When I arrived in South Korea, almost every other word I heard was new to me, but the most impressive word of all was “freedom.” For defectors, people who had lived for so long without any expression, there were no phrases like freedom of expression or freedom of the press.
As everyone in the free world knows, here in South Korea people can say anything they want, whenever they want; support the government; denounce the President; make fun of leaders; criticize policies; criticize politicians or criticize parties.
In North Korea such things are absolutely forbidden, so naturally the people learn to enjoy crude humor instead; not because of the optimistic and humorous nature of the people I must point out, but because of the nature of North Korean politics.
In North Korea, it is not an exaggeration to say that there is at least one meeting every 24 hours. Every week contains studies, lectures, self-criticism and evaluation meetings in each work unit, and a further two or three meetings of People’s Units to boot.
A worker goes to work in the morning, whereupon s/he has to take part in a morning meeting. Then there is an evaluation meeting after work. At every meeting, they have to criticize others’. Almost every North Korean is sick and tired of every kind of meeting, indeed after defecting they often say that the best thing about South Korea is living without meetings.
On those occasions when people actually risk engaging in small talk, they must be careful not to go too far. They can pass on bland tidbits of information, or gently comment about life, for example, “It’s hard to live these days due to the high food prices,” or “Someone’s house was broken into last night.” But if such stories start to sound in any way like complaints…
It is said that there is approximately one agent from the National Security Agency or People’s Safety Agency for every five to ten people, so disaster is almost everywhere, almost all the time.
We have a proverb, “A short tongue can lose a long neck.” And there are many cases to prove the point: Kim Young Soon, an advisor to the Committee for Democratization of North Korea, was dispatched to No. 15 Camp in Yoduk with her whole family because she talked recklessly about Sung Hye Rim, mistress of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Nam’s mother. She was there for almost a decade during the peak time of her life.
So, if you ever have to live in North Korea, where just knowing the wrong thing can turn you into a political prisoner, you should say nothing, hear nothing and see nothing, for it is the only way you will get by.
But you can enjoy the odd dirty joke, if you want.