While hiking last October in Seoul, a North Korean refugee shared her story with me of how she gained freedom from an oppressive regime. First, she escaped to Laos. However, even once she arrived there, she had to carefully hide her identity. Laos and North Korea are close allies, and if discovered, she would have been sent back to the country, or simply killed. She then ventured on to China, evading authorities while learning Chinese. Finally, she made it to South Korea and found the non-profit, Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). They helped her gain citizenship, make connections, and learn English. I was interning as an English tutor for LiNK while studying abroad at Kyung Hee University when we met.
Through her and others, I learned about the dark reality of life in North Korea. Their lived experience seemed to be in complete discordance with the Marxist ideology I learned about as a freshman in the English major at BYU. According to my professors, Marxism fights for the under-privileged and disadvantaged. But if this were true, why were these people risking their lives to escape a system that promised so much? Apparently, my academic introduction to communism failed to answer this crucial question, and instead of mentioning how the system actually functions, advocated for a supposedly benign, justice-seeking Marxism that has never materialized in the real world.
After the Korean War, when the Soviets aided Kim Il-Sung’s establishment of the regime, a census report was done on every single North Korean. Real-estate-owning families and those with positive attitudes towards America or democracy were immediately sentenced to life at the bottom of a caste system. Even now, regardless of caste placement, every home is required to have photos of their current leader, Kim Jung-Un.
Additionally, every home must have a state-run radio that is required to be on at all times. The only information legally available to North Koreans comes straight from the regime. If anyone is overheard and reported as being critical, they are sent to re-education camps. To quote Yeonmi Park, a North Korean refugee living in the US, “North Koreans, in effect, are abducted at birth – and made slaves to the regime.”
During an English lesson I was teaching, I learned their currency only goes up to 5,000 won which is roughly 3 USD. They also have in circulation Chinese Yuan and American USD that North Koreans use on the black market. No new US dollars have come into North Korea since the 1950s, but they’re still using them because the government put limitations on their own financial system. This limitation and their tightly controlled command economy make it impossible to prosper financially.
My friend from the hike is now South Korean and visits China and Laos periodically to see friends. However, the injustices given to her at birth by the regime aren’t magically fixed by having papers declaring legality. When in Seoul, she’s nearer to her North Korean family than BYU students are to their families in St. George, but a field of landmines prevents her from ever seeing them.
Until I had spent time with refugees like her, I had a typical Gen-Z view of Marxism: it’s the only ideology that offers equality. As an English major, I’d grown comfortable with Marxism being painted as “the gospel of the underdog.” My professors gave pretexts before teaching Marxist theory that would go as follows: “This man has been misrepresented. He wrote in solidarity for the marginalized.” They would then explain that Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto as a reaction against injustices in England in 1848.
The kind-looking, grandfatherly Marx wrote the rhetoric that inspired the Soviet Union and North Korea. Governments established on his ideas are responsible for the Holodomor and push thousands of North Koreans yearly, including my friends, to leave everything to escape a regime with working conditions worse than the poor, unfortunate English of the 19th century. As for equality, Kim Jung Un gorges himself while commanding the poor to collect human feces to use as fertilizer.
Exploring ideas and influential ideologies in academia should not stop, but students need to be taught the real-life outcomes of those ideas. Across academia, Communism and Socialism are painted with rainbow colors while the people living under those respective governments don’t have a word for love.
In the English major specifically, understanding the history of rhetorical theory and interpretation is foundational for a clear conception of modern critical theory. This term describes ways of interpreting various texts and stands as the method of reading with different “lenses.” Lenses help readers get outside their biases and see the text more completely.
While it may seem that academia and critical theory are far removed from normal society, pop culture and film reflect the same ideas that are taught at the university. For example, my critical theory textbook (Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today) teaches that:
“Marxism, a non-repressive ideology, acknowledges that it is an ideology. Marxism works to make us constantly aware of all the ways in which we are products of material/historical circumstances and of the repressive ideologies that serve to bind us to this fact in order to keep us subservient to the ruling power system.”
Today’s academics consider Marxism to be a non-repressive ideology while critiquing the supposedly repressive system of capitalism. The Oxford Dictionary defines “repressive” as “cultural or political oppression, esp. when sanctioned or carried out by the state.” In essence, Tyson argues that Marxism gives freedom while capitalism culturally and politically oppresses. The inability to criticize the regime, the lockdown of borders, and the complete censorship of public information in North Korea suggest that this theory is completely contradicted by reality.
Academic views of Marxism are often reflected in the media, as seen recently in Netflix’s 2019 hit Korean series, Crash Landing on You. It was widely praised for humanizing North Koreans. It tells the story of a rich South Korean woman paragliding on a windy day, getting blown over the 38th parallel, and landing indirectly in the North Korean protagonist’s arms.
Publicly, the North Korean regime describes itself as a “Socialist Fairyland,” and the show mostly goes along with that propagandistic presentation. When the heroine is introduced to a small North Korean village, she observes well-fed children in perfect matching uniforms heading off in lines to school, and when a villager is caught with a South Korean rice cooker, a government official gives her a warning look and takes it for herself.
“Humanizing” North Koreans is not accomplished by downplaying their suffering. Downplaying their suffering reinforces the regime’s façade that Marxism is still working. It doesn’t work. While Netflix romanticized life in a small North Korean village in Crash Landing on You, they simultaneously depicted South Korea’s capitalistic society as hell in “Squid Game.” In this series, 456 South Koreans subject themselves to physical and psychological torture (all dying except one) in their wish of pulling themselves out of capitalism’s greedy grip.
In contrast, when North Koreans make it to South Korea, they feel like they’re time-traveling. They have a saying: “it feels like going 50 years into the future when you get to Seoul.” In the 1950s, South Korea’s per capita income was less than $100 a year. Today it is nearly $33,000. Meanwhile in North Korea, only the party leaders prosper.
There is actual real danger in romanticizing Marxism without explaining how it currently operates in the world. Pop culture and academia are the first eager entities to jump on the train with bleeding white letters on the side declaring, “CAPITALISM IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL,” but turn a blind eye when governments inspired by Marxist ideology force indigenous groups into concentration camps, sterilize those seen as unfit for reproduction, break treaties, incite genocide through pre-meditated famine, and unify their parties by murdering 750,000 people.
I learned how heartbreaking the effects of Marxist theory in North Korea are, not from humanities professors with PhDs, but from kids my age who went through hell and back just to not have to wonder what it feels like to have a full belly. Another North Korean refugee friend posted on his Instagram story a photo of the stars above him in Seoul, saying how it comforts him that his mom is staring at those same stars only 200 miles away.
During an English lesson, when asked where she would travel if she could, my tutee responded, “North Korea.” She told me explicitly that it wasn’t the government she wanted to return to; it was her family. She has no possible way of communicating with them. The barrier between her family and her is like the barrier between the dead and the living.
As a student studying the humanities, I had completely missed real humanity. It’s blatantly obvious that students and professors in my major and various other humanities departments are there because they care about people and creating just societies. That’s why it’s so dangerous to advocate for idealized Marxism, which has proven to inevitably create perpetual human inequality, without describing how it has functioned and continues to function in the world. If professors in the humanities are genuinely interested in the equality of underprivileged, lower-class minorities, it is imperative that they start teaching the reality of the nature of Marxism. This is not a political issue; it’s a human rights issue. Stop sweeping human greed enabled by faulty systems under the rug while my friends’ families starve north of the 38th parallel.
Written by: Eva Terry
Contributor at The Cougar Chronicle
The opinions expressed are those of the author
The Cougar Chronicle is an independent student-run newspaper and is not affiliated with Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints