December 21, 2011
Even if you had been to North Korea, you probably wouldn’t have seen that most North Koreans don’t, in fact, live in “civilised homes”, and that you have, like the woman who made the programme, to drive for hours, on roads that are empty, because there are no private cars, to see one, on a “mechanised, model farm” (but without any signs of anything mechanical) which the cameras are allowed to film. You wouldn’t have seen the gulags, where prisoners were burnt, or buried alive. Or heard about the millions so hungry that they tried to eat grass, or the two million so hungry that they died.
You would, instead, have seen the statues, and the posters, and the shrines, to the dead leader who wasn’t dead, and to his son, who wasn’t then dead, but now is, though it’s not yet clear whether he’s immortal, too, and you’d have been told about the rainbows that arrived when the son was born, and about the 1,500 books he wrote at university, and about how he was, until he died on Saturday, “the most respected leader in the world”. And you might, like the woman who made the programme, have been allowed to see some of the people who were allowed to use computers (which most people in the country aren’t) and who were given access not to the internet (because nobody’s allowed to have access to the internet) but to a special intranet that gave you all the information you’d ever need.
And it’s possible that you might, even though you weren’t allowed to take your cameras, or to film anyone who was carrying any food that they might have bought at one, have been able, like the woman in the programme, to go to a private market. At a private market, unlike almost anywhere else in North Korea, except the tables of the leader, who had special foods flown in from around the world, you might see quite a lot of food. At a private market, you might find a way to feel less hungry for a few hours, though you’d still probably only get to eat meat twice a year. But you’re not meant to go to private markets. You’re meant to get by on your government rations. “In the future,” said a government official to the woman who made the programme, “when socialism is completely victorious, the markets will disappear”.
I’m not sure if you could say that “socialism” in North Korea is on its way to being “completely victorious”. If “socialism” being “victorious” means that a lot of the population get to eat things that aren’t grass, and are roughly the same height as their South Korean neighbours, and not at least three inches shorter, then I think it would be quite hard to say that it was. But if “socialism” being “victorious” means that you sing songs about being the happiest people in the world, and smile as if you believe it, and that you cry, and scream, and rub your eyes when your leader dies, even when there aren’t any cameras to see you, then maybe it is.