There is a special report on Life In North Korea in the ST today. Several articles were written by a batch of journalism students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and information at NTU. They happened to be invited to North Korea a few weeks before the death of Kim Jong Il. There are generous pictures which they took of this hermit and closed country. Their reports gave a first hand version of what is on the ground, even if staged and the best front the North Koreans could put forward. It is still revealing if one cares to look closer for the truth of how the North Koreans live their life, though only a little peep in a keyhole.
‘Hints of hardship if you look hard enough’ is the title of a Foo Jie Ying’s article. In Singapore, the richest country in the region and one of the richest in the world, you don’t have to look hard enough to find hardship unless one lives in a life of plenty and never walk the streets. I know, some Singaporeans were shockingly surprised to see hardship here when all one needs to do is to walk the streets.
Another of the students, Jennifer Dhanaraj, wrote about visiting this notorious country while the rest were all ready to scrutinise all the evidence of hardship, poverty, regimentation and an oppressive regime. Their expectations were fully met especially on the amount of propaganda that the North Koreans were brought up with.
‘The indoctrination starts in schools. Kindergarten children learn about Mr Kim Il Sung’s humble beginnings.’ Is this new? I am not sure if there were any indoctrination in Singapore, but these students have already formed their impression of this notorious nation even before stepping foot in the country and knew about the famines where reportedly 2m people died and 6m people are in need of food aid.
I am just wondering how much land and people would be needed to bury 2m people over a short period of time. If it is spreaded over a few decades like the tens of millions of Red Indians killed during the genocide in early America, it is easy to bury them and removed all traces of the killings and conveniently forgotten by not talking about them. Everyone seems to remember vividly the 2m famine deaths in North Korea and no one could recall the tens of millions Red Indians killed. Maybe they never call it genocide or something sinister to be remembered.
I am also wondering what were our kindergarten children being taught in Singapore, about its leaders humble beginning and their great achievements. Here we don’t call it indoctrination, just history, so that makes it different.
North Korea is a poor country. There is no need to look hard or look further. But life is far from a poverty stricken country like those in the third world or the developing world. They lived comfortably but without the modern gadgets that are part and parcel of the consumer societies of the developed world. They do not need to dress up everything, advertising and competition to sell and sell and for people to buy and buy.
Their lifestyle is far from what we would expect. As the students pointed out in style, we kept ourselves very busy with our mobile phones, tweeting, emails and got not much time left for socialising. The North Koreans need not spend time playing computer games and sending emails or sms, but lead their lives quite differently.
They did not have Orchard Road and Ion Shopping Malls or our two family entertainment resorts to keep them awake 24 hours. They are supposed to go to bed at 10pm.
Their economy is not even 10% the size of South Korea. But their soldiers were issued with Adidas shoes while ours with Brooks. They need not pay for medical or even child birth while we have to pay by the thousands for the delivery of a child and hundreds of thousands if warded in the hospitals. Sure our hospitals are world class. Definitely their doctors need not be paid in the hundreds of thousands or in millions. They don’t need so much money as their landed properties probably cost a fraction of our COEs while we have to pay hundreds of thousands or millions for a little free airspace for 99 years without owning it. They have free education to university level.
When so many things are free, when the needs for everyday living is simple, no need to pay $350k for overseas telephone bills, when their elite are paid a pittance, how can their GDP be comparable to those consumer societies when everything is priced to the sky to be of value? I bet their Adidas are made in China and cost a few dollars while the same Adidas here would cost a hundred bucks or more here.
Is it logical to compare GDP when the costing is different? They have several million soldiers to feed but each will cost a fraction of what we paid to our soldiers or a pittance of what the Americans paid for their soldiers. For every dollar they got more, many times more of goods and services.
They are poor, but they are not desperate or begging in the streets for food, all looking hungry, lean and in drapes. They dressed well and are well fed. And their streets are absolutely cleaner than ours, cleaner than the cleanest streets in Southeast Asia. Maybe they have nothing to throw away.
The students were constantly being watched during their visits and photography was hardly permissible. They were told to delete things they were not supposed to take. I remembered taking some photos at the underground station in Seoul several years back, innocently of course, just like tourists did everywhere. Immediately I was swarmed by several security personnel that appeared from nowhere and I was whisked to a corner for questioning. Only after showing my passport and giving them a few sheepish and polite smiles before they released me.
I am not sure you can shoot photographs freely in our underground without being stopped. I know that you cannot shoot at any embassies along Tanglin before someone come knocking at your door. A friend of mine had that notorious experience before in our free country.
Looking at North Korea, understanding North Korea, one needs to look at it objectively, like an empty cup, as they are not the same as us, their values and political beliefs, economic and social systems etc are different. Going in with a mind indoctrinated and filled with Western biased ideas of a country and trying to look for things to prove them to be true defeats the impartiality and objectivity of the journalist profession.
Despite all the negative things that I have written, about Singapore and about the US, never did I say that they are all bad. There are many good things here and in the US. An objective mind needs to praise the good and criticise the bad, look at both without ignoring any. If one wants to have a balanced view of things, one needs to look at them as they are, without prejudice, with no agenda.
North Korea is a country, a nation of people living their own lives many thousand miles away. We live our own lives and many North Koreans do not know of our existence nor threaten us in anyway. They mind their own business, they don’t bother us nor condemn us, nor did they ridicule us.
There is no need to ridicule them, condemn them or prejudge them based on the agenda of people who want to make enemies of them.