Gen­er­a­tional di­vide qui­etly grows in North Korea

The Sentinel-Record - - FRONT PAGE - TIM SUL­LI­VAN

PY­ONGYANG, North Korea — She dances be­neath 10-foot 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” … “Only by up­hold­ing Pres­i­dent Kim Il Sung could the peo­ple win their strug­gle” … “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 and Audis even as most cit­i­zens of the po­lice state re­main mired in poverty. There’s a su­per­mar­ket selling im­ported ap­ples and 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.

In this pro­foundly iso­lated coun­try, a place that can still some­times ap­pear frozen in a Stal­in­ist nether­world, a gen­er­a­tional di­vide is qui­etly grow­ing be­hind the re­lent­less pro­pa­ganda.

Here, where rulers have long been wor­shiped 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, gen­uinely felt by many in ear­lier gen­er­a­tions, is be­ing pushed aside by some­thing else: A fierce be­lief in the power of money.

It’s a com­plex di­vide, where some 20-year-olds re­main fierce ide­o­logues and plenty of 50-yearolds have no loy­alty to the in­creas­ingly wor­ried regime. But 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 state ide­ol­ogy.

“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 eye shadow, Han rev­els in Seoul’s fre­netic glitz and un­em­bar­rassed con­sumerism. She loves talk­ing about fash­ion and the K-pop bands she and her friends se­cretly lis­tened to back home.

But she also talks about her home­land with the thought­ful­ness of some­one who is con­stantly watch­ing, con­stantly look­ing for ex­pla­na­tions. Han can de­con­struct the sud­den emer­gence of short skirts in her home­town in the au­tumn of 2012, and how that mir­rored not just the as­cen­sion of Kim Jong Un, the new leader of­ten pho­tographed with his glam­orous, well-dressed 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 im­mense power are ev­ery­where. Mounted por­traits show the coun­try’s 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. On the ra­dio, the song “We Will De­fend Gen. Kim Jong Un With Our Lives” booms out again and again.

The mes­sage is un­mis­tak­able: “Peo­ple are al­ways care­ful about what they say,” says Han.

•••

For gen­er­a­tions, pro­pa­ganda about the Kim fam­ily was all that most North Kore­ans knew, a mythol­ogy of pow­er­ful but ten­der-hearted rulers who pro­tect their peo­ple against a hos­tile world. It still suf­fuses ev­ery­thing from chil­dren’s sto­ries to univer­sity lit­er­a­ture de­part­ments, from TV shows to opera.

“When I was younger I be­lieved all of this,” says a for­mer North Korean po­lice­man in his

mid-40s, who now lives in Seoul

and who spoke on con­di­tion his name not be used, fear­ing ret­ri­bu­tion against rel­a­tives still in the North. He’s a pow­er­fully built man with a grav­elly voice who re­mains con­flicted about the North, crit­i­cal of the dic­ta­tor­ship but also scorn­ful of a younger gen­er­a­tion that doesn’t un­der­stand the emo­tional tug of loy­alty. So his voice is dis­mis­sive when he adds: “But the younger peo­ple, many of them never be­lieved.”

Many older North Kore­ans feel that emo­tional tug.

In part that’s be­cause they re­mem­ber the days of rel­a­tive pros­per­ity, when the state pro­vided peo­ple with nearly ev­ery­thing: food, apart­ments, cloth­ing, chil­dren’s hol­i­day gifts. North Korea’s econ­omy was larger than the South’s well into the 1970s.

An eco­nomic shift be­gan in the mid1990s, when the end of Soviet aid and a se­ries of dev­as­tat­ing floods caused wide­spread famine. The food ra­tion sys­tem, which had fed nearly ev­ery­one for decades, col­lapsed. The power of the po­lice state weak­ened amid the hunger, al­low­ing smug­gling to flour­ish across the Chi­nese bor­der.

While the state tight­ened its hold again when the famine ended, pri­vate en­ter­prise grew, as the gov­ern­ment re­al­ized it was the only way to keep the econ­omy afloat.

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. It isn’t that they hate the regime, but sim­ply that their fo­cus has turned to earn­ing a liv­ing, or buy­ing the lat­est smug­gled TV show.

“Af­ter a while, I stopped pay­ing at­ten­tion,” says Lee Ga Yeon, who grew up amid the mud and poverty of an iso­lated com­mu­nal farm and be­gan help­ing sup­port her fam­ily as a teenager dur­ing the famine, ped­al­ing her bi­cy­cle through nearby vil­lages, 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 cen­ter of North Korean 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 years old when he came to power af­ter his fa­ther’s 2011 death, now faces the chal­lenge of his own gen­er­a­tion, with a lit­tle over one-third of North Kore­ans be­lieved to be un­der the age of 25.

On his gen­tler days, Kim has reached out to young peo­ple: “I am one of you, and we are the fu­ture,” he said in one speech. There was an in­crease in youth-ori­ented mass ral­lies af­ter Kim’s as­cen­sion, and pub­lic pledges of youth loy­alty. Ear­lier this year, the regime held the first na­tional gath­er­ing in 23 years of the Kim Il Sung So­cial­ist Youth league, a mass or­ga­ni­za­tion for all North Kore­ans ages 14 to 30. There’s also pro­pa­ganda now clearly aimed at young peo­ple, like the all-woman Mo­ran­bong Band, which per­forms pop-po­lit­i­cal an­thems in tight skirts and high heels.

But fear has a long his­tory in North Korea, where at least 80,000 peo­ple are be­lieved to be held in an ar­chi­pel­ago of po­lit­i­cal prison camps, some for sim­ply be­ing re­lated to some­one sus­pected of dis­loy­alty. De­spite his youth and his school­ing in Switzer­land, Kim un­der­stands the tools that his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther used. He has purged dozens of pow­er­ful mem­bers of his in­ner cir­cle, in­clud­ing his un­cle, who “did se­ri­ous harm to the youth move­ment in our coun­try.”

Kim also has blasted out­side movies and mu­sic as “poi­sonous weeds” and in 2015, re­searchers say, his regime an­nounced that peo­ple caught with South Korean videos could face 10 years of im­pris­on­ment at hard la­bor.

Most young peo­ple have grown up with at least some ac­cess to smug­gled DVDs or flash drives, whether Chi­nese TV shows (nor­mally OK with the gov­ern­ment), Amer­i­can movies (highly sus­pi­cious, though Sch­warzeneg­ger shootem-ups are said to be in high de­mand) or a buf­fet of dig­i­tized South Korean en­ter­tain­ment choices (by far the most pop­u­lar, and by far the most dan­ger­ous.)

In the North, South Korean soap op­eras are far more than just weepy sagas of thwarted love. To many young North­ern­ers they are win­dows onto a mod­ern world, nur­tur­ing mid­dle-class as­pi­ra­tions while help­ing change ev­ery­thing from fash­ion to ro­mance.

To­day, young women can be seen on the streets of Py­ongyang in tight-fit­ting blouses and short skirts (though no shorter than 2 inches above the knee, Han notes, or party work­ers can de­mand you change or pay a fine). Cou­ples can oc­ca­sion­ally be spot­ted hold­ing hands in the parks along the Tae­dong River. In a cul­ture where ar­ranged mar­riages were the norm un­til very re­cently, young peo­ple now date openly and choose their own spouses.

Some things, though, have barely changed at all.

The power of the po­lice state, for in­stance, with its web of agen­cies and legions of in­form­ers, re­mains im­mense.

So while the gen­er­a­tional di­vide has grown, there have been no signs of youth­ful anger: no univer­sity protests, no po­lit­i­cal graf­fiti, no anony­mous leaflets. Even among them­selves, young peo­ple say pol­i­tics is al­most al­ways avoided, with hon­est con­ver­sa­tions saved only for im­me­di­ate fam­ily and the clos­est friends.

Plus, pol­i­tics is not at the heart of the gen­er­a­tion gap.

Of­fi­cially, North Korea re­mains rigidly so­cial­ist, a coun­try where pri­vate prop­erty is il­le­gal and bu­reau­crats con­trol the econ­omy.

Then there’s the re­al­ity. “Ev­ery­body wants money now,” says Han, whose fa­ther ran a suc­cess­ful tim­ber busi­ness. In her home­town, where squat houses and small fac­to­ries line the Yalu River bor­der with China, her fam­ily counted as wealthy. “I grew up like a princess,” she says hap­pily, tick­ing off the fam­ily’s pos­ses­sions: a TV, two lap­top com­put­ers, easy ac­cess to the lat­est South Korean K-pop videos.

Money now cour­ses through North Korea, shak­ing a world that ear­lier gen­er­a­tions thought would never change. Ex­perts be­lieve the pri­vate sec­tor, a web of busi­nesses rang­ing from neigh­bor­hood traders to tex­tile fac­to­ries, ac­counts for as much as half of the North Korean econ­omy, with most peo­ple depend­ing on it fi­nan­cially, at least in part.

Young North Kore­ans “were all brought up in a mar­ket econ­omy. For them, Kim Il Sung is his­tory,” says Smith. “They’ve got dif­fer­ent norms, dif­fer­ent hopes.”

Ma­jor mar­kets are off-lim­its to most out­siders, but refugee de­scrip­tions and satel­lite im­agery show more than 400 across the coun­try, ware­house-size build­ings filled with traders selling ev­ery­thing from moon­shine to Chi­nese car parts.

“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. More and more, peo­ple are in­ter­ested in the mar­kets, in buy­ing and selling, in money.”

The mar­kets also mean there’s much more to buy: bat­tery-pow­ered bi­cy­cles to ride on rut­ted roads, cheap Chi­nese elec­tron­ics, im­ported fab­rics, so­lar pan­els for elec­tric­ity out­ages.

If North Korea re­mains very poor, with mal­nu­tri­tion rates sim­i­lar to those in Zim­babwe and Syria, it is no longer an eco­nomic bas­ket case. And con­sumerism, once de­rided as a cap­i­tal­ist dis­ease, has rip­pled through the cul­ture.

“Young women don’t want to stay on tiny farms any­more,” says Lee. “They want to move to cities, to fall in love with some big-city rich guy, just like in South Korea.”

Or at least just like in South Korean soap op­eras.

In Py­ongyang they say none of this. Not openly. And def­i­nitely not to a for­eign re­porter shad­owed ev­ery­where by gov­ern­ment min­ders.

On a sunny spring af­ter­noon, by a three-story obelisk cel­e­brat­ing North Korea’s love for its lead­ers, a math stu­dent at the coun­try’s top univer­sity talks about how life has changed since her mother was young.

“There is one dif­fer­ence,” says 19-yearold Jang Sol Hyang. “My mother lived un­der the wise lead­er­ship of Gen­er­alis­si­mos Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and I live in the great era of Mar­shal Kim Jong Un.”

As she talks, a well-dressed, sour-look­ing man walks up to lis­ten, stand­ing only a cou­ple feet away.

Maybe he’s a party of­fi­cial. Maybe he’s se­cret po­lice. Maybe he’s just a nosy passerby.

But no one asks.

In­stead, Jang con­tin­ues talk­ing about the glo­ries of her coun­try, and the young leader shep­herd­ing his peo­ple into the fu­ture.

The As­so­ci­ated Press

KIM FAM­ILY: Peo­ple walk be­neath por­traits of late lead­ers, Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, on April 18 in Py­ongyang, North Korea. For gen­er­a­tions, pro­pa­ganda about the Kim fam­ily was all that most North Kore­ans knew, a mythol­ogy of pow­er­ful but ten­der-hearted rulers who pro­tect their peo­ple against a hos­tile world.

The As­so­ci­ated Press

QUI­ETLY GROW­ING: Waitresses wait out­side a restau­rant on April 12 in Py­ongyang, North Korea. A gen­er­a­tional di­vide is qui­etly grow­ing in North Korea, of­ten hid­den be­hind re­lent­less pro­pa­ganda. Their lives, from pro­fes­sional as­pi­ra­tions to dat­ing habits, are in­creas­ingly shaped by a grow­ing mar­ket econ­omy and thriv­ing un­der­ground trade in smug­gled TV shows and mu­sic.

The As­so­ci­ated Press

K-POP STYLE: Two young North Korean boys wear­ing base­ball caps walk down a street on April 16 in Py­ongyang, North Korea. On the streets there are young women in not-quite mini-skirts and teenage boys with base­ball hats cocked side­ways, K-pop style. A gen­er­a­tional di­vide is qui­etly grow­ing in North Korea, of­ten hid­den be­hind re­lent­less pro­pa­ganda.

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