Not too many people know this about me, but when I lived in Seoul I helped three North Korean refugees write speeches in English. This was so they could share their experiences with the world. At the time I had sympathy for them, but I never expected I would ever have any direct, personal experience with their stories. It was early 2015. I was American, Obama kept being the leader of the free world, and I had the privilege of being the helper, not the victim.
But here we are. Two years later. The first full day our new President is in office he sends his Press Secretary out to tell the media they shat on his brand new white carpet, all because they presented the fact that his Inauguration wasn’t as well attended as past Inaugurations. Any of us can look at the pictures and see he’s wrong. The Washington DC Metro rider numbers tell us he’s wrong. The news organizations’ ratings tell us he’s wrong.
But when a fact is no longer a fact, and the only knowledge that is correct is knowledge that comes from the great leader, do you know what you have? You don’t have a government- you have a regime. And you know who’s in charge? Trump Dong-un.
Let’s circle back to the refugees. I worked with three, but there’s one in particular who’s story is most pressing now. She was a kindergarten teacher in North Korea. We all know what they do: they teach little kids basic knowledge and social skills that will serve them later in school and life. Sounds pretty straightforward. But how does that play out when The Great Leader is responsible for everything good and wonderful? It sounds kind of like this:
Kid Question: Why does 1 + 1 = 2?
Teacher Answer: Because The Great Leader made math! He is so smart and he figured out this whole way for us to count and know how many things we have!
Kid Question: How come when I drop this thing it goes down instead of up?
Teacher Answer: The Great Leader made gravity so we could always get things we need. If things kept going up, how could we get them? They need to come down, and thanks to him, they do.
It was totally fucking crazy. Part of me really didn’t believe what I was hearing. Not because I thought she was lying. I 100% believed her. But I just couldn’t understand how a whole country could be like this. Intellectually I could imagine it working, like how a novelist could imagine a fake world. But on a personal level, I had no direct experience with anything like that. It was so alien to me it didn’t feel like a real thing.
And then yesterday I watched that press conference and it started to feel real. It’s not 1984. This isn’t a book report I just have to do and forget about. The White House Press Secretary actually got up in a huff and refuted plainly obvious, easily measurable facts presented by the press. Wait- what? The country that’s been saying for decades that North Korea is crazy for this shit is now doing the same thing? Huh?
We’re not special. We’re not exempt from crazy just because we’re America. We’re prone to it just like anyone, anyplace else is. We used to think North Koreans were the unlucky ones- and they still are, for now- by a long shot. But we can so easily make ourselves just as unlucky if we don’t put a stop to this.
I asked her, “Did you believe what you were saying?”
“Then why did you say it?”
“Because that was my job. To attribute anything good and great to the Great Leader. If I didn’t say it I could be put in prison and probably killed. They could hurt my family, too.”
“Did you know the truth?”
“I would wonder, ‘How could one man do all of these things?’ It didn’t make sense to me, but I had no answers. So I didn’t think it was true, but I didn’t know how else to explain things. But now I know it was all a lie.”
“How did you find out it was a lie?”
“My friend and I got an American dvd. We lived near the Chinese border and they smuggle things in. So we hid in my bedroom late at night and watched the dvd on a laptop. We had it open just wide enough so we could see it, but could drop it shut in case anyone came in and saw us. It took us weeks to get up the courage to watch it because it’s illegal to watch outside media. But we finally saw the movie and everything looked so nice and wonderful in America. That’s when I realized it was all a lie.”
After much deliberation, she decided to escape to China. She ran across the border in the middle of the night. One of the North Korean guards saw her do it. She could have been imprisoned and killed for attempting to leave, but she said she was lucky. The guard knew her and decided to do nothing. He just let her go.
Trump is The Great Leader. His cabinet is the regime. They are the kindergarten teachers and we, the public, are the curious little kids getting fed garbage answers. This is us now, but it doesn’t have to be us in the future.
I was fortunate enough to travel and live overseas to have this experience. But you can find it right here at home. We have refugees here and I encourage you to talk to them. They can be from anywhere. Refugees are often very willing to share their stories because they want the world to learn from their horrific experiences. It’s not going to be a nice conversation. You’re going to hear things that make you uncomfortable and feel very sorry for the person you’re talking to. But it’ll, hopefully, also be a wake up call for you about how easily societies fall into tyranny.
We do have a choice here. We can steer ourselves away from it, if we choose to.