It’s better to be a hammer or sickle than a brush

A North Korean stamp published in 2020 commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party Korea. A hammer, brush, and sickle are featured in the emblem (Image / Korea Stamp Corporation)

The ruling Workers’ Party emblem of North Korea is different from other communist parties in that it includes a brush alongside the hammer and sickle in its emblem. 

The hammer represents the industrial working class, the sickle represents the peasantry, and the brush intellectuals. The official explanation is that the workers and peasants protect the intellectuals. The regime tells outsiders that it values intellectuals. That’s why the brush is in the center.

This idea is propagated in the arts, especially in films. A typical example is Part 4 of the movie series A Destiny of Many Trials.

Insiders see it differently, though. According to Lee, 44, whose father was a high-ranking officer in the State Security Department, the brush in the center means that the workers and peasants should monitor intellectuals.

Lee enjoyed a privileged life in North Korea. Her father held an important position mainly overseeing the surveillance of citizens. Naturally, the Lees were well-treated. That all changed when she was 26 and her father died in a car accident.

He was from Chongjin in North Hamgyong Province and had reached the rank of general in the State Security Department due to his own father’s background as an anti-Japanese guerrilla. But he lacked political support. People in the State Security Department who had long-standing grudges against him immediately conspired to label him an enemy of the party and a traitor to the nation. 

One official who had been particularly close to her father, secretly warned Lee and her mother. They should flee at once, he said. 

They went into hiding even before the traditional three-day funeral rites for her father were over.

After almost a year concealed in the basement of a relative without once seeing any light of day, Lee’s mother decided to escape. Lee couldn’t let her go alone. They decided to face death together if caught.

By good fortune, they crossed the Yalu River and reached Incheon in South Korea within a month.

What struck Lee most about the dictatorship was the State Security Department’s interpretation of the party emblem. 

“My father said that teachers are the primary targets of surveillance by the State Security Department,” Lee said. “From elementary school teachers to university professors, everything they say inside and outside the classroom is 100 percent monitored by the department. I was shocked when he told me this.”

That is because teachers are thought to be the most loyal and trusted.

“Father said that the more you know, the higher your rank on the surveillance list, and teachers know a lot. That makes them top targets,” Lee said. “The way to be safe is to be ignorant and uneducated. This realization made me even more determined to defect.”

Scientists are also closely monitored. Lee shared one example she learned about from a fellow student with the same surname as hers, Ri Jin-ok, at Pyongyang Jang Chol Gu University of Commerce. (The surname Lee is usually romanized as Ri, Li or Yi in North Korea). Her friend’s mother and father were professors at Kim Chaek University of Technology and Kim Il Sung University respectively. 

Her uncle,  Ri Jong-gwa, was an “honored scientist” who introduced a hydrogen purification system for generator cooling at a thermal power plant and contributed to preserving trees with anti-Japanese struggle slogans. 

Her maternal grandfather was Ri Sung-gi, who was famous in North Korea as the chemist who developed Vinalon, a synthetic fiber which came to be used in North Korean textiles even more than cotton and nylon. Vinalon was touted as evidence of the superiority of Kim Il-sung’s Juche philosophy even though Ri invented it in the 1930s when he worked in a Japanese institute. Grandfather Ri was involved in nuclear technology and possibly also chemical weapons development. Despite receiving the highest accolades, he had one flaw. He was a defector from South Korea. 

This stain of his origins impacted his descendants. Lee learned from her friend that the Ri family was never allowed to travel abroad, go on business trips, or take up jobs related to foreign countries. The pretext was always national security and their own safety. Her friend’s father tried to work in trade but was not permitted for this reason. Her friend herself majored in commerce but was only able to take jobs that kept her inside the country.

The famous scientist’s entire extended family remained under special surveillance by the State Security Department through the generations simply due to his South Korean origins and prominence. 

Such is the fate of those who represent the brush.

Furthermore, Lee Jin-ok’s father, who was Lee Seung-gi’s son-in-law, also tried to work in the trade sector to improve their living conditions, but he was prohibited from working abroad due to his connection to Lee Seung-gi.

At the time Lee Jin-ok was studying (2003), North Korean professors earned only about 20-30 cents. Lee Jin-ok herself graduated from the commerce university but could only find jobs that allowed her to work domestically.

Ms. Lee claims that the Lee family was under special surveillance by the State Security Department due to their South Korean origin and scientific prominence. 

“North Korea, where people who know more or have the potential to know more become targets of special surveillance by secret police, is the worst dictatorship created by humanity,” Ms. Lee stated.

Zane Han

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