim is a woman with an experience worth reading about. She must be one of a handful of outsiders to have lived and worked in North Korea whilst having regular contact with reasonably ordinary locals
“Essay” was a much-dreaded word among my students. It was the fall of 2011, and I was teaching English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea. Two hundred and seventy young men, and about 30 teachers, all Christian evangelicals besides me, were isolated together in a guarded compound, where our classes and movements were watched round the clock. Each lesson had to be approved by a group of North Korean staff known to us as the “counterparts.” Hoping to slip in information about the outside world, which we were not allowed to discuss, I had devised a lesson on essay writing, and it had been approved.
I had told my students that the essay would be as important as the final exam in calculating their grade for the semester, and they were very stressed. They were supposed to come up with their own topic and hand in a thesis and outline. When I asked them how it was going, they would sigh and say, “Disaster.”
I emphasized the importance of essays since, as scientists, they would one day have to write papers to prove their theories. But in reality, nothing was ever proven in their world, since everything was at the whim of the Great Leader. Their writing skills were as stunted as their research skills. Writing inevitably consisted of an endless repetition of his achievements, none of which was ever verified, since they lacked the concept of backing up a claim with evidence. A quick look at the articles in the daily paper revealed the exact same tone from start to finish, with neither progression nor pacing. There was no beginning and no end.
However, when she did manage to get them writing things did not necessarily improve:
When I had them write a paragraph about kimjang (the annual kimchi-making tradition), I was handed a pile of preachy, self-righteous tirades. Almost half the students claimed that kimchi was the most famous food in the world, and that all other nations were envious of it. One student wrote that the American government had named it the official food of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. When I questioned him, he said everyone knew this fact, and that he could even prove it since his Korean textbook said so. A quick Internet search revealed that a Japanese manufacturer had claimed that kimchi was a Japanese dish and proposed it as an official Olympic food, but had been denied. Somehow this news item had been relayed to them in twisted form and was now treated as general knowledge.
To correct my students on each bit of misinformation was taxing and sometimes meant straying into dangerous territory. Another teacher said, “No way. Don’t touch that. If their book said it was true, you can’t tell them that it’s a lie.”
Sometimes they would ask why I never ate much white rice. They piled their trays with huge heaps of it at every meal, whereas I always put just a little on my tray. I explained that I liked white rice but did not care for it all the time. They asked what kinds of food I ate other than rice and naengmyun, their national dish. I couldn’t exactly go on about fresh fruit smoothies and eggs Benedict, so I named two Western dishes I knew they had heard of: spaghetti and hot dogs. I knew that North Koreans enjoyed their own version of sausage because I had seen them lining up for it at the International Trade Fair. One of the students then wrote in his kimjang homework, “Those Koreans who prefer hot dogs and spaghetti over kimchi bring shame on their motherland by forgetting the superiority of kimchi.” Nothing, it seemed, could break through their belligerent isolation; moreover, this attitude left no room for any argument, since all roads led to just one conclusion. I returned the paper to him with a comment: “Why is it not possible to like both spaghetti and kimchi?”
I read this with interest because my situation is on the surface similar to Kim’s. I am someone from a liberal democracy who has gone to teach in one of the world’s remaining communist countries. Yet my experience in Vietnam is utterly different from her’s in North Korea.
My movements are emphatically not watched ’round the clock’. I can move freely round Vietnam and speak to whomever I wish. I don’t need to have my lesson plans vetted by my boss, let alone anyone from the government or party. And the people I meet have a broadly recognisable view of the outside world. The flow of information to the citizens of Vietnam is not free but it is constrained rather than blocked. The regime blocks websites it considers too threatening but Vietnamese people have access to the bulk of the internet even assuming they don’t use a proxy server to circumvent these restrictions. That’s in addition to all the foreign films, books and TV. And travel in and out of the country is pretty easy for those with the money to do it.
This is not a country that suffers from a lack of propoganda – its most visible in places like museums but I gather there’s plenty in schools too – but I’ve never had my students furiously preach at me. Indeed I notice how depoliticised things are a lot more than I notice political concerns intruding into ordinary life.
This is not to apologise for the Communist Party: the Vietnam pages on the Amnesty International, Transparency International and Freedom House websites make for grim reading. Nonetheless, it is probably true that the differences between life in autocratic Vietnam and totalitarian North Korea are greater than those between that in Vietnam and democracies like Britain, the US or South Korea.
If you don’t directly challenge the continuation of the Party’s rule in Vietnam, you’ll very likely be left to carry on. In North Korea, the Party demands near total control of your life and your induction into the cult of the Kims.
The question this begs for me, and to which I don’t have an answer, is why when every other communist regime has either fallen or reformed has North Korea has remained a Stalinist hell hole?