Where Ignorance Is Strength


At this moment of collapsing Cold War and communism, NorthKorea still holds out as the bastion of old-line communism. Thirty-five thousand American soldiers are camped on her border as a trip-line if there is a military ambition on the part of the rulers in Pyongyang.

Recently a score of remains of missing-in-action American soldiers of the Korean War were handed over at the truce line. In a curious parallel action I was invited by the regime in Pyongyang to visit the grave of my father who was forcibly kidnapped by the retreating North Korean soldiers during the Korean War. Considering the prominence of my father, Kwangsoo Lee, a Korean novelist, and my being an American nuclear physicist I feared becoming a pawn to their advantage, but I could not resist the chance to find out about the last days of my father.

The division of Korea into north and south in the deal struck between Roosevelt and Stalin is again thrown into focus after the Berlin Wall came down. Lest the new generation of Americans forget, more than a million American soldiers fought in fierce battles in Korea between 1950 and 1953 in order to rescue South Korea from invasion by the north and, in effect, to preserve the integrity of that division. Would this division also crumble, and if it would, when?

After my emotional visit to my father's grave on a hill bordering a group of ancient Koguryo tombs of the 3rd century, I lived in Pyongyang for a week savoring the life in a seclusionist society. The thoroughgoing censorship prevented a citizen from learning even a disastrous flooding on the outskirts of the capital city. I heard of it from a physicist visiting me. Orwell's "Ignorance Is Strength" is practiced here, lest the citizens know of the reality outside and lose respect for their supreme leader.

The result of this isolation from the rest of the world was obvious in the form of economic stagnation. The citizenry were not well-fed and the city streets did now show the spirit and dynamism portrayed in their television programs. Hotels lacked telecommunications.

Still, the rulers have convinced citizens that their version of communism, juche, self-reliance, surpasses any other ideology. This is how they fend off the embarrassment of the failing international communism.

The State Department made a quiet overture to Pyongyang by maintaining informal contacts in Beijing as late as 1988. There is currently a scenario of summit meetings between the North and South. As I left Pyongyang I was convinced that exposure of the North Korean citizenry to reality would be most destabilizing to the regime, and that, therefore, North Korea would not accept a term of unification calling upon it first to crack open its society. Only dire economic need might do that.

As I was haggling over a taxi fare outside the Beijing Airport for a ride to the nearby Holiday Inn, I felt I traveled light-years from Pyongyang.

Yung K. Lee is a professor of physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University.

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