Jean-Paul Sartre was very much interested in a faculty peculiar to the human imagination, that of creating, before the projector screen of consciousness, that which is not.  A simple thing, one might suspect, child’s play – and it is indeed this fundamental.

In Being and Nothingness Sartre invites us to a café of his own imagining, to attend him while he awaits his friend ‘Pierre’, an acquaintance who is nowhere to be seen amid the probable Gauloises smoke and café crèmes.  What instead appears before our internal vision, is negation, the not-there, the no-Pierre.

It is difficult to imagine a greater experiment in a sustained contact with lack than the hermetic North Korea.  In 2014 the most recent UN catalogue of the state’s manifold and continual abuses starkly displayed an abundance of opportunities for scarcity, for these negités, and the enforced lack of opportunities to escape them.  North Korea can be defined by all that its people are without.  The UN report makes clear the unpleasant definition.

Beneath the boot of the Kim dynasty nothingness ‘lies coiled at the heart of being’.  The world is well aware there exists no freedom of movement or expression, or any appeal to justice.  No privacy to return to after a public pantomime of subservience, with no dissenting or even varying interaction between fellows, it is a life with no unauthorized content.  Frequently on the growing list of things diminished are electricity and running water, fatally in 1994-98, food was the great exiguity.  Estimates reach up to three million dead, from a population of around twenty-four million, in the cruelly preventable and maliciously prolonged famine.  Food remains scarce still, caloric intake per capita being almost 30% less than the internationally recommended level.  Such determined negligence is indicative of the foundation of this state, of all states who wield oppression so effectively: there is no right to life.  One cannot take for granted even one’s beating heart in such an impossible prison.   The unborn and the newly born join the ranks of the deprived in this regard.  The gun is pointed lightly, and often.   The machinery of dictatorial whim is prepared even to indulge in, as the UN inspectors summarise it: ‘extermination’.  As we enter this land of lack we are met by all that is missing: necessities of sustenance and abstraction, of nourishment and freedom, a systematic negation of humanity and of humans themselves.  Pierre is most certainly not there.

There is one sphere of plenty, however: the vast, armed and insidious support for the executive, the army, the police, and the all-encompassing network of surveillance.  North Korea’s active service personnel number nearly two million, and the procurement upon taking office of over sixteen thousand surveillance cameras indicates Kim Jong-Un’s commitment to the maintenance of this repressive apparatus. The sole abundance in this nation exists to repress all rivals to it, the state enforces the needful deprivations of its subjects with a singular callousness and focus, with ‘no parallel in the contemporary world’, as phrased by the inspectors – the unspeakable crimes listed by them remain, within the confines of the state, exactly that.  Nothing can be spoken, nothing expressed.  But hope may still be absent from the many absences of this nation of want and poverty.  What the long and terribly suffering people of this marvellously titled ‘Democratic Peoples Republic’ have beyond their words, they must at least comprehend.

Here Sartre may contribute.  In encountering reality, as we do daily, there is always the potential for imagination, for conjuring before us what is not.  No matter how bestial the reality might be that is forced upon us, behind closed lids it is not necessarily so.  A feast may come before the eyes of the starving, and freedom before the oppressed, with no more than a ‘what if?’.  What if I could complain to my neighbours, what if the electricity always worked and my children always ate, what if I could travel, what if there was more, what if there was less: what if there was no Supreme Leader, no Respected Comrade?  Negation implies a positive alternative, and when this is grasped in the face of such hardship, it is hard to imagine any suffering souls who would not wish to negate a few of the things which stand firmly in their path.  Beyond defectors, and those who have been gifted the papers to exit and return to the Platonic cave of North Korea, beyond those with smuggled media and contraband stories of the outside, the capacity to formulate an alternative is innate within the imagination of the oppressed.

“The act of imagination, as we have just seen, is a magical act. It is an incantation

destined to make the object of one’s thought, the thing one desires,

appear in such a way that one can take possession of it. There is always, in that

act, something of the imperious and the infantile, a refusal to take account of

distance and difficulties” (The Imaginary, Sartre, p 125)


Even in extreme hopelessness, there is always the romantic possibility of, well, possibility.  Of negation and re-creation.  Is this enough, however, to endorse the USA’s most recent approach of ‘strategic patience’, or is rather an abnegation of responsibility?  The UN commission chides the international community for its apathy on this front, but the size of the armed forces which would hinder immensely any internal uprising (if a nascent dissident movement was not spotted and destroyed even sooner), would certainly prove an impasse to any foreign intervention.  The fatigue and suspicion of a domestic public have made intervention far less of an option in recent years, and considerably weaker dictatorial regimes have been untroubled by the possibility of interference. The question is pertinent, not only for the ideological monolith of North Korea, but it treating any of the flourishing instances of fundamentalism in the modern world: what could a patient approach achieve?

China has already begun the process of distancing herself from the dead weight to the north east, a feckless relative tied only by ideological sentimentality.  It is an ever loosening entente.  The market is proving a far more reliable ally, and it lies elsewhere.  Without this historic economic support, North Korea has clung to the food aid provided, and such reliance can surely not be maintained.  Not, at least, without a black-market to supplement the meagre provisions, and market forces as meagre as this have the capacity to undermine.  It must also be noted that those who bear arms possess the same ability to re-shape reality into possibility, to demand more than the deprivations they face every day.  If sufficient time passes and disillusionment sufficiently pervades the executors of the Kims’ whims, there may not be any impediment to an uprising in the spirit of 1989. In the recent erraticism of the incumbent tyrant may be an indication that the cracks are already be appearing, beneath the surface of official pomp.

More than hope for just this particular case-study in brutal subjugation and universal conformity, with radical imagination one can extrapolate a certain optimism for any unfortunate state where deprivation is not only material, but in the substance and plurality of thought – that we share an instinct and ability to question, as human as it is powerful, capable of undermining even the most fortified dogmatism.

It is not entirely naïve to trust in this process of popular discontent wearying the unsustainably oppressive, of imagination yielding alternatives. In North Korea, or any effort to replicate its horrors, under the weight of oppression and the nothingness beneath, the inevitable implosion will come.  Sartre states that each of us can truthfully say: ‘Je suis condamné à être libre’.  Let us hope he is right.

By Craig Simpson.