[Viewpoint] Brainwashing an entire population

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[Viewpoint] Brainwashing an entire population

Americans want to know, as North Koreans mourn their “dear leader,” are those tears and grief-stricken faces for real? Or for show?

For real, certainly. No one who lived in South Korea during the University Games in Daegu in 2003 can forget the hysteria of North Korea’s “army of beauties,” the cheerleading squad, when they spotted a portrait of Kim Jong-il hung crooked and left in the rain. The beauties demanded that the bus be stopped and the portrait rescued.

“How could you place our general in such a place?” a weeping cheerleader was quoted. “He deserves only respect. We cannot stand for this.”

For many South Koreans, the incident was startling proof of just how divergent the two Koreas had become. North Koreans carry their grief to extremes, but they are not unique. Americans of a certain age remember their shock and heartbreak when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. More to the point is the reaction of many Russians to the death of their dictator, Josef Stalin, in 1953.

When I lived in Moscow in the 1970s, many middle-aged Russians described their sense of loss at that event a quarter-century before. Yes, they knew that life under Stalin was hard. They knew the fear of the midnight knock at the door that meant someone beloved might be carried off and never seen again. And yet Stalin was all they knew, the one fixed star in their firmament.

“He carried us through the war,” one woman told me. “He defeated the Hiterlites, and he was protecting us from the American imperialists. Only Stalin. Without him, what would become of us?”

This must be the sentiment behind the copious tears in Pyongyang these days. But why? Is it Stockholm syndrome? That is the name given to a curious reversal of feelings in which hostages sometimes bond with their captors, and even defend them to outsiders. The syndrome was first noted after a bank robbery in Sweden in 1973. Five hostages, held for five days, refused after their release to denounce their captors.

One of the most famous cases occurred in 1974, when the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped and held for ransom. After two months she took an active part along with her captors in a robbery. Brought to trial, she argued through her lawyers that she was a victim of Stockholm syndrome and had been coerced into participating. The court didn’t buy it, and Ms. Hearst was convicted and imprisoned.

That verdict, of course, doesn’t say that there is no such thing as Stockholm syndrome, only that it is not an excuse for personal misconduct.

What accounts for this reversal of feelings? Analysts have theorized that the hostages come to feel dependent on the robbers for their physical safety. Absence of abuse is construed as kindness. The captives come to identify with their abductors, to see goodness in them, whose grace is their only hope of survival. Does this sound like my Russian friends?

Experts estimate that about 27 percent of hostage victims will develop Stockholm syndrome. In North Korea, the percentage seems closer to 100 percent. How did the Kim dynasty manage that? The word is too lightly used. If you get your little brother in trouble by telling him to steal candy, you have brainwashed him. If I buy a new cellphone, even though I have a perfectly good one, advertisers have brainwashed me.

Real brainwashing is a serious matter. Victims of Stockholm syndrome are essentially free agents. They cast their lot with their captors because they fear the alternative. Victims of brainwashing have no alternative; their psychic integrity having been compromised to the point where they cannot maintain a coherent persona.

The term came into use during the Korean War after it was noted that a significant number of American prisoners of war were persuaded to make anti-American statements or to confess to war crimes. But the thing itself - brainwashing - was around earlier. Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s novel “1984,” realized at the end of a course of torture that he loved Big Brother. His thought had been reformed.

What are some of the brainwashing techniques? The object was to prevent prisoners from maintaining morale and independence of mind that might lead to resistance. This was done by placing prisoners under dehumanizing conditions of physical and social deprivation and disruption, by inculcation of guilt and social pressure, and by incessant propaganda. In other words, the conditions of daily life in North Korea. A good place to read about a brainwashed people is the memoir “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” by Kang Chol-Hwan.

Of course, it is not only North Korea that uses brainwashing techniques. The South Korean military dictatorship of 1961-87 was harsh with political prisoners, and more recently the same charge has been leveled at U.S. treatment of suspected terrorists. But only North Korea has succeeded on so large scale - to brainwash an entire population. Yes, the tears are real.

*The writer is former chief editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

by Harold Piper
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