Enforced Silence

Secret footage capturing a public trial in North Korea. Screenshot of a video provided by the North Korea Strategy Center.

“We stay silent not because our life is good enough, but to survive.” 

This was my response to a question from a member of the audience during my lecture on North Korea, who asked, “Aren’t the people of North Korea not protesting and staying silent because their life is good enough?”

To survive in North Korea, rules 1, 2, and 3 are “Watch your mouth.”

Another common phrase in everyday life in North Korea is “The walls have ears,” which is a very important lesson during a North Korean’s upbringing because the unfiltered expression of feelings and thoughts – even from children – can cause trouble for the whole family. 

In one chilling example, during North Korea’s famine in the mid-to-late 1990s, a child merely told his friends that he “ate sausage as a side dish.” 

Someone informed the authorities, so his parents were taken to the widely feared Ministry of State Security. 

The authorities sought to identify the source of the sausage or the source of the money used to buy it so they could capture and punish smugglers.

This incident is just one of countless disturbing examples of the regime’s surveillance of the people, which is aptly described by another long-standing North Korean expression: “When three people gather, one of them is a spy.” 

In that sense, the North Korean regime not only controls and suppresses the public’s freedom of expression through draconian laws, but it also uses ordinary people as spies to prevent the formation of social relationships based on trust, thereby drying up any potential seeds of public opinion. 

Even married couples who share a bed can’t trust each other, so there’s yet another saying reflecting North Koreans’ widespread fear and paranoia: “Don’t trust your own back.”

Totalitarian Control: Micromanaging and Manipulating Daily Life in North Korea

The North Korean regime also goes beyond monitoring the private conversations of the people to punish them for the words, titles, and accents used in conversation, and even the handwriting and spelling they use. 

The Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act, enacted by the authorities in January 2023, codifies the totalitarian control of the people’s language.

Chapter 2 of the Law, “The Eradication of Puppet Language Decay,” prohibits the use of South Korea’s so-called “puppet language,” including names, titles, expressions, handwriting, spellings, accents, and so on. 

Articles 33 and 34 established a guilt-by-association system for using South Korean “puppet language,” dictating that the person using South Korean terms be subjected to social humiliation and bullying, even by their own parents. 

Moreover, Article 35 calls for punishing violators through various measures such as a public arrest, public trial, and potentially a public execution to serve as a chilling warning to the rest of society. 

These severe punishments are among the nation’s harshest and were previously reserved for only the most serious offenders, such as those accused of trying to overthrow the state.

Freedom of expression has become so controlled and suppressed in North Korea that anything other than following the orders of the party and the “supreme leader,” or anything beyond what is essential for survival, has become unnecessary and dangerous. 

One day in 1995, when I was nine years old, my teacher led me and my classmates to a terrifying public display of the regime’s brutality as I witnessed my first public execution. 

I can still clearly remember the white brain matter bursting out of the executed man’s head, the intestines falling out of his stomach, and the smell of blood wafting through the air. 

Not a single parent complained about exposing children under the age of 10 to a horrific public execution for “educational purposes.”

The shock and terror I felt after seeing my first public execution were eventually replaced by a feeling of nothingness. 

Instead of being scared and crying due to the agonizing deaths of my fellow human beings, I could only lament seeing children excited about witnessing a “new event” in their lives: their first public execution. 

Over time, the regime’s relentless suppression of the freedom of expression has destroyed the people’s sense of humanity. 

Consequently, North Koreans have become “mute” while living under the reign of terror of the Kim family’s third-generation dictatorship.

Nevertheless, I still somehow feel hopeful because the regime’s continued surveillance and increased control paradoxically means that its system is not working well. 

I hope that when it reaches its limit, those who are willing to “die to live” will bring about change in North Korea.

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