When Sherlock Holmes Left Pyongyang: Surveillance And Social Control In North Korea, 1954–2021

Benjamin Rafael Katzeff Silberstein, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation argues that surveillance and social control in North Korea was always more complex than often depicted, even in the decades preceding the famine of the 1990s and early 2000s. At the same time, disobedience and resistance among the grassroots population did not seriously threatened regime stability. This shows that disobedience and stability can and often do co-exist in society. While many historians have abandoned the term “totalitarianism”, this dissertation argues that the concept remains relevant and necessary to describe societies such as North Korea where the state aspires to total control over the lives of the population, even if it does not always succeed. Through interviews with approximately 40 individuals from North Korea, most of them with memories from before the famine of the 1990s, this dissertation shows that social control always suffered from serious inefficiencies, even in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, decades not sufficiently explored in historiography on everyday life in the country.