It has been more than a decade since I left North Korea, but every time I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm I am reminded of my life back ‘home’.
The novel points to the North Korean regime’s hypocrisy without using complex language. Published on 17 August 1945, just two days after Korea became independent, the book eerily predicted where North Korea would go and what it would become.
The Animal Farm is created for the equality of all animals. North Korea’s main claim is equality among its citizens. The Animal Farm insists that various classes and social structures do not represent strata but merely function to serve citizens. So does North Korea.
But in truth, there is no equality, not at the Animal Farm and certainly not in North Korea. Like the “Pigs” in Orwell’s depiction, the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) thrives on the exclusivity of its membership and its alleged ideological supremacy over other North Korean institutions. And to justify its continued existence after the collapse of the USSR and the economic hardship that ensued, the WPK has consistently emphasised threats from external enemies and imaginary traitors within, thereby creating a climate of fear and blind submission.
My father was one of those ‘traitors’ who were made examples of by the WPK during Kim Jong Il’s time. He simply disappeared one day, received no trial that I know of, and was never seen again. I do not know what happened to him or where he is. I may never even find out whether he was sent to prison or executed.
Among North Koreans it is this fear — of losing one’s country to an enemy state, one’s family to a purge, and one’s own life to ever-present danger both definable and abstract — that compels them to obey the regime.
That fear is reinforced by the “Puppies”, or the State Security Department, the State Police, and the National Military which are vital to managing the behaviour of North Korean citizens. Such state apparatus serves not to protect people but to legitimate its very existence, continuously creating and punishing internal dissenters. Much as the Pig regime used and consumed a character named Boxer despite his loyalty, the North Korean leadership feeds on enemies of its own making — even those who could be as innocent as Boxer and my father — to ensure its survival.
I was fortunate never to go to a political prison camp, though the entire country of North Korea might be called one big prison. I see this now because I left it and can see it from a distance both in time and space.
But am I free now? I would argue most countries are prisons in some form or another, even those that claim to be free. As Snowden’s disclosures — and Orwell’s subsequent work 1984 — have shown us, the panoptic society is real. Everyone, including so-called free citizens, is under constant surveillance, and an invisible web constricts our thoughts, speech, and actions even as we sit unaware of the control imposed on us.
Being in South Korea, I sense acutely the absence of free will in people, whose views are shaped by their limited experiences and who do not perceive that they live within a particular socio-political construct. Although they and I may live the same reality, our understandings of it are very different.
I was lucky to escape the Animal Farm and have no love for the North Korean regime. But the more time I spend in this ‘free world’, the more I realise its flaws. Everyone is yeolsimhee — ‘hard-working’. Everywhere I see service workers smiling at me whether they want to or not, everyone striving to achieve something, to be a success, to make something of themselves, but not because they themselves decided to want these things. It is a lot of pressure, and does it make anyone happy?
The South Korean system dehumanizes us and treats us as machines that must endlessly pursue certain desires. Degrees. Marriage. Mortgage. Children. There is no time to simply live in South Korea. Even dying requires careful preparation in the form of a funeral insurance to which one would contribute money for years.
When I bring up my criticism I am often met with resistance and scorn. Rather than exercising their freedom, members of the system I have come to join refuse to discuss the possibility that their world, too, might be repressive. I am barraged by a chorus of narrow minds who are capable only of saying that socialism is a total failure so I should be grateful to have a place in this capitalist society.
Capitalism does offer many things such as technological advances and material abundance. But you see, with them also comes the decimation of the human soul. The ideology of profit maximisation breeds no purpose but endless desire and consumption for the sake of consumption. We all know that having more does not guarantee happiness because deep down, people want more than just meaningless goods. Yet I see few people question South Korea’s cult of capitalism. I see even fewer who recognise they live in an ideological prison that constantly hungers for even more prisoners.
My name is Gyoon Heo and I am what you would classify as a defector, refugee, or new-settler. Whatever terminology you want to use, I am also a citizen of the Republic of Korea. You have been free for longer than I have, but I see what you do not see because I am from the North.
Do you also see the truth now?