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Monday, October 6, 2014

North Korea Unplugged: Cries & Whispers (3rd in a series)

Not much longer ago than a wink of an eye in historical terms, as recently as 1974 to be exact, North Korea's economy was every bit the measure of South Korea's. Since then, the economy of this conundrum of a country has bit the dust. Today, the DPRK per capita income hovers at only $1800 a year. At the same time, South Korea's has risen to about $27,000. Those sounds drifting southerly from across the DMZ? They are the faint cries and whispers of North Korea's citizens, shackled to the walls of their failed system. It is hard to discern the boundary between their pain and the cacophony of incessant propaganda that seeps into their lives 24 hours a day. Here are a few of the cries and whispers I heard while visiting there recently.

The Red Hanbok at the Juche Tower

A North Korean woman wearing her red and white hanbok gave us a tour of the Juche Tower. The Juche Idea, a set of principles written by Kim Il Sung during the 1960's and 70's, has become literally a bible shaping everyday behavior and policy for North Koreans.  Reading them, I was singularly unimpressed. That notwithstanding, this woman seemed happy and proud of her job and her country. When the tour up and around the tower was finished, she escorted the group to our tour bus. As she walked alone back to her post at the tower, I followed her from behind and took this picture. I was fascinated by the contrast between the grey and red. The slivers of red reminded me of the more typical colorlessness of North Korea, and were a metaphor for dreams and hopes, in an otherwise dreary landscape.

Our Tour Guides
Ms. Kim, left, (not her actual name) was my small group's tour guide during the trip. She called me "Poppa," largely because I asked her not to call me "grandfather," as someone my age is typically referred to in Korea, North or South. Back in Beijing, at a pre-tour orientation, we were asked by our tour company leaders at Koryo, not to contradict or challenge our tour guides so as not to embarrass them, or put them at risk. But one evening late in our tour, while we were alone, she asked me why my wife wasn't on the tour with me. I hesitated, then took a risk. "She doesn't believe in Kim Il-sung's principles," I said. She looked back at me in total disbelief. "How could your wife disagree with you?", she asked.

Mr. Lee, soldier at the DMZ
Mr. Lee (not his real name) was our host for part of the morning at the DMZ. His was very friendly and personable. On the roof of one of the buildings there, he patiently posed for photos with nearly every person on our tour. Not wanting to bother him, I resisted asking. He noticed me (perhaps it was the chartreuse green shirt) and asked if he could take a photo with me. When I told him I was an American professor teaching in South Korea, he was very intrigued and curious. We shared genuinely good feelings for each other. Later, he sat next to me on our tour bus. I was sad to see him go.

Utility Poles Wear Sleeves
As our bus meandered in the countryside between cities, I noticed what looked like black sleeves near the top of some utility poles. I asked one of our minders, who happened to be sitting across the aisle from me, about them. His too-quick response, that he had no idea what they were, left me skeptical. I told myself to be on the lookout for more cues. Later, while reading Nothing to Envy and Dear Leaderthe explanation for the sleeves became apparent. During the severe famines of the 1990's many starving North Koreans resorted to climbing the poles and cutting the lines to abscond with the copper wiring to sell on the black market in exchange for food. The black sleeves, with their protruding nails, still glare menacingly over the landscape.

Photo of Kids' Backpacks
I was walking alone, somewhat apart from our tour group, when I saw this pile of children's backpacks on the ground. They looked colorful and modern, many with Disney logos. In fact, I thought they looked exactly like a pile of elementary school backpacks you'd see here in South Korea. This new trend of modern and colorful clothing and accessories has recently caught the attention of many curious observers in South Korea. For them, it apparently suggests cracks in the walls that enclose North Korean society from the rest of the world.