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View more articles by Justin Rohrlich
Justin Rohrlich is an Emmy Award winning journalist with a keen interest in North Korean affairs
During Merrill Newman’s five-week detention in North Korea last year, he appeared on video, confessing to committing “indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people” 60 years before. Newman, an 85 year-old Korean War veteran from California, was released 42 days later. North Korea’s official news agency KCNA said it was thanks to his ‘admittance of the act’ and ‘sincere repentance’.
Shortly after he returned home, Newman released a statement about his “confession,” confirming that anyone “who has read the text of it or who has seen the video of me reading it knows that the words were not mine and were not delivered voluntarily.”
For their part, North Korea’s 23 million citizens have to confess to their own “wrongdoings” every week in classrooms, offices, and factory lounges. But, just like Merrill Newman, the ones I spoke with didn’t do it voluntarily, nor did they mean what they said.
JI WOO PARK
“Everyone would make up stories to lie about their lives,” said Ji Woo. “My friends and I exchanged our stories sometimes, because we were running out of lies. If we always said the same thing, the teacher would become suspicious.”
Ji Woo was born in North Hamgyong Province, in the far north-eastern corner of the country. She fled North Korea with her mother, escaping across the frozen Tumen River into China, and eventually, Seoul. Though she left almost 15 years ago, Ji Woo still remembers the self-criticism sessions, or saenghwal ch’onghwa, vividly.
“The self-criticism sessions started when I was seven years old, in the first grade,” she said. “They were held every Wednesday, usually in the morning, between 8am and 9am. The teacher would ask each student to stand up and say what we had done wrong. We had to think of at least two things that we had done inappropriately.”
The sessions are arranged by “organization.” As a child, Ji Woo attended saenghwal ch’onghwa with her classmates. For her mother, it meant opening up about her personal life in front of her work unit. They, too, didn’t really confess, but instead offered false confessions.
“People were required to say something bad about themselves,” Ji Woo said. “If they did not, they would be accused of arrogance, or being disloyal to the Party.”
Criticizing herself for not helping out enough with housework was one white lie Ji Woo remembers telling. Choosing to play before doing homework was another. This being North Korea, all self-criticisms eventually get brought back around to a Leader, either “Great,” “Dear,” or “Supreme.”
“When Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, was my age, he helped his father, the Great Leader,” Ji Woo recalls saying. “I should learn from him and become a great student.”
Now safely in South Korea, Ji Woo – who has travelled extensively since leaving the North and spent the better part of a year living in New York City – looks back on saenghwal ch’onghwa without a hint of nostalgia. She says she took self-criticism about as seriously as she took the wearing of the ‘sacred’ red scarf of the Young Pioneers, the youth group to which every North Korean child belongs. That is to say, not at all.
“You would think the self-criticism would be really frustrating,” she said, “but it was just a small part of my school life.”
JI MIN KANG
Ji Min left Pyongyang in 2005, and is now living in the UK. His memories of attending self-criticism sessions seem to have cut closer to the bone than those of Ji Woo, telling me he was “perplexed” that I was interested in hearing the details of something he described as “not fun.” Especially considering that one attends “until death.”
The group would start by quoting Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, after which the self-criticism began. Ji Min remembers the themes and topics as being “very simple.”
“In a nutshell, people just talk about petty stuff like being late to work or school,” he said. “People usually think of a safe way to do it without revealing any of their privacy. No one wants to get into trouble.”
Nor does anyone want to embarrass themselves or admit to something truly serious.
“If misconduct such as theft is revealed it would be a different story,” Ji Min said. “You will be subject to heavy criticism at a meeting called 사상투쟁회, or ‘one’s own struggle’.
The self-criticism ends with a pledge to “live up to the teachings of leader Kim and the Workers’ Party.”
That’s when the mutual criticism gets under-way.
“People don’t want to create tension and uncomfortable feelings with harsh criticisms,” Ji Min said. “Friends make up things to say beforehand in order not to offend their friends or co-workers. When I was in school, students avoided criticizing aggressive or pugnacious kids in order not to be bullied afterwards.”
He explained that, in his experience, it was possible to skip saenghwal ch’onghwa “once or twice, though you have to submit a letter of absence in advance and specify your reasons. If a member of the Workers’ Party skips for more than three months, they get kicked out of the Party.”
Ji Min found himself flat-footed only once, during the political portion of one session. The story, while in this case, specific to North Korea, is nonetheless the sort of thing everyone has experienced in one way or another.
“There are an overflowing number of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il biographies,” he said. “Thus, it’s not difficult to quote them. I once made up a quote which was never spoken by either of them, and was caught by a party official. I was asked where I had heard or read it, and I couldn’t really answer.”
The transgression was considered “a highly condemnable act,” but the consequences were almost Bart Simpson-esque in their banality:
“I was made to write a ‘paper of criticism’ every day for a week as punishment.”
If there is any cause for optimism in Ji Min’s recollections of saenghwal ch’onghwa, it may be in how exhausted he said North Koreans seem to have become of the chore. If the idea of self-criticism is silly, then mutual criticism is downright sinister. It also requires people to play along.
To this, Ji Min says, “As time goes by, people realize it is futile to monitor each other.”
Featured Image: Eric Lafforgue