The Corner


A Mountain (Paektu) and a Man (Orwell)

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un views the dawn from the summit of Mount Paektu on April 18, 2015. (KCNA via Reuters)

In South Korea, something extraordinary happened: Two defectors from North Korea were elected to the National Assembly. Many NR readers will know about them already. I have written about them in recent years. Those defectors are Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho. I have now written about their election, here.

What does their election mean, for both North and South? It is potentially very important.

Here on the Corner, I would like to expand on a point or two. First, let me quote from today’s piece:

At the playing of the national anthem, Thae shed tears. The words of the anthem were written in the 1890s, and they begin, “Until the day when Mount Paektu is worn away and the East Sea runs dry, may God protect and preserve our country!” The “East Sea” refers to the Sea of Japan. Mount Paektu is way up in what is now North Korea, on the border with China. It has always been considered the spiritual home of the Korean people. The anthem speaks of “the great Korean way.”

Mount Paektu plays a significant role in North Korean mythology and propaganda. You see that picture, above? There have always been such pictures, in the 70 years of the three-Kimmed dictatorship. There has always been such exploitation of Paektu.

Let me quote from my 2015 book, Children of Monsters, which is about the sons and daughters of dictators:

Kim Il-sung married a woman named Kim Jong-suk. The first of their children was Kim Jong-il, born in 1941, probably. According to North Korean legend, or propaganda, he was born on Mount Paektu, the highest point on the Korean Peninsula. A double rainbow appeared at this momentous birth. In reality, Jong-il was born in the Soviet far east, where his father was leading a battalion.

When he himself became dictator, in 1994, Kim Jong-il had many official nicknames. The foremost of them was “Dear Leader.” But he was also called “Unique Leader,” “Our Father,” and “Morning Star of Paektu.”

Now, a second subject.

When I interviewed him last year, Thae Yong-ho spoke of “doublethinking.” Before he defected in 2016, he was haunted by “doublethink.” What does this mean?

The term comes from Orwell, and it applies to many people in unfree societies. (It applies to some people in free ones too, which is an interesting subject by itself.) In one part of your mind, you are faithful to the regime. You believe, or want to believe, or need to believe. In another part, however, you have doubts — and these doubts are unsettling and scary. Events can tip you, one way or the other: toward fidelity to the regime or dissent from it.

Thae Yong-ho defected from North Korea’s diplomatic corps. He knows that his ex-colleagues — many of them — are haunted by doublethink. The eventual downfall of the regime, he believes, will start when elites tip over into broad dissent.

His defection — spectacular — was a step in this process. His election in South Korea — equally spectacular, if not more so — is another step.

I have to marvel at the enduring influence of George Orwell. In 2014, I wrote about a young North Korean defector, Park Yeonmi. I quote her extensively in my piece today, too. My 2014 story was called “Witness from Hell.” Here are two paragraphs:

Even while a free woman in South Korea, she did not feel completely free in her mind: To a degree, she still felt under the spell of the dictatorship under which she was raised. But in 2011, she read an extraordinary book: Animal Farm, by George Orwell. The book seemed to be about North Korea, she says. She cried all night as she read it. “Animal Farm set me free from brainwashing,” she says.

Later, she read Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell’s magnum opus. This book too, she felt, was about North Korea. “A lot of people think it’s just a novel, just fiction, but it tells the truth. It is the real story.” Yeonmi is amazed at Orwell’s capacity to understand. “He’s a genius.”


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