I Went To North Korea: What You've Heard Vs. What I Saw
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I recently spent a week in North Korea. Because that's a somewhat more unorthodox vacation destination than Disneyland. Because Americans are about to be banned from visiting like it's an entire country that your parents think is a bad influence on you, I thought you'd like to hear about it. Seven carefully controlled days isn't enough time to become an expert in any country, let alone one this complicated, and the best people to tell the story are Koreans themselves. But they're not really available right now, so here's what an internet dick-joke writer thought.
Some Myths Are Broken Almost Immediately
We are all endlessly fascinated by North Korea, but it's almost impossible to get accurate information out of the country. That combination has produced a dangerous scenario where anything that's said about it, no matter how ridiculous, will happily be eaten up by Westerners looking to laugh at North Korea's "insanity," like it's a 25-million-person-strong surrealist sitcom produced for our amusement. No, a general wasn't executed by mortar fire. No, they didn't claim to have discovered unicorns. No, they never said that Kim Jong-il shot five holes-in-one in one game of golf. These stories begin as rumors or satire and are then repeated as fact by Western media because hey, it's North Korea -- it has to be true, right? It's like believing that America is only the sum of Twitter trolls and Florida crime stories, but there's an appetite for it.
Kim Jong-il is apparently great at opening tractor doors, though.
I'm not about to argue that the country is secretly a paradise. But if we reduce North Korea to a state run by cartoon supervillains, it becomes equally absurd and dangerous. Their government may be atrocious, but there's still a clear logic to their actions -- to dismiss them as lunatics invites the paranoid fantasy and anxiety that nuclear war is just a bored Kim Jong-un's whim away. Unfortunately, our tour didn't get the chance to sit in on any high-level strategy meetings, but that same line of thought extends to everything there. It may be foreign, and it may often be cruel, but it's not a dark fantasyland -- there's a reason for all of it, even if that reasoning rarely accounts for human happiness.
Even mere sightseeing debunked a good chunk of what floats around online. There is, for example, a theory that Pyongyang's metro station consists of just two stops that run only when tourists visit. Well, I rode through six stops, and I can't imagine that the government has nothing better to do with its time and resources than to make hundreds of actors pretend to ride it with us for the benefit of a motley collection of visiting writers, teachers, and computer programmers. Shockingly, it turns out that dictatorships are capable of maintaining basic public transportation, presumably because they like it when their people make it to work on time. But that's all part of the biggest myth about North Korea ...
No, They're Not Just Doing It To Impress Westerners
A common reaction to hearing about my trip is that I'm not seeing real North Korea. I'm just seeing the good parts that they're putting up as a front for the tour group. If everything about tours of North Korea is done to impress foreigners, the whole concept is self-defeating, as even their most impressive sights fail to live up to a modest Western standard of living. Tabloids like to write breathless "exposes" about seemingly empty restaurants supposedly filling up with locals once tourists sit down, as though Koreans eating food (wow, they think they're people!) will blow the minds of tourists visiting eateries where the lights flicker and the bathroom doors are too warped to close.
They're probably not winning over a ton of defectors with this.
Tabloids also like to write about tourists who supposedly snuck out photos that the Korean government "doesn't want you to see." I was able to take over 3000 photos and videos without incident, and most of these supposedly "banned" photos either obeyed all the rules, or dickishly ignored a few simple requests, such as not taking close-ups of individuals without their permission (in the West that's called being polite, but when North Korea asks for the same courtesy it morphs into ominous proof of deception).
One site presents a picture of a department store as a secretive work of "very stressful" spy craft that risked the photographer's life. In reality, you weren't allowed to take photos of department stores for the same reason that you wouldn't set 20 Korean tourists armed with cameras loose in a Safeway -- it's a busy place of work where locals are going about their day and wouldn't appreciate cameras being shoved in their faces while they try to pick out a cereal. According to our Western guide, who has had to deal with people who broke photography rules, the end result isn't years of hard labor -- it's a bureaucratic nightmare for the guides while the offender gets to go back to the hotel and have a swim.
The stylish hotel.
The reality is much more mundane, more quietly tragic. Yes, the sites you see are controlled. You're only taken to Korea's best schools and restaurants and accommodations, much like how a guided tour of the United States wouldn't take you to check out Flint's water supply and a CIA black-site before putting you up in a roach-infested roadside motel. But their top schools and museums lack lighting and air conditioning. Their fine tourist hotels offer you an hour of sputtering hot water in discolored bathrooms that lack shower heads but feature insect roommates. Bathrooms in their top restaurants are sometimes backed up and always filthy. The roads that take you to their massive monuments are bumpy and pockmarked. Store inventories look thin. Highways are repaved by hand, and decrepit women pick weeds in public parks. Their war museum has hundreds of fire extinguishers strewn about in lieu of sprinklers. A mineral-water bottling factory ran into technical difficulties. In the country you see bony cattle and what are barely more than hovels. Children and the elderly work fields, some of the latter hunched over permanently. Everyone is thin, and many people look tired. Signs of poverty and underdevelopment are everywhere and obvious. Hiding it would be the greatest stage performance ever created by humankind.
Believing that everything is designed to fool Westerners is nonsensical and arrogant. North Korea is well aware that an erratically lit, broken-down bowling alley isn't going to blow the minds of tourists, and it's doubtful that they're desperate for the approval of a couple dozen random nobodies with zero political influence. What they do seem to want to show us is that life there is normal, in its own way; that "even North Koreans" go out with their friends and family after a day's work. And that's perhaps the biggest thing the West fails to understand. Signs of poverty were everywhere, but so were bars, volleyball games, playgrounds, swimming pools, families in parks, students goofing around ... the greatest myth is that life in North Korea is alien and unrecognizable to the rest of humanity. But despite the many horrifying differences, life does go on.
A Few Tourists Just Seem To Want Drama
Let's go back to those supposedly rogue photographers who told tabloids that, if they had been caught, they would have faced severe punishment. While we were warned repeatedly about the draconian consequences of breaking the law (if you're planning to rob someone, don't do it in North Korea), punishment for minor infractions came in a different format.
Nearly all Western tourists visit the Palace Of The Sun, a massive, imposing mausoleum where the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are on display. This is an extremely important and somber location, where visitors are expected to be on their best behavior. According to our Western guide, a tourist once decided to say "fuck that" and perform a handstand, which is like taking a shit on the Lincoln Memorial. Nothing happened to him, but both of the Korean guides supervising the trip were fired. It's not fun to be unemployed in any country, but I'm guessing that it's even less fun in North Korea.
It quickly became apparent that while most tourists had done their homework, a few treated the trip as a spur-of-the-moment whimsy, like spring break crossed with Alcatraz: somewhere you could get drunk cheap, harass local girls, or shove your camera into the faces of locals like they were zoo animals.
One couple seemed shocked that Korea was full of Korean food; others complained that meals were slow or that their bathtubs were stained, apparently unaware that they were living better than the vast majority of a country that didn't speak the language they were ordering their drinks in. Most tourists were great! But some maintained a sense of superiority, as though it was a profound observation to point out that Korean technology was dated, or that an obvious falsehood told at a museum was, indeed, false. It was uncomfortable, like watching people lucky enough to have rich parents mock poor people for not working hard enough, but on a national scale.
The occasional flouting of rules (on our first night, one tourist got drunk, tried to wander into a hotel kitchen, then tried to leave the hotel grounds entirely) led to a lot of jokes about the potential to be arrested or killed, and comments from the rule breakers that they weren't afraid of the consequences. They didn't mention the possibility that it would be a local getting in trouble for them.
A couple people were convinced that a car that seemed to be following us was full of secret government minders who were watching our watchers (it turned out to be a private tour that was visiting some of the same sites), and also thought that two clearly different people we had seen throughout the day were the same secret policewoman masquerading as a waitress. One tourist insisted that polite questions from our Korean guides were part of a plot to spy on us, as though they were going to cap off their 14-hour days by rushing back to their rooms and furtively noting that Albert from Marseille is an accountant who likes field hockey, the imperialist swine.
So, to a select minority, part of the appeal of visiting North Korea is police-state tourism -- pretend to experience the oppression that the locals have to put up with daily, then be arrogant about having the freedom to respond with sarcasm. There are blogs and videos of tourists sneaking into restricted sections of the main tourist hotel, convinced they'll find an elaborate spy network dedicated to watching guests shower and sleep, as opposed to -- and I'm just spitballing here -- somewhere employees can have a break from nosy Westerners, or work in private. The Otto Warmbier affair makes these adventures look ominous in retrospect. Unfortunately, they also make it clear how such tragedies could happen.
North Korea's Attitude Towards Foreigners Is Nuanced
North Korea makes provocative anti-American statements about as often as children announce that they like ice cream, so it's reasonable to assume that the country is full of anti-American propaganda. In reality, it was mostly limited to gift shops -- for a society that supposedly scorns capitalism, North Korea is very good at filtering tourists into places where they can excitedly buy postcards and art prints that depict their own culture's demise, among other souvenirs. Even Victory Day, which celebrates the end of the Korean War, features colorful flags and public dances, but no signs of Uncle Sam being skewered.
They're the only postcard stores in the world that could be described as having abrupt tonal shifts.
One big exception was war movies, which constantly droned on in the background of restaurants and stores. They were usually half-watched at most by locals, but were fascinating to tourists, who had the chance to see how the people who are usually unceremoniously gunned down by Arnold or Stallone portray themselves as the selfless heroes. The other big exception is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.
The War Museum is where North Korea gets to tell its historically dubious tale of their great victory over the American invaders. Politics aside, what's immediately striking is its sheer size. There's a reason the Korean War is called the Forgotten War in America. Wedged into a few pages of the history books between World War II and the Cold War, its official monument is modest and its dedicated museum is tucked away in Springfield, Illinois.
Now here's how North Korea memorializes the war, right in the heart of Pyongyang.
The war is everything. The museum is sleek and massive, featuring room after room of exhibits, halls venerating war heroes, a recreation of a soldiers' camp in both summer and winter, a gigantic, rotating, 360-degree diorama of the Battle Of Taejon complete with special effects, and endless displays of captured American war material. Most notably, it also holds the USS Pueblo, seized in 1968 and presented as proof that, while the war ended, American aggression never did. The video that accompanies the Pueblo tour is complete with dramatic statements and music that gives a glimpse of what it would be like if America was the Empire in Star Wars. There are also multiple coffee shops.
The vast majority of the museum is dedicated to the Korean War. China's crucial contribution is heavily downplayed and not on the regular tourist trail, as is the Soviet Union's role. We were taught how America started the war (false), how Kim Il-sung's genius saved the nation (it was mostly China bailing him out after warning him it was a bad idea to begin with), and how America committed a parade of war crimes and indiscriminately bombed civilians (an ugly, largely forgotten truth ). North Korea's own war crimes go unmentioned.
Every country needs foundational myths. America venerates the Revolutionary War, Canada has giant gold statues of Wayne Gretzky everywhere, etc. But a relatively short-lived dictatorship in a land with a long history needs myths more than most, and the war provides it. The museum sends a clear message -- we won an incredible victory, but the Americans could return at any moment, looking for revenge and willing to bomb indiscriminately again.
But that doesn't mean that North Koreans have been reduced to a blind hatred and fear of Americans. The museum guide's lecture on the evil American imperialists was delivered with the tone of someone who just wanted to get through another day, and she was happy to chat and pose for photos. Despite the endless militaristic tone, politeness and curiosity tended to win out. We were constantly asked about where we were from, one guide joked that he liked American women because they were tall, you can scrounge up cans of Coke, and Titanic (sans boobs) and Disney films make it onto TV. Other Western pop culture exists in limbo -- James Bond movies, for example, are tolerated as long as you keep your love of them private (can we use that system in the West too, please?) and we were told that it's not hard to track down some other Western films if you know a guy who knows a guy. It seems the average person would rather watch a movie than fight a war, no matter where you're from.
Also, not even North Korea can escape these fucking things, so there's something we can bond over.
Their Relationship With Their Leaders Is Complicated
It's impossible to talk about North Korea without talking about their leadership. Images and statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are everywhere, and Kim Jong-un is spoken of with reverence. Most notable are the giant pair of statues in every city's square, where locals pay their respects by bowing and leaving flowers. The statues in Pyongyang are especially large, and especially disquieting.
There's nothing inherently odd about memorializing dead leaders, and building giant statues is arguably less weird than carving heads into a mountainside. But it's impossible to reconcile the smiling faces of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il with the poverty and underdevelopment that stretches out before them. They're monuments to a civilization that never quite got off the ground, even after decades of trying.
The leaders are credited, usually spuriously, with almost every accomplishment in the country's history -- sometimes directly, sometimes by serving as inspiration or by providing a key idea. These claims, while countless, were never as ridiculous as what we've heard in the West. There's lots of talk of Kim Il-sung coming up with a genius farming technique or Kim Jong-il innovating teaching practices, but never anything that would strike even a willing mind as outside the realm of possibility. It does become absurdly excessive at times -- Pyongyang's railroad museum is less about the development of their railway and more of an extended tribute to Kim Il-sung's brilliance for coming up with the idea of "Hey, let's have trains" in the first place, although as tourists we were always welcome to only half-listen while taking photos or wandering off a bit. But in many exhibits, praising the leaders was tacked on as an aside, a brief formality before the curator could get down to business ("By the way, it was our beloved President Kim Il-sung's idea to expand our steel industry, but anyway, here's how we make it").
It's easy to dismiss the entire population as brainwashed thanks to the ceaseless message that the Kims are responsible for nearly every good idea the country has ever had. And it's impossible to put ourselves in the headspace of someone who has had these ideas drilled into them since birth. But even over the course of a week, our attitudes shifted from "Holy shit, another portrait of the Kims! Let's all gawk and take pictures!" to "Oh, hey, some more Kim stuff. Anyway, does anyone remember what time we're having dinner?" One can only speculate as to how many people on the street truly believe, and how many are simply going along with it so they can go home to their loved ones for another night. For what it's worth, defectors have claimed that it's just boring background noise to a lot of North Koreans, like a country run by that friend you've learned to tune out whenever they start bragging about how healthy their diet is.
A system like North Korea's needs some true believers to function, or at least a lot of people willing to go along with it. Apolitical conversations with our Korean guides about sports or Western life could be interrupted with a quick aside about how great their leaders were, before segueing right back into the subject at hand, leaving us wondering if they were serious or just keeping up appearances. And at times you couldn't help but wonder if, deep down, no one really believes, and the whole system is a mirage kept extant through sheer inertia.
Our Western guide noted that, behind closed doors, there is some quiet dissent and political discussion between close friends, and that one of the side effects of a dictatorship giving its people a good education is that people will want to use their educations. Decades of entrenched bureaucracy and infrastructure for punishment, centuries of social tradition towards the treatment of authority, and the analysis of risk versus reward are just as important to propping up Kim Jong-un as brainwashing. It's easy to write off anyone who puts up with it as a crazed believer, but you'd be hesitant to foster rebellion too if it meant the potential loss of food in your stomach, a roof over your head, and the lives of your family. If you create a police state, you create people who consider their options carefully before acting.
Perhaps the most telling anecdote of life under the Kims came when we went for a walk through Kaesong, where we could see through the windows of one row of houses. The homes were sparse and filthy, but on every wall were immaculate portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
It leaves you wondering if, one day, they will be the focus of a very different kind of museum. But until then ...
It's A Country Of People Trying To Make The Best Of Dictatorship
The most memorable encounter I had in North Korea was with a middle-aged man who worked at the Grand People's Study House, which is like their biggest public library crossed with a community college crossed with a building that Ethan Hunt would try to break into.
He spoke flawless English, was funny and animated, and was passionate about working to provide knowledge to people. He was apolitical, and asked us thoughtful questions. He was honest about their budget issues, and seemed well aware that informing us of how they had switched from card catalogs to computers running Windows 2000 a decade ago was not bragworthy. But he took pride in running an institution where kids could come read and adults could brush up on professional skills. He's the guy I'm going to think of the next time I see comments like these that are casually cheering for the death of millions:
That last one is a crime against both humanity and formatting.
There is no denying North Korea's atrocious human rights record, and memoirs of defectors who survived North Korea's prison camps are haunting. But apparently we often forget that those human rights abuses are applied to, well, humans. Seniors who were taking their grandchildren out for walks, and who broke into big smiles when people started fawning over the kids. A guard at the DMZ, one of the most sensitive military instillations on the planet, who cracked up at the goofy hat a tourist had bought and asked if he could try it on. Kids at the water park who gossiped, laughed, pointed and waved at, and were generally fascinated by the abrupt appearance of awkward-looking white dudes. These are people who enjoy almost no freedoms and are routinely pressed into forced labor, yet are still eager to show off their country's verdant natural beauty and rich, apolitical ancient history. It is a nation of survivors.
There will probably never be war with North Korea, not even after North Korea's latest threats and President Trump's latest incontinent ramblings (remember when North Korea released a video showing Washington D.C. getting nuked, and then nothing happened?). The West doesn't want the headache, and North Korean leadership knows that any conflict ends with anything from their imprisonment to their grisly deaths. Keep in mind that, every time a news site trots out a fearmongering "Will North Korea kill us all with nuclear weapons?" headline, the answer is "No, but they will continue to make life miserable for their own people."
And then there's the travel ban. The argument that it's for the safety of Americans rings hollow given that people are still free to, say, visit the front lines in the fight against ISIS, risk getting kidnapped in Caracas, or trek into rural Afghanistan and publicly criticize Islam. Banning Americans from visiting North Korea makes for dramatic saber rattling, but also accomplishes nothing to improve the lives of Koreans, while eliminating one of the few opportunities for both sides to see each other as people instead of as headlines about nuclear annihilation. That may mean very little in the grand scheme of things, but it is not nothing.
Change in North Korea will likely be excruciatingly slow, and it will almost certainly be painful, but hidden behind the headlines of militarization and insanity are stories of modern technology helping to smuggle the world into North Korea, to people willing to risk everything to glimpse it. That's pretty damn impressive considering that I fall into despair when I'm without my phone for a few hours.
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