Handy lessons from North Korea

Abstract: What we can learn from North Korea about populace control…

Given the smattering of rather bizarre official reports that emerge from North Korea, and the fact that they’re invariably distorted in an attempt to protect it as the world’s most secretive state, it’s hard to imagine that the country could teach us anything. However, if there’s one thing it’s hit squarely on the head, it’s how to keep its people in place; something I’m sure most governments wish they could get right.

If you’d like to try something a little weird but not that difficult, take a couple of minutes one day to pop into your local travel agent and tell them you feel you deserve a holiday, and that you were thinking of Pyongyang. The chances are they’d discourage you and suggest somewhere a little more upbeat; say Siberia. If I were the agent I’d recommend you peruse a brochure, and hand you a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Pyongyang, and indeed the rest of North Korea, is arguably the closest embodiment of the dark, oppressive and brutal dystopian world that is carved into the pages of Orwell’s masterpiece. Steered by a central party – complete with a familial, deified and omnipresent leader – which rules through fear and suppression and the direct control on the crafting and flow of information, it pervades every inch of the lives of its people.

The party’s secret is its understanding of a fundamental element of human psychology: most people are followers, and wait to be led. North Koreans learnt this from the Chinese during the Korean War of the early 1950s. American prisoners of war were invariably separated – officers and NCOs together, but away from the far larger group of rank and file soldiers. The numbers of guards were allocated accordingly: most guards keeping an eye on the smaller group.

The North Koreans knew that the rank and file would invariably resist the temptation to escape, because they lacked not only the resourcefulness but also the inner drive to do so. Those who did take the initiative were isolated, imprisoned with the officers and NCOs, or simply killed as an example to the others and to suppress any other ideas of insurrection. The metaphor of sheep in a pen is a little harsh and unfortunate, but not too far off the mark.

But it’s not just during incarceration that human initiative to effect change is suppressed. It is programmed into the broader human psyche. The proof exists by entertaining the inevitable consequences of its hypothetical inversion: if the will to take the initiative and lead were in all of us, everyone would be scrambling for a foothold. The result would be chaos.

Democratic governments know this, and capitalise on it. They’re aware that the secret to staying in power is simply to show the will and gumption to take the responsibility of leading. This is especially effective in countries with a culture of deep respect for authority figures, and where criticism of such figures and their actions and decisions is frowned upon.

As a result, people will generally follow the rules set by an authority as long as those people are isolated from the reality outside of the authority’s dictate. Leaders with a lust for power know this. The last thing they need is people embracing critical thinking and challenging the status quo. The key to this is the provision of a rudimentary education, or at least one that is sufficiently skewed to a set agenda; and after that, ensuring little in the way of influence that could encourage people to rise against their lot. In brief, they must be kept largely in the dark and away from those who could show them what it’s like on the other side, as well as the means to escape their condition.

A picture of those rank and file prisoners of war in North Korea in the 1950s? Actually, it could be modern day South Africa.

Even though the South African Department of Education has at its disposal the largest single share of the national budget, it seems almost unwilling to effectively manage its responsibility. Throw in the ever-present – seemingly ignored – spectre of government corruption and a muzzled media, and the analogy is complete: a supposedly liberated youth that are now prisoners of circumstances outside of their own doing – offered a vestigial education, discouraged from exercising critical thought, and kept at a distance from credible influence.

Spread upon a pre-existing human inclination to wait for guidance, and the result is a pliant emerging populace eager to embrace the dictate of anyone willing to stand up and make enough noise, even if the outcome is a cementing of their own subjugation.

In reality North Korea can’t teach us anything; but we can learn from it. We can learn that there are degrees of control by an authority; that those degrees have various determinants, which are measurable; and that, unless kept in balance, those determinants could forge a future state that is the stuff of nightmares.

Originally published in the July 2013 edition of Leadership magazine