Watching North Koreans Watch South Koreans

Opinion

I still remember the death of the previous North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December 2011, for the simple reason that media outlets played ad nauseum footage, procured from North Korea’s state news agency KCNA, of Pyongyang citizens weeping with abandon.

It seemed as though North Koreans were so brainwashed, or so fearful of crossing the state, that they would cry for a tyrannical ruler as if their own parent had died. These moments of grief were widely used in media, both international and South Korean, to suggest that North Korea was a regime unparalleled in its heinousness and authoritarian control, and its people enslaved to the point of having even their emotions dictated by the powerful.

North Koreans’ public displays of grief following Kim Jong-il’s death.

I must have shared that bias all these years, however unconsciously, for I was taken aback while watching a concert given by South Korean musicians in Pyongyang on Apr. 1 and televised in the South on Apr. 5. As some of the best-known names in the South Korean music scene belted out hits after hits, quite a few North Koreans in the audience could be seen alternately smiling, biting on their lips to hold back laughter or tearing up. Even though most eschewed overt displays of emotions, those who didn’t were enough to remind viewers such as myself that North Koreans just may be human like the rest of us.

Cynics will argue — and are already on cyberspace — that even smiles, near-laughs and almost tears must have been carefully choreographed by the North Korean state to humanize itself before the international community. (‘If they are privileged enough to be in that hall, they are part of the cruel elite,’ one commenter said on YouTube.)

But that argument itself is an interesting illustration of how much North Koreans’ perceived humanity matters in the realm of geopolitics. No one quite comes out and says that North Koreans are not human, and yet between the footages of the funeral and goose-stepping soldiers at military parades, allegations of human rights violations by the state, and media reports — sometimes downright false — about the viciousness of the North Korean leadership (the story about the current leader Kim Jong-un feeding his uncle to dogs comes to mind), we are accustomed to thinking that these are not human beings like us.

And ‘otherness’ is precisely what has been used to further discredit the regime.

As a child in South Korea, I grew up on a healthy diet of anti-communist propaganda, much of which centered on North Koreans’ alleged lack of humanity. In school I painted posters warning against evil North Korean spies. I read books that described how North Korea’s state surveillance system turned even family members to rat out one another and how some Korean-Japanese people, in a fit of idealization, defected to the North only to find themselves branded members of the bourgeoisie and brutalized by ‘true’ North Koreans.

So it was a shock as a child to learn about a North Korean family of 11 who successfully defected in 1987, receiving a hero’s welcome in South Korea. Their youngest son, Kim Gwang-ho, had his diary published to much acclaim and I had my mother buy me a copy. One passage that stands out even to this day concerned Kim’s older sister, who refused to eat not long after moving to the South, claiming that she was getting fat and needed to go on a diet.

Their father, enraged, told her she should be grateful to have food, considering how other North Koreans back in the North were starving. It was a familiar line that could have come from the South Korean state, boastful of its superiority over Pyongyang. But in thinking back to it I cannot help but dwell on the author’s sister, who dared to harbor a very human desire to be beautiful, unlike the North Koreans of my previous imagination — spies, traitors to their families, brutal communists.

More importantly, it strikes me that in Gwang-ho’s telling, his sister’s attainment of humanity was made possible only by leaving North Korea, as in most defector narratives.

In the conservative imagination, North Koreans, by virtue of crossing borders and coming into contact with the free South, realize just how inhumane their previous existences — and selves — had been. Such testimonies abound on South Korean TV shows featuring North Koreans, who are routinely asked to compare their lives pre- and post-defection. Hearing these stories, we are to believe that leaving the North is more than spatial relocation; it amounts to a process of reclaiming humanity.

Implied is that North Koreans in the North Korea are not quite human.

The music concert on Apr. 1 was titled “Spring Is Coming” and produced by South Korean broadcaster MBC. It was reportedly watched by more 36 percent of South Koreans. Seohyun, a member of the popular South Korean ‘idol group’ Girls’ Generation served as mistress of ceremony and compared the previous freeze in inter-Korean relations to a “winter.” She heralded the event as an “occasion for [the two Koreas] to look each other in the face, feel that we are one and to be moved deep within our hearts.” But was it inter-Korean relations or our perceptions of North Koreans that were meant to thaw?

Though the event was staged in the name of fostering inter-Korean cooperation, it was also a clear attempt at humanizing North Koreans in North Korea before South Koreans watching from home: Audience reaction shots were numerous throughout the two-hour broadcast, and cameras sought out individuals who were more expressive than others (a young woman in mustard yellow stood out in her clear excitement and was shown multiple times).

After the show it was clear I hadn’t been the only one in South Korea to be preoccupied with North Korean reactions in the concert hall. The internet was flooded with news clips that made competing claims about the level of responsiveness (and humanity) seen in the North Korean audience. But unfortunately for the government, the dominant sentiment online was that North Koreans by and large looked mechanical and detached, and not like people in the South.

I was apparently among the gullible minority for believing that emotions had been genuine.

 

Cover image: North Koreans clap for South Korean musicians performing in Pyongyang on April 1, 2018. (Se-Woong Koo/Korea Exposé)

Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.