Barbara Demick’s recent book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, is an excellent account of daily life in for ordinary people in one of the world’s two remaining unreformed communist states. It’s based on extensive interviews with North Koreans who were fortunate enough to escape to South Korea through China.
As described by Demick, life in North Korea is similar to that in other communist dictatorships. There is the same type of secret police, censorship, gulag-style concentration camps, massive personality cults glorifying the dictator, poverty, and starvation. But each of these miseries is noticeably worse than even in the USSR. For example, the North Korean government has rigid family categorizations that hold people responsible for the supposed “class origins” of their family far more comprehensively than even in the Soviet Union under Stalin. In the USSR, dissidents were often sent to prison or Gulags, or incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals; but, at least after Stalin, some of them could survive long enough to attract attention in the West. Not so in North Korea, where the squelching of any sign of dissent is even swifter and more thorough. And even Stalin didn’t have a personality cult that went as far as that of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il.
One story in Demick’s book particularly struck me as illustrating the way in which North Korean repression went beyond that in the USSR. A North Korean college student who later defected and told his story to Demick was admitted to an elite university in Pyongyang. Because he was one of the best and most trusted students at the school, he was allowed access to certain foreign books in the library that were off limits to ordinary people. One of those books (which made a great impression on him) was Gone with the Wind. The Soviet Union also had a long list of books that were restricted to a small elite. Indeed, the North Koreans probably copied this institution from their Soviet teachers. Gone with the Wind, however, was freely available in the USSR (in Russian translation). My late grandmother recalled reading it back in the 1950s, even before the limited liberalization of the “Khrushchev Thaw.” It’s possible that the Soviet censors simply made a mistake, and accidentally overlooked the fact that Margaret Mitchell’s view of the Civil War was very different from the Marxist account endorsed by the Communist Party. Even so, it’s telling that they were less through in this regard than their North Korean counterparts.
This is just one small example of the scope of North Korean repressiveness, even compared to other communist states. But as Demick describes, it has parallels in almost every other aspect of North Korean society. It isn’t easy to surpass Lenin and Stalin in the field of totalitarian oppression. But the Great Leader and Dear Leader managed to pull it off.
NOTE: I should perhaps mention that I am not endorsing the the views Mitchell advocated in Gone with the Wind, many of which I think are abhorrent. I actually spent a good deal of time discussing the book with my grandmother, and explaining that Mitchell’s account of noble slaveowners and contented slaves was far from accurate.