In North Korea, a generation gap grows behind the propaganda
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-year-olds 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 mid-1990s, 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 shoot-em-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 5 centimeters (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.
“It’s not about the regime,” says Lee, the former door-to-door food saleswoman, who now studies literature at one of South Korea’s top universities. “It’s about money.”
* * *
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-year-old 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.
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