In 1948 George Orwell published a book called Nineteen Eighty-Four about a dystopian future perpetually consumed by war. This horrific society was built upon an all-encompassing cult of personality centered around an omnipresent figure called ‘Big Brother’, characterized by overwhelming government surveillance, enabled and sustained by mind-control of the masses under the direction of a privileged (single) party elite. Any proven or conceived independent thought by any individual or group was severely punished by the state as a ‘Thought Crime’, justified by the state as being for the greater good…
Also in 1948, purely by coincidence, perhaps, a Soviet-trained guerrilla fighter named Kim Il Sung became the founder of a new country. Backed by the USSR and China the Northern half of the Korean peninsula became the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (North Korea). Following the 1950-1953 Korean War, Kim Il Sung successfully forged the world’s most impenetrable cult of personality, which would go on to become the ever-decreasingly-likely third generation dynasty that somehow survives today.
Stupendously huge bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, tower over the citizens of every city and town (currently, Kim Jong III seems not to have erected his own statues in every city and town). Countless billboards and posters bear military slogans and propaganda, accompanied by the likenesses of the Great and Dear leaders. Nationwide, television sets are hardwired to receive a single signal, broadcast by the state. People who openly (or privately) criticize the state or its leadership in any way, or are even suspected of doing so, are reportedly shipped to prison camps, or ‘gulags’ for re-education, often with their entire families. All of this is eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.
A few years ago, British journalist and writer Peter Hitchens (who incidentally won the Orwell Prize for Political Journalism in 2010) traveled to Pyongyang and wrote an article in which he noted eerie similarities between Orwell’s fictitious Ministry of Truth, and Pyongyang’s very real Ryugyong Hotel.
Construction on the mammoth Hotel commenced in 1987, which at the time would have been one of the world’s tallest buildings. Work ground to a halt two years later however, for two primary reasons. North Korea simply had no money to build a 105-storey building, and the young soldiers consigned with the task of building it had little idea how to actually do so. Described by Hitchens in 2007 as ‘The ugliest building in the universe’, the Ryugyong languished in semi-completed disrepair for the next few decades until its facade was finally completed by the German luxury hotel group, Kempinski (North Korea remains too broke to pay for… well, much at all really, and the Kempinski Group was compensated with a 75% stake in Koryolink, North Korea’s single, state-run mobile phone carrier).
There are four Ministries in Orwell’s novel which oversee… everyone. These are the Ministries of Love, Peace, Plenty and Truth. The names of each are misnomers, as the true nature of each is the opposite of what its name suggests. The Ministry of Truth (workplace of Winston Smith, the book’s protagonist) deals in the dissemination of State propaganda.
Ok, so THIS is the freaky bit (we’re just getting to that).
George Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ from Nineteen Eighty-four was a colossal 300-metre, three-sided pyramid-shaped concrete building.
Slightly bigger (at 2.5 times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza) the Ryugyong Hotel is a colossal 330-metre, pyramid-shaped concrete building.
The Ministry of Truth had 3000 rooms (above ground).
The Ryugyong was originally planned to have 3000 rooms (though this number was significantly reduced due to structural constraints and the inclusion of facilities generally expected of five-star hotels).
Orwell’s ‘The Party’ maintained total control, utilising a combination of relentless misinformation and ‘re-education’, by means of unimaginable brutality and/or disappearance.
Pyongyang… well, its Pyongyang.
One could be forgiven for thinking Kim Il Sung may have interpreted Orwell’s horrific seminal work as a societal blueprint; a handbook of sorts, rather than a dire warning for humankind as Orwell intended. Is it possible that Kim actually did set out to build the Ministry of Truth (and now continues to thumb his nose at the outside world from the glass box where he lies in state as Eternal President of the crumbling, impenetrable nation he founded)? As for the isolated, corrupt and decrepit society his grandson now rules over, nobody at present can (or will) do anything about it.
Incidentally, Orwell’s Ministry of Truth had three slogans, one of which was written on each side of the gigantic pyramidal building. They were:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
To be honest, I feel a few modern parallels here outside.
If you haven’t already, you can read Nineteen Eighty-four free here.
Nice piece, that building particularly is rather freakishly similar. Peter Hitchens’ brother Christopher (now dead but a better write and journalist) also frequently used the comparison between 1984 and North Korea in his writing.
Ah yeah, the older better brother did write quite a bit on this too, lol. Peter’s article was quite well done though I thought. I was mostly interested here in the similarities between the Ryugyong and the Ministry of Truth. Cheers!
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That Pyramidical building is indeed the first, most obvious similarity one might see between the DPRK and Orwell’s “Oceania.” For me, I see that three of the greatest similarities between 1984 and North Korea is:
1.) The stratification of classes (‘Songbun,’ as North Korea calls it, where there is an Inner Party composed of high-ranking WPK members and military leaders, an Outer Party composed of the urban ‘Intellectual’ Class, and Proles made up of the ‘Workers’ and ‘Peasants’ Classes).
2.)The constant spouting of propaganda that can never be turned off (via the Telescreens in 1984 versus the radios in North Korea).
and, of course
3.) The perpetual “War” between the United States and North Korea that the government refuses to end simply because it wants the war-paranoia to keep the people in submission. WAR IS PEACE, right?
It was published in 1949 not 1948
Yes, that’s true. I’m not sure what your point is though.
Published in 1949, written in 1948. Correct?
It’s also worth pointing out that Pyongyang has an Office 101, staffed only by some the highest ranking and most trusted of cadres. Although its function is completely different to Room 101, its still an eerie coincidence.
Thanks John, I’ll check that out!
Doesn’t NK use that book as its guiding light?
Tough to say really… the lights are out quite often due to the electricity shortages.
In 1984 the Ministry of Truth had no windows.
Good point… actually, neither did the Ryugyong for a few decades, though it did have a few thousand window-shaped holes in its facade.
This is the second of your blogs I have read, and enjoy them as they are well written and – rare for the web – the spelling is correct!
I think that George Orwell was projecting the socialist paradise of the Soviet Union with his 1984. Certainly when I was on a regular run to Murmansk in the Soviet era, the generally grey decrepitude of the country was matched by East Germany and of course China under Mao. No heating in the buildings, power cuts right left and centre and people who knew tomorrow was going to be worse than today. I visited someone’s apartment in Murmansk and she took me to the communal kitchen that was in the central spine of their apartment tower block (along with the communal bathroom and other utilities) where she unlocked the padlocks from the saucepans on the stove to stir whatever was in it. They were there to stop another resident from stealing meat or veg from your saucepan. Dismal way of life.
The Russians would talk to you if you were on your own about the political situation, but not if you were with either another Russian or one of your own people. I asked about the latter, and they seemed surprised that we were so open with each other, as that attitude with them would end them up in a Gulag.
Thanks for your sharing your thoughts and experiences Stephen, cheers!
Some more interesting facts: This hotel was built on the site where Kim Il Sung invented sliced bread. From the top floor you can just see the mountain peak on which his unicorn descended and was later entombed.
Thanks D! I was aware of the unicorn lair, and a snippet about the sliced bread… did you know that the Eternal President’s son, the Diminutive Leader, ran with the sliced bread idea and invented the hamburger? He even gave it the mouthwatering name ‘더블 빵 고기’ (double bread with meat). I didn’t know the exact location of the hotel though. Cheers!
If you don’t want George Orwell’s Hell on Earth – and rats eating live babies (and so on) – then separate the Constitutional Republican Mortal State and Liberal Democratic Mortal Society… and let the Welfare Capitalist Mortal Marketplace take care of the poor, etc. Stop Paving the “Road to Hell” with ‘Good’ Intentions – and accept “Fine Enough” under Grey Morality. In the name of Nonviolence, avoiding aggression, and Nonsinning, avoiding harm to others – devise a better Constitution for America… complete with a Declaration of the Rights of the Person and the Citizen. For if America falls to Big Brother – our Home Planet is Doomed. Buddha, Tao, Kami (Gods), and Megami (Goddesses) Bless and Help us all from this humble little Japanese American Shamaness.