Worshiping Authority Leads to Tyranny: Five Lessons from North Korea

MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace wants the world to know she’s “a Fauci groupie.” She describes herself as a virtuous devotee: “I’m thrice-vaccinated, mask adherent. I buy KN95 masks by the, you know, caseload. They’re in every pocket. I wear them everywhere except when I sit down.”

Wallace is not the only one to express adoration for a politician or Dr. Fauci. Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, once expressed her wish that President Obama be granted unlimited dictatorial powers. Abuse of power mounts as politicians and bureaucrats amass devotees; the liberal principles that built Western civilization slide away.

You may be a devotee in the cult of Mountain Dew, but no matter how fervent you are, others are free to eschew soda. Daily we exercise our freedom to choose among alternatives provided in the marketplace. Elect a politician or appoint a bureaucrat and alternatives vanish.

Professor John Marini warns of the unbridled power of bureaucratic agencies: “In the modern administrative state, the power of government is unlimited, and the rights of citizens and the rule of law itself rests on a precarious ground.”

Recently, Dr. Fauci called out “nonbelievers” who give him “a real problem.” He bemoans the “disinformation” stopping people from pulling together his way. Fauci shows no spirit of inquiry to alternative views. On the contrary, Fauci seems to believe he is the keeper of universal truths that should be followed without question.

Human beings are fallible. Elevated to the role of cult leader, we shouldn’t be surprised when the leader shows no humility. Dr. Fauci works to besmirch nonbelievers holding opposing views; world-renowned epidemiologists who drafted the Great Barrington Declaration are among those he aims to discredit.

In his book The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy observed that presidential candidates often think they are “applying for the job of national savior.” If they campaign and talk that way, it is because many Americans expect a savior. Healy writes, “Few Americans find anything amiss in the notion that it is the President’s duty to solve all large national problems and to unite us all in the service of a higher calling. The vision of the President as national guardian and redeemer is so ubiquitous that it goes unnoticed.” Anything that “goes unnoticed” is very difficult to change.

When Americans behave like devotees to bureaucrats and politicians, much can go wrong. North Koreans worship authority. America is not in danger of sinking to the levels of madness found in North Korea. Yet to avoid further forfeiture of our liberties, we can recognize the warning signs of where the worship of authority mindset can lead us.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his introduction to the abridged edition of the Gulag Archipelago cautions, “There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; Here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”

Most North Koreans are reduced to mere survival, but Suki Kim’s book Without You, There is No Us offers a unique view into the mindset of the elite class. In the Covid era, Kim provides an instructive North Korean cautionary tale for those seeking to understand the mindset that fuels tyranny.

Kim was born in South Korea before immigrating to America at 13. For six months in 2011, she returned to North Korea as an undercover missionary, teaching English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). All of her students were male children of North Korea’s ruling class. Speaking fluent Korean allowed her to gain unique insights.

She and her students were under constant observation by “minders.” Even so, Kim was able to build human connections with the 19- and 20-year old Pyongyang elites, who knew little other than pronouncements they had been fed. They were not starving, but their lives were as regimented as other North Koreans.

Lesson 1: When Lies Become Truth

In a country where nearly everything is a lie, lying is a way of life for these elite children. Kim was unnerved by how lying extended to even the most mundane things for which there was no reason to lie. “Of course, lying and secrecy were all they had ever known.” Kim observes,

The speed with which they lied was unnerving. It came too naturally to them—such as the moment when a student told me that he had cloned a rabbit as a fifth grader, or when another said that a scientist in his country had discovered a way to change blood type A to blood type B, or when the whole class insisted that playing basketball caused a person to grow taller. I was not sure if, having been told such lies as children, they could not differentiate between truth and lies, or whether it was a survival method they had mastered.

They believed their Great Leader “was admired around the world, and that their nation was the most powerful and prosperous on the planet. In a country where the government invents its own truth, how could they be expected to do otherwise?”

Kim chillingly writes, “Either they were so terrified that they felt compelled to lie and boast of the greatness of their Leader, or they sincerely believed everything they were telling me. I could not decide which was worse.”

Dr. Fauci has his “truths” about masks, vaccines, therapeutics for Covid, gain of function research, and natural immunity. Sycophantic healthcare professionals, to avoid a professional gulag, adopt Fauci’s truths. Why are so many Americans eager to cooperate with those who would regiment their healthcare?

Lesson 2: When Knowledge is Withheld, Ignorance Reaches Dangerous Levels

In North Korea, access to computers is very limited. Kim reports her elite students had no access to the Internet, as any knowledge of the outside world would threaten the continuous lies. She relates an interaction with one of her students:

One of my most sophisticated students, Song Seung-jin, asked me if I could help him find information about alcohol. He wanted to write about its advantages and disadvantages, but he had never drunk alcohol and did not know how to go about researching it. He was a son of a doctor who had been surrounded by medical information all his life, with the ambition of becoming a doctor himself, and yet he did not have a clue as to the effects of alcohol. What he was suggesting, I realized, was that I look it up for him on the Internet.

On other occasions, she recounts, “The sight of the country’s best students of science and technology staring blankly at screens was so pathetic that I was seized by a pang of anger, mixed with sadness, and soon left the room.”

There are no official government censors in America. Big Tech does the heavy lifting by squashing challenges to the official narrative. Nonbelievers find their social media posts throttled or censored or they are deplatformed from media channels.

Lesson 3: Critical Thinking Does Not Develop When Truth is Predetermined

Kim tried to teach the young elites the essence of writing an essay, but critical thinking was impossible:

I emphasized the importance of essays since, as scientists, they would one day have to write papers to prove their theories. But in reality, nothing was ever proven in their world, since everything was at the whim of the Great Leader. Their writing skills were as stunted as their research skills. Writing inevitably consisted of an endless repetition of his achievements, none of which was ever verified, since they lacked the concept of backing up a claim with evidence. A quick look at the articles in the daily paper revealed the exact same tone from start to finish, with neither progression nor pacing. There was no beginning and no end.

In short, “the basic three- or five-paragraph essay—with a thesis, an introduction, a body paragraph with supporting details, and a conclusion—was entirely foreign to them.”

Kim’s students did not have the slightest idea that assertions should be supported by evidence. She explains, “As always, their government had sown misinformation, and my students’ claims lacked any basis in reality, so I could hardly expect them to back up their theses.”

Kim adds, “But misinformation and lack of information were not the only problems in teaching them how to write an essay. In their storytelling, a conclusion was always predetermined.”

Kim reports,

[T]here was no proof, no checks and balances—unless, of course, they wanted to prove that the Great Leader had single-handedly written hundreds of operas and thousands of books and saved the nation and done a miraculous number of things. Their entire system was designed not to be questioned, and to squash critical thinking. So the form of an essay, in which a thesis had to be proven, was antithetical to their entire system. The writer of an essay acknowledges the arguments opposing his thesis and refutes them. Here, opposition was not an option.

Today in America, the conclusion too is predetermined. When the official vaccine narrative is challenged, devotees of Dr. Fauci chant “proven safe and effective.” Anything but the official Covid narrative is dismissed as misinformation or a conspiracy theory. Is the capacity for critical thinking withering away in America?

Lesson 4: Tyrants Maintain Power by Demanding Devotion

Kim describes objects of devotion: “Virtually every building is adorned with a slogan, every TV screen with the same image, the way advertising billboards fill the horizon in Western societies, but in North Korea there is only one product: the Great Leader.” Kim was sickened by the “images of the silent villages alongside the roads, the gaunt faces outside the van window, the Great Leader slogans and the Great Leader songs and the Great Leader portraits that marked every building, every living creature, every hushed breath like a branding iron.”

Great Leader images themselves are sacred. Kim describes the social norms: “Make sure you do not throw away, fold, tear, or damage any visual representation of them. Do not point at such images either. It would be considered an act of disrespect and you would be punished.”

Kim’s elite students were as ignorant of the rest of the world as were other North Koreans: “They were always comparing themselves to the outside world, which none of them had ever seen, declaring themselves the best. This insistence on ‘best’ seemed strangely childlike, and the words best and greatest were used so frequently that they gradually lost their meaning.” Kim adds, “The idea that North Korea alone excelled while all other nations were falling behind seemed a near obsession.”

North Korean leaders are trusted to have mystical knowledge about all things. As people starve, leaders claim more exaggerated knowledge about everything from fish farming to apple growing. Kim shares the claim that “hundreds of thousands of apple trees [that] were so special that they bore fruit within a year. Our Great General Comrade Kim Jong-il is not only the greatest in leading our powerful and prosperous nation but even well versed in apple growing.”

Notice the parallels: Believing that Dr. Fauci is the world’s wisest doctor, devotees obsessively obey his directives. With obedience there is no need to take responsibility for your own decisions, just follow Dr. Fauci’s one-size-fits-all guidance.

Lesson 5: Politicians Are Not the Source of Goodness

There is no private property In North Korea, and family ties have been destroyed by relocating people all over the country. Thus, North Koreans passively believe all goodness comes from the North Korean despot. Kim’s students “became preachy about his greatness, which they called his ‘solicitude.’ If they got a good grade, it was thanks to his solicitude. If their English improved, that also had to do with his solicitude.”

Kim writes, “Whenever the teachers pointed out anything that made life outside sound better than in North Korea, they inevitably brought up the solicitude of the Great Leader, under whose reign everything was free,” but, of course, mostly unavailable.

National Geographic’s 2006 documentary episode of their series Inside North Korea illuminates the mindset of the North Korean people. Filmmaker Lisa Ling accompanied a Nepalese eye surgeon on a humanitarian mission to perform cataract surgery on 1,000 North Koreans.

Because of rampant malnutrition and poor medical care, cataract-induced blindness is alarmingly present even among young people in the population of North Korea.

The closing scenes of the documentary are instructive. The bandages are being removed from the patients who have had cataract surgery. As with every dwelling in the country, portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hang on the room’s walls. One by one, as the bandages come off, patients bow and weep before the Kims, while ignoring the medical staff who restored their eyesight. They proclaim new oaths of praise and obedience: “Because you brought us your light and greatness, I swear I will serve you.”

In Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, we recognize where an us vs. them mindset leads. Demick tells the story of a doctor brought in to treat a prisoner sentenced for operating a private business. The prisoner was malnourished and suffering from acute bronchitis. The doctor wanted to treat the prisoner with an antibiotic but a superior ruled, “He’s a convict. Let’s save the antibiotic for someone else.”

Today in America, there are health professionals who would justify depriving the unvaccinated of medical care and/or ration care based on “social justice” criteria.

Dystopian North Korean scenes seem light years away from the American experience. Yet as Dr. Mark McDonald points out, vaccine mandates seem designed “to ensure a population of dependent, passive, disempowered workers living under the thumb of a government that cares nothing for their well-being.”

Kim focused her book on the relatively well-fed elites, but she shared glimpses of the lives of ordinary North Koreans who were “markedly smaller in every way, with haunted eyes:”

When we passed closer to one of the construction sites, the workers became visible, with hollowed eyes and sunken cheeks, clothing tattered, heads shaved, looking like Nazi concentration camp victims. The sight was so shocking that both Katie (another teacher) and I drew in sharp breaths. We could not say anything or show our feelings, since the minder sat nearby, but we exchanged glances and Katie mouthed the exact word that struck me at that moment: “Slaves.”

Kim’s students lived lives of relative privilege, seemingly unaware of the suffering of other North Koreans. Her students asked, “Do you find our city beautiful?” Kim did not respond honestly, but thought,

I did not find Pyongyang beautiful. It was a monotone, bleak city, filled with concrete buildings and people dressed in rags who looked starved. But it was not Pyongyang’s physical attributes that made it so ugly in my eyes. It was what it stood for. It was the most horrible city in the world to me, and every time I saw it in the distance, on the horizon, outside the van window, I felt disheartened. Pyongyang was the Xanadu of North Korea—the city the rest of the country slaved to feed. It was a greedy, bloodsucking monster, and sometimes I wished it would just go up in smoke.

The title of Kim’s book Without You, There is No Us comes from a song her students chanted in a daily ritual. You, of course, referred to, at the time, the ruling despot, Kim Jong-il.

There is no questioning in North Korea. The official narrative can never be challenged: “If their book said it was true, you can’t tell them that it’s a lie. Nothing, it seemed, could break through their belligerent isolation; moreover, this attitude left no room for any argument, since all roads led to just one conclusion.”

If one day her bright students would be free to question, Kim wondered, “The questions they would have. The questions they should be asking. The questions they would realize they had not been asking because they did not imagine they could, or because asking meant that they could no longer exist in their system.”

Today, many Americans, including healthcare professionals, stifle their questions because to ask means they can “no longer exist in their system.” Inquiry is being crushed and freedom is eroding. America’s “soft” crushing of inquiry is far removed from North Korea’s brutal totalitarian dystopia. Yet, lessons from North Korea are warning signs. Why would we go further down the path to hell on earth when North Korea is a living example of the mindset that generates such a hell?

Author

  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

    He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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