Why did we never complain? We didn’t even know how to.

Do people in North Korea criticize the leaders behind closed doors? How have things changed over the years?
November 5th, 2012

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week, James C. from Australia asks:

Do people in North Korea criticise the leaders behind closed doors? How have things changed over the years?

My parents used to tell an old North Korean proverb, “The bird listens during the day and the mouse does at night.”

In my fatherland, the meaning of this was clear. You’re always being watched. From a young age, I learnt to think of the potential consequences of everything I might say, before I said it. One wrong word could have potentially severe implications for our whole family. A visit from the State Security Agency was something to be feared.

Criticism of the leaders is something that can lead to someone being sent from their city to the countryside; to a prison camp, or even worse.  Because of the potential for punishment, it is risky for people to criticize the leaders even behind closed doors.

This is why so few of us complained, even if we wanted to.

But not all of us wanted to. From a young age we are submerged in an intensive ideological curriculum that teaches us to refer to the leader using terms like “Dear General” or “Dear Leader.” We learn that their real names – Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung – are to be held with reverence, and to never say them in vain. There is a genuine myth and intrigue surrounding North Korea’s leaders. A lot of people simply believe in their greatness. For many, they are simply too far away to criticise.

When I was living in North Korea, I rarely called the Kims by their real names and I never dreamt of questioning their leadership. In a country where we grow up thinking about our leaders as Gods, for many of us it would just never make any sense to even think about criticizing them.

However, not everyone is like me. I’ve got one friend, who also defected, who told me that she used to criticize the leaders quite regularly at home with her family. They used to blame the regime for the extreme poverty faced by the country.

Many people still think the poverty in North Korea is because of sanctions from the outside world, rather than the corruption and inefficiency of the leadership.  Even if people do have doubts, it is hard for them to talk to each other about them. I didn’t find out the truth until I left North Korea and spent time in China and South Korea.

Things are changing, though. With the increasing levels of information coming into North Korea through foreign videos and radio, people are starting to realize that North Korea is much poorer than the outside world.  When I watched foreign DVDs in North Korea, I used to get so jealous of Chinese and South Koreans living in huge houses, wearing nice clothes, driving amazing cars, and having freedom. But for me, I kept this jealousy in my head.

Having grown up in the system I’ve just described, you can’t understand how surprised and amazed I was when I came to South Korea and heard people even casually saying the name of the President, let alone even criticizing him.  For North Koreans, we simply don’t have the right to express anything publicly that isn’t positive. Even though things are slowly changing, I can’t imagine people publicly criticizing the leader for some time yet.

Got A Question?

Jae-young grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions.

Artwork by The Morning Skyrail

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About the Author

Jae Young Kim

Join the discussion

  • Clem Kadiddlehopper

    Whenever you saw a photo of the “Dear Leader”, or “Dear General”, there is always a group of men around him, carrying small notebooks and it appears that they are writing every word that is spoken by the “Dear Leader”, or “Dear General”. If this is true, just exactly what are the “writings” used for?

    • Woden

      Books supposedly authored by KJI are common. They are extremely popular in the North and libraries are full of them. Whether the notes were used for this is another matter but it wouldn’t surprise me.

  • you

    One can’t legally criticize governmat in S. Korea, either. Some are jailed, though it is more liberal than the North.

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