By Andrei Lankov
It is widely known that the North Korean regime goes to extraordinary lengths to keep the majority of North Koreans from learning too much about the situation abroad and the lives of people in other countries. Unless they belong to a tiny elite, North Koreans cannot travel overseas freely, cannot read newspapers and magazines from foreign countries, and cannot listen to foreign broadcasts. The Internet, a symbol of our information age, is banned in North Korea as well.
All these restrictions are relatively well known. However, the North Korean regime does not merely isolate North Koreans from the outside world, but also seeks to isolate them from North Korea’s own past. Common North Koreans have virtually no opportunity to learn about North Korean history.
If you visit a North Korean library now, you will not be able to see the official newspapers (such as, say, Rodong Sinmun) published in the 1970s and 1980s – unless you have a proper security clearance, of course. Most books, published before the early 1990s, are also kept under strict control, in the special sections of larger libraries where only trusted people with formal security clearances are allowed to peruse such texts.
This isolation, closely resembling the famous Orwellian dystopia of 1984, looks somewhat bizarre, but it is actually easy to understand. The authorities believe that North Koreans need to know only what their government allows them to know about their country’s past. Of course, this permissible vision of history is only remotely related to what actually happened and can be described as largely an invention of North Korean propagandists.
Admittedly, many other countries and political regimes use history as a handmaiden of propaganda and indoctrination. However, in most cases the people still had at least a theoretical chance to learn real history. They could read books representing alternative views or even access primary materials on such topics. However, North Koreans do not have such opportunities.
Let’s take just one example. Had North Koreans been allowed to read official newspapers from the 1950s, then they would know that at the time Kim Il Sung was always presented as merely one of many of North Korea’s leaders. Apart from him, the newspapers mentioned other leaders – like, say, Kim Du-bong, Pak Hon-young or Pak Chang-ok. All of them were eventually purged, after being accused of treason and espionage. However, in the old newspapers, one can see that Kim Il Sung himself praised these people, calling them ‘outstanding revolutionaries’.
If North Koreans find out about this, they may suspect that these alleged ‘traitors’ were actually victims of political quarrels, not spies. This is indeed the case, but the North Korean government does not want its people to have such dangerous ideas and see Kim Il Sung not as a heaven-sent genius, but merely a successful and crafty politician who outmaneuvered his rivals to get supreme power.
Foreign policy can also look confusing to a North Korean if he or she is allowed to read old books and newspapers.
Until the late 1950s, North Korea claimed that in 1945 Korea was liberated by the Soviet troops, while Kim Il Sung’s forces were seldom if ever mentioned. Of course, in those days the official media praised the Soviet Union at the time and described it as a ‘liberator’. In the early 1960s, the line changed: the North Korean media began to criticize the Soviet Union and praise China, while references to the Soviets’ role in liberation all but disappeared. From the late 1960s, it was claimed that the country was liberated by the glorious fighters of Kim Il Sung who allegedly defeated the Japanese Empire more or less single-handedly. This claim survived for decades, but the praise for China disappeared quite soon.
If ordinary North Koreans are allowed to know this, many of them will not believe the official history created by the North Korean propagandists to reinforce the regime. That is exactly the reason why North Korean authorities are trying to control the past. If history is kept under lock and key, it is easier for the government to control people.