“Normal” North Korea

Often times, when we think of North Korea, we have an image of people with grim faces and lifeless eyes walking through a drab city full of grey tones. We think of these people as mere puppets of the North Korean government putting on shows for the foreign tourists with a forced smile on their faces. They become part of the picture we paint in our minds of starving children and prisoners. How often do we actually think of these people as just people who have daily lives just like you and I do? Granted, our lifestyles may be extremely different. But the fact that they have lives separate from the one we imagine them to have is very true. Dr. Andrei Lankov addresses this in his article in The Korea Times.

For those of you who do not know who Andrei Lankov is, let me offer you a brief introduction. Dr. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and is now a renowned specialist in Korean studies. In 1985, he even spent some time studying at Kim Il Sung University of North Korea. In 2004, he moved to South Korea to teach at Kookmin University, which is where he remains today. He is one of the few foreigners in South Korea who can offer a scholarly perspective on North Korean issues. If you follow North Korean news and issues, you have probably come across his name quite a few times.

In his article “Normal North Korea,” Dr. Lankov talks about his experience of visiting North Korea in September of 1984. As he first drove through the streets of Pyongyang, he explains that what he saw was quite unexpected. Russia at the time was by no means a democratic state but was far more open and “permissive” than North Korea was. Therefore, having come from Russia, he had expected North Korea to look like a scene from George Orwell’s book 1984, which is ironic considering the year of his visit. He explains it as follows:

“I expected… to see a dictatorship and I, sort of subconsciously, thought that North Korea would look like the kind of totalitarian state one sees in dystopian novels or Hollywood movies. It should have impeccably dressed soldiers standing on street corners, equipped with loaded machine guns at the ready. It should be populated by a citizenry that never smiles, that go about their lives, grimly, under the iron heel of an omniscient state. And the sun should never shine there.”

However, North Korea turned out to be quite different than what he had imagined. There were plenty of smiling people walking through the streets, children running around playing with their grandparents, and no sign of fear or oppression. Contrary to his former beliefs, the sun did shine there on that beautiful autumn day. Of course, there were lots of soldiers walking around in uniform, acting as a constant reminder of the state of North Korea, but Lankov describes them as posing very little threat in their “baggy uniforms.” “Everything was so perfectly normal.”

Of course, this is not to say that we were all wrong and North Korea is just like any other free country in the world. After spending some weeks in Pyongyang interacting with the people, the signs of a dictatorship that was not apparent at first glance began to come into view for Lankov. However, what Lankov is getting at here is that the actual people of North Korea may not be so different from you and me. “We tend to assume that people who live under a radical or fundamentalist regime must spend most of their time memorizing the speeches of the leader and perfecting their goose step,” which wouldn’t be completely false for North Korea. But, “even in the 1980s, when it would be no exaggeration to describe North Korea as the world’s most oppressive dictatorship, the average North Korean worried more about their health and the health of their loved ones. They were concerned if their children brought home a bad report card from school. They fancied attractive members of the opposite sex. They loved delicious food, and of course they enjoyed a beautiful sunset. In other words, they lived normal human lives.”

Perhaps, when thinking about North Korea, we fixate too much on the starvation and injustices that we forget that North Koreans are not much different from ourselves. I’m not saying that we should throw out all of those aforementioned things and just stop thinking about it. Honestly, the world doesn’t focus enough on these horrible things that are happening behind the closed doors of North Korea. However, I think it’s helpful to remember that “humans are surprisingly similar” wherever you go. If we can remember that, perhaps unification can be made just a tad bit easier.

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