7 ways that North Korea is exactly like 1984

7 ways that North Korea is exactly like 1984

North Korea is perhaps one of the most terrifying dictatorships ever witnessed in modern history and the laundry list of human rights abuses the country's leaders are guilty of is too long to list here. As tensions between the totalitarian, isolationist nation and the United States have heightened over the course of Trump's first term, more and more experts have been left extremely troubled by the aggression and nuclear capability exhibited by the People's Republic.

What's even more worrying is that this autocracy actually has a precursor in literature; George Orwell's seminal dystopian novel 1984, which gives readers a nightmarish vision of a despotic Britain known as "Airstrip One", ruled over by an omnipotent figure known only as Big Brother. Many of the terms that George Orwell coined have since fallen into our common lexicon (doublethink, thoughtcrime, unperson, etc). Looking at North Korean society, the essayist and journalist Christopher Hitchens observed: "George Orwell's 1984 was published at about the time that Kim Il Sung set up his system, and it really is as if he got hold of an early copy of the novel and used it as a blueprint." Did the Kim dynasty actually use Orwell's text as a psychopathic social manual? It seems likely. Take a look at the six eerie similarities between fiction and the reality.

1. The government controls the truth

In Orwell's 1984, the Party employs the Ministry of Truth to control the flow of information to the public; they do this by editing books, newsreels and newspapers to reflect their version of events and because no contradictory information is allowed to exist thanks to the rigorous censorship, the Party effectively controls reality itself. The same is unfortunately true in North Korea, where, by law, North Korean libraries are prohibited from stocking books older than fifteen years - they must be re-edited and reprinted every five years, which means that the Party controls history. North Koreans are continually told that America and other Western powers are crueller than they are and are lied to about food supplies, harvests and their economy. Furthermore, access to the internet and other channels of news is banned for the vast majority of the populace. What the government says is always true, no matter what the facts actually are and North Koreans are often forced into cognitive dissonance.

A square formation of North Korean soldiers. Credit: Getty

2. Society exists in a constant state of war

In 1984, the Party uses an eternal war between three equally-matched superpowers to justify its suppression of the populace and the terrible living standards they endure. Bread shortages, rationing and a poorly-maintained infrastructure are all explained as the result of the stalemate between Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. North Korea itself is one of the most militarised societies on Earth, where the country spends 24 per cent of its GDP on the military and where there are more than 1.2 million active soldiers, and approximately seven million in reserve. Here, diplomatic tensions between the communist North and the democratic South, as well as Japan and the United States, are convenient pretexts to the maintenance of the vast military complexes. Victory is not actually the overall objective of the conflict, which simply exists to eat up spare resources and keep the population in line.

Female North Koreans on parade. Credit: Pixabay/589724

3. The social conditions are appalling

Life in Airstrip One sucks, that's for sure. Society is organised into rigid castes, human rights are non-existent, work is constant and death is the only escape. Everyone in the novel is starved, tired, overstressed and paranoid, and the party's brainwashing ensures that even familial bonds have been rendered meaningless. Entertainment is either puerile and brainless, or sheer propaganda and the Party's eugenicists are even attempting to stamp out sex and eliminate the orgasm. Comparatively, life in North Korea is little better. The economy is so poor that it can barely afford to feed its own people since almost all resources go towards supplying the bloated and inefficient army. Much like in 1984, the elite enjoys certain privileges like indoor plumbing, cars, meat, coffee, chocolate and other luxury goods, while the workers are forced to subside on rations in conditions of extreme poverty; 33 per cent of North Korean children suffer from a stunted growth due to malnutrition.  According to a report by the Korea Institute for National Unification: "The standard of living has deteriorated to extreme levels of deprivation in which the right to food security, health and other minimum needs for human survival are denied."

Two North Koreans in the countryside. Credit: Pixabay/StillWZ

4. North Koreans live under total surveillance

In 1984, Big Brother is always watching; whether it's via cameras embedded within citizens' telescreens, or the dense network of spies and informers who rat out dissidents, the characters never feel safe or unobserved. North Korea similarly exercises complete omniscience and no part of any citizen's life is kept wholly private. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea claims that North Korea controls a "massive, multilevel system of informants", which rewards informers and monitors internet and telephone usage. This monitoring also goes beyond wired microphones and wiretapping of phones. Now even face-to-face conversations could potentially be caught on a microphone.

A surveillance camera. Credit: Pixabay/Ollis_picture

5. Room 101 is real

Room 101 is the place where Orwell's Thought Police detain prisoners and brutally torture them into subservience by exposing them to their worst fears (in the case of protagonist Winston Smith, this takes the form of having his head locked in a cage to be gnawed at by rats) until they submit. In North Korea, the regime's commands are enforced by a brutal secret police force, who torture potentially rebellious citizens in gulags throughout the country. In 1984, Winston is tortured horribly and his spirit is broken so utterly, that he willingly gives up his lover Julia, telling his captors to "do it [to her!" Sadly, this mirrors the case of North Korean man Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person to ever be born in a North Korean labour camp and escape. Shin apparently turned in his mother and brother to the authorities to be executed after they made a bid for freedom. Shin claims that he betrayed his mother and brother purely because he was hoping the guards would let him eat a full meal for the first time in his life.

A government building in North Korea. Credit: Pixabay/Conan_mizuta

6. They love their leader

In the novel, the all-powerful figure of Big Brother is worshipped by Inner and Outer party members as something almost akin to a deity; capable of superhuman feats and incredible insight. Almost all popular culture is directed towards this cult of personality. In North Korea, the veneration for figures such as Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un verges on the fanatical and North Koreans are expected to believe a host of patently impossible facts about their despots. For instance, the deceased Kim Il-sung is constitutionally referred to as the "Eternal President". Apocryphal stories claim that Kim Jong-il's birth was heralded by a swallow and caused the seasons to change and a new star and double rainbow to appear in the sky. Other propaganda claimed that Jong-il could control the weather with his thoughts, and could talk at the age of six months. 

A North Korean soldier guarding a U.N. office. Credit: Pixabay/Pontamax

7. It has a building that looks like the Ministry of Truth

In the novel, the Ministry of Truth, the propaganda publisher where Winston Smith works, is described as a tall and imposing building, inspired by the Senate House in Bloomsbury, London; "an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete rising 300 metres (980 ft) into the air, containing over 3000 rooms above ground." Similarly, North Korea has an eerily similar building of its own in the form of the Ryugyong hotel, an unfinished and gigantic hotel complex which towers over the rest of Pyongyang. The hotel was scheduled to open in June 1989, but this has been delayed for decades thanks to a shortage of materials and a number of economic crashes.

Credit: Getty

8. They have their own version of Newspeak

Newspeak is the strange and stilted dialect practised by party members in the novel, which is designed to restrict grammar and limit free speech, making political unorthodoxy more difficult to express. In North Korea, shortly after the end of WWII, Kim Il-sung attempted to "socialise" the Korean language, by abolishing the use of Chinese characters. This common tongue was called "Chosŏnŏ". Much like with Newspeak, Il-sung banned descriptive words and flowery language and thus created a “prescriptive” dictionary for recommended terms of speech.

An image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Credit: Pixabay/Vborodinova

Millions have already perished thanks to the oppression they've suffered at the hands of the government, and now that North Korea has developed a nuclear arsenal capable of striking against the United States, direct military intervention now seems unlikely without incurring heavy military and civilian casualties. However, we are learning more and more about conditions there thanks to the efforts of brave dissenters. For example, recently a teenager may have managed to expose a huge North Korean secret.