Dictatorship of the mind: a portrait of the Great Leader, Kim il-Sung on a block in Pyongyang. Photo: Damir Sagoli: Reuters
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Jang Jin-sung: I became poet laureate to Kim Jong-il

Becoming one of the “Admitted” invol­ved attending a dinner with Kim Jong-il, who played with his white Maltese puppy and kicked off his shoes under the table.

When I was a child, I didn’t read. In all honesty, no story was as exciting as the fairy tales my mother told my siblings and me. A story that captivated my childhood imagination more than anything else was about a magic cudgel that granted any wish, as long as you wished with a good heart; I could daydream about holding that omni­potent object in my hand and forget about everything else. The early years of school in North Korea could offer nothing but the narrative of the Supreme Leader’s childhood, which all North Korean children learned according to their age group, growing up alongside him. The Revolutionary History of the Leader Kim Il-sung did not captivate me as the magic cudgel did, and I performed poorly at school.

However, as I progressed through school, the demands of achieving good grades grew stronger and I had no choice but to immerse myself, like everyone else, in the Supreme Leader. My mother tongue – the one that I learned to read write, think in and understand the world through – was the language of our Revolutionary History. Even when I turned to novels or poetry, whatever book I opened, it was the same: the Korean language served to tell the story of two protagonists alone, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Even “everyday heroes” were unrealistic people, swearing absolute loyalty only to the Supreme Leader and the Workers’ Party, and they were not people I wanted ever to resemble.

I had the rare privilege to study western music from the age of seven – cassettes of Dvorák were smuggled in from China by my piano teacher – and I could not find any literature that spoke to me in a way that approached what I experienced through this thrilling and complex music. But what gave me aspirations to become a writer was the poetry of Byron. In North Korea, gaining access to any foreign culture is a crime of “revisionism”, but there is a “hundred copy collection” (each book limited to a hundred copies) available to the elite, so that they might receive a cultural grounding to help them carry out their jobs as leaders, diplomats and propagandists. I don’t know how one of these limited editions of Byron’s works ended up in my father’s personal bookcase, but that is where, aged 15, I found it. For the first time in my life, tears welled in my eyes as I read a book. The words contained emotion as a melody and the plots of the poems were like the resonance of an orchestra in a hall. I was relearning my own language from a foreign book.

In the strict apartheid of North Korea, the use of language is tightly controlled across different classes of people. Above all, the language used for reference to the Supreme Leader is set apart in its grammar and vocabulary. Kim Il-sung is always “great”, and “greatness” must always belong to the Supreme Leader alone; but Byron taught me that the word could be used to describe any one of us, and that every one of us could dare to partake in such qualities. I wanted to become Byron, not only as a writer, but also as a man who might consider risking his life for an ordinary beloved – and not just for the Supreme Leader. I grew self-righteous, gloating at the thought that all the North Korean writers before me who had no access to Byron were like frogs in a well.

There could exist no such novel, poetry or story created by a North Korean writer. All forms of culture remain under the law of Kim Jong-il’s “Juche Art Theory”, which dictates that all North Korean literature must be in the style of “socialist realism”, with “socialist” denoting not an ideology, but an interpretation of “reality” dictated by the regime: a reality in which the Supreme Leader’s Revolutionary History must be the only truth. The world may talk about the counterfeiting of dollar bills by the regime for the sake of maintaining its grip on power, but this regime has set up a more invidious system for the purpose of counterfeiting the thoughts of its people. This not merely influences or interferes with their most intimate thoughts, but enforces a state policy to fabricate them from conception to expression, from each individual to the consciousness of the nation.

As an employee of the United Front Department (UFD), I witnessed this project at first hand. The UFD is a hybrid entity for policymaking, espionage and “engagement” with the outside world that functions as a controlling body to project and reflect perceptions of North Korea. I worked in Section 5 (Literature), Division 19 (Poetry) of Office 101. Despite the uncanny and unintended echo of Orwell’s Room 101, this office was, ironically, so named precisely in order to avoid any hint of the nature of our work. When it was first set up, the department specialised in conducting psychological warfare operations against the South through cultural media such as the press, literary arts, music and film. After the 1970s, it strove particularly to amplify anti-American sentiment and foster pro-North tendencies among the South Korean population, exploiting the democratic resistance movements that had risen against the then military dictatorship.

My task, like all other writers in the system, was to express an institutional line, not an individual message. No writer in North Korea is permitted to act beyond a bureaucratic affiliation that controls the process – from the setting of the initial guidelines for each work to the granting of permission for publication – through strict monitoring, evaluation and surveillance. Our main task was to transform ourselves into South Korean poets who supported Kim Jong-il. My South Korean pseudonym was Kim Kyong-min. This is the only way to earn recognition as a writer in North Korea: under a name that is not your own.

Elsewhere in the world and throughout history, the subject of literature has included the human condition. But under the suffocating constraints of North Korean surveillance, where the only concerns permitted in artistic expression are those of the Supreme Leader, I could not produce any writing that allowed me to feel I was accomplishing anything other than a bureaucratic task. Despite this, my colleagues in the propaganda departments envied me. Because I worked under an assumed South Korean identity, I did have some licence to experiment with straying from the legal bounds of North Korean art – at least in the exercise of style. This provided the “freedom” in which I composed my work; which, paradoxically, stood out from writing by my more careful and devout peers and led to my being admitted into Kim Jong-il’s inner circle.

In December 1998 I was given the job of writing an epic poem that would promote the notion that the North Korean policy of songun – the project to unify the entire Korean Peninsula through the superior might of our military force – had been formulated to protect South Korea. My poem, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, was written in the voice of a South Korean poet who, recalling a massacre of activists in his own country, visits Pyongyang and finds protection and peace there. It so pleased the Supreme Leader that it was distributed throughout the nation and, in 1999, aged 28, I was made one of his six poet laureates.

Becoming one of the “Admitted” invol­ved attending a dinner with Kim Jong-il, who played with his white Maltese puppy and kicked off his shoes (high-heeled, with an inner platform at least six centimetres high) under the table. That night changed the course of my life in a way that winning the lottery might do in a capitalist nation; but, more importantly, it granted me immunity. Not even the highest authorities in the DPRK could investigate, prosecute or harm one of the Admitted.

Unless, that is, they committed treason – which I did. I lent a friend a restricted book, the contents of which included a biography of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il written by a South Korean academic. In discussing the infidelity and violent purges in the Kim family, this book starkly contradicted the official Revolutionary History. When the authorities found out about my transgression I had no choice but to escape to South Korea.

I know that no dictatorship can be successful merely by force. A dictator may use a form of religious cult to demand an unquestioning and heartfelt obedience from each individual, or a myth of racial superiority to bind the loyalty of many to one selfish cause. North Korea is no exception in the modern history of totalitarianism. There are the brutal political camps that physically shut away the lives of North Korean people; but there is also a dictatorship of the mind, the political prison where thought and expression are stifled. North Korea’s dictatorship of force over its people – its police-state system, the inescapable surveillance, the party’s invocation of the “Supreme Leader’s will”, overruling even the national constitution – cannot end while the dictatorship of the mind prevails.

The only power that will undermine the dictatorship of the mind is the realisation that it is possible not only for the regime to lie to its people, but that it has done so, deliberately and constantly. My people cannot be free until each of us acknowledges that the Revolutionary History of the Leader is not the true reality of North Korea.

“Dear Leader” by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee, is published by Rider Books (£20)

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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The Okay Place: the psychological value of mediocre TV

Why do we watch comedies that don’t make us laugh?

I’ve been watching Brooklyn 99 on the train. The comedy cop show makes me laugh roughly once an episode, but nonetheless I watch it compulsively. I watch it on my commute, and I watch it while cooking dinner. It’s in the background when I’m paying my bills. I consumed so many episodes last night, Netflix sent me its most notoriously judgemental pop-up: “Are you still watching?”

Yes, Netflix, I was still watching. The real question was: why?

Brooklyn 99 doesn’t really make me laugh, and it’s far from the most critically-acclaimed show available on the streaming service right now. It’s not technically mediocre – the sitcom has won two Golden Globes – but it is to me*. It provokes the same feelings in me as Netflix’s The Good Place, a kitsch sitcom set in the afterlife. I am compelled to watch at all costs, but on the whole unamused and occasionally frustrated by formulaic storylines. (Sometimes, The Good Place even makes me cringe.)

I enjoy both shows, sure, but I don’t love them. So why am I wasting my time?

(*Because this is the internet, it's a good time to specify that "mediocre" here means in the view of the person being quoted, not objectively.)

“To understand why people are drawn to certain shows, it’s helpful to look at the type of feelings the shows elicit,” says Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist and assistant professor at West Virginia University. Cohen says media often has a “mood management function”, in that we use it to make ourselves feel better.

“Sometimes we are looking to be emotionally stimulated, so we might choose to watch something that we think will thrill us,” she says. “But other times we might decide to forego the dark cerebral drama on our DVR and opt for a safe sitcom instead. That could be because we need something that will help us wind down, relax, and boost our mood.”

Photo: Netflix

A desire to unwind is one of the reasons Oliver Savory, a 30-year-old grad student from London, watches The Big Bang Theory, a comedy that has inspired much ire.

“It fills a niche of something to watch while eating, when you can’t focus fully, or you’ve just got in and want to unwind without thinking too hard,” he explains. Oliver says “average” TV comforts him more than “good” TV because he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up to date. “Good TV you have to make time for, average TV can fit around your own schedule without imposing itself.”

Cohen says this is referred to as “comfort food TV”, the entertainment equivalent of eating boxed mac and cheese even if you have the recipe for mum’s spaghetti. “These are shows that people watch not because they are exceptional in quality, but because they are simple, predictable, or nostalgic.”

Sometimes, we watch “okay” shows because we feel they have the potential to be great. Karen Dill-Shackleford is a media psychologist who explains this was her experience with The Good Place.

“I love The Good Place, but there was a stretch when I thought it was poor,” she says. “I kept waiting for it to right itself because I thought it had real potential.”

The potential many of us see in the show is its fresh premise, and its engagement with moral philosophy. As Dill-Shackleford puts it: “[the show] is a palatable way to ponder life’s biggest questions. So, even if the jokes are lame, the potential for real value is still there.”

Charlotte Mullin, a 23-year-old illustrator, says she doesn't laugh at the jokes either. “But what keeps me watching is the premise, and the characters. I’m a sucker for good character development, and The Good Place has it in spades,” she says. (Cohen tells me she does laugh at The Good Place, once again illustrating that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder.)

Photo: Netflix

Ross McCafferty is a 27-year-old journalist from Glasgow who couldn’t tell you anything about NBC’s Parks and Recreation, even though he’s seen every episode. During a difficult time at work, he consumed the entire show.

“It’s actually quite a derivative, even mediocre show,” he says. “But I still ate it up, because at the time it was oddly comforting to me, self-contained and uncomplicated and unobtrusive, like so little in my life at that time.”

The reasons McCafferty liked the show, he says, is because it was “nice”, “brightly lit”, “nonthreatening” and “so sweet it was cloying”.

Bright lights and pretty colours certainly feel like one of the reasons I keep going back to mediocre sitcoms, but I also find comfort in certain characters: Chidi in The Good Place and Boyle in Brooklyn 99 are comfortingly familiar – I almost switch on to keep up to date with them, as if they were friends.

George Clarke is a 25-year-old management consultant who finds similar comfort in Seinfeld characters, even though the show doesn’t make him laugh much. “Some days I might fancy Netflix’s latest psychological thriller, but most of the time I’d just prefer to sit and watch Kramer doing something ridiculous or George stuff it up with the girl of his dreams for the fourth time that season,” he says.

But couldn’t Clarke and I find our televisual buds in prestige dramas?

“I find the idea of watching prestige shows non-stop to be exhausting,”  says David Renshaw, a 30-year-old news editor, who jokes it can feel like you “need a map” to keep up with Game of Thrones. When he finishes watching something acclaimed, such as Breaking Bad, he “cleanses the palette” with shows like Masterchef or Gogglebox. “They are much lower maintenance… especially if you’re switching between TV and phone as often as I do.”

Photo: Netflix

The comfort of the mediocre is so powerful that it can often override other emotions, such as the cringing I experience during some of The Good Place’s more strained jokes. Lizzie Roberts is a 25-year-old masters student who enjoys Gilmore Girls even though she dislikes the character Lorelai’s “painfully unfunny monologues”.

“It’s my way of letting my brain reset,” she says of the show, as well as reality TV such as Towie and I’m A Celeb. “It’s not taxing, it’s tolerable.”

“Not taxing and tolerable” are perhaps the words that best sum up the complex psychological reasons we continue to watch mediocre TV during the Golden Age of Television. Streaming services like Netflix are also designed to keep us watching, with episodes auto-playing one after the other (plus it's easier to find a show you've essentially already paid for on the Netflix homepage than go out and hunt for something more prestigious).

Although watching mediocre TV can feel like a waste of time, it does seem to have a psychological purpose. When we're stressed, busy, or tired, it can be exactly the entertainment we need. Nothing is more stressful, busy, or tiring than a commute – so I'll be watching Brooklyn 99 on the train home.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup