A kinder, gentler kidnapper
Almost any sign that North Korea is using just one hand (not both) to strangle North Korean citizens is welcomed by some as evidence that the country is changing for the better. My question for such people: Are North Koreans now allowed to leave the country?
Some tourists, teachers and businesspeople talk about great experiences they had in North Korea. I ask: Were the North Koreans you had such a great time with in North Korea allowed to leave with you? Can you call them?
Some say the media is distorting the real North Korea and its internal changes. I agree with the criticism of media, but the bigger point for me: Are North Koreans free to leave to find their own way or tell their own stories?
According to a widely cited (but apparently unsourced) survey, 63 percent of recently arrived North Korean refugees believe Kim Jong-un enjoys support from a majority of the population. Respectable commentators as well as trolls with blogs took the survey seriously, noting that North Korea dictator number three is seen as attractive, charismatic, and likened to his dictator grandfather. Leading analyst Andrei Lankov concluded: “Right now, the Supreme Leader is popular with his people."
Kim may be popular, but he is still the leader of an organized band of kidnappers. It is wonderful to hear that things may be better, but progress, reform and change aren't freedom. Malcolm X used to say, “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, there’s no progress.” Based on reports from optimists, in comparison to his father and grandfather, Kim may be known as a kinder, gentler kidnapper.
When I read about North Korea, I am often reminded of 19th century arguments about the treatment of American slaves. While acknowledging or downplaying atrocities, as optimists do about North Korea today, defenders of slavery insisted that many owners were kind to their slaves. Pro-slavery narratives defended plantation life and depicted blacks as happy slaves thankful to their masters. I suppose if opinion polls had been used then, that slaves would have thought as highly of their masters as North Koreans do of Kim.
In his first autobiography published in 1845, former slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote that slaves learned the lesson to “suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it,” that “a still tongue makes a wise head.” Defenders of slavery would cite slaves who praised their masters, but Douglass wrote: “[W]hen inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally they say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition.”
As a free man, Douglass routinely denounced slaveholders, even publishing in 1848 a condescending letter to his former master on the 10th anniversary of his escape. But as a slave? “I have been frequently asked, when a slave, if I had a kind master, and do not remember ever to have given a negative answer; nor did I, in pursuing this course, consider myself as uttering what was absolutely false.”
I mention that because despite rumors of change in North Korea, people still cannot leave or speak their minds. Recently arrived refugees say that North Koreans left behind think highly of Kim Jong-Un, but what about those refugees when they were still in North Korea? Would others who knew them have reported them as being supportive of Kim Jong-Un? Or until they escaped, “a still tongue makes a wise head.”
She apparently didn’t say it, but there is a profound quote attributed to abolitionist Harriet Tubman: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” I have talked to North Korean refugees, as free people, who have tried to convince relatives to escape, but say their relatives still fear the unknown.
They still don’t know they are slaves to the Kim regime or what it means to be free.
I know that some will think I am being harsh on the dashing young dictator. I am sometimes asked, "What do you have against North Korea?” or “What’s your problem with North Korea?” I used to say: “You are asking the wrong person. The people who have something against North Korea are the people risking their lives by escaping.”
I have updated my response. My “problem” isn’t the hairstyle, movie watching habits or weight of the particular dictator in charge of North Korea. My “problem” with North Korea is that North Koreans aren’t allowed to leave, a relevant fact left out of commentaries by experts, testimonials by visitors to North Korea, and surveys of what North Koreans think about their captors.
The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co. in Seoul. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.