Daniel Tudor and the other contributors to Ask A North Korean strive to impress the inclusivity of humankind. North Koreans are people, too, with hopes, loves, and disappointments like the rest of us. These gems of humanity shine throughout the collection. But notice, in my previous sentence, I wrote “the rest of us” as opposed to “like everyone on Earth.” I subconsciously did that, but it’s true. There is something unique to the environment of North Korea (generational nutritional deficiency, lack of technology/amenities/news of the outside world, paranoia of informants, pervasive mass brainwashing, and collective lack of self…reflection? introspection? ambition?) that makes them-those living there-fundamentally different from us-anyone not living there.
AANK Blog Origins
“Ask A North Korean” is a column produced by NK News. The site is a rich resource, replete with personal anecdotes (Ask A North Korean, defector survey), news stories/investigation pieces, tools/data (a North Korea leadership tracker), and ways to view North Korean media. Many individuals interviewed said that though they had a nagging suspicion that the popular slogan “Nothing To Envy” (i.e., those in other countries did not have a better life worth envying) was untrue, it was never spoken aloud for fear of an informant catching wind.
Welcome to Un-derland
Did you know North Korea isn’t really Communist anymore? After the catastrophic famines of the 1990’s there was not much The State could do to halt the springing of the market economy. North Koreans had to sell, trade, and barter to acquire food. These days government officials are easily bribed (or rent market spaces themselves!). We’d be surprised at what is available for purchase at these street markets. However, not everyone is prepared for the free market economy. As one defector stated, “With no sense of ownership, no one in North Korea was motivated to work hard, and it became commonplace for people to cut corners in their work.” Another confessed,
In North Korea, where we were told we owned our lives, no one worked as they owned their lives. We were expected to work equally and split the pie equally, so people would think, ‘What will happen even if I don’t do my best at work today?’ Doing my first part-time job in the South made me realize that what we learned in North Korea had become a problem. I realized how hard it was to earn money and why I had to do my best in the job I was given.
These are people who have not made any of the personal decisions that we take for granted. They are told where to work, if they go to college what to major in, where to live (and can be relocated at whim), when and what to celebrate, the list goes on and on. This micromanagement seems to rob a people of a certain spark and perspective vital to the human experience.
Odd And Ends
Sex education is nonexistent in North Korea and abstinence is expected until marriage. Kissing is not shown between characters on North Korean dramas and a girl caught holding hands with her high school paramour would be scandalized. North Koreans really like their alcohol. Electricity only works in North Korea for two hours a day, so even though the very rich may own a TV, they can’t always watch it. In college one studies the lives of The Great Leader and his family like another college student would study Chemistry. An ancient form of shamanism is secretly alive and well in North Korea. Many North Koreans that defect to South Korea feel that they are discriminated against there. The North Korean dictatorship is not going to be able to stop the internet despite their valiant efforts.
So often our impressions of people in other countries can get boiled down into sound bites like “shit hole.” Ask A North Korean is an interesting and refreshing look behind the curtain into a country that remains (and purposely so) unknown to us.
What’s your general impression of North Korea? Comment below! Did you like this review of Ask a North Korean? Please share!