What’s In a Dystopia

Recently, my mother (who is what people sometimes gently refer to as a “Facebook aunt”) shared a video of a speech by Yeonmi Park, a defector of North Korea, which I will post below:

After watching this video, I was struck not only by Yeonmi’s moving story, but how the society she describes in her re-telling of life in North Korea sounds like a fictitious dystopia.  Imagine a place where citizens are brainwashed to the point that they felt the regime can read their minds, or where generations of a family are raised in concentration camps to due a patriarch expressing doubt on the authority of a regime. This description (coupled with North Korea’s growing hunger crisis and frequent flooding/droughts) makes the country seem like a dystopic fiction novel, but it isn’t.

When I googled the etymology of the word “dystopia,” I was surprised to find that the definition does not include any mentioning of a “future” state, but rather an “imagined” state where “everything is unpleasant or bad.” In light of this definition, what’s stopping North Korea from constituting as a dystopia? The fact North Korea is a real (as opposed to imagined) state?

In class last week, Beth commented (and I’m paraphrasing here) that when she first taught Butler’s Parable of the Sower in the early 2000s, Butler’s imagined dystopic state of North America was unthinkable to her students, and in the years since, her students report more and more frequently that Lauren Olamina’s world seems like a plausible future for our country. I wonder (and I don’t pretend to have any answers here) whether Koreans a century ago ever thought their country would be divided into two countries: one of which is a totalitarian regime that largely isolates its citizens from the rest of the world.

Further, I am struck by the line in Yeonmi’s speech in which she states “We need to focus less on the regime and more on the people who are being forgotten.” I realize that Yeonmi is correct–the limited discourse I’ve heard about North Korea tends to focus on the succession of its chain of dictators and their cult personalities, but not on the majority of North Koreans who are oppressed and often starving (instead, they appear to function as supernumeraries to a narrative about totalitarian regime).

My reading of Parable of the Sower, along with some very preliminary research on life in North Korea, prompt me to think differently about the concept of “dystopia.” Like many of Beth’s students, the 2024 California that Butler describes in Parable of the Sower seems less far removed from our contemporary society than I would perhaps like to admit.

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