Were the North Koreans really crying when Dear Leader died? Are they faking it? They don’t know the truth — they’ve been brainwashed. This kind of questioning (and conclusion-drawing) reveals more about our own lack of imagination than how North Koreans think about themselves and their belief systems in the DPRK.
Firstly, let’s get one thing out of the way: North Korea is not super crazy because it’s a Confucian state. For writers who make this claim, I think the enthymeme goes something like this:
P1: North Korea has a Confucianist tradition.
P2: I don’t understand Confucianism.
C: North Korea must be all nutters because of Confucianism.
It’s not that there aren’t elements of confucianism at work in North (and South) Korean society, it’s just that those elements aren’t most relevant when it comes to their maniacal image. What’s probably more relevant is the way in which the DPRK’s rhetoric functions internally and externally.
For one, the linguistic and visual discourse we often see and associate with North Korea isn’t necessarily what North Koreans encounter on a daily basis. I’m going to guess that the messages the regime wants to communicate to its own citizens are not the same messages it wants to communicate to the outside world. As a superficial example, images of imperialist, hook-nosed foreigners victimizing innocent Koreans, or being crushed by North Korean mettle aren’t ubiquitous. That is to say, I didn’t see them outside of the tourist shops where you could buy postcards featuring these images.
Internally, symbols of national self-confidence are more common. In the center of Pyongyang there are large monuments to the leaders: the hammer, sickle, and paintbrush; and the Juche flame. North Koreans are much more preoccupied with communicating their greatness to themselves. Alongside these larger installations, there are the more commonplace billboards with images of recent accomplishments (the rocket), idealized forms of North Korean citizens (soldiers, scientists, farmers) or links to heroic mythologies (Chollima). This is the story of North Korea for North Koreans.
The contexts in which we do see images of Americans being squashed are calculated. Parades involving masses of troops and displays of military hardware are meant to scare us capitalists. At points like these, the message of ferocity is both internally & externally directed:
1) Don’t mess with us, foreigners - we’re powerful!
2) Look how powerful we are - foreigners don’t mess with us!
It’s important to note that this combative stance likely isn’t the North Korean’s default mode of being. Assuming this is akin to making judgements about the American character based on the Santa Claus Parade. Also important is recognizing that this truculent posture has largely paid off. Nobody seems to know how to deal with this strange little country & so the regime has been able to survive.
On the level of linguistic discourse, there is another dynamic at play. Much like late Soviet discourse, authoritative language in the DPRK has taken on a stilted character that we identify as archaic and out of touch. It is these things, but there’s a reason for it. In a tightly controlled ideological system, terms become referential and meanings fixed. Accordingly, official speech and writing that follows then becomes formulaic, as it refers to already expressed ideological positions. This explains the awkward and repetitive phrasing (imperialist aggressors, sea of fire, etc). North Koreans aren’t so much stuck in the past, as their political discourse is. The evidence is trickling out, but I think it’s a mistake to assume that lives inside of the country are as stultified as their rhetoric.
What we really don’t know about is how everyday North Koreans experience themselves in such a context. Sure, defectors tell their stories, but they’re almost always mediated by politically interested parties. Meaning and identity are tricky. After 60 years of it, North Koreans probably see the official rhetoric around them as background noise. But then, what meanings do they draw from these national symbols and how do they construct identities within the context they find themselves? They can’t all be fanatics or dissidents.
There’s an old joke from Soviet Russia:
A big crowd of people is quietly standing in a lake of sewage coming up to their chins. Suddenly a dissident falls in and starts shouting and waving his hands in disgust: “Yuk! I cannot stand this! How can you people accept these horrible conditions?!” To which the people reply with a quiet indignation: “Shut up! You are making waves!”