[Letters] From behind the iron parallel
North Korea is not a tourist attraction. It is not some kind of human zoo for observers to dissect. It is not a live taping of a sitcom, and we the guests are not the laugh track. Going to North Korea is serious business and contrary to popular opinion, not funny.
When the airport customs official handed me a bobby pin to open the SIM card slot on my iPad, my hands shook so much that I scratched all around the tiny opening on the tablet’s side. That’s when it hit me that I was in North Korea. Surrendering both my passport and cell phone for the entirety of the stay were inherently passive actions that left me nonplussed, but the physical act of disconnecting from the world by removing a SIM card scared me.
Throughout my entire struggle with the SIM card, several nice North Korean officials offered their assistance. The bobby pin that ultimately succeeded came from a badge with an image of Kim Jong-il attached to a young officer’s lapel. Try getting that kind of service at LAX.
I would joke with other program participants that the agenda for the day was designed to exhaust us for the next, to tire us into submission. The combination of long bus rides, minimal physical exertion, large meals and decent quantities of alcohol meant most rides were spent sleeping. Long excursions spiriting our group outside of Pyongyang offered the best glimpses into “the real North Korea,” so I fought the exhaustion.
Roads that would pass as eight lane highways in the U.S. sat in decay devoid of cars. The smog that I saw several days earlier choking Beijing and Seoul was nonexistent. Tightly packed between mountains, perfectly groomed corn and rice fields stood guarded by tiny earthen mounds with narrow openings likely farmers’ homes. The raw, visceral beauty of North Korea and the way in which the spaces I saw seemed more sacred than scarred complicated my understanding of the state.
Being in Pyongyang felt like being in “The Truman Show;” at any moment I felt like a spotlight or some camera equipment would fall from the “sky” which, in reality, was a ceiling. For much of the time spent in Pyongyang, the weather complemented the Soviet bloc architecture before us. It was gray and rainy. From Kim Il Sung Square, we watched as citizens prepared for the late August Youth Day celebrations. National marching tunes cut through the mist as thousands of children arranged themselves in the words “Kim Jong-il” or “Military First.”
Ordinary North Korean citizens kept their distance from us and we never lingered for too long at any one destination. Even the bowling alley was clocked; we had only 30 minutes to bowl through a standard 10 shot set at the 45-lane venue. Being in Pyongyang felt eerie, but what made it grim was that everything we were shown was sanitized. Had we walked a hundred feet to the right or left, perhaps we would have seen the truth.
Most days ended by 9 p.m., and when you’re on an island or on the outskirts of town with specific instructions not to leave the hotel, the bar suddenly makes its presence known. Scotch Malt Whiskey bottles with “Singapore Duty Not Paid” stickers flew off the shelves as our small group fanned out across the empty hotel like Occupiers in Zuccotti Park. We would stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. telling jokes, playing billiards or engaging in gross acts of karaoke violence.
There were plenty of Pyongyang humor flash points. A guaranteed crowd pleaser within our group were cracks regarding the new Dolphinarium [or should I say the “World of Sea”] but we never went anywhere near humor that dealt with the North Korean people. The subject matter struck us as too severe. Sure, the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il towering over Pyongyang merited a hidden smile, but the thought of how they were designed, forged, moved and erected several months earlier kept us quiet.
The image of the other is an important concept in international relations exploring how individuals or states conceptualize something inherently foreign. In the case of North Korea, the world’s perennial pariah state, it’s easy to lump North Korean people together with the Kim regime. This is wrong. North Korea is not an unsavory monolithic block and the people are everything that the regime is not: caring, warm and beautiful. I just wish that the government had allowed us more access to them.
The iron parallel is becoming increasingly easy to pass through; I benefitted from this development. Going to North Korea is “worth it,” you just have to be resilient.
by Reid Lidow Undergraduate researcher at the University of Southern California double-majoring in international relations and political science