Just a quick thought. When I was doing research for my Advanced Higher English dissertation last year on dystopian literature, I came across a few critics who argued that Orwell intended Nineteen Eighty-Four to be an unrealistically extreme example of a totalitarian state to make his warning and message more effective. I strongly disagreed back then; recent events in North Korea, meanwhile, are serving to remind me so much of the novel that, frankly, it’s frightening.
Back in November the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Chang Song-thaek, was hauled out of a session of the ruling party by armed guards. Recent reports indicate he has now been machine-gunned to death. Formerly considered to be the most powerful man in the country during the leadership transition in 2011-2012, he has fallen victim to Kim Jong-un’s first serious purge. Just like in Orwell’s Oceania, leading figures in The Party and the lower classes alike can be disappeared upon the whims of the country’s leadership.
The propaganda screaming out of the North Korean state media is even more terrifying. Read it for yourself – it contains horrific excerpts like, “However, despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.” From memory, this is just as extreme as any of the propaganda in Nineteen Eighty-four, perhaps even worse. I remember from various BBC documentaries, state imagery is prevalent across Pyongyang and much of the capital: great murals idealising the country’s leaders and quasi-Communist ideology; loudspeakers blare party doctrine and patriotic music across the city; the state controls both the television and the internet – North Koreans are only permitted to use a heavily censored country-wide intranet. Like Oceania, the totalitarian state’s propaganda pervades every aspect of life.
In the novel, Winston works at the ‘Ministry of Truth’. His job involves literally rewriting history: writing disgraced figures out of newspaper archives, editing history books and news broadcasts, and so on; doing whatever necessary to fit The Party’s current stance. The state not only kills dissenters – it removes them from existence. If you read that North Korean official announcement I linked to, it attempts to discredit Chang by suggesting he has planned to seize power ever since ‘long ago’ and destroy the revolution. But it’s far worse than that – a recent state-sponsored documentary has reportedly had all mention of Chang edited out, while images have literally been photoshopped in order to pretend Kim Jong-un never truly trusted him within his inner circle. While I couldn’t comment on whether the people of North Korea are so psychologically conditioned as the citizens of Oceania to just accept this change without thought, I certainly doubt it will be seriously questioned.
As the former North Korean ambassador for the UK has just told Newsnight, there is a real chance of North Korea starting up another crisis similar to the one we saw earlier this year, threatening to start World War Three and to turn South Korea into a ‘sea of fire’ alongside other such insane rhetoric. Absolutely baseless, of course, but it serves a logical purpose: the North Korean people’s confidence in their leadership will be shaken after this recent report, so what better way to unify them alongside the ruling party than to show the country facing a threat from evil imperialistic powers? By artificially creating a state of war and siege within the country, dissent can successfully be quelled through what may be only the beginning of a wider purge. This is a central theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell dedicating an entire chapter to the political theory behind it, in fact – as Oceania is always at war with either Eastasia or Eurasia. The constant state of war rallies people behind The Party and create a deep sense of patriotism and loyalty.
Dissenting citizens of Oceania are taken to the Ministry of Love where, through a combination of torture and brainwashing, they are forced to love Big Brother. The aim is not to rehabilitate them into society; everyone entering the Ministry of Love has a death sentence above their heads. For the Party it is not enough to kill a dissenter – they must die fully under its control. North Korea, meanwhile, has its own form of repression. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are incarcerated in massive prison and labour camps. This counts for almost 1 in 100 people. Many of these are political prisoners of conscience, while others will be there through guilt by association to other dissenters alone – the family members of political enemies, for example. Mass executions are common: that report mentions prisoners are often made to dig their own graves before being killed by a hammer blow to the neck; others are publicly beaten before being shot to death. Women are frequently raped and then ‘disappeared’ to hide the evidence. This goes on every single moment of every single day while we carry on largely oblivious. Just like in Orwell’s vision, the North Korean state systematically tortures its own citizens.
These are only a few examples of how the North Korean state is in many ways identical to the nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty Four. Orwell’s masterpiece is not an exaggeration nor a satire; it exists today within North Korea. The North Korean state is living proof that such a world is possible – it’s only by luck that we’ve avoided the same fate. Stories coming out of North Korea might seem funny and weird but I hope I’ve convinced you that it really isn’t a laughing matter. It is shameful for our entire species that these atrocities are still allowed to occur. I have no solutions. I suspect, barring a spontaneous change within the North Korean political system – not impossible – the totalitarian state will only collapse once it loses the support of China. By that point, I’m convinced, it would be utterly unable to function. Until such a time, the anonymous millions within North Korea are destined to continue their suffering.
Image attribution: By stngiam (Mural outside Songdowon Hotel, Wonsan, North Korea) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons