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Nowhere land

Nowhere land
Imagine a country without books, without free will, without personal choices. Sounds like the dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984? What if I told you that people in North Korea are living such a life? What if I told you that their voices are still unheard? And not just because their voices are stifled, but also because we in the ‘free world’ don’t care enough to hear them.

Adam Johnson was an assistant professor of creative writing in America’s Stanford University before his book, The Orphan Master’s Son, went and won the Pulitzer for the best book in the fiction category in 2013. His book is a fictional account of North Korea. In an interaction with school students in Delhi he opens up about the reason why he decided to write on North Korea and on his own study of the totalitarian state.

One would wonder how a professor from America got interested in an issue like North Korea. Johnson talked about the need for stories to come out in the open. In 1984, Johnson heard about the genocide in Rwanda. As he grew up, he wanted to revisit the incident. “Even after 20 years, when I wanted to go back and study the incident, I got dozens of books that explained the genocide. There were books that taught me about the colonial conflict and satisfied my curiosity about Rwanda. When I wanted to do the same with North Korea, when I wanted to understand about the country, all I got were histories and data about economy or stories about the dictators. There were no people. There was no account of how a normal citizen lives in North Korea. And I decided that this is a story that needs to be told, even if it is in a fictional form,” Johnson explains.

Existing, it seems, in a different era altogether, North Korea is one of the most secretive societies in the current world. It has been a totalitarian regime since 1948, dominated by its Great Leader and his family. After the Korean War the Great leader Kim II-sung introduced his personal philosophy, the ‘Juche’ or self reliance as a motto for the country. North Korea gives the rest of the world less or almost no scope for interaction with its citizens. Stories of extreme human rights violations, torture, abuse and public executions have emerged. The country holds elections every five years where there is, reportedly, only one option on the ballot paper. The elite are getting richer and the poor poorer. Amnesty International estimates that around 2,00,000 prisoners are held in six large political prison camps where they are forced to work in conditions approaching slavery. In regards to the highly brutalised environment of the state, the amount of popular media coverage that North Korea receives is surprising.

The recent news that brought North Korea closer to the rest of the world was the Sony pictures scandal where the film, The Interview, was leaked by hackers who were believed by the FBI to be backed by the North Korea government. The Interview is a satirical comedy about two journalists who are hired to kill the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after booking him for an interview. In the past, there have been many comedies that have made fun of North Korea. The Internet is full of funny pictures and memes of Kim Jong-un or bizarre pictures of Kim Jong-un. This has only trivialised the issue of a totalitarian regime by making fun of it. “It is very easy to laugh at the state of North Korea, as if they are evil, crazy people. You can afford to write funny things about them or make fun of them because they aren’t here to respond or reply. The real stories don’t come out. Those who survive live with survivors’ guilt and they are mostly not able to tell you their stories,” Johnson points out.

It has changed in the past 10 years. Thanks to the Internet, some of these stories have come out. There are NGOs and aid groups that are trying to bring forth the real stories, horrific stories of a country chained, brainwashed and crippled into blindly following a leader. Few North Koreans, especially those who live closer to the borders have managed to escape and the internet is telling their stories. One only has to go on the Internet and find stories about dismembered limbs because the factory workers weren’t able to finish the work on time or of mothers having to drown newborns because of racial purity.

People were sent to prison camps because they happened to mop spilled beverage with a newspaper that contained the picture of the North Korean leader. The lack of any original literature, prose or poem for almost 60 years is  proof enough that North Korea has been living in an isolated bubble but what is more appalling is how the rest of the world has either chosen to ignore it or has made a joke out of it. The Orphan Master’s Son is an attempt by Johnson to empathise with the citizens of North Korea, the everyday people like you and me. It talks about the life of a normal North Korean, and that is why he believes that it is a story worth telling.

Explaining the life of a common North Korean citizen Johnson broke it down for the school children in Delhi. “Imagine a film made on you,” he says, “It will talk about your life, your dreams, your aspirations and how you eventually achieved your goals. A North Korean’s life is like a film made on him where he plays one of the extras in the  crowd in the background. His desires and aspirations are all twisted and he is made to believe that the sole purpose of his life is to serve the supreme leader and to make the supreme leader happy. The films are about the supreme leader, the motivation to work is to make the supreme leader happy. They have no choice, and I wonder, are you really human, if you don’t have choices?”

Johnson researched extensively on North Korea, he even paid a visit to Pyongyang, in 2007. “We care about people we know very well about. My research about North Korea made me closer to the country and its people. I first wrote short stories. I started imagining what kind of life someone in North Korea will be living. I wondered if I can ever relate to a common North Korean. I initially wrote in third person but as the story and the people got closer to me I started writing in the first person. And to think of it, I don’t even speak Korean.”

All things said, one wonders if the people at the centre of these atrocities will ever be able to read a book written about them? Johnson responds, “It has been 60 years since someone has read a non-government approved book in North Korea. One cannot fly to the future or go back to the past; you are stuck in the present. Only books have the ability to break that barrier. They are a unique tool to move out of your own being, they cultivate ideas and ideas sure can travel. I think a film or a picture cannot enter minds like literature does and I hope that someday it will transcend beyond physical boundaries too.”

Inside the ‘hermit kingdom’


It’s not 2015 in North Korea. The year is 104 counted after the birth of Kim Il-Sung.

  North Korea has 51 ‘social categories’ ranked by their loyalty to the regime.

  North Koreans may choose from 28 approved haircuts.

  Wearing jeans is illegal in North Korea.

  In the last 60 years, over 23,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea. Only two South Koreans have gone to the North.

  North Koreans watched the 2014 football world cup on a 24 hour’s delay.

  In 2013, North Korea’s president killed his own uncle by throwing him naked into a cage with 120 starving dogs.

  Possessing Bibles, watching South Koreans movies and distributing pornography may be punished with death in North Korea.

  In North Korea, only military and government officials can own motor vehicles.

  An American soldier ran across the border to North Korea in 1962 and has been living there ever since.
Naila Manal

Naila Manal

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