The cult of Korea

By Razib Khan | November 23, 2010 2:11 pm

There are currently some scary goings-on in the Korean peninsula. If you have some time, I recommend Inside North Korea from National Geographic. Here’s the final scene. Jump to 5 minutes.

MORE ABOUT: Korea, North Korea
  • Clark

    The scary thing about N. Korea is just how disconnected to reality the people are. (Or appears to be anyway) Reminds me of Afghanistan or Haiti where you have such an uneducated ill informed populace that they can believe all number of incredibly silly things.

    As many have said the danger is the leadership firing up the populace and losing control.

  • Razib Khan

    koreans are literate. the difference is that this isn’t just random ignorance, but systematic ideological indoctrination.

  • twl

    For those in UK who can’t watch that it’s still available here (short time only) at youtube.

    It’s scary but if the patients all come from around Pyongyang they are going to be from families that are very supportive of the leadership because that’s a precondition for living in the capital.

  • omar

    Clark, you are confusing ignorance and indoctrination. And lack of education is an entirely separate issue. Most Afghans lack formal education and dont know too much about the modern world but they know a lot about their own world and they are not brain washed in this manner, not by a long shot. On the contrary, the average Afghan (male) is able to think for himself and would not be easy to fool into any such act of emperor worship. In fact, I would say that the average Afghan male has more “agency” than the average educated male in many more educated countries. You may regard them as barbarians, but they are individualistic barbarians, who calculate their own interest rather well and have their own opinions about most things around them….no comparison to North Korea.

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  • Brian Too

    Why does North Korea even exist anymore? Why does it survive? I mean, you know, with the current regime, not in totality.

    This kind of stuff, with these Cold War era leaders, leadership cults, repressed societies, most of that is gone. North Korea is a vestige of another time. It’s like the land that time forgot.

    We used to be able to pick out the crazy countries. Cambodia, Bulgaria, Uganda, (briefly) Rwanda, even China pre-1970. Most of these are better now, from modestly better to dramatically better.

    Only N. Korea stands as an epicenter of crazy. Well, them and Iran, although even Iran has an opposition movement for goodness sakes!

  • Razib Khan

    Only N. Korea stands as an epicenter of crazy. Well, them and Iran, although even Iran has an opposition movement for goodness sakes!

    iran is an authoritarian regime. korea is a totalitarian regime. there’s a big difference. many of america’s allies, like egypt or saudi arabia, are arguably more authoritarian than iran in their public culture, and are just as constraining of civil society. iran constrains and discriminates against public expression of minority religions, but saudi arabia proscribes the public expression of non-muslim religions (to some extent, anything that’s not their form of salafi islam). also, christians in iran are probably safer than christians in iraq!

    cuba is probably the only good analog to north korea, and it’s much milder at this point. many cubans have some sense of what the outside world is like through family contacts. north koreans are apparently often shocked that south korea is not an american-occupied waste land. something like equatorial guinea is probably as oppressive as north korea, but the social conditions are so different than the analogy breaks down in many places. many ppl in EG”s elite are illiterate, while north korea is a universal literacy society.

  • Clark

    Razib, as you say they are literate, but not in a free way. Note that I didn’t say North Koreans were illiterate, just that their ignorance reminds me of places where people are illiterate. The issue isn’t being theoretically able to read but rather being able to find information and be skeptical. I could have made that clearer. After all there are lots of literate fundamentalists who aren’t skeptically literate. However being illiterate in places like Afghanistan or Haiti makes the situation that much worse. Being literate but not reading through choice (as with some Americans) or through restrictions (countries like N. Korea) ends up largely being a difference without much of a difference in terms of results.

    Omar, most groups are informed about what they encounter regularly. (Although even there one finds a lot of nonsense – look at water dowsing in the US) Outside of that experience though they are ill informed and typically open to a high level of nonsense. I don’t think indoctrination vs. ignorance really captures what I’m getting at. Someone may be bright but unable to think through issues critically. Of course that can happen here in the US as well. There’s no shortage of urban legends Americans believe. But in places like North Korea, Haiti or many other places the lack of access/ability to read about the world leads to huge problems. The problem is that when leaders try to manipulate the public and enflame them they can quickly lose control precisely because of this problem.

    But as you both note, one should distinguish literacy from ignorance.

    BTW – I don’t think Cuba is a good analogy to N. Korea. While the US has had a travel ban others have been able to go to Cuba and interact with people widely. (Canadians were quite positively viewed by the Cubans and it wasn’t hard to go on vacation there) Further consumer goods were a little more widely dispersed in Cuba along with telecasts and radio from the US. (I’m not sure how much exposure to S. Korean media N. Koreans have as a practical matter) I’m not playing down Castro and what he did, but I think it gets a mite bit exaggerated in the US. On the other hand N. Korea is a whole other world from what I can tell. Cuba I think most of us would recognize, even if we chaffed under the restrictions in say the 80’s.

  • Razib Khan

    clark, re: north korea vs. haiti. i think the two are very different because north korea clearly has the human capital to be an advanced developed society. or it did in 1950. the east asian societies had high literacy rates 100 years ago. higher than haiti or afghanistan today! north korea’s “insanity” then is clearly due to the particular nature of its totalitarianism, and irrational herd behavior driven by the collective action which can occur in a society which has asabiyyah. haiti or afghanistan have no asabiyyah, nor do they have high human capital levels. that’s why they can’t even maintain a nuclear program with aid from other countries.

    to be clear, i think north koreans have a clear and distinct model of the broader world. it just happens to bear no correspondence to reality. in contrast, hatians and afghans are more parochial. they may have weird ideas, but those are more bottom-up memes which float around via ignorance.

    i’m inclined to concede on your point about cuba. i can’t think of any real analogy to north korea. as i said, zimbabwe and EG are too different because of their low human capital levels. perhaps turkmenistan is a pale shadow with the old cult of turkmenbashi?

  • Sandgroper

    Here are some tourist photos and travel notes on Cuba from 2003 (not mine, but I know the photographer, and he is definitely no Commie stooge – no reason to try to talk the place up or show a good side, although he has an obvious bias towards taking nice pics):

    I can see no comparison between Cuba and North Korea.

    My first reaction when I first saw these photos of Cuba was that I wanted to go there for a holiday, except that I’m not into smoking cigars or drinking rum, and I imagine the whole country must reek of cigar smoke.

  • Lab Lemming

    Zimbabwe is a democratic country with an opposition. It is similar only in that it is mismanaged to the point where it is much poorer than it ought to me. But Zimbabewans can travel, others can go there, and it has significant interactions on economic and professional levels with other countries.

    Ditto with Cuba. Cuban scientists travel all over Latin American and the former eastern block.

    The conference in China I went to last month had a Cuban geologist there. And half a dozen South Korean scientists. And (obviously) scores of Chinese, including Taiwanese and Hong Kong researchers. But no North Koreans.

    I think the only country as closed might be Bhutan, but it is less industrialized and militarized.

  • jld

    It looks Orwell was right “on principles” only erring a bit about timing and place (and, hopefully, universality of the scourge).
    Does not that support the “meme” idea that humans (even potentially brilliant) are just pawns of higher order schemes, cultural, political, religious?

  • Sandgroper

    #11 – There were some guys from Bhutan here in Australia last month, and I attended secondary school with three Bhutanese (different ones).

    “By a long standing treaty, Indian and Bhutanese citizens may travel to each other’s countries without a passport or visa using their national identity cards instead. Bhutanese citizens may also work in India without legal restriction.”

    “In 1999, the government lifted a ban on television and the Internet.”

    No, Bhutan is not as closed as North Korea. Nowhere close. The Bhutanese are very friendly people, just very concerned about erosion of their own culture.

  • Alexander Kruel

    Bah! Geo-restricted :-(

  • cc

    Since everyone’s offering up countries for comparison, here’s another one. How does Myanmar compare with North Korea?

  • Tembo

    Myanmar has a functioning opposition movement that is led by a highly-respected Nobel Peace Prize laureate. That, and its military appears to feel the need to maintain at least the appearance of democracy (witness the recent elections that took place there).

    Also, both India’s and China’s governments are trying to make deals with it.

    North Korea, on the other hand, has no apparent functioning opposition movement, and no perceived need for even the illusion of democracy. That, and the media frequently implies that the Kim family is little more than a totalitarian monarchy, albeit one with a Confucian twist. Furthermore, the Chinese are the only ones who seem to have much to do with it, and that involvement appears, more often than not, to be grudging support more than anything else.

    With that in mind, though, a case could be made for comparing Eritrea (in the Horn of Africa) with North Korea. As “Foreign Policy” made clear (, it does have some similarities.

    First, it has a track record of provoking its neighbors, what with picking fights with them (particularly Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Yemen, and one other), and also supporting rebel movements inside them (including Somalia’s Al Shabab).

    Also, Eritrea has an authoritarian government. Its leader, who was a former guerilla leader during the time when it fought to gain independence from Ethiopia, believes his country is years from being ready for elections. Meanwhile, he continues to rule.

    It is, in many respects, a police state: its citizens are at constant risk for arrest, and for being sent to prison camps.

    It also has no press freedom. As the article indicates, “(f)or three years running, it has been named by Reporters Without Borders as the worst place in the world to be a journalist…”

    It is a highly militarized state. Its military effectively runs the state, and its citizens are required to serve in it (even to graduate from high school). To buy anything, they have to have ration cards.

    Even then, it is hard for them to buy anything, since stores there tend to have bare shelves. Its restaurants are unable to serve many meals featured on their menus. Gas is hard to come by in that country, too: as the article indicates, “hiring a car to leave Asmara requires at least a day’s notice so that gas can be arranged.”

    Although there are a number of other shortages there, two bear mentioning. First, basic antibiotics are not easy to find. Also, Coca-Cola, which produces its soda nearly everywhere in the world, can’t make it there since there isn’t any coke syrup available.

    Although Eritrea isn’t North Korea – among other reasons, its citizens can still access the internet, albeit over a poor connection – it does appear to have enough similarities with it that some comparisons between the two can be made.

  • omar

    Clark, I dont think you got my point about Afghanistan (my fault, it was probably not very clear). So I will try again from a different angle:
    I am actually reacting to an impression (correct me if I am mistaken) that you think less educated populations are easier to manipulate and this in turn is the reason they can cause problems (“But in places like North Korea, Haiti or many other places the lack of access/ability to read about the world leads to huge problems. The problem is that when leaders try to manipulate the public and enflame them they can quickly lose control precisely because of this problem”). I was trying to point out that this picture is actually not very true of Afghans. Afghans are not just a little free-er or different from North Koreans, they are actually near the opposite end of the mass indoctrination scale. They are very conscious of being free men, they hate taking orders from anyone, they are very canny and calculating about the world around them (and have successfully milked outsiders of billions of dollars in the last few years, as American taxpayers will one day determine; and this milking is not done by a narrow group of elite dictators as in North Korea, but “from the ground up” by ordinary Afghans calculating their own interest). They are not all foreign policy specialists (neither are Americans) but their elite is well aware of international realities. Their businessmen do business in every country. There are very successful and very powerful Afghani businessmen in Pakistan, India, the gulf, central asia and beyond. My point was that lumping North Korea and Afghanistan into the same category is very very misleading.
    Secondly, mass indoctrination requires mass education.
    You may be confused by the impression that they are “brainwashed” into an Islamic cult. I think that too is a misleading analogy. Islam in Afghanistan is part and parcel of their culture, it is not an imposition from above by leaders who are using it to successfully manipulate a serf-like population of robotic followers…its a distinction worth keeping in mind.

  • Clark

    I got your point Omar, and perhaps your right that I simply don’t know enough about the typical Afghan. However people I’ve talked to who have been there in the hinterland keep telling me of propaganda that people inexplicably believe. I think the point you make that I do agree with is that Afghanistan isn’t centralized and thus not open to manipulation in the way N. Korea was. (Although one has to wonder if N. Koreans in actuality are like Russians in the 70’s and had learned to recognize most of what the government says is a lie)

    I think my point is more that among the uneducated it’s possible for ridiculous memes to spread and be taken quite seriously. Conspiracy theories are the obvious example. I was listening to conspiracy theories about gays in Uganda that has led to some draconian laws in a fairly democratic country. Would that have been possible with better and broader education? I tend to think not, but perhaps I’m just showing my naivete here. After all there’s no end to silly conspiracy theories in the EU or the US.

  • omar

    Clark, conspiracy theories in Pakistan are far sillier in the educated middle class than they are in the poor and uneducated peasants. The peasants may have a narrower horizon, but within that horizon reality and the story they tell about it are not completely at odds. Among the educated elite, reality and fantasy are mixed up to an absolutely amazing degree…and its possible to do this because the education itself is the source of all of the fantasies.

  • Razib Khan

    i think it is important to distinguish on the boundaries top-down vs. bottom-up dynamics. from what i have read many north koreans are not aware that south korea is a developed nation. on the contrary, many believe that it very poor (the northern region was more industrial and wealthier before th partition). this is because of government propaganda. on the other hand, dumb populations the world over have bottom-up memes which sweep through really quickly. how to prevent that? trust in the press and institutions generally probably help. explains why dumb americans believe lots of stupid things.

  • Clark

    But isn’t the propaganda from the press just as much a top down dynamic? A bottom up one would be a meme that goes around the public before being picked up by the press. It seems to me that one big problem in the west is that the press creates narratives it imposes on things independent of bottom-up dynamics. (Although clearly it also can amplify bottom up stuff as well)

    Omar, I’ll bow to your apparent direct experience. I just don’t have any with the people of Pakistan, Afghanistan or so forth. And even the best examples I have second hand of Haiti or Afghanistan probably could better be characterized as bottom-up. (i.e. the fear in Haiti of breaking ones face by opening a fridge)

  • Justin Giancola

    Does anyone know how much we are doing in the US or West to help these people? Hopefully it’s more that making “Team America.”
    It seems very sad to me if they do indeed have no opposition movement as I would think if they reunited with the South they could blossom onto the world stage China fast.

  • omar

    justin, a rapid reunification with South Korea is likely to be a near-disaster for South Korea. Absorbing this population will take several years and hundreds of billions of dollars….it wont be easy even after the Kim regime collapses..Eventually they will become an asset, but it will take a long time, and full parity with the South in terms of human capital will take a generation….once humans have grown up, they are very hard to cure of their misconceptions..

  • Razib Khan

    they are very hard to cure of their misconceptions..

    and malnutrition. northerners are smaller, and those who went through the 90s famines are going to be stunted their whole lives. i know that south korea though has a lot of people who have studied german reunification, and they have people in berlin apparently who are trying to learn on the ground. the gap between the west germany and GDR was smaller, and west germany was proportionally much bigger than the GDR that the ROK is vis-a-vis the north korea.

  • Clark

    Probably the best S. Korea can hope for is stabilization of these sorts of incidents after the death of Kim Jong-il followed by gradual liberalization. I have a suspicion that the transition through power won’t be that pleasant though. (I hope I’m wrong) A lot honestly depends upon China who undoubtedly have far more to fear by a breakdown in N. Korea.

    BTW – you read Jimmy Carter’s editorial this week? I’m not enough of an expert on N. Korea to know what to make of it. It does seem like N. Korea has some ridiculous views of the west and is acting on that misinformation. But I don’t quite get why it wants S. Korea out of any talks. Especially considering how far US troop levels there have dropped. (I believe it’s down at around 20,000 now plus support staff whereas in the 70’s we were several times that)

  • TGGP

    Eritrea is top of Wikipedia’s list for per capita military spending. North Korea isn’t listed.

  • omar

    I think China is be actively interested in keeping North Korea going. I dont think they are much of a “problem” for China. Beyond the problems that may arise post-collapse, the idea of a united and stable Korea cannot be on top of China’s priorities…

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  • Clark

    China wants status quo. i.e. no war with the influx of refugees into China. (They already are pretty harsh towards N. Korean illegal immigrants) And no unified Korea which would reduce their sphere of influence. However even escalation in Korea back to the levels of the 70s involves more US involvement in the area around Korea and an associated decrease in Chinese power in that region. Honestly though China has made numerous missteps the past couple of years making other east Asian powers nervous enough so as to rethink things a lot. Japan in particular.

    Of course for a slew of reasons the US wants to reduce its presence in Korea. (This was explicitly stated under Pentagon plans under Bush, and I’m sure if anything Obama wants that policy more than Bush) What’s weird is that in some ways N. Korea wants to reduce S. Korean power and keep American influence in the area. (In many ways that’s the point of bilateral talks excluding S. Korea) As I said, this makes no sense to me, but presumably it makes some sense to the N. Koreans. I suspect they want to balance China and the US against each other whereas right now China holds the cards. But that’s just a guess.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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