On Sunday, CNN aired a special report which offered a rare glimpse into the closed society of North Korea. Using footage shot in the North and smuggled over the Chinese border by an impossibly brave man known only as “Mr. Pak,” the program finally put images to the nightmare of everyday life within the hermit kingdom. Barren marketplaces, beatings, dead bodies strewn on roads, and public executions were all featured prominently during the broadcast.
Perhaps most shocking of all were the political actions carried out by Mr. Pak inside North Korea, which included defacing a portrait of the Great Leader Kim Jong-Il with the message “Kim Jong-Il, who are you? You are a tyrant. People will not forgive you and we will bring you down from power. We want freedom and democracy.” Pak also suspended a large banner from a bridge which called for political freedom and the overthrow of the Kim regime. The next day, before security forces could tear the banner down, hundreds of North Koreans walked past, no doubt stunned by the existence of a blasphemous message within their politically sterilized environment. The harsh reaction of authorities, which included the dispersal of 80 nearby families, indicates their mortal fear of public dissent.
It is a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit that Mr. Pak would risk his life to inform the outside world of conditions inside North Korea, while simultaneously urging his countrymen to stand up to their tormentors. Resistance in North Korea represents, in many cases, a veritable death sentence. Over the past five decades, the odious regime in Pyongyang has built one of the more effective and repressive human constructs ever conceived of, effectively cowing a population of over 20 million by regularly slaughtering and imprisoning thousands who fail to acquiesce to the strict edicts of the ruling Kim dynasty.
While personal accounts of Kim’s reign of terror are many and easily accessible, they have rarely been compiled in such a way as to magnify their collective power. This lack of comprehensive insight came to a welcome end on Tuesday with the release of “Thank You Father Kim Il-Sung,” a compendium of exhaustive research and first-hand accounts detailing North Korea’s war against freedom of thought and religion. Published by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the report is authored by David Hawk, whose monumental 2003 work “The Hidden Gulag” remains the seminal study of Pyongyang’s prison camps. His latest effort paints a horrific picture of a government which, in its embrace of totalitarianism as religious dogma, has created the most repressive society on Earth.
The persecution of religious and cultural institutions in North Korea began with the assumption of power by Kim Il-Sung in 1948. Buddhism, Christianity, and the native religion of Chondokyo were among the first targets of the communist dictator, who immediately ordered the arrest and execution of prominent spiritual leaders. This process expanded to entire communities of believers following the Korean War, a period which witnessed entire towns -- accused of being “tainted” by religion -- exiled into remote provinces for the purpose of forced labor. By 1960, the government would proudly boast that all vestiges of native or imported religion -- and the culture it entailed -- had been purged from the worker’s paradise. North Korea soon joined Albania as the only two nations in the world where religious expression was specifically outlawed.
Although physical manifestations of religion have largely been eradicated by the Party, its propaganda organs stand perpetually vigilant against its return. Television shows regularly promote a hatred of religion, with crudely produced dramas portraying Christians as agents of the United States. Communist youth groups -- in which membership is required -- forcefully indoctrinate students on the evils of religion. The contempt for faith has even seeped into the popular vernacular, with the words “Jesus practitioner” becoming a widespread form of derision. When queried by the USCIRF for the report, escapees from the North uniformly agreed that religion had been successfully defined by the state as a capital crime analogous to treason.
For these individuals who ignore the government’s ritual condemnation of religion, punishment can be unimaginably brutal. The USCIRF retellings of atrocities committed by North Korean authorities recall the worst excesses of the Third Reich. Some of the most heinous include a 1996 incident in which a group of 25 secret Christians were arrested by security forces. Five of the detainees, refusing to renounce their faith, were lined up on the ground and crushed by a steam-roller in front of their co-religionists. A former secret police officer recalled witnessing the beating to death of female Christians during interrogations while falsifying evidence to convict others, who were eventually executed. In 1997, a young woman accidentally dropped a pocket bible and was subsequently reported to the police. Along with her elderly father, she was shot at close range by a firing squad, an event staged before an audience of elementary and high school students.
In the absence of a spiritual morality or historical legacy, the Kim dynasty has sought to insert itself into the consciousness of Koreans by promoting a witches’ brew of Neo-Confucian ideals and messianic absurdity as state-approved dogma. The result is “Kimilsungism,” a term coined by one of its philosophical originators, Kim Jong-Il. Begun as a secular justification for the isolation of North Korea and its leadership, the ideology rapidly became an all-encompassing spiritual world view, one in which Kim Il-Sung was portrayed as an ethnocentric messiah who had brought “eternal truth” to the Korean people. As a result, the leader’s biography soon took on trappings of the sacred, including a miraculous birth atop holy Mount Paektu and the inclusion of his lineage into every heroic aspect of Korean history. As the campaign of deification progressed throughout the 1970s and 80s, Kim Il-Sung was elevated to a “sage for the ages” and a figure who had “redefined the conscious of mankind.” As an ancillary to this enforced aggrandizement of unitary “Kimilsungism,” the idea of pluralism or religious tolerance was declared “impossible” in a socialist society.
Once the monotheistic tenets of “Kimilsungism,” were etched in the laws of the state, the government sought to engrave its totalitarian message into the minds of the people. Their attempts at human programming surpass the imagination of George Orwell or the cult of Stalin in terms of intensity and success. The brainwashing begins at infancy, as children are obligated to learn the phrase “Thank you father Kim Il-Sung” when learning how to talk. Every North Korean classroom features a bust of Kim Il-Sung, while curriculum is almost solely devoted to knowledge of his manufactured biography and the storied history of the Party. Upon reaching adulthood, North Koreans are relentlessly bombarded with propaganda celebrating Kim Il-Sung. Television programs, radio shows, banners and posters loudly proclaim the unassailable greatness of Kim and son.
The system goes far beyond simple cosmetic propaganda however. A network of institutes, known as “Kim Il-Sung Revolutionary Idea Institutes,” host adult education classes which are mandatory for all North Koreans. Several days a week, all citizens are forced to attend solemn lectures or study sessions, in which the revolutionary history of Kim Il-Sung is the only subject. In the workplace, the tactics of groupthink and peer censure are utilized to squash any inclination towards independent or creative thought, as all workers are forced to participate in small discussion groups which are little more than forums for the public expression of love for the Great Leader.
The North Koreans interviewed by USCIRF researchers gave their own haunting accounts of this widespread manipulation, recorded in the report. A sample:
“There are research centers on the historical revolution. These research centers are also present at schools and workplaces. They are built from a sense of obligation. They are holier than the churches of South Korea…”
“There are Kim Il Sung Revolutionary Thought Study Institutes and Revolutionary History Institutes in even the smallest unit of administration or organization. Everybody is forced to attend there once a week at the assigned time. [There were] no exceptions…”
“The atmosphere is very solemn. Everyone has to be very quiet and get dressed up. Women have to wear skirts, and men have to wear suits. Also, everyone has to wear the Kim Il Sung badge on the left chest....”
“It has never been allowed not to follow Kimilsungism. Everyone must follow.”
It is a tragic irony that this erosion and outright abolition of native Korean civilization, a cultural legacy which had survived relatively intact throughout centuries of external subjugation, has occurred under a government run by Koreans. Great and ancient religious traditions have been swept aside by the brutality of the Kim regime, which seems intent on supplanting this proud history with their bloody machinations. Even if the Kim regime falls, the return of Korea’s religious and cultural heritage to the North could be an extremely slow process, if it manages to return at all.
Human rights reports are often marred, at least in the eyes of some conservatives, by their undeserved connection to organizations such as Amnesty International, who -- while having access to resources far beyond those available to USCIRF -- see fit to waste their considerable energies on behalf of the wrongly persecuted jihadist du jour rather than addressing totalitarian wastelands such as North Korea. This unfortunate association should not temper our embrace of groups such as the USCIRF, who work diligently to record genuine crimes against humanity in an apolitical fashion. Their work is of even greater importance in the current political climate, as the Bush administration has displayed an admirable willingness to marry its concerns over human rights with its foreign policy, a connection loathed by disgruntled “realists.” For reasons of content and pertinence, the latest USCIRF report is a must read for concerned Americans.
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