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Thursday, July 24, 2014

North Korea: Unwrapping the Mystery Inside the Enigma

The U.S. State Department’s bulletin of May 21st was unambiguous. It strongly recommended against travel by Americans to North Korea. This warning was based on several recent and worrisome incidents; the arrests of two U.S. citizens, one apparently after asking for asylum, the second for allegedly leaving a bible in his hotel room. Yet another American was serving a sentence in a North Korean labor camp. He still is.

It is not easy to sit on the fence when it comes to North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Its leaders have been characterized as ruthless, its policies and actions interpreted as reckless.  It’s universally seen as an international pariah--a rogue state like no other. In his January 2002 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush, famously labeled North Korea (along with Iran and Iraq) as one of three countries comprising the “Axis of Evil.”

We flew on Russian-made Air Koryo jets between Beijing and Pyongyang
Visiting North Korea had long been on my bucket list. I felt that I needed to experience this secretive and vexing place for myself. Once I discovered that U.S. citizens could, in fact, legally visit North Korea going through China, I signed myself up.  Our tour originated in Beijing, only a two-hour flight from my residence in South Korea where I teach English at a large private university. Koryo Tours, a British outfit, scheduled a mandatory briefing session, in their Beijing office, the day before we departed on our 8-day tour of North Korea. We listened intently to their recommended “Do’s,” and mostly, “Don’ts.” Don’t stray from the group at any time. No photos of soldiers or military installations. Don’t ask our North Korean tour guides challenging political questions that might be interpreted as insults to the leadership there. Suddenly, this adventure was becoming uncomfortably real.
Koryo Tours Office in Beijing, where we met for a pre-tour briefing

Our Russian-built plane landed in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital of 3.5 million, clearly the showcase of the country. The many photos of Pyongyang I had seen suggested a dark gray metropolis, devoid of color, with wide empty streets, its citizens, drab and humorless. Pyongyang, also known as the City of Monuments with its seemingly endless parade of statues, museums and edifices that honor the State, does lack both the vibrancy and excitement of its South Korean counterpart, Seoul. But it’s a city that somehow seems to make due in spite of endless obstacles, including an inferior infrastructure, and regular power outages. When the lights go out, no one misses a beat. Its subway, bus and trolley systems make impressive use of antiquated vehicles from the 70’s, 80’s, even the 60’s—most imported from former Eastern bloc countries.

View of the capital city, Pyongyang, from the 36th floor of our hotel
Our tour covered a wide swath of the southern half of the country and included a visit to Panmunjoem, along the DMZ, and the nearby historic city of Kaesong, where 120 South Korean-built and managed factories provide employment to over 53,000 North Korean workers.  Having previously visited the DMZ from the South Korean side, I was surprised by how low key and non-bellicose the North Korean soldiers were. In fact, I struck up a conversation with an officer who led our tour there. He was cordial and posed for photos with a number of us on the tour. Such informality never happens with their more serious South Korean army counterparts.

A soldier, Mr. Park, led our tour of Panmunjeon, at the DMZ. He was
surprisingly cordial and genuinely curious about my connections to South Korea.

I was impressed by the general friendliness of the North Koreans we encountered everywhere we visited. They are very much like the South Koreans I have come to know and respect for their earnestness, generosity and diligence. North Koreans seem to genuinely love their country and they are a very proud lot.  However, that should not come as a surprise.

The control of information by the State is complete and unrelenting, and has been since Kim Ill Sung came to power in 1945.  Authoritarian leadership, handed down through 3 consecutive generations of the Kim dynasty, now resides with 30-year old Kim Jung Un. North Korean newspapers, TV broadcasts, schools, billboards, banners, even public loud speakers, extoll praise for the country while spewing forth propaganda against the enemy, usually in the personage of the venomous Americans.

The ubiquitous statues of Kim Il Sung
and Kim Jung Il

The “elephant in the room,” is the network of prison camps long revealed by satellite imagery and confirmed by the few individuals fortunate enough to have made it out alive. Most recently, Shin Dong-hyuk, author of “Escape from Camp 14,” described the almost unimaginable brutality of the camps. It’s in these camps where 3 generations of family members are banished for crimes committed against the State. All North Koreans belong to neighborhood watchdog groups, comprised of 25-50 families.  Known as inminban, they are led by hardened middle-aged women who keep tabs on everyone and everything, cementing the foundation of the enterprise of fear run by Kim Jung Un and his minions. Everyone on the tour is aware of these camps. But, we avoid the topic for fear that just talking about them would put our guides at serious personal risk.

Our tour stops included a fertilizer manufacturing plant in Hamhung, an agricultural university in Wonsan, both cities along the east coast of the Korean peninsula, and a historic residence of a former king. At each site, we are greeted by a lovely hostess wearing the traditional and colorful Korean clothing called a hanbok. The story they tell us is always the same. We’re made aware when either Kim Ill Sung, Kim Jung Ill or Kim Jung Un visited the site and the amazing wisdom or expertise they imparted while there. Pictures of the visit are shown and the chair, pen or desk that they used, invariably have become sacred items.

Fertilizer factory in Hamhung with 1950's era equipment and rotary phone

Every North Korean wears a pin picturing one or both of the former leaders on a red background. Just as predictably, their framed photos are carefully placed visibly high on a wall in every family’s residence. Patriotism, devotion and obedience, at least publicly, appear to run wide and deep. They fill the spaces between everything, like mortar, securing the bricks of the State.

Manager of Pyongyang trolley maintenance yard wears badge with leaders'
photos--as does every citizen in the DPRK


Where does genuine loyalty begin? Where does it end? In what places does fear reside? It’s nearly impossible to discern in this place of cartoon-like images and monuments on steroids. During a radio address in 1939, Winston Churchill uttered these now memorable words. Russia, he said, “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” North Korea, its people, and its exploits, to this day, remains more of a mystery than Russia ever was.

Tour guide heads back to Juche Tower after giving tour


Photo credits:
Koryo Jet photo courtesy of Wikipedia
All other photos by Steve Schuit