Addressing North Korean clichés and half-truths: Ignorance about the World

Excerpts from “North Korea: Markets and Military Rule” by Hazel Smith, as printed in The Guardian:

Perhaps the most pervasive myth is that North Koreans are ignorant of the world outside, and believe everything the government tells them. This is extended by the assumption that North Koreans are educationally backward, and lack the sophistication to understand the world beyond their borders.

North Koreans are anything but ignorant. With almost universal literacy, and despite economic deterioration, school enrolment – for girls and boys – remains near universal. About 35% of high school graduates went on to university education in 2002.

North Koreans are indeed subject to a relentless socialization campaign that glorifies the exploits of the Kim family and inflicts sanctions on those who criticize the country’s rulers. Yet despite the best efforts of the North Korean government, the picture of the DPRK as an absolutely closed society is far from the truth today.

The North Korean government works hard to prevent the free flow of information into the country. Students studying in Pyongyang have access to the major state libraries in the capital, which contain foreign books and films, but are only permitted to access these resources if they can demonstrate a “need” to do so, while access to the internet is limited.

However, a small number of students study abroad – about 500 were in Asia and Europe in 2002; in 2012, 96 North Korean students were studying at China’s Northeastern University alone.

Chinese traders and local trading networks have also provided routes for non-state sanctioned information for nearly a quarter of a century. Many Chinese traders and visitors are of Korean ethnicity, and three of North Korea’s north-eastern provinces border the Chinese prefecture of Yanbian, which is populated by ethnic Koreans of Chinese nationality.

Pyongyang’s population of three million frequently come into contact with foreigners in the service sector – hotels, shops, bars – and workplaces where foreigners also work. Outside Pyongyang, the port towns of Nampo, Chongjin and Rajin also host foreigners; so too has the southern tourist development zone of Kumgangsan, and the South Korea-sponsored free-trade zone of Kaesong.

It’s true that short-term visitors to the country are carefully “minded” by accompanying North Korean officials, but long-term residents have more freedom. They are permitted to obtain North Korean driving licenses, learn Korean and freely operate without permanent watch.

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