I sometimes like to compare individuals or families with the countries that they seem to resemble.
For example, some families remind me of Germany -- proud, wealthy and domineering, eliciting both admiration and resentment from less-accomplished neighbors.
Other families are like Japan -- regal, elegant, honorable, fiercely protective of their legacy, but embarked on a long, steep decline that they are helpless to stop.
However, I used to know a family that had striking parallels with a nation that no one in their right mind would want to emulate -- North Korea.
North Korea, which finds itself discussed in Western media quite frequently due to its nuclear capability and the inherent threat it poses, is perhaps the strangest, most bizarre and isolated state on Earth.
But it's no more bizarre than an American family I was once acquainted with years ago.
I won't identify them, since I would prefer not to cause them embarrassment nor violate their privacy, but I will say that they have a very common Anglo surname.
I will refer to them as the 'Joneses (not their real name).
The family comprised a father, mother and two children -- a boy and a younger girl (I was close friends with the son).
The father, whom I will call Jim -- was one of the strangest, creepiest, most disturbing and infuriating (and, paradoxically, most entertaining and fascinating) characters I've ever encountered.
Jim grew up in a middle-class household in the 1950s and gained a college education. However, as an adult, he was unable to find (or hold onto) any jobs for any appreciable amount of time. Thus, he endured long and painful bouts of unemployment.
Desperate to conceal this fact from others (namely anyone outside the immediate nuclear family and bizarrely sometimes even them), Jim spent virtually his entire adult life weaving a delusionary fantasy world in which he pretended he was a hard-working, decent, law-abiding, tax-paying, middle-class, patriotic American husband, father and homeowner.
The reality was far grimmer -- Jim spent years jobless, losing at least one house to foreclosure and placing his family perpetually on the brink of disaster (they survived largely on his wife's small salary as a secretary/receptionist and, no doubt, from funds provided by reluctant relatives).
Somehow, the proud, narcissistic and delusional Jim maintained the facade of middle-class respectability and normalcy. The family always had enough food to eat, a home to live in, clothes on their backs and a car to drive. So, in a sense, Jim's multidecade ruse proved successful since the family persevered and survived against considerable odds.
The Joneses also clearly depended upon government assistance (i.e., the dreaded word "welfare"), but Jim would never admit to such a grave calumny. In fact, he would violently deny such an accusation as wrong and slanderous.
Indeed, Jim condemned welfare recipients as “lazy bums” or “freeloaders” (when he was one of the biggest such “bums” of all).
To any rational, sober, disinterested observer, the Jones family were clearly poor, though just above the level of destitution. They rarely went out to restaurants or movies, much less vacations. Almost everything they bought (cars, furniture, clothes, food, etc.) came from discount houses or were second-hand.
However, Jim's pathology went far beyond the simple act of concealing his poverty. Indeed, his entire existence was nothing but a sham, a veneer, a house of cards ready to collapse at any moment.
For example, he espoused conservative political values and pretended he was patriotic (despite the fact that he regarded taxes as theft by the government and never served in the military himself). Jim wore his hair -- what remained of it -- in a crew cut, kept sober hours (early to bed and early to rise) and repeatedly declared he supported the values of law and order.
In reality, Jim adhered to a relentless diet of lying, cheating and stealing -- his whole life amounted to an orgy of petty theft, deceit and fraud.
For example, I learned that when he briefly worked as a traveling salesman, he would forge phony expense accounts in order to receive a financial reimbursement for goods and services he never bought. (This ruse didn't last long, as he was usually caught and summarily fired).
The few times he and his wife would go to a diner, they would steal as many napkins, plastic utensils and condiment packets as they could fit into their pockets and purses.
Also, from what I ascertained, Jim's resume was filled with distortions, exaggerations and outright fiction. In order to fill the wide gaps of inactivity in his work history, Jim resorted to inserting nonexistent jobs at nonexistent companies.
I believe Jim was (is) mentally ill, suffering from a cornucopia of psychiatric disorders -- not that he would ever admit it nor deign to seek professional help.
He should have never been allowed to marry nor have children, since he is completely unfit to raise a family. Indeed, he should have been institutionalized long ago.
With a father like Jim, the Jones family was essentially doomed.
The Jones were almost completely isolated -- neither Jim nor his wife had any friends that I could gather, aside from relatives who lived nearby. They were also utterly paranoid and highly suspicious and distrustful of strangers.
Not surprisingly, Jim was in a constant state of war with his neighbors wherever he lived, often calling the police over the most trivial of offenses (loud parties, barking dogs, etc.)
Jim was highly immature; he never really grew up. Plus, he pretended he was a well-read scholar who knew about politics, economics and other august subjects. But his knowledge of such things merely reflected his stupidity and pretensions -- he had a very superficial awareness and understanding of topics upon which he pontificated.
Jim's wife (whom I will call Jean) was also complicit in this lengthy family tragedy. Although she exhibited more intelligence, logic and level-headedness than her husband, she was disturbingly cold and methodical.
Both spouses spoke in a bizarre robotic fashion, frequently using unnecessarily (and often malapropistic) overly technical terms. They exuded a kind of coldness and inhumanity that chilled me to the very bone.
Jim and Jean also frequently used grandiose terms to describe the most mundane, routine activities. For example, “banking” actually meant withdrawing five bucks from their savings account, and “marketing” referred to the purchase of a half-pound of tomatoes from the local grocery.
But there was even more to this nightmarish scenario.
Jim and Jean (who rather acted like a team of evil) frequently spied on others -- neighbors, relatives, perfect strangers, even each other.
They were almost completely devoid of warmth, tenderness, charm or any semblance of humanity. I used to joke that they were like the townspeople in the science-fiction film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” after they were abducted by the alien pods.
Every aspect of their lives was weird and incomprehensible -- they ate nothing but processed foods, they seemed to have no interest in culture, and their home was alarmingly neat, clean, generic and antiseptic, looking more like a doctor's office than a family's warm, happy, chaotic abode.
Their son -- my friend (whom I will call Pete) -- and his sister were deeply damaged by their parents' extreme dysfunction. While they suffered no physical violence at their hands (as far as I am aware), their psyches were permanently harmed by their parents' bizarre, oppressive and disempowering behavior. However, sadly, as often happens in such disturbed families, the children replicated many of their parents' worst habits -- they, too, lied, stole, cheated, spied on others and had enormous difficulty dealing with the outside world.
Pete, however, possessed enough humanity and intelligence to seek to escape his dreadful parents by searching for friends. He longed to be happy and enjoy whatever life had to offer.
Because he actually had friends and contacts in the outside world, he was regarded as a kind of grave security risk by his parents. They implicitly discouraged him from having friends and, when that effort failed, thoroughly interrogated him and held him in suspicion.
As an adolescent, Pete was forced to repeatedly lie to his folks about his outside activities and bitterly resented their constant intrusions into his life.
Making things worse, Pete suffered a medical condition that rendered him dependent upon his parents well into adulthood (he died from complications of his disease about a decade ago).
So how does the Jones family relate to North Korea, a country they probably know nothing about?
Well, think about it.
According to every credible account in Western media, North Korea is essentially ruled by an insane (possibly evil) regime who have grinded their population into hopeless submission, while employing self-aggrandizing propaganda (i.e., lies) that would even make Joseph Goebbels blush.
North Korea is a desperately poor country that cannot feed its own people and depends on aid from foreign powers -- initially the Soviet Union and now China. (The Joneses relied heavily on welfare and government largesse to survive).
The leaders of North Korea (Jim and Jean) fantasize that they rule a powerful, happy and affluent society and relentlessly attack their enemies to assert their own (nonexistent) strength and viability.
In North Korea, everyone is under constant surveillance, while government leaders use flowery language to praise themselves and their state while expressing excessively paranoid fears and suspicions of other states they secretly fear.
It all sounds startlingly familiar to the modus operandi of the Jones family.
BBC has written some fascinating accounts of life inside North Korea. Whenever I read these articles, I chuckle because they reminded of the bizarre and disturbing behavior of the Jones family thousands of miles away.
Consider some of the following observations on North Korea from BBC correspondents:
- "[Former leader] Kim Jong-il's official image in the propaganda was always a man with no time for himself, and a large part of the propaganda was aimed at making the public feel guilty about the overwork that he was subjecting himself to.” Jim constantly asserted that he was a hard-working man who sacrificed everything for the good of his family.
- “Our minders had probably never seen any other kinds of news item or documentary about their country or the rest of the world. They were not allowed to, and they could not, because no one has access to the Internet in North Korea.” Jim and Jean controlled every aspect of their children’s' lives, searching their rooms, opening their mail and spying on their every move.
- “North Korea is about as isolated from the rest of the world as it is possible to be. There are few visitors, and most of those are restricted to looking around a few chosen spots in Pyongyang.” The Joneses rarely allowed visitors into their homes, and no one ever stayed overnight, not even relatives. The rare guests were aggressively watched and restricted in their movements.
- "Isolation has allowed the North Koreans to develop a way of living seldom seen elsewhere.” The Joneses metamorphosed into a kind if parody of what a family should be due to their isolation from society, as well as their fear and hatred of strangers.
Granted, any comparison between North Korea and the Jones family breaks off when considering Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons arsenal (although there are doubts about how truly advanced their weapons and technology really are). Nonetheless, the insanity that prevailed in the Jones family has many parallels with the hermit kingdom.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.