Phone flashlights at a concert: when a photo shows the opposite of what it seems to

North Korean university students waving their phone’s flashlight at group showcase talent in commemoration of Kim Il-sung. The underlying truth of the image seems, however, quite different from what it seems (Image / KCNA)

At an outdoor event celebrating the 112th birthday of Kim Il-sung in April, students in the audience turned on their phone flashlights.

The moment, captured in photographs released by the Korean Central News Agency, appeared to be spontaneous. 

Judging from the waving lights, as well as the pools of darkness where some students had not turned on their flashlights, observers overseas might assume that something natural was happening here just as it does at performances all over the world.

Except that it wasn’t. Ask a defector and they will tell you that it was staged, that this was deliberately manipulated propaganda.

That is because in North Korea, before the start of any event, performance or movie, the organizers instruct the audience how to clap at the start, when to clap, for how many minutes, and the order and rules of the event until it ends and they leave.

The familiarity and obedience to such instructions is the result of a lifetime of obligatory study sessions and lectures covering all aspects of their lives.

That is why in photos and videos, they’re always clapping in unison or chanting slogans like robots. It is not because they all feel the same, but because they’ve been given the same instructions. Such is the tragedy of their orchestrated lives. 

The guidelines from revised educational material, published in May by the Kumsong Youth Publishing Company and obtained by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), provide insight into whether residents can voluntarily turn on their phone flashlights during events. 

The “Socialist Patriotic Youth League intensive study sessions” is a 24-page, F4-size document that outlines party policies. It has eight sections, with the last covering “common knowledge” and including “etiquette and morality to follow in theaters and cinemas.” 

“When watching an art performance or movie, even if you have seen it before or know the content, do not explain it to others or read the subtitles aloud. If you are watching with elderly people, only briefly explain the parts they do not understand,” it says. “When bringing a mobile phone, ensure it is turned off during the performance.” 

In other words, the student audience had to be told to turn on their phones. Thus, the appearance of fun and spontaneity reveals yet another example of dictatorial rule.

Citizens everywhere are forced to participate in the study and other activities based on their party, organization, and other affiliation. This type of control starts at age seven when children enter school and continues until they are 80. 

The main mandatory activities include study sessions, lectures, and Life Review Sessions.

The regular study sessions are weekly and last an hour. The purpose is to indoctrinate citizens with Kim Jong-un’s and the party’s lines and policies. These sessions are summarized quarterly and evaluated through a Review Session at the end of the year conducted by the party. 

The weekly Life Review Sessions are conducted by the local offices of the Korean Children’s Union, the Socialist Patriotic Youth League, the Workers’ Party of Korea, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, the Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea, and the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea.

These sessions involve personal evaluation and feature pledges by individuals to improve themselves by reflecting on the words of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. 

People are expected to criticize not only themselves but also their peers with reference to party policies and the Kim family’s sayings. The system functions to ensure absolute control and obedience to the dictator.

Given this context, the photo of university students at a performance with their phone flashlights takes on a meaning opposite to the one it seems to suggest.

Era Seo

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