International / Theory

Unknown unknowns: fragments on the impossibility of North Korea

Who needs self congratulation when you have a nation of indentured worshipers?By Alex Griffin


There’s no analogy for a Holocaust except another Holocaust.


If you’re not lucky enough to find a way of getting into the North Korea that isn’t just along  tour guide route- that seems to be mainly the province of Google executives and Dennis Rodman- all we have on North Korea is information. However, the nature of it is such that we have details, but lack any kind of frame. Without experience, without witnessing the reality, the entire country is [citation needed], and this starts with the lack of human accounts. There’s a litany of witnesses and escapees, but their stories are fragmented and island-like, each isolated on a sea of unintelligibility, distorted by grief, suffering and loss. They ring out like John Cage’s aleatoric music; all random notes against a backdrop of fizzing, hateful silence. The trickle of accounts all relate horror, despair, difficulty, excess and absurdity, but they are just single jigsaw pieces on an immeasurably wide plain. The box is missing and the remaining pieces are too, and we have no idea where the borders are.


Set against the horror committed by the Nazis, though, the generations of lost North Koreans are even harder to put into perspective. North Korea is without precedent in human history; at a time when there is no dark corner on the map, there’s radio silence coming from a country twenty-two million strong. We have no way of getting a grasp on the situation. The Holocaust is intelligible on several levels; we have a narrative, we have witnesses from all sides, we have living, communal memory, we have villains, names and heroes, and we have a conclusion to the story. Most importantly, we have the corpses, the monuments to death. The Nazi’s habit of the rational, dedicated process of filing corpses – the bureaucracy of death- makes the Holocaust the most well-documented and accessible tragedy in history. They measure the intentions and the actions of the perpetrators in a way that spells out the madness inherent in the whole thing. As the massive scale of the Holocaust demonstrates the amount of individual complicity in each and every death, each word uttered about it since has underlined the grim impossibility of anyone permitting it to happen again. The names of German doctors, pen-pushers, soliders and bureaucrats born over a century ago are uttered in kitchens globally every day. Memory is constant; information is constantly refreshed. North Korea has nothing of this tangibility. While the world got to see Eichmann on the stand and understand who and what the Holocaust was, we have almost nothing from the side of the North Korean’s captors. We can’t bring order to our impressions until there’s balance, until we can hear all of the voices and see all of the faces. We don’t even have names yet.


All official information on North Korea from the source ad hoc; histories are rewritten, deaths are ignored, production statistics are improvised and leaders play perfect rounds of golf. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the history of Winston’s world is revealed to him, but as information, it’s almost entirely irrelevant. The fact that Oceania has a past is comforting only in the fact that it’s a space being filled. Is any of it even true? How could anything be true in such a world? Likewise, if we believe what we’ve heard, North Korean Five Year Plans have apparently occurred with great success, and hospitals have come up overnight. The fictions the nation has nursed itself with have become reality on some level as a palliative that gives shape to the present, and the longer that world sustains itself the hope of there being a true, meticulous record of the brutality weakens. North Korea may remain a mystery to everything beyond memory.


Literature relating to the execution of Cambodians during the reign of the Khmer Rouge (in which two million people perished over the course of four years) refers to the era as ‘dystopicide’; mass death resulting from attempts to install utopian Communist regimes. The Khmer Rouge’s utopia was pretty set; the aim was to achieve Communism in a single step by destroying the urban classes and making the whole country agrarian. The motto ‘to keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss’ wasn’t just a threat, it was a mission statement. Their drive was absolute, their methods horrific, and, ultimately, their failure certain. In comparison, North Korean ideology is extremely bereft. The official platform of juche basically amounts to economic self-reliance and absolute nationalism, yet, as recently as 2005, North Korea was receiving the second highest amount of foreign aid worldwide. A popular North Korean song goes ‘we have nothing to envy’, but they’ve established nothing in which to take genuine pride. The question asks itself; why are these people dying? What’s the point of it all? Is this just happening out of habit? The last sixty years of North Korean history have no endgame, no purpose, no distinguishing drive towards any point. The whole country is waiting for Godot. Like most questions about North Korea, these are asked with a grimace and they resound with a thud.


The kingdoms and royal lineages of yore see excesses and horrors followed by corrections and spills. Yet, three generations of Kims have, as far as we can tell, seen no real change. They’ve just been slowly pressing the foot harder on the gas pedal for six decades. Six decades of a war without a shot fired, six decades of unmeasured and inestimable suffering, six decades of a trickle of witnesses staggering towards a perplexed world. This is ahistory, history without cycles, a world set writhing under amber. All in all, North Korea might be the most stable nation-state in history, if you take ‘stable’ to mean ‘reliability’. A situation is only real when it has progress and movement; without that, it’s just static absurdity. By accepting death, we can live, but North Korea doesn’t even exist on a timescale. The absurdity of their nuclear threat is a device to extend this unreality and nothing more. Their calendar was reset to make the year of Kim Il Sung’s birth year zero, and the clock hasn’t moved since. Yet, if Australia has a two-speed economy, North Korea has a two-history economy. For most living there, the 21st century has never existed, yet at the same time a few dozen iPads light up in well-appointed bedrooms in the darkened capital. Is the only way to avoid the present era cruelty?


The cult of fascination with North Korea in the West isn’t hysterical, but it’s devoted. More words are typed on the internet about North Korea every day than may well have been typed by North Korean born nationals all up, forever. We probe and ask and click, but the ultimate gesture is of moving on to something else. Actual fascination- like the way one might hang out with a Rubik’s cube, active purposed engagement– is blocked because there’s no end, no ultimate knowledge, no final goal. The sealed kingdom hasn’t been mailed. Yet, the gaze is constant. Watching a video of the performances of North Koreans in mourning Kim Jong Il is an exercise in understanding the minimal extent to which we can relate to them. They do not look at the camera, but the automatic stiffness of their actions betray a complete awareness of the fact that they are observed. We cannot know what intentions are attached to that knowledge. Each sob goes on for too long, as weeping reverts towards an uncanny valley of the un-human. We watch the people of North Korea, waiting for the sound of their voice, as their leaders watch them for the very opposite reason. The people of North Korea are the most watched group in human history, and we haven’t even seen them yet.


Most of the popular cultural representation of North Korea comes in the form of humor. Memes, Team America, Kim Jong Il pointing at things, those drab grey suits. The news agency that has most seriously engaged with North Korea, VICE, mostly publishes articles with headlines like Alabama’s Strip Clubs of Death. Our fascination, fear and loathing is reduced to a form of cultural shorthand- North Korea is slang, an easily reached for joke, a bizarre curio from a world that doesn’t belong with ours. The unfathomable becomes a conversational paperweight. The analogue is Amanda Palmer’s infamously awful poem about the Boston Marathon- insufferably blasé, self-aggrandising, cocksure and materialistic, it summed up just about everything about America that makes people want to bomb it. Theodor Adorno wrote that poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, but what do you say about a Holocaust that’s in motion, one that’s a production line of suffering without beginning or end? How do we speak about something we’ve done nothing to prevent, as it continues? After all, we are all complicit to some extent, a grand coalition of the unwilling. After decades that have seen interventionist wars in everywhere from Libya to Vietnam, we’ve waited so long to do something about the situation that North Korea now has the only thing that’s a real deterrent- a nuclear weapon. Joking about North Korea is a shrug as much as it is a kick.


Baudrillard claimed that the Gulf War never happened; the whole spectacle was purely a media exercise, planned and executed from a distance. All we had were copies of images. The same could be said of Kim Jong Il’s death. He simply passed from unknown to impossible to know. North Korea conducts international relations by simulacra, as the information that comes out is so bizarre that is can only be filed under ‘decoy’. The first step you take in the act of interpreting North Korea, whatever the information is, is always and immediately a step away from the reality that exists out there. Yet, simply dismissing the information is to get rid of all one has at hand, since there’s little direct experience to be had. To get closer to North Korea, you have to begin by moving away, and the first step is to accept that the nuclear weapon doesn’t exist, Kim Jong Un doesn’t exist, and the country doesn’t exist. It can’t hurt to start off with a clean slate.


We know plenty about the other brutes of history, and this knowledge makes their actions easier to comprehend. Hitler was a self-educated failed artist/intellectual with a difficult childhood and a love for Wagner; delusions of grandeur dream themselves up. The image of Mussolini strung up with his lover, and the footage of Colonel Gaddafi’s horrific death both help us as much as they do shock us. We are put in touch with our own inhumanity as their humanity is revealed to us. We have none of Kim Jong Un’s humanity to examine, and as a result can come to recognize nothing of him. The scant biographical details about him are dissonant, and revolve around his consumption choices: ex-classmates recount stories of him obsessively tracing out pictures of Michael Jordan as a sport-obsessed, girl-shy teenager, and we know he smokes Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes. He’s another chip off the old block- another playboy in a line of playboys, soft-faced, rotund and stern. There is nothing vaguer than a hedonist, because pleasure as a pursuit is the easiest thing to understand and the least valuable to know. As well as suggesting that economic determinism is more of a vacuum than a lens with which we can view the world, it’s impossible from these things to classify his actions as rational, irrational, cruel, ignorant or foolish. We can’t even ascribe agency to him properly- he’s not a person in the sense of having boundaries, choices and ideas. We’ve no idea who he is or what he does. Does he make the decisions? Who types his speeches? Where did he meet his wife? Which subject did he like best at school? Did he make his father happy? With nothing but a name, he’s beyond the fringe of comprehension, let alone empathy or understanding. As a human without any demonstrated  humanity in or outside of prepared public statements, it’s impossible to even really revile him, since his symbolic meaning is at once empty as it is crushing. On the throne at the peak of the pile of skulls that is North Korea, we see a portly young man who will not move, smile or speak. All that we really know of him, and predict that he’ll do, is not budge from his seat.

Alex Griffin is one of the current editors of Pelican Magazine, the second oldest student magazine in the country. For more of his insights on politics, economics, or society, pick up a copy of Pelican at any university campus in Perth or check it out on Facebook at


One thought on “Unknown unknowns: fragments on the impossibility of North Korea

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