In N Korea, a gen­er­a­tion gap grows be­hind pro­pa­ganda

The un­spo­ken re­al­ity is far more com­pli­cated

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

She dances be­neath por­traits of two smil­ing dic­ta­tors, a mod­ern young woman in a cen­tral Py­ongyang plaza who twirls to mu­sic call­ing on North Kore­ans to die for their leader. When she speaks, a tor­rent of rev­er­ence tum­bles out for North Korea’s rul­ing fam­ily, as if phrases had been plucked at ran­dom from a gov­ern­ment news­pa­per:

“The rev­o­lu­tion of the Great Leader” ... “La­bor­ers trust and ven­er­ate Mar­shal Kim Jong Un.” And as hun­dreds of stu­dents dance be­hind her in a chore­ographed dis­play of loy­alty, she is adamant about one thing: North Korea, she in­sists, has no gen­er­a­tion gap. “The spirit of the youth has re­mained the same as ever!” Ryu Hye Gy­ong says. But look more closely - look be­yond her words, be­yond the pro­pa­ganda posters on ev­ery street, and the ra­dios play­ing hymns to the rul­ing fam­ily - and the un­spo­ken re­al­ity is far more com­pli­cated. A 19-year-old uni­ver­sity stu­dent with a con­fi­dent hand­shake and care­fully styled hair, Ryu lives in a city that to­day feels awash in change. There are rich peo­ple now in Py­ongyang, chauf­feured in Mercedes even as most cit­i­zens of the po­lice state re­main mired in poverty. There’s a su­per­mar­ket sell­ing dis­pos­able di­a­pers. On side­walks where ev­ery­one once dressed in drab Maoist con­form­ity, there are young women in not-quite miniskirts and teenage boys with base­ball caps cocked side­ways, K-pop style.

All-pow­er­ful providers

In this pro­foundly iso­lated coun­try, a gen­er­a­tional di­vide is qui­etly grow­ing. Here, where rulers have long been wor­shipped as all-pow­er­ful providers, young peo­ple have grown to adult­hood ex­pect­ing noth­ing from the regime. Their lives, from pro­fes­sional as­pi­ra­tions to dat­ing habits, are in­creas­ingly shaped by a grow­ing mar­ket econ­omy and a qui­etly thriv­ing un­der­ground trade in smug­gled TV shows and mu­sic. Po­lit­i­cal fer­vor is be­ing pushed aside by some­thing else: A fierce be­lief in the power of money.

Con­ver­sa­tions with more than two dozen North Korean refugees, along with schol­ars, for­mer gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and ac­tivists, make it clear that young peo­ple are in­creas­ingly un­moored from the pow­er­ful ide­ol­ogy the gov­ern­ment long ago placed at the cen­ter of ev­ery life. “When Kim Jong Un speaks, young peo­ple don’t lis­ten,” says Han Song Yi, 24, who left the North in 2014, dream­ing of pop-mu­sic star­dom in the South. “They just pre­tend to be lis­ten­ing.”

In her tight jeans and gold-speck­led eye­shadow, Han loves talk­ing about fash­ion and the Kpop bands she and her friends se­cretly lis­tened to back home. She can also de­con­struct how the sud­den emer­gence of short skirts in her home­town in the au­tumn of 2012 mir­rored not just the as­cen­sion of Kim Jong Un, the new leader of­ten pho­tographed with his glam­orous wife, but also the po­lit­i­cal cyn­i­cism grow­ing around her.

“North Korea in the past, and North Korea to­day are so dif­fer­ent,” she says. No­body in North Korea will talk to an out­sider about this, and it’s easy to see why. Stand at nearly any Py­ongyang street cor­ner and re­minders of the state’s power are ev­ery­where. Mounted por­traits show the first two rulers: Kim Il Sung, who shaped the North into one of the world’s most re­pres­sive states, and his son, Kim Jong Il, who cre­ated the per­son­al­ity cults that now dom­i­nate pub­lic life. Im­mense rooftop signs spell out praise for grand­son Kim Jong Un, the rul­ing party and the mil­i­tary.

The mes­sage is un­mis­tak­able: “Peo­ple are al­ways care­ful about what they say,” Han says. For gen­er­a­tions, pro­pa­ganda about the Kim fam­ily was all that most North Kore­ans knew, a mythol­ogy of pow­er­ful but ten­der-hearted rulers that still suf­fuses ev­ery­thing from chil­dren’s sto­ries to TV shows. It’s an emo­tional tug felt by many older North Kore­ans. In part that’s be­cause they re­mem­ber the days of rel­a­tive pros­per­ity, when the state pro­vided food, apart­ments and cloth­ing.

Back­ground noise

An eco­nomic shift be­gan in the mid-1990s, when Soviet aid ended and dev­as­tat­ing floods caused wide­spread famine. The po­lice state weak­ened. Smug­gling flour­ished. While the state even­tu­ally tight­ened its hold again, pri­vate en­ter­prise just grew. But to peo­ple who came of age af­ter the famine, when it had be­come clear the regime was nei­ther all-pow­er­ful nor all-pro­vid­ing, the pro­pa­ganda is of­ten just back­ground noise.

“Af­ter a while, I stopped pay­ing at­ten­tion,” says Lee Ga Yeon, who be­gan help­ing sup­port her fam­ily as a teenager dur­ing the famine by sell­ing food door to door. “I didn’t even think about the regime any­more.” That lack of in­ter­est fright­ens the regime, whose le­git­i­macy de­pends on its abil­ity to re­main at the core of life. “They know that young peo­ple are where you get revo­lu­tions,” says Hazel Smith, a North Korea scholar at SOAS, Uni­ver­sity of London and for­mer aid worker in North Korea. “This is the cleav­age that the gov­ern­ment is wor­ried about.”

Kim Jong Un, who wasn’t even 30 when he came to power af­ter his fa­ther’s 2011 death, now faces the chal­lenge of his own gen­er­a­tion. On his gen­tler days, Kim has reached out to young peo­ple. There was an in­crease in youth-ori­ented ral­lies af­ter Kim’s as­cen­sion, and pub­lic pledges of youth loy­alty. There’s pro­pa­ganda now clearly aimed at young peo­ple, like the all-woman Mo­ran­bong Band, which per­forms in tight skirts and high heels.

Most of these young peo­ple have grown up with at least some ac­cess to smug­gled DVDs or flash drives, and South Korean soap op­eras are now beloved, de­spite be­ing of­fi­cially banned. To many young North­ern­ers they are win­dows onto a mod­ern world. To­day, cou­ples in Py­ongyang can oc­ca­sion­ally be spot­ted hold­ing hands. In a cul­ture where ar­ranged mar­riages were the norm un­til very re­cently, young peo­ple now choose their own spouses. And col­lege stu­dents dream of busi­ness jobs. But while the gen­er­a­tional di­vide has grown, there have been no signs of youth­ful anger: no uni­ver­sity protests or po­lit­i­cal graf­fiti.

“It’s not about the regime,” says Lee, who now stud­ies lit­er­a­ture at one of South Korea’s top uni­ver­si­ties. “It’s about money.” Money now cour­ses through North Korea. Ex­perts be­lieve the pri­vate sec­tor, from small traders to tex­tile fac­to­ries, ac­counts for as much as half of North Korea’s econ­omy. There’s also much more to buy now: bat­tery-pow­ered bi­cy­cles, Chi­nese elec­tron­ics, so­lar pan­els for elec­tric­ity out­ages. “In the past, every­body wanted to be a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, that was the num­ber-one dream,” says Lee. “But more and more, peo­ple know that money can solve ev­ery­thing.” — AP

PY­ONGYANG: In this April 17, 2017, file photo, a North Korean school boy looks up from his com­puter screen at the Sci-Tech Com­plex. —AP

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