North Korea Revisited: An Unknown Land
UPDATE December 19th, 2011: Kim Jong Il, North Korea's "dear leader", has died of a heart attack. His death was announced by a weeping anchorwoman on North Korean television. His obituary in the LA Times quotes sources who describe the departed dictator as both "jealous and cunning" and a "sensitive and arty type who ended up by birth floating through this world that is pure evil." That last quote may seem like it was translated into English from another language, but it was written by Michael Breen, the British journalist who wrote one of the only English-language biographies about Kim Jong Il. Clearly, Kim Jong Il was a leader who provoked many different kinds of reactions.
In 2009, one of our writers visited the notoriously isolated North Korea and contributed a fascinating travelogue that explores the contradictions the people of North Korea have lived with under Kim Jong Il. It remains to be seen what will happen to North Korea now that their charismatic leader has died, but revisiting this article today adds a whole new layer of meaning. For now, North Korea remains an unknown world. The original article begins below the photo.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a country that only comes up in the media for its supposed development of nuclear weapons or for the latest crazy comment or act from the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il. In reality, most people know very little about what day-to-day life is really like inside the country, which doesn't allow any foreign media to enter.
For us at Urban Samurai, this unknown world was the main appeal of making the effort to get in to the DPRK. As one can imagine, getting in is not an easy task. After flying to Beijing, one must go to Shenyang in northeastern China. Shenyang is where we were able to get our temporary visas for the DPRK. The United States doesn't officially have a relationship with North Korea so the North Koreans wouldn't stamp our passports. From Shenyang we flew Air Koryo aboard a 20-year-old Russian plane on a 45-minute trip over the border to Pyongyang, North Korea.
Normally I would go on to tell you our day-to-day activities and describe the sights we saw, but the fact is that what we were shown was a structured tour that some high-up government official planned out a long time ago and has probably not been updated for years. So instead I'll give you a brief insight on a few things that I found interesting.
On the first night that we arrived, our guides (one of whom was probably a government spy) asked us what we wanted to visit and do in North Korea and he told us that we could choose what our tour could be like. He then proceeded to deny everything we asked for. When we asked why they wouldn't let us do anything else, one the guides responded with a statement that I feel summed up the mentality of the whole country: "You have to understand that in North Korea we have many rules and regulations, all of which are very important and must be respected…but we don't know why." We ended up doing exactly what was previously decided before we arrived.
During our time there we were never allowed to leave our hotel alone. So in the evenings I spent time reading George Orwell's 1984. It felt as though Kim II Sung (the founder of Communist North Korea) and Kim Jong II had followed Orwell's book as a guide to create a Korean version of Oceania. The only real difference is that instead of focusing on building up the image of a governmental party controlling everything, they made their world one in which they are treated and viewed as gods amongst the citizens of DPRK. We were endlessly told of the exploits of the two leaders, from the "on the spot guidance" in creating pretty much every single somewhat creative project produced in the country, to being able to sense ancient prehistoric bones in mountains. It's hard to really know for sure how much of this propaganda the people actually believe. We weren't allowed to talk to or even walk amongst the common people on the street. So our only connection to actual North Koreans was our guides, one of whom one evening told me in a very serious tone "You must understand that I will do anything our Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il) asks of me." That's coming from somebody who has daily contact with foreigners and has heard of what it's like outside the country.
Our way of getting around was aboard a little tour bus. The streets of North Korea are almost empty of traffic since only those affiliated with the government or army are allowed cars. This does not stop all the "major" intersections from having full-time traffic girls. As we found out, it's actually a great honor to be a traffic girl since Kim Jong Il himself designed their uniforms and picks only the prettiest girls in North Korea for the job.
Most people get around by walking, sometimes for miles and miles. We often came across the odd person in the middle of nowhere in the countryside. The lucky few are able to use public transportation, which consists of a subway system which we were allowed to take for one stop and one stop only. That seemed kind of weird, but when we asked why the guides just responded that we didn't have enough time. In fact, this was the default answer whenever we asked if we could see more of anything that they didn't want to show us. The other public transportation was buses that all looked in pretty bad condition and had stars on them for each time the bus was in an accident (some had over 5 stars). Despite this, we always saw huge lines of over 50 people waiting for the bus at each bus stop at the end of the day.
By far the most impressive thing we saw in North Korea, and one of the most impressive things I've ever seen, was the Arirang Games. The Arirang Games is an annual performance that tells the story of North Korea by using over ninety thousand performers. The backdrop alone uses eighteen thousand school children who turn pages in a card book to create something I like to call "people pixels." The effect of the background creates the biggest screen in the world. Having another twenty thousand kids performing dances and gymnastics on the ground level in perfect synchronization is a surreal experience that makes the Olympic Opening Ceremony or the Super Bowl halftime show look like a school play.
What the mass media wants you to believe about North Korea is that they are a huge threat to the United States because they are developing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism. The reality is that what we saw was a country that holds a horrible grudge against the United States because of what we did in the Korean War more than 50 years ago, as they rightfully should since we did do horrible things to their country. The problem lies in that this was the last bit of information that has been allowed to the people. So when we would introduced ourselves, with smiles, as Americans to the few people we were allowed to talk to, they would react with doubt., At first they could not believe that Americans could actually be friendly and not the devil himself, which is how we are portrayed in all the propaganda posters that we saw around the country and like what is taught to them in schools .
To sum things up, since this a really long write-up for most to read on a blog. I'm not afraid of North Korea, but I do feel sorry and worried for the people who live there. They have been completely brainwashed and kept uninformed of the rest of the world and modern times for over fifty years. It's sad to think that generations of young, smart people are being held back, and it's worrisome to think of what might happen to the country when the reign of Kim Jong Il is over.
Thanks for reading,
Originally Published March 2009.
More images at Urban Samurai.