Social by Design

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How Gullible Are North Koreans?

Are North Koreans the most gullible people on Earth?

"Inside North Korea" chronicles the work of a Nepalese eye surgeon on a mission to cure North Korean cataract patients. Near the end of the documentary all the patients are gathered in a room; one by one, they remove their eye patches and, for the first time in years, are able to see. Kowtowing in front of the portraits of the North Korean ruler, Kim Jong-il, and his revered father, Kim Il-sung, they thank them and sing their praises.

What is wrong with this picture? Kim Jong-il is not the reason these patients have been treated. Kim Jong-il is the reason they had not been treated up to that point. North Korea's health care system is in shambles, as are the rest of the social services and the economy more generally. In the mid-nineties a terrible famine struck the country, killing hundreds of thousands of people-while the dear ruler was gorging himself on cognac and other imported delicacies. Yet people still seem to worship him and his dead father, thanking them for every good thing that comes their way rather than blaming their dear leader (daddy) and dear ruler (sonny) for how rarely anything good comes their way. As Barbara Demick puts it in her wonderful book on the ordinary lives of North Koreans: "North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people."

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North Koreans believe that they live in one of the most advanced nations in the world. They believe that when Kim Il-sung died angelic cranes tried to take him but were foiled by the devotion of the mourners. They believe that Americans are evil warmongers bent on invading their country. In spite of all their suffering, they still trust a government that has been enslaving them for decades. People who take the guy who is slowly killing them to be their greatest hero have to be extremely gullible, right?

If North Koreans were that gullible, a serious hole would be poked in the theory I exposed in the last post I argued that evolution should have selected out gullible people; instead, we should have evolved to err on the conservative side of things, not trusting enough rather than trusting too much. So I must ask: are North Koreans really that gullible?

To assess someone's gullibility, it's not enough to look at their beliefs. Someone can have false-even absurd-beliefs for perfectly rational reasons. For centuries, students were taught that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Everybody they trusted agreed on that matter, so they accepted the doctrine. Now students are taught that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Everybody they trust agree on the matter, so they accept the doctrine. Who's being gullible? No one, both modern and ancient students have sound reasons to accept their teachers' beliefs.

What about North Koreans? Demick goes on to explain their predicament: "consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung;" and the list goes on... All writings must be adorned with an initial quote from the leaders; gigantic messages praising Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are carved in mountains; museums are dedicated to propaganda operations; and so on, ad nauseam.

Distrusting every public source of information is not easy. The majority of these people are otherwise entirely trustworthy. The teacher who dedicates her life to improving the lot of her pupils, the neighbors' kid who was gifted enough to become a journalist, the respected professor, they all spout government propaganda.

Yet trust has its limits. The people you trust the most could tell you that you're currently sitting on a giant fireball, you would hardly believe them. You would be relying on what may be the principal method you have of evaluating communicated information: making sure that what people tell you fits with your own thoughts. And you're pretty sure that you're not sitting on a giant fireball.

If the North Koreans' trust is strong enough to make them accept propaganda that blatantly violates their own beliefs, they may deserve to be called gullible. But the conflict between the propaganda and their beliefs may not be so stark. Most effective propaganda has a kernel of truth, however small, and North Korea is no exception. The actions of the American military during the Korean War was far from irreproachable; for instance, they witnessed--and sometimes sanctioned--the massacreof thousands of civilians by South Koreans. The period of Japanese rule that preceded the Korean War makes modern North Korea look relatively good by comparison--Kim Il-sung always emphasized his role in delivering his people from the Japanese. Thanks to Chinese and Russian subsidies, North Koreans were faring quite well for many years, better than their former compatriots in South Korea: universal health care, universal housing, food, work for everyone, etc.

But building increasingly tall lies over a weak foundation of truth is not the main tool of North Korean propaganda. To be able to accurately assess communicated information, one has to have a variety of sources of information-either direct perception or contact with people of different opinions. The greatest accomplishment of the North Korean government has been to deprive their citizens of outside information. It's much easier to make people believe they live in a great place when they have no idea how other countries are faring. Describing the situation in the nineties, the North Korea expert Andrei Lankov wrote: "The most characteristic feature of North Korean propaganda is the almost sterile information environment in which it is able to operate. In the last few decades the North Korean authorities have successfully maintained a virtually complete information monopoly within the country's borders."

Still, controlling information can only go so far. Sometimes propaganda conflicts directly with people's experience. Chang-bo (a fictitious name given by Demick, who tells this story) was watching a documentary extolling the productivity of the workers in a boot factory. He obviously realized that there could not be much truth to it and quipped: "If there are so many boots, how come my children never got any?" Neighbors leaked his apparently innocuous comment to the Ministry for the Protection of State Security. Chang-bo was interrogated for three days; only his impeccable credentials spared him years in labor camp. He quit quipping. If all else fails, making people fear for their lives and those of their family can work wonders.

In such a climate of fear, it is hard to know what people really think. Some psychologists would even suggest that in order to survive people should massively fall back on self-deception. When a slip of the tongue can cost one's life, it may be safer to trick oneself into accepting the party line, for all its absurdities.

I'm not entirely persuaded by the self-deception account. Many North Koreans are not persuaded either. In increasing numbers, they flee towards China, hoping to eventually reach South Korea, where they are more or less automatically granted asylum. Though increasing, the number of refugees remains relatively small-from tens to hundreds of thousands, according to different estimates. Do these refugees represent a tiny minority of enlightened individuals, the only ones able to see through the lies of the party? No. In all likelihood, what puts those who try to run for their lives apart is that they are even more desperate; the route to defection is harrowing, leading at best to a bitter freedom. Many are caught by the Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea, where they will likely starve in a labor camp. Those who make it to South Korea had better not have any family left behind, for the fate of defectors awaits those that remained.

It is impossible to infer from the trickle of refugees that most North Korean docilely accept their fate, buying into the party propaganda. On the contrary, one could argue that for even a small number to attempt passage to China, a substantial section of the North Korean population must realize that something is broken. Ironically, the very realization that they have been fed propaganda their whole lives can stop North Koreans from trying to escape, as they doubt what they will find on the other side of the border.

I have argued that people should err on the side of safety, trusting too little rather than too much. North Koreans, portrayed as the archetype of gullibility, are in fact too slow to accept some information. When they manage to watch South Korean TV-risking their lives in the process-they are likely to interpret what they see as if it were propaganda. What they see appears too extraordinary to be believed, a level of wealth so ludicrous that the stories must have been concocted by some overzealous government official.

Not trusting the little information they get from neighboring countries, North Koreans rely on two other means to get a reliable idea of what's going on across the borders. The first means is very direct. Increasingly, North Koreans living close to the border with China can simply see what's on the other side; they can see that there are more cars than they've encountered in a lifetime. The second means is very indirect. Even if there is not enough trust to accept the content of a message, it can reveal things that are not directly communicated, things that are taken for granted. For instance, a North Korean listening to a program detailing Hyundai's sales numbers may be unlikely to believe it-it sounds too much like homegrown propaganda. Compare that to a North Korean official stumbling upon a South Korean show--as Demick tells the story. The protagonists in the show are fighting over parking space, which made the official realize that people over the border have so many cars that they have to vie for space to park them. This information was more convincing because it was inadvertently transmitted: no one was trying to convince him of the abundance of cars in South Korea.

North Koreans are not gullible. For many years, many of them seem to have accepted the official doctrine. In some ways, they had good reasons to do so: everyone they trusted agreed; the doctrine was not entirely out of touch with reality; and there could be no conflict with the non-existent information from the outside. When the gap between propaganda and reality widened-mostly with the famine of the mid-nineties-it seems that many North Koreans lost their faith. But they had to-and still have to-keep their disagreements to themselves; the only way of expressing disapprobation of the regime is through defection, a desperate move they make in increasing numbers. Far from being gullible, North Koreans have now become so inured to propaganda that they look at foreign messages with too much defiance. In that they behave like all of us, trusting too little rather than too much.

References and links

HT to Marginal Revolution for poiting to Demick's book.

The documentary "Inside North Korea" is available on Youtube.

Demick's book is called Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

Andrei Lankov's article on North Korean propaganda:

Lankov 2006 The Official Propaganda in the DPRK- Ideas and Methods

On the refugee situation:

Noland 2006 The North Korean Refugee Crisis- Human Rights and International Response

The picture was found here.

This post is part of a "how gullible are we?" series.

There is much more that I would like to say about North Korea, and I will try to come back to it in later posts. In particular, the belief that hundreds of cranes came to take Kim Il-sung at his death is quite unlike the belief that I'm currently sitting on a chair, and this difference will deserve more scrutiny. North Korea may also an amazing example of 'pluralistic ignorance': people failing to realize that many others agree with them, here in their rejection of the regime.

Hugo Mercier is a postdoc in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics program at the University of Pennsylvania.

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