North Koreans Attend Ideology 101

Times Staff Writer

Watching foreign movies clouds the mental and ideological health of the people.

Foreign hairstyles and clothing are signs of the “utterly rotten bourgeois lifestyle.”

Shaking hands should be avoided in favor of bowing, as it is more hygienic and a part of the national culture.


It might sound like a cross between Miss Manners and a political screed, but this is the advice recently crafted by North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party for indoctrination lectures at factories, collective farms and other workplaces.

For decades, North Koreans have been forced to attend such sessions to reinforce the national illusion that they are lucky to live under the wise leadership of first Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder, and now his son, Kim Jong Il, who inherited power after his father’s death in 1994.

More than 100 pages of written lectures smuggled out of North Korea this year reveal that the leadership is in a state of near-hysteria about outside influences seeping across the nation’s once hermetically sealed borders. The spread of “unusual lifestyles,” the lectures warn listeners, could render them “incapable of following revolutionary thoughts and sacrificing their lives” for Kim.

The documents also underscore the extent to which anti-Americanism gives meaning to the country and its people. More than 50 years after the end of the Korean War, the United States is blamed for all of North Korea’s woes, from food shortages to the infiltration of foreign culture.

“The bastards’ indecent methods are clouding the mental and ideological health of the people,” warns one lecture. “If we cannot stop them in time, we will be in the same position as the Iraqis.”

Brian Myers, an expert in North Korean propaganda at South Korea’s Injae University, said he detected an air of desperation in the material.

“This is a regime which for half a century claimed to have 100% support of its people. Now they are admitting that its people are succumbing to money madness and the desire for foreign things. Not just a few people but enough that it is a social phenomenon,” Myers said.

North Korea takes extraordinary measures to insulate its citizens from knowledge of the outside world. Radios and TVs are preset to government stations; foreign newspapers, magazines, books, films and music are banned.

But in the last several years, trade between North Korea and China has surged, much of it not approved by North Korea’s leaders. Along with food and consumer goods, traders smuggle in DVDs, tapes, books and Bibles, radios and mobile phones. Once considered taboo, T-shirts with English lettering are pouring into North Korean markets from Chinese garment factories.

The regime fears not only critical material but depictions of other nations that would make North Koreans realize how poor they are in comparison.

“The enemies use these videos and specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism ... and to [spread] a fantasy of the free world,” one lecture says. North Koreans are urged to steel themselves against such corrupting influences by eating traditional foods, wearing traditional clothing and keeping their hair tidy.

Photocopies of six lectures were given to the Los Angeles Times by Rescue the North Korean People, a human rights group based in Osaka, Japan.

“It shows that the North Koreans cannot protect their borders. They cannot keep foreign material out, so all they can do is try to educate their people to resist,” said Lee Young Hwa, the head of the group.

Lee said he obtained the lectures from a disgruntled Workers’ Party member. Because the party keeps close tabs on such material and there are no public photocopy facilities in North Korea, the papers were smuggled to China, copied and returned before their absence could be detected, Lee said.

Others who have examined the documents say they are consistent in typeface and style with other Workers’ Party documents smuggled out of North Korea.

All of the lectures are dated April 2005, the year Juche 94 in North Korea’s calendar, which begins with the birth of Kim Il Sung.

The contents largely echo the propaganda of North Korea’s official media, which also rail against cultural infiltration. But because the lectures were intended for domestic consumption, the language is less guarded. For example, they use the term nom, which translates roughly as “bastard,” to refer to Americans.

The lectures are apparently intended for different audiences -- two are for government officials and another is for teens.

Other lectures are part of a party campaign called the Border Residents Political Project, apparently focused on the nation’s jagged, 800-mile frontier with China.

The lecturers gripe in particular about Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded station that frequently broadcasts stories in Korean that are critical of Kim Jong Il’s regime. But there is no evidence that the United States is otherwise directly involved in disseminating foreign culture in North Korea. Rather, it seems to be the overpowering tide of globalization that is puncturing the seal around the country.

It is notable, Myers said, that the lectures don’t urge people to report wrongdoers to police.

“This is a sign that the country is not as repressive as it used to be,” he said. “It is evident that even people in the party realize it is a losing battle to try to stem the influence of foreign culture.”

A 19-year-old North Korean from the border city of Musan said she and a friend used to take a boombox to a riverbank along the border, where they could play illegal cassettes of South Korean pop music.

“People my age don’t listen to that Kim Il Sung ideology music anymore,” said the teen, who defected from North Korea three years ago with her family and is living in Seoul under the name Choi Hwa. Implying that police took bribes to look the other way, she added: “The police will close their eyes because they can’t survive on their salary.”

Tradition is the weapon against such influences, the lectures say. One, titled “How to Crush the Schemes of the Enemies Who Disseminate Unusual Lifestyles,” tells citizens that “we must eradicate the erroneous way of thinking that eating foreign foods enhances your living standards.”

In other tips, women are urged to wear modest skirts and blouses or the traditional loose-fitting hanbok. Men and women are advised to pay particular attention to their hair.

The advice parallels a 2004 campaign on the North Korean Central Broadcasting Network warning men not to let their hair grow longer than 2 inches, although older men were permitted an extra four-fifths of an inch for comb-overs.

The TV station warned that collar-length hair on men depleted the brain of oxygen and did not conform to “socialist style.”

The warnings of the party ideologues against foreign culture, though, have an element of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Kim Jong Il himself is so fond of international cuisines that he has flown in chefs from Italy and Japan to Pyongyang, the capital. He has a collection of thousands of foreign films. Visiting aid officials and dignitaries such as former President Carter (who helped broker a now-collapsed 1994 disarmament deal) have carried in movies for the North Korean leader.

In karaoke bars patronized by the ruling echelon in the North Korean capital, there is a wide, if dated, selection of Western rock ‘n’ roll.

Foreigners who recently visited the bar at the Potongan Hotel in Pyongyang were surprised to hear, among other offerings, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears and the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR.”