The non-president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – commonly known as North Korea, except for in the translation I did a quality assurance on where it was known as South Korea, which could have led to war, a fact proves that translation quality is important – has died.
Hang on. ”Non-president”?
Well, their president is still Kim Il-Sung. He died in 1994, but that didn’t deter them; he was declared Eternal President, and both his son – now deceased – and his grandson’s formal title is only ”General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea”. (I’m not sure whether Kim Jong-Il is also still General Secretary. Being dead appears to be only a minor inconvenience in this family.)
This is all due to the particular ideology which prevails in North Korea. It’s actually not Communism, nor, as one particularly uninformed writer in The Independent would have it, Socialism. (If you’re in doubt, consider that North Korea is the only country in the world where you don’t pay taxes. Any taxes. At all.) It’s called Juche, which is something altogether much weirder and more akin to a religion than anything we would recognise as a political ideology.
Or so we believe.
Fact is, we don’t actually have too many facts about North Korea. While the enterprising traveller can nowadays even go on a charter vacation there, the tours tend to be carefully choreographed and any actual feral natives shooed out of the tourists’ way with a large pointed stick. Other reports have it that there are several hundred thousand people in detention camps, but it’s not as if the North Korean government published statistics on this on their Web page, so it’s anybody’s guess whether the figures are inflated tenfold, fairly accurate, or an underestimate by a factor of ten.
But there are some curious titbits that filter through the curtain. One such was the Swedish journalist who, during some interval during an official visit, chatted with a North Korean about the Moon landings. After getting some confused replies, the journalist realised that this man had absolutely no clue that humans had ever walked on the Moon – and this wasn’t due to some conspiracy theory; he had simply never heard about this in his entire life. As it didn’t happen in North Korea, the powers that be had declared it inconsequential for the citizens. And it’s odd to think that he returned to North Korea, telling stories about the mad Westerners who believed people had sent rockets to the Moon.
Another weird experience was a documentary I watched this summer, about music in North Korea. (I’m unable to find any mention of it online, but then again, it was French and I have forgotten the name, so…) They interviewed several subjects, mostly musicians who were “successful”, for some value of the word, and after a while, a strange image was drawn: these people were completely brainwashed. (Or at least, they would appear so to any Western observer; more on that later.) But they were brainwashed into believing they were perfectly happy.
So… let’s set aside the detention camps for the moment. Let’s ignore how they came to be brainwashed, and let’s ignore those where it didn’t take, and the curious fact that the leaders of the country find the money to construct nuclear weapons – expensive things, last I looked – while being quite unable to feed the population. Let’s only consider these people. Ordinary North Koreans, more or less, who live by the rules, very much like the members of a sect – be it the Jonestownites, the Hare Krishna, the Scientologists or the Amish; people who actually believe with all their heart that they are living in a perfect society.
Now, do we have the moral right to cure them?
Would it be right and proper if we informed them that they live in a dump, that someone else do their thinking for them (which they might whole-heartedly approve of, for all we know; after all, this was the key defence of many in the Nuremberg trials), that they are starving because their leaders use all the money they can lay their hands on to buy guns, and that their country isn’t exactly the envy of the entire world, but rather the opposite? This would not change their situation in any material, measurable way; the only possible result would be to make them less happy. Do we have a right to make them unhappy about a situation they are powerless to change?
Before you answer this, there are things to remember.
One is that our cherished individualism is, by and large, an invention of the Enlightenment; in effect, it is a social construct into which we are indoctrinated from birth. Our ancestors were indoctrinated into a different context, which emphasized tribes, clans, or villages. To a Viking, the family and tribe were everything: their only security was that afforded by the close-up society which they could relate to in a personal way, and the laws were enforced by personal loyalties; the worst punishment in Viking society, reserved for the foulest of deeds, was to be declared an “outlaw” – literally, no longer protected by the law, left to fend for himself like a wild animal.
Another is that the way to cure a victim of brainwashing is to brainwash them right back: you subject them to very much the same mind-control techniques that were used to brainwash them in the first place, only you convert them back to the values of the majority society instead. Which in its turn raises the uncomfortable question of whether maybe we’re brainwashed, too; there’s certainly a whole bunch of people on my TV who insists not so much that I am currently very very happy, but rather that I will be, shortly, as soon as I purchase this product they’re displaying.
And such an unemotional, apolitical document as the DSM-IV will specify for shared psychotic disorder that “a person cannot be diagnosed as being delusional if the belief in question is one ‘ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture,’” which is a fancy way of saying that if enough people are crazy, then they’re not.
And when do we stop?
Contemporary right-wing populist parties operate from a mind-set that believes that all Moslem refugees are part of a world-wide conspiracy to eradicate the local culture and replace it with Islam, that every political decision in the entire Western world is taken with this aim in mind, and that all media are part of the conspiracy, except for a few, selected Web pages, and that everyone in the whole world think of nothing much but immigration policies and cultural backgrounds all day; in all, a thought structure which, if you replaced the word “Moslem” with “alien”, would have us all reach for our tin foil hats. This way of thinking has all the hallmarks of a sect; is deprogramming a better solution than debate?
For North Korea, the answer is trivial. The camps, regardless of how many there are, is reason enough to take action of some kind (and this is not the place to mention other camps, since a crime is still a crime even of someone else did the same thing). But some day, I’ll write a story where the solution isn’t so clear-cut. And since I’ll be wanting to tweak the parameters to have it balance on a knife-edge, it’ll probably be something in a science fiction setting.