"What a terrible country to live in! No personal freedoms, no honest elections, and state propaganda everywhere. I wonder if there will ever be a revolution."
I couldn't agree more with this statement by one of my Iranian friends in Tehran. It would have been easy to think he was talking about his own country. Wrong: he was talking about North Korea.
Last month, I had the rare chance to visit consecutively two countries well off the beaten track: Iran and North Korea. Twelve years after George W. Bush's Axis of Evil speech, Iran and North Korea are very often lumped together by Western observers and the media. Both are portrayed as brutal dictatorships, isolated from the rest of the world by systematic censorship, and intent on destroying the great "American enemy". The lack of Westerners travelling to any of these two places has reinforced these perceptions.
What I saw in these places leaves no room for doubt: Iran is nothing like North Korea.
In Iran, the vast majority of urban households receive channels from all over the world through illegal - but ubiquitous - satellite television. I stayed up to date with world news during my stay in Tehran by watching BBC, CNN and France 24 in the homes of my hosts. I had informed conversations about the latest developments in Crimea, street protests in Venezuela, and the standoff between Japan and China in the South China Sea. One Iranian friend even insisted on entertaining me with his views on the French President's recent affair.
In contrast, there is no such thing as free access to information in the DPRK. Internet is not even an option (the country has a self-developed Intranet). The few households who can afford a television or a radio set remain tuned in to state-controlled channels. While some manage to smuggle in DVDs and radio sets from China, the vast majority is left with state propaganda as the sole source of information. My North Korean tour guides, who are part of the elite, displayed an appallingly poor understanding of world history and economics. They vaguely knew something had happened on September 11, 2001 and in Ukraine over the past weeks. But the state's restriction of information left them unable to grasp the meaning of these events or to think critically about the world at large.
When it comes to attitudes toward the West, the contrast is again stark. The Iranian public is enamored with everything American aside from its government: music, movies, sports, clothes. Taxi drivers in Tehran regaled me with Rihanna's latest singles and some J-Lo classics. Just as local mosques continue to lambaste the Great Satan during Friday prayers, millions of Iranians are watching House of Cards and texting on their iPhones.
Our North Korean guides took great pains to distinguish between the evil American government and the kind American people. However, Westerners who had been in the country for longer told me stories of strangers harassing them in public places, just because they were thought to be Americans. North Koreans are taught that America started the Korean War and grow up preparing themselves for another war against the US. The gruesome reconstitution of dead American soldiers in Pyongyang's War Museum speaks to the deep-rooted vilification of America, propagated intensely by the state for 60 years.
Finally, the Islamic Republic may be a coercive regime in many ways, but Iranians have become world-class masters at bending the rules. Young people learn early on how to install a VPN to bypass government censorship of social media. Despite the ban on alcohol, I tasted homemade wine and beer, artfully brewed by my hosts in their kitchen. More importantly, Iranians love to engage in intense political debates, and criticizing government's policies is one of their favorite sports - especially when it comes to the last government's inept economic choices.
No proclamation of the sort is likely to happen in North Korea. We could hear the longing for Western popular culture in our guides' affectionate description of The Sound of Music or Titanic. One North Korean girl of my age told me about her love for fake Dior products from China. But despite this fascination, the reverence for the three generations of Great Leaders who ruled the country remains intact. The state keeps its citizens on a tight leash; the concept of personal freedom is alien in a country where each individual's raison d'être is to work tirelessly for the glory of the Fatherland. The cost of transgressing the rules is too high for anybody to bend the rules.
Neither Iran nor North Korea are America' favorite human rights champions, and rightly so. But there is a world of differences in the way that each country has opened up to the world, and in the space left for personal freedoms. The Iranian society is ready to be integrated into our world; it will take decades for North Koreans to adapt to it. Western governments may equally oppose the foreign policies of these governments, but we should have very different plans for reintegrating the citizens of these countries back into our globalized world.