Infiltrating North Korea is a 19-part series exploring the world’s most reclusive nation and its bizarre, anachronistic way of life. To start reading at the beginning of the series, be sure to click here.
Although it was a short trip of only five days, my time in North Korea proved to be one of the most fascinating journeys I’ve ever taken.
This brief glimpse into the world’s most reclusive nation was a rare opportunity to go back in time and witness what the Soviet Union was like fifty years ago. Everything I’ve ever read about the former USSR was alive and well in the streets of Pyongyang; red banners hanging everywhere, blanket censorship, ubiquitous propaganda, very few automobiles, fantastic and accessible cultural arts, barely any crime, and a tightly controlled populace afraid to even fold a newspaper with an image of Kim Il Sung on the front for fear of doing something sacrilegious to the Great Leader’s image.
The North Koreans, however, have taken this concept of totalitarianism even further than the Soviets ever did. The Korean cult of personality, for example, requires that people not only wear a pin of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il on their lapel every day, but also that they bow to any statue of the leaders they come across–and there are a lot of statues in North Korea. Not even Stalin nor Lenin were worshipped to such a degree.The North Koreans are also more paranoid about tourists than their Soviet predecessors; we weren’t allowed to speak to anyone during our time in North Korea, we were routinely prohibited from taking photographs, and we couldn’t wander about on our own. We saw only what the government wanted us to see and spoke only to those thoroughly vetted and officially approved to deal with tourists.
Knowing that my journey to North Korea was carefully regulated to reveal only the positive sides of this “socialist paradise” was extraordinarily frustrating. History is full of naïve international observers who were similarly distracted by smoke and mirror tactics, and then reported back to the civilized world about the excellent conditions they witnessed at various prisons, camps, and hellholes.
Totalitarian governments are very effective with their Potemkin villages and deceitful webs and I wanted to make sure I did not fall victim as well. I therefore read everything I could get my hands on before visiting the country. If you plan on going yourself, I highly recommend that you do the same, otherwise you will be won over by singing children, clean streets, well dressed citizens, and a fanatical devotion to socialism.
In fact, I will go so far as to say that it’s criminal to visit North Korea without educating yourself first. Mandatory reading starts with The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan–the son of a privileged Pyongyang family who spent ten years of his life, starting at the age of nine, in a North Korean labor camp. Chol-Hwan is coincidently my age and it was therefore particularly poignant knowing that at the same time I was going to high school homecoming dances and football games in the 1980s, Chol-Hwan was being beaten, brainwashed, and forced to cut trees and dig holes in freezing temperatures without adequate clothing. And, he ate rats to survive.
This certainly raises a moral conundrum; should tourists pay exorbitant prices to visit this totalitarian nation knowing that their hard currency helps support the regime?
I scoffed at this originally because my experience in traveling has taught me that human interaction with supposed “enemies” is the very best diplomacy in the world. In addition, bringing an outside perspective to an imprisoned people can also be extraordinarily powerful. The whole reason East Germany was the first communist country to fall was because they had more access to the outside world than any other communist country–they saw what life was like on the other side of the Wall and they rebelled.
The problem with North Korea, however, is that the people remain isolated even in the presence of foreigners. We were never given a chance to speak or interact with a single person. My initial belief that I could make some type of impact, perhaps by simply giving a child a candy bar, turned out to be an absurd impossibility.
And, as a result, my presence did nothing more than slightly boost the government coffers and help Kim Jong Il purchase more of his beloved premium cognac while the rest of the country starves.
And so, I leave it up to you to decide on whether such a trip is appropriate or not (and if you’d like contact information for my travel agent, please email me). Despite my frustrations, however, I feel fortunate that I was able to go and I can only hope that my injection of hard currency into the Kim Jong Il regime has been negated by this fair and balanced account of my time spent in the Hermit Kingdom.
Yesterday: A Tale of Two Cities