It’s impossible to allocate percentages. Just anecdotally, it’s everything from people who swallow every last word that the regime churns out, to people who of course have to go along to the meetings, and have to parrot the right phrases, but who will tell you at the drop of a hat that the whole thing stinks. And everybody in between. It’s not uncommon to find North Koreans who say that yes, mistakes have been made in our country – they always use the passive voice rather than suggest that someone who they dare not mention may have made a mistake. But they remain deeply patriotic, and deeply attached to their god-king. So you get a bit of everything.
It’s very dangerous to talk about ‘the ordinary North Korean’. North Koreans are individuals like the rest of us, they’re sharply delineated, and they all think differently. I’ve often thought that if I were trying to create the world’s most vertically directed and homogenous state, I wouldn’t start with Koreans – they’re a bolshie lot. So when you talk to North Koreans about how they respond to propaganda, you get the full range of responses. You do get true believers – they’ll put their hand on their heart and tell you, yes, they’re ruled by an omnipotent demigod who has faced down the evil imperialists. Right through to people who – provided they’re absolutely sure nobody is listening – will indicate that, frankly, they don’t think the Kim dynasty is any great cop, and that they know very well that life is a lot better south of the border. And everything in between.
"It’s very dangerous to talk about ‘the ordinary North Korean’. North Koreans are individuals like the rest of us, they’re sharply delineated, and they all think differently."
The propaganda is pretty relentless, though. There are billboards everywhere conveying the regime’s messages. You are summoned to regular political meetings where the sacred text of the day is read out to you. You can sometimes listen to ordinary broadcast radio, but a lot of the time you’re obliged to listen to what is called the Third Channel, all of which is speeches by the leadership and instructions about what to think. But I found that with a lot of North Koreans, the propaganda had become so intense that they were simply inured to it – it was just something that went on in the background, and they’d stopped listening to it. I remember asking North Koreans what they’d studied in their latest political class, and often they’ d say they didn’t remember.
You hear from some, a Korean saying that they’re like frogs at the bottom of a well – that all they can see is the small circle of light right above you, which is what the regime allows them to see. They know very well there’s a lot more of the world they can’ t see. It’s interesting that one of the favourite programmes on North Korean television when I was there was the half-hour of international news on Sunday evenings, which all my friends would tune into religiously, on the principle that even though you probably thought you weren’t being told the whole truth, at least you got some of the truth.
It’s quite common amongst North Koreans to find that they know that a lot of what they get told in their political classes is simple myth. But they treat it rather like quite conservative parents treat Christmas in front of their children. They realise that of course a lot of it is not actually true, but it’s such a pity to spoil the story.