Doomed to Cheer

Defectors give a frightening insight into everyday life in North Korea

You can’t get further from reality on this planet than North Korea, writes author Christian Kracht. It could be a total holographic projection going into the future and past. Or the plot space of a still unwritten science fiction novel. How millions of North Koreans live, what they eat, how they go to work, what they do there, we don’t know.

What we don’t know, we fill in with our imagination. North Korea is pop, a country straight out of a James Bond movie. The fat guy with the nuclear bomb and the bad haircut who has his own uncle shot. Ghost train. But what’s ghost train doesn’t have to be taken seriously, it loses its horror – like a Hitler carnival costume.

Another narrative is that of geopolitics. Now that North Korea is hosting its first party congress in 36 years and may conduct its fifth nuclear test to celebrate, it is everywhere, headline: the Great Game of the great powers China and the US. China, on which the economically desolate North Korea depends, keeps the country as a buffer state against a South Korea allied with the USA. In this story, the country and its people purr down to one character in a game of strategy.

Each of the narratives is different, and yet they have one thing in common. They have a gap: The people walk only as extras through the picture, they have no speaking parts. So let’s let them narrate. Let’s start at the top, with the leaders, because they outshine everything in this country, because individual lives cannot be explained without them.

The Cook

Japanese Fujimoto Kenji (pseudonym), 69, served Kim Jong Il, the late strongman and father of current leader Kim Jong Un, as a sushi master for 12 years. He travelled the world to get delicacies for his boss: caviar in Iran, tuna in Japan, mangoes in Thailand, beer in the Czech Republic, Big Macs in Beijing. When Fujimoto was afraid in 2001 that his boss suspected him of espionage, he escaped with a ruse. He pretended to buy sea cucumbers in Japan and never returned. His North Korean wife and their two children ended up in a labour camp for six years. For a long time, Fujimoto lived in fear of a North Korean death squad in Japan. Kim Jong Un has since forgiven him.

„When I first met Kim Jong Un, he was seven years old. He was learning to drive a car with his own Mercedes at the time. They built him a special seat so he could get on the accelerator. For ten years I was his playmate. From an early age, Jong- un had the character of a leader; when he played with his older brother or cousin, he made the announcements. His father often said, „The older one is no good. He’s like a girl. Jong Un is like me.“ When he was 13 or 14, his father encouraged him to drink. A man must be able to hold his liquor, he had said. Jong Un could only smoke in secret, his father had stopped in 1989. Whenever he wanted a drag, he came to me. It was our secret.
The family resides in 30 to 50 villas, I myself have seen 12 or 13 of them. They are super luxurious, marble, high ceilings, sports facilities, cinema, dance halls. General Kim Jong Il personally chose his son’s playmates, they were the grandchildren of high cadres. I remember Jong Un saying: „I rollerblade, I play basketball, and in the summer I go jet skiing. Sometimes I wonder how others live.“
I think his father knew how the people were. He loved cars, driving them all over the country, so he could see how poor the people were. I think he must have known that many people were starving in the nineties. On his mother’s birthday, he always gave his entourage expensive gifts, fine cloth from England or Japan. At the time of the Hun- gers, however, he gave away things from China. Whether he drank more because he cared about his people? Maybe he did. But he always drank a lot, no matter how the people were doing. The finest cognac in France. He was Hennessy’s best private customer, that’s what it said on the wooden crates in which the bottles were delivered.
I have never seen either father or son read. General Kim Jong Il is said to have written many books, but I don’t think he wrote them himself. They love films, though. No matter what the propaganda says, they have nothing against the US at all. They love American pop culture. General Kim Jong Il often watched Bodyguard with Kevin Costner with his bodyguards. That’s when he used to say, ‚I want you to protect me like this.‘
I still remember how happy he was when the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented him with a letter from Bill Clinton during her visit. He threw a party. Norma- ly at parties he put five bundles of dollar notes beside him, each worth 10000 dollars. He gave them out as tips. That night there were ten bundles.
I find it hard to compare Kim Jong Un and his father. I called the general Oyabun, Big Daddy. According to the customs of the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia, editor’s note)no one stands up to Big Daddy. All I can say is that Kim Jong Un is following in his father’s footsteps. General Kim Jong Il had taken me to his heart. Even though I was Japanese, he treated me very well. He gave me a chance to travel to 14 countries.“

All forces are directed towards the leader. He is what his people are supposed to yearn for and consume; he is the pride of the nation. North Korea is not only one of the last attempts at socialism. But also one of the last of absolutism.

The Doctor

Kim Hyeong Soo, 52, worked at the Institute for the Health and Longevity of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from 1990 to 1995, he fled to Seoul in 2009.

„At our institute we have medical doctors, biologists, nutritionists, we deal with the health of leadership. What light, what air, what food is most beneficial to the leader? At that time, a total of 2000 people worked on this task at three institutes. Kim Jong Il suffered from heart problems, he had high cholesterol and arte- riosclerosis. Sure, his lifestyle was not healthy, he smoked and drank a lot, he was under stress, especially when the famines started. I don’t think he worried so much about the people, but about the stability of his system. The Soviet Union and its satellite states had collapsed, he feared that his country would collapse too. He liked to have fun with young women, so he was very concerned about his virility. The diplomats abroad procured drugs and penises from lions, frogs, sea lions. Because they have several sexual partners, it is believed that eating them can increase libido.
We have done animal experiments, but also experiments on people who had a similar body build and health consti- tution as Kim Jong Il. For example, to test medicines. It was not easy to find someone like that, most North Koreans are thin, someone as fat as Kim Jong Il only existed in the nomenklatura.
I had close contact with the elite, with ministers and other high people. They know the contradictions of the system, they know it won’t last and they are moving their money out of the country. Many are preparing to flee. They are aware that North Korea has a bad system, but they are afraid for their positions. The international community should not only criticise the elites, but show them a way to change.“

A dictator who sees his hides swimming away might proceed like this: He issues a general amnesty for himself and his own, secures his economic holdings and sinecures and initiates reforms. This is what the generals did in Myanmar. Kim Jong Un could also push for reforms – the Chinese have been urging him to do so for a long time – but he is governed by the fear that everything could slip away.

For just to the south lies the other Korea, 13, 14, 15 times as rich as the north. If the two were to unite, the rule of the North Korean elite would be over. And soon reports of appalling human rights violations would be made public, stories from the camps. There is still clan detention in North Korea. Those who oppose the regime risk incriminating their families, condemning them to a life in a labour camp. Most North Koreans do not know that the camps exist and what happens there. It is enough to be aware of it. Because at night, sometimes neighbours disappear, never to return.

The prison guard

Ahn Myeong Chul, 47, worked for eight years in four different labour camps, including as a driver at Hoeryong Prison Number 8. He fled to Seoul in 1994.

„We prison guards come from the elite, we are very proud and of great ideological conviction. There are two types of political prisons. In the first, called Revolutionary Zone, only the political criminal is imprisoned, one can be released from there. In the second, the zone of total control, imprisonment is for life. There, clan detention applies. There is no trial, one night they just pick you up. No one will leave such a prison alive, unless Kim Jong Un himself has pardoned them.
I worked in prisons like this. We were ordered never to speak to the inmates, we were not to treat them as human beings. At first I only guarded the camp from the outside and had no contact with the inmates. That changed when I became a driver. I had to drive the prisoners around, give them orders, wait until they had done their work. I was not allowed to talk to them, but sometimes I was so bored that I did. Then I learned that most of them didn’t even know why they were imprisoned. Maybe a distant uncle of theirs had done something wrong. That was when I began to doubt.
In the labour camp there was a prison where those who broke a rule went. They were hung upside down. They beat them with sticks, sometimes so hard that their eyeballs burst out. In winter they burnt their skin on the stoves. Sometimes I went out drinking in the evening with the people from the interrogation department. If the boss was in a good mood, he was more thoughtful, if he had a fight with his wife, he tortured without mercy. It is a job, but how people do it depends on their character. Some are cruel, others have compassion. You notice that when they overlook something for which they should actually punish the inmates.
There was a girl in the camp I liked. Han Jin Duk was her name, she was 26 and very pretty. One day she was raped by a commander. When it came out, he was fired and she went to prison. Any woman caught with a guard is punished, even if she was raped. She will be shot or tortured.
After a year, I met Han Jin Duk at the coal loading site. ‚How did you survive,‘ I asked. Then she showed me the burn scars that covered her whole body. After six months, I saw her again, in the maize store. She was picking grains from maize cobs. She no longer had any legs and was laboriously pulling herself through the camp on her hands on a tyre made of straw. A coal cart had severed her legs.
She had spent 21 years in the camp at that time, she had come here when she was four or five because her uncle, a high military man, had been caught in a purge. Her mother and brother had starved to death. I think she is also no longer in this world.
There are bodies buried all over the hills around the camp. There is no burial and no one is allowed to cry. The commander says: ‚A counter-revolutionary has died, no need to cry.
I had to flee because my father had accidentally said something wrong. He worked as a party cadre in a food distribution centre, it was the time of famines. First the high cadres and military got their rations, then the civil servants and soldiers, in the end there was nothing left for the people. The inspection teams tried to blame my father. Once at night he had said to them in a drunken stupor that it was because of the system. When he woke up in the morning, he realised his mistake and killed himself immediately. Shortly after, they came to get my mother and siblings. I knew I would be next and fled.
When I was a guard, there were twelve prisons in the Total Control Zone category. A total of 200,000 to 250,000 people lived there. Now there are only five, which means the number should be 120 000. But there are many more prisoners in the other prisons. It’s hard to say how many people die in the camps. In the prison where I worked the longest, there were 50 000 inmates. No one was released, but many new ones came in. When the prison was closed in 2012, there were only 20,000 inmates left. So at least 30 000 died.“

Despite the labour camps, North Korea today is no longer a Stalinist state. The change did not come from above, but through a horrific catastrophe. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, it stopped giving aid to North Korea, and the North Korean food distribution system collapsed. No one can say for sure how many people starved to death then, 500,000, a million maybe more.

The Economist

Choi Jung Shil, 65, accountant of a chemical conglomerate in Kanggye city

„I was the accountant of factory number 34, in charge of chemicals and construction. 30,000 workers. When the Soviet Union cut off aid, first the petrol ran out. Then it was the building materials. There was no more fertiliser, so the harvest was bad. Our workers had nothing to eat, the factory sent them home.
In the beginning, people waited for the state to give them food again. And starved to death in the process. You could see the bodies everywhere, every ten metres there was a dead body on the road. The people from the hospital threw them onto the back of a truck and then into the pond behind the hospital. I saw with my own eyes how they pushed them in with their foot. No one had the energy to bury the dead anymore, there were just too many.
After 1996, things got better. People took their destiny into their own hands. They went to the factory, dismantled the components of the machines and sold them on the black market. Piece by piece, our factory was dismantled.
That was when government control almost came to a standstill. People stopped going to work and instead climbed the mountains, picking medicinal herbs to sell on the black market. I saw trains with the seats ripped out and the windows broken. Everyone was trying to survive in some way. At that time, the security of the border with China was very lax. Because of the great hunger, the border guards just let people go.
From 1995 onwards, the black markets really started. Private markets were not banned before, but they were very limited. If the government were to ban black markets now, many people would starve again.
Women sit in the markets and offer the goods for sale. Women are allowed to be housewives here, men have to go to their government jobs. But there they earn so little that they are called „light bulbs in broad daylight“, nobody needs them. Women make the money, so they have more power.
There are many ways to do business in North Korea now. For example, by buying products at government-mandated low prices and selling them much more expensively on the black market. There are now Porsches driving around in Pyongyang, but quite honestly: the rich people always have good contacts with the government. The ordinary people in North Korea have no hope. If it were easier to flee to South Korea, everyone would come. One in ten may still believe in the government.“

It is not only the black market that is changing the country. Ninety per cent of the trade is done across the Chinese border, and much of what the government does not like to see gets through: South Korean DVDs and MP3s, Chinese mobile phones with which those who live in regions near the border can contact their relatives abroad thanks to the Chinese network, smugglers. For a long time, North Koreans were completely cut off from the outside world. That is now changing.

The Propagandist

Jang Jin Sung (pseudonym), 45, worked in a psychological warfare department and was a poet. Kim Jong Il liked one of his poems so much that he declared him „the chosen one“. Jang fled to Seoul in 2004, and in his book „Dear Leader“ he recounts his experience.

„I estimate that 70 per cent of North Koreans watch the smuggled South Korean series. People cry when they see the series, but they also cry when they see Kim Jong Un. The tears for the stars are full of emotion, those for the leader a little forced. We have learnt from a young age that this is how we have to react when we see the leaders. And we know that the others are watching and it would be strange if you are the only one not crying. The first time I saw Kim Jong Il, I really had to sob. But the second time I felt it wasn’t real, I was alienated from my own feelings.
The North Korean dictatorship also wants to control people emotionally. It shapes people’s facial expressions, determines when they have to laugh and when they have to cry.
The series are changing the work of the propagandists. They now try to make their works more appealing, more emotional. In the past, men and women hardly spoke directly to each other in the films, now they even hug each other! But the content remains the same: the leader is divine, even his obesity is divine.
Of course, the influence of the serials is very dangerous for the regime. I don’t think it will remain stable for much longer because of the serials and the black markets, maybe another five or six years, then it will collapse. The information from outside will bring the change.“

The information from inside and that from outside, they could not be more different. For a long time, North Koreans were taught that people in the South were so much poorer than they were; now they see stars in the serials, living in mansions and driving fast cars.

The Soldier

Nathalia (it’s her English name), 34, fled to Seoul in 2006.

„I was a soldier in Sinuiju. I volunteered because I really wanted to be a politician. It’s not easy for women in North Korea and I thought an army diploma might help me. Do I believe in the system? No way! As a politician, you simply have the most money and influence. Everyone has to bribe you. I didn’t want to be a businesswoman, my father did business, once he was cheated by Chinese and didn’t get his money back. I learnt then that as a businessman you are powerless in case of doubt. As a politician, that can’t happen to you.
For eight years I worked in the army. In the communications department. Because I had so much contact with people from outside, the soldiers asked me if I could supply them with DVDs and USB sticks. South Korean series, porn and stuff like that. The soldiers love porn. All this different information evokes very conflicting feelings in them. They no longer believe in the ideology, but they would like to have a photo with the leader. After all, they have been taught all their lives that they should long for him. Sometimes it struggles quite a bit inside them.
When I came to South Korea, it was not a big shock to me. I already knew the capita- lian culture from DVDs from China and South Korea. I watched a lot of series about crime, „Breaking Ba“ and stuff like that, mafia, drugs and power struggles. Compared to that, normal life seemed quite harmless to me.“

From the outside, it seems hard to bear. Here is a regime that is arming itself with nuclear weapons, that is sacrificing the well-being of its twenty million subjects to its own hold on power – and there is nothing that can be done about it? First strike? Out of the question, since North Korea could bomb the hell out of Seoul within seconds. Sanctions? Only work if the Chinese go along with them. Exchange? A good idea, but one that won’t bring quick results.

One day, however, this black box will open. Maybe it will take years, maybe at some point it will happen very quickly. At that moment, the world will hear countless new stories. The North Koreans will begin to tell.

Behind the story

The Witnesses: Our author met the five North Koreans in Seoul, South Korea. There are many non-governmental organisations founded by or working with North Koreans who have fled. Most of the refugees are women; many have earned the money for their escape through black market transactions or have received support from relatives who have already fled. The author met the sushi master Fujimo- to Kenji in Hakone, Japan. He was able to present photos showing him with Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un.

The credibility: The descriptions cannot be confirmed. However, they are consistent with reports from other refugees and UN studies. The protagonists were recommended to the author as credible by aid organisations and diplomats.

Published 4 May 2016 in Die Zeit, automatically translated by deepl