North Korea; what do people think? Jannes H Mulder From YouTube I knew the annual Military Parade in Pyongyang as well as the summer Mass Games in which thousands of North Korean children are involved. Once in Pyongyang my bewilderment changed to mild shock. Speaking to no one, nor truly meeting anyone, we have two weeks of western observation. In this way our group of six, visits a music school with classrooms filled with young children. In each class they play the same instrument: an accordion, guitar, violin, Korean lute and so on. Their playing is asides from being extremely skillful also quite dull, even boring. At the final concert their technique is so extreme that I feel a touch of sympathy. As their performance begins to tire me I reflect on what goes on in the minds of these children. Daily Routines The same questioning of what is going on in the minds of the children also extends to the daily routines I observe. Automatically cyclists dismount in front of the colossal bronze statue of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung (1912-1994). Party leaders at our hotel avoid the carpet placed in front of the painting of the Great Leader. Then ten days later it's my own turn. Somewhere high in the northern part of North Korea, accompanied by two guides, we walk into an enormous square towards the giant statue of Kim Jong Il (1942-2011). Side by side we bow our heads and then I step forward, bowing again to lay flowers at the base. I'm participating in this bizarre ritual partly because I am no longer aware of its excess. The totalitarian presence of Kim has become routine. Returning to our van across the wide road a woman tries to wipe away a puddle of rainwater. In the courtyard of a fertilizer plant I had seen this before. I get used to these stereotypical images, as much as to that of Kim â€“ I get used to the tiny medals with his face on the left lapel of every adult. The countless groups of men and women in all weather conditions who manually maintain the roadsides - I barely notice them anymore. Towards the end of our stay, back in Pyongyang, our group decides to carefully observe how five men, perhaps in their forties, busily repair a bare section of lawn. They sit close together. They do not talk to one another. They are using tweezers to plant grass. What are they thinking about, and how does it happen that adult North Koreans have gone to such extremes ? Closed Communities Rituals are about symbolic actions : attending a wedding ceremony for example or taking a minute's silence at a war memorial. My contention is that rituals sometimes 'deflate '. With â€˜deflation ' the original meaning of the ritual disappears. For example, a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela can 'deflate ' and then Santiago becomes simply an event, a physical achievement, or a photographic experience. There is nothing wrong with that since rituals sometimes are emptied of meaning only to be filled with new 1
symbolic reference. That happened for example to Remembrance of the Dead held annually on May 4 in our country. Those events now often refer to far more than World War II alone. Sometimes the symbolism does completely disappear, resulting in a automatic and completely 'empty' ritual. Our programmed visit to the 38th parallel was such an event. Following all the formalities and red tape the soldiers in parade step edged us between concrete blocks and propaganda bill boards while our van stood twenty feet away, again ready to bring us to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. We also experienced this relentless behavior of the authorities as we checked in for a domestic flight. First in an empty and abandoned military airfield, once again a hall with Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the wall, we waiting after we received the clearly expired tickets and then had to give them straight back. Next the continuous alarm during the body and luggage check, evidently without consequence, and finally the flight attendants in their flashy red uniforms left and right of the steps of our Antonov-24 plane. Everywhere in North Korea, I 'm met with this conduct as well as the somewhat incestuous relationship with both Kims. This social behavior I associate with mysterious clubs and orders, charismatic leaders and with self enforced rules. Such collective behavior exhibits a striking resemblance to the social-psychological behavior found within many closed communities which can range in size from the smallest unit (a family) to a nation of 23 million inhabitants (North Korea). From strictly closed to more open Korea is a peninsula with an ancient civilization constantly threatened by the outside world. The North is a monoculture with signs of prejudice and Kim's state ideology is fully based on self-reliance of the people. The internet is withheld from the population using every means possible. For an answer to my question of 'what 's going on here', and how it is that adult North Koreans go to such extremes, I search for similarities between the North Korean system of indoctrination and smaller closed systems with their own unique ideology. The closed family of years ago in which the traditional father sits at the head of the table carving the meat, is the mildest form of the strictly ruled group of people. Older college fraternities and secret societies like the Freemasons have socialpsychological behavior patterns that match those of North Koreans. Obligatory morality, a sectarian environment, authoritarian house rules, incomprehensible mores, a bizarre etiquette are typical. And finally I draw a parallel between this father (or mother)-land of Kim Il Sung and other monotheistic following. Even within churches and monasteries, the members can do things that are incomprehensible to outsiders. The silent men with their tweezers in hand continue to fascinate me. For me this creates neither disapproval nor anger at the regime. I may have something of a displaced shame. I also have no pity because I think â€“ though with certainty - that these men are not victims of some punishment. My interpretation is that these men in the park have been taken hostage by the Kim dynasty.. The control of them physically and mentally is absolute and to survive, these North Koreans align with Kim, their mythical father. Our guide describes these men as genuine volunteers while I think of them as hostages who willingly serve their captor. I associate these men with the Stockholm syndrome which describes the perverse power relationship between the condemned and the executioner. 2
The actions of these few men in the park represents for me the behavior of the whole people. I interpret the public collective behavior of the population as a result of a cognitive dissonance at the macro level. This same cognitive dissonance at the micro level, we all recognize. That job interview which didnâ€™t go so well was for a job I was not really interested in. At the group level the cognitive dissonance goes as follows: we citizens of Pyongyang know that in the real world planting grass with tweezers is nonsense. Nevertheless, we do this work each time, because in our daily life and in the reality in which we live, the completely proscribed operation gives us strength and mental tranquility, and offers us a meaningful order and moreover offers us social respect. I think almost all the inhabitants of North Korea unconsciously follow this reasoning condoning its practice in the public sphere. This applies to the vast majority, including the weeping soldiersalong the route of the hearse of Kim Jong Il in 2011. It is known how differently the deceased Kim behaved in his own private circle. The current Kim Jong Un (1983) with his militaryeconomic coterie knows better than his father what the outside world has to offer. He plays his role in the public arena up till now very skillfully. If I consider the future of North Korea, I see how under the influence of the Internet, the borders of this closed country are becoming more porous and the eyes of ordinary people continue to open further. Mental coercion loses its power at a certain point. If one out of five men sees on You Tube his own countrymen sitting in the grass with tweezers, perhaps the Spring will finally be able to come here.