Si-un blended in with thousands of children in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea who suffered for the glory of their dear leader. Not talented enough to be picked for the elite schools, and not so removed that she escaped the state's eye, she imbibed the propaganda even as her family's rations shrank. But she just knew that she and her countrymen were lucky. She could live somewhere really terrible, like China. As authors Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett tell her story in Forgotten Girls,
Si-un was always sad for the people of China. Stories came to her North Korean village about the horrible conditions in that country next door. In school, the students were taught that nearly everyone in China is homeless, living in the forests or under bridges, because they do not have the benevolence of Kim Jong Il to care for them.
Isolation keeps North Koreans locked in poverty - the isolation allows their indoctrination even as they starve, and the indoctrination encourages their continued isolation. Those forced to cover their eyes sometimes learn to prefer the dark because it's all they know.
From the sky, the darkness on the northern half of the Korean peninsula is surrounded by bright spots in China, South Korea, and Japan across the sea. The satellite images show a country without electricity in the midst of modern nations, belying the DPRK's self-proclaimed feats of achievements. Its people live in the same darkness. At least for a while, the isolation keeps people like Si-un believing that they are the envy of the world, because their view is so warped and narrowed.
Journalist Barbara Demick said of her interviews with North Korean defectors,
Almost all the people I've talked to had moments when they were happy. You know, for one, they had this core belief. It may have been a big lie, but they believed it. They believed in their country. They believed in themselves. And there's an underlying sadness for them at what was lost, even if they know it was a lie.
Finding out that their shining republic was even darker than they believed was "devastating" for some defectors who managed to escape the country. "I mean, to imagine that everything you've ever been taught was untrue - it's shattering…They find it difficult to, you know, recreate that meaning in their lives," Demick said in an interview with NPR.
The gulags and the black sites disgust me with their inhumanity, but it's the psychology of the state that really mystifies me. The few journalists who have made it into the secretive country come back with reports of a dead country, where any abundance is a farce in the face of real famine. But for many of the people, their undying loyalty is no charade - it's real, despite their hunger and lack of opportunity. While we can't know how many of them have secret doubts, Demick's report reminds me of the state's hold on people. They upheld their state because they genuinely believed in it. The darkness was the only light they knew.
North Korea's millions of people can't be reduced to a simple illustration. Their road to freedom takes years, with many betrayals, sad endings, and lifetime suffering. I believe many of them imagine a better life, but stay because of the incredible risks and dangers inherent with defecting. And yet, the image of that black hole in the satellite pictures make me wonder how anyone can bear not to try, or secretly entertain the idea.
If the road to freedom involved no deadly risks or false steps… how many people would run to the provision on the other side? How many people would choose to look away from the light and go back to their lives of want in order to keep believing the lies they were fed?
We all fed off the lies the Prince of this world shoved our way. Darkness was our way of life until Christ rescued us that black hole we could not escape, and suddenly we could see. And yet, now and then, we remember that we were happy in our suffering sometimes, because it was what we knew. Our darkness came with a separate goal that looked entirely appealing given the options. How can we turn back after we've seen things truly?
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see." We've escaped the worst. Like the North Korean defectors though, we can't live in a vacuum. We need a purpose - do you miss the darkness or does the light call you down a new road?