Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Tone Deaf

November 22nd, 2010 · 3 Comments


I spent much of the weekend zipping through The Reluctant Communist, former Army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins‘ memoir of the 39 years he spent living in North Korea after walking across the demilitarized zone in 1965. It’s a harrowing read, primarily because it reveals the North Korean establishment to be even more deluded than I’d previously realized. There is actually a nice parallel in the story between Jenkins’ mindset before defecting and that of Kim Jong-il’s regime. As Jenkins explains it, he was afraid of being deployed to Vietnam, and reckoned that he would surely be court-martialed if he went AWOL in South Korea. So he figured that he’d hand himself over to the North Koreans, who would then hand him over to the Soviets, who in turn would send Jenkins back to America as part of a Cold War prisoner swap. An absolutely bonkers plan, especially since there was no love lost between Pyongyang and Moscow. But it made sense in Jenkins’ beer-addled mind, just as North Korea’s seemingly daft scheming must feel logical to Kim and his frightened underlings.

There is one passage from the book that really gets to the heart of this logical dysfunction. It is Jenkins’ account of North Korea’s 1978 abduction of his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, from Sado Island. After being assaulted and stuffed in a sack, Soga was loaded onto a ship and put out to sea. That’s when things got really strange:

They sailed the whole rest of the day and landed in Chongjin, North Korea, on the evening of the thirteenth. The next morning, they gave her breakfast and took her to the beach to look for clams. That is typical of how strange the North Korean cadres are, how out of touch they are with the emotions normal people have. Here they have just kidnapped you and your mother and separated you, they have ripped you from your home street in your own country without any explanation or any idea of what is going to become of you, and they are so out of touch with what they have just put you through and how you might hate them and fear them at that moment that they see nothing weird in saying, “Now that we have a few moments, maybe it would be fun for you to go to the beach to look for some clams?” They are that crazy.

This anecdote makes me wonder if a nation’s entire elite can suffer from emotional tone deafness, simply because they were raised and educated in isolation from the world beyond their borders. Or perhaps it wasn’t the isolation that deprived these cadres of their ability to pick up on social cues, but rather the fact that North Korean education is exclusively about indoctrination rather than socialization.

The bottom line is that human beings are far more malleable than we typically realize. The little things we take for granted—the capacity to recognize another person’s pain, the logical prowess to link cause to effect—are not instinctual, but the product of early reinforcement. If a warped system gets its hooks into a child, it’s equivalent to a virus embedding itself in a piece of software: The complete product may still look the same to the untrained eye, but it malfunctions in a precise and dreadful way.

(Photo via Philippe Chancel; more of his North Korean work here)

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    From what I understand, a large part of that indoctrination is to infantilize North Koreans. They’re convinced that not only are they the most special people on earth, but they also must be protected from the evil outside world by the government. Learned helplessness is a fairly well-known phenomenon, so I can believe that people can develop a program to mold people that way. I can also imagine how stunted emotional growth could go along with infantilization.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: I wish there was more in the book about the DPRK’s education system. Jenkins has two daughters who attended elite schools, and he does mention that he was taken aback by the curriculum’s near total lack of the three R’s. But I’d be curious to know more about the day-to-day lesson plans.

    The whole book is highly recommended, by the way. Co-written by Jim Frederick ,who I did an event with back in September. He had a tough task, taking an old man’s memories and shaping them into a coherent narrative. He really pulled it off–a true page-turner.

  • scottstev

    The thing that sticks with me with the Jenkins saga, is how deep and long-lasting the consequences can remain for a rather impulsive decision. Aside from accidentally killing someone, I can’t imagine another situation where someone has had to live day-after-day with that kind of regret.

    I remember the court martial after Jenkins’ return to the US, and how he was given a uniform and served a nominal punishment for being absent. I wonder if he felt it therapeutic to return to those old rituals before he was discharged, or if it was another absurdity he through which he had to suffer.

    I’ve given the rec in other forums, but everyone needs to read Black Hearts also by Jim Fredrick. It’s a searing account of leadership breakdown and the horrific consequences of such suffered by truly innocent victims.

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