North Korean game theory

I recently finished Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, by Suki Kim.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was seeing how the minds of the authors’ students worked. The pupils at PUST were supposed to be North Korea’s best and brightest, so I was curious about their relationship to the North Korean government. Were they brainwashed partisans of the Kim dynasty? Or were they savvy enough to see through the nationalism and hero worship? Did they realize that North Korea was not the most powerful and respected country in the world, but rather desperately poor, technologically backwards, and almost universally reviled?

It’s difficult to find cracks in her students’ patriotism. They seem happy to make all the unnecessary sacrifices that the Kim dynasty demands, like staying up all night guarding their Juche study hall:

[W]hen I asked them why they had to guard the Kimilsungism Study Hall every night, they told me that they were guarding the spirit of their Great Leader….

As I imagined all the more productive ways those young men could spend their Saturday nights, Kang Sun-pil added, “Oh, but it is not tiring at all. There are six of us. We take turns. It is really not difficult. We read and study English to pass the time, and if we learn English, we will be able to better serve our country and our Great General Kim Jong-il.” This was so clearly articulated that I did a double take. Until then Sun-pil had been so quiet in class that I had hardly noticed him, but in that moment I could not help thinking that if I ever slipped, he would report me.

Plus, her students seem to genuinely believe that North Korea is a much better place to live than anywhere else. For instance, when Kim assigns readings on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, they interpret it (correctly, I suppose) as a nationalist attack on North Korean superiority. What’s more, they try to fight back by writing essays about the horrors of America:

Instead of a lesson on sources, which was not possible here, I asked that they read a simple essay from 1997 that quoted President Bill Clinton on how important it was to make all schools wired. I got it approved by the counterparts because it related to our current textbook theme of college education. I hoped that they would grasp how behind they were. I also gave them four recent articles—from the Princeton Review, the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Harvard Magazine—that mentioned Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and Twitter. None of the pieces evoked a response. Not even the sentence about Zuckerberg earning $100 billion from something he dreamed up in his college dorm seemed to interest them. It was possible that they viewed the reading as lies. Or perhaps the capitalist angle repelled them.

The next day, several students stopped by during office hours. They all wanted to change their essay topics. Curiously, the new topics they proposed all had to do with the ills of American society. One said he wanted to write about corporal punishment in American and Japanese middle schools. Another wanted to argue that the American government’s policy of deciding a baby’s future based on IQ tests should be forbidden. A third student wanted to write about the evils of allowing people to own guns so freely, in America. A fourth student said biofuel was toxic and America was the biggest producer of it. A fifth wanted to change his topic to divorce.

Changing your essay topic to an anti-American one when you read articles about the Internet? That’s extreme enough that it can’t be explained by merely trying to conform to the Kim regime’s brainwashing. There are much easier ways to convince government spies that you’re not a defector. This is something you’d only do if you genuinely believed that America was terrible.

But there are other things Kim’s students do that don’t really make sense if you assume they’re 100% brainwashed by North Korea. The most intriguing is that every last one of them compulsively lies about how good their lives are. They lie about having to do manual labor:

On weekends I might see the whole class working the field or exercising in groups at 6 a.m., but if I asked them how their morning was, they would answer that they slept late, as late as 11 a.m., and felt very rested. Every single student said that he was anxiously awaiting the vacation so that he could see his parents and hang out with his friends. Although some of them had no idea where their friends were, they seemed to expect them to be back from whichever construction site they had been taken to.

They lie and dodge questions about talking to their family:

Whenever I asked them if they corresponded with their family and friends, they never answered directly. One student said that he called his parents when he missed them, but when I asked whether there was a phone in the dormitory, he did not answer. Another student said that he was waiting for a package from his sister, and when I asked him if he wrote letters to his parents too, he also did not answer.

They lie about going on vacation:

It turned out that the students’ entire year was meticulously mapped out. During breaks, they either stayed on campus doing extra work or worked at some sort of collective farm. None of it was their choice. Dr. Joseph clarified that there was no such thing as a vacation in the DPRK. Sarah confirmed this. The theme of the reading she had to teach that week happened to be “vacation,” and she had realized that the vacation here was different from our idea of vacation. There was time set aside for recreation, such as playing sports, but there was no such thing as a prolonged holiday.

At lunch, I asked a few students what they had done over the summer vacation and was bombarded with tales of leisure time filled with activities with friends. Park Jun-ho said he had gone swimming for three to four hours at a time at the gymnasium at least three times a week. Han Jae-shik said that he had gone Rollerblading at the gymnasium and seen the Arirang Games with friends a couple of times. Kim Tae-hyun said that he had thrown a birthday party in August at a restaurant in the Chongryon Hotel.

They lie about their childhood experiences:

Later that night, Sarah told me that she was so glad to finally see the mountains here. Many of her students had grown up in rural areas, so they often wrote about mountains, along with catching frogs and chasing dragonflies. She said that it sounded beautiful and carefree, but as she spoke, it dawned on me that what she said did not make sense. Her students’ childhoods could not possibly have been so idyllic.

All her students had been born a few years before 1997, the worst period of the famine. North Korea had been on the brink of collapse. Even if they were from a privileged class, they could not have been shielded from the hunger and privation around them. So I was not sure how to make sense of the happy essays she described. Had they collectively been trained to say only good things about their childhoods?

The students must wonder about the reason they have to put on such a Potemkin village for Kim. It shouldn’t be hard to infer—from this, from the technology Kim shows them, from the fact they have to learn English—that North Korea is nowhere near as well off as the countries their teachers come from. So why do they all buy into the patriotism so perfectly?

There are a couple possible explanations.

A natural one is that the students are just totally brainwashed. It seems very hard to survive in North Korea without buying into the regime’s propaganda, both on a practical level—you’re punished severely if you slip up the charade—and psychologically. But how does this explain the students’ constant lying about how good their lives are? If you thought you lived in the most powerful and prosperous country on Earth, but for some reason you’ve been ordered to convince an outsider that you were being treated way better than you were, wouldn’t that raise your suspicions?

Well, perhaps not, if you were sufficiently brainwashed. Or maybe North Koreans play Potemkin to each other, as well: maybe it’s just a part of the endless status games they play, and there was nothing special about Kim’s foreign status. Or perhaps they’re trying to impress Kim of their own accord for some non-political reason—because they have a crush on her, or something. There are many possibilities.

A more interesting explanation of what’s going on is that the students aren’t as patriotic as they appear—they’re just extraordinarily good at performing patriotism. But Kim lived with these students for most of a year, and they hardly broke character in all that time. They must have figured out that she wasn’t a threat by then, right?

But that’s the catch of a totalitarian regime like North Korea’s: it functions even if every individual person would defect if given the chance. All you need is everyone to know two things:

  1. Everyone else will punish you for speaking out.

  2. Everyone else will punish you for not punishing someone else for speaking out.

And then the scenario of “no one speaks out, even though everyone wants to” is suddenly game-theoretically stable.1

The rest of the book was merely okay. Kim sometimes attempts to editorialize her stay in North Korea—her relationship with her students, her few glimpses into normal North Korean life, her response to the gloomy and uncomfortable conditions of PUST, the politics of the Korean Peninsula—but her own musings are uninspiring, tepid and clunky; it’s clear she’s a better reporter than thinker (at least on this complex subject). There are some half-hearted attempts to inject a side plot about Kim’s personal demons, but it never gets off the ground. Without You never achieves any sort of synthesis of its many anecdotes, or weaves together the bulk of its snarled threads. If you read it hoping for some sort of insight into the condition of North Korea, you’ll be disappointed.

Nevertheless, as a source of raw data on what it’s like to live in undoubtedly the world’s most bizarre political environment today, I think Without You, There Is No Us is pretty useful. I’m still confused about how the North Korean regime actually functions, but I’m interested to learn more.

  1. I think Nick Bostrom or someone discussed this in the context of global catastrophic risks (the risk being that some regime that’s game-theoretically stable like this becomes the world’s major power). ↩︎


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