A Special Report by Safia Southey.
As the plane began its descent, vast empty areas divided into sharp rectangles was all I could see. Construction sites peppered with mountains and covered in snow filled the land, with the promise of new development in the years and decades to come. Small identical villages were visible every so often in the middle of this nowhere land, not seemingly connected by any major roads. “No filming,” my flight attendant told me, as I positioned my camera outside my window. We hit the runaway, the only airplane in site. We were in the DPRK; we were in North Korea.
We were hustled into a tour bus out of the negative degree weather, while being introduced to our Korean hosts. Our guide, Ms. Kim, began by telling us the history of the DPRK (I noted how she never explicitly used the name “North Korea”). Each house we passed by was identical out in the countryside, each a pale pink buried in the snow.
Kim proceeded to tell us the rules of the trip:
-No folding newspapers on the face of the leaders
-Pictures must be of the full leaders, without cropping
-No posing in pictures with the leaders
-No photos of military checkpoints or of soldiers
-No photos of individuals
-No going anywhere without a guard
-No spreading religion
-No trying to find Internet – “research centers may pick up your signal and give us a fine”, Kim warned.
On the following several days, we visited the demilitarized zone where we witnessed a UN delegation on the South Korean side entering into talks regarding the upcoming Winter Olympics, saw a propaganda movie about a young North Korean coal miner who dreams of becoming a circus acrobat, ate more food than I believe available in the entire country, visited many shops and museums and even factories which seemed to open especially for us as if we were watching a play being performed, shopped at the supermarket, essentially the capitalist central of Pyongyang for all the wealthy locals with cellphones and Russian diplomats, and the mausoleum.
“Please tell your friends back home that we are not the same as western media portrays us, we are just like all of you. I hope you come back soon.”
We had received strict instructions for the mausoleum – formal attire, no smiling, no laughing, no speaking, no photography (they confiscated our phones and electronics), bowing three times at each leader’s tomb, et cetera, et cetera. As soon as I entered the mausoleum, I knew I would not be able to follow all the rules; two wax figures of Kim Il Sun and Kim Jong Il, each 3 meters tall immediately brought a grin to my face. Walking in lines of 4, we entered the rooms holding the bodies of the great leaders; it would have been a strange experience in itself just bowing to the huge leaders in glass boxes illuminated by red light from the ceiling, but the sobbing Korean women in traditional colorful dresses added whole other element. I smile a lot when I’m uncomfortable, so viewing this made me so close to laughing that I thought I was going to get deported, or worse. The women looked genuinely distraught, but I am convinced that they are taught to cry at events and monuments such as this, essentially dishonoring their leader if they do not. We silently shuttled past all the medals, honorary degrees, and awards that Kim Il Sun and Kim Jung Il received from different countries during their years in office, shocked at the mere amount. It was overall a very surreal experience, being immersed into such a sense of national pride.
This sense of patriotism transferred over quite seamlessly into our next big visit, to the War Museum. Filled with captured US tanks, fighter jets, spy ships, and pretty much anything that could be used to humiliate and discredit the United States, the museum had a very clear version of history and a message to spread. In the exhibit called “Atrocities Committed by US Imperialists”, the guides explained how America used chemical and biological warfare in conflict, dropping poisonous insects and napalm in order to exterminate their enemies and “kill as many Asians as possible”.
On the fourth day, my opinion of the country and feeling towards this trip changed dramatically. We visited an elementary school, which I was vastly looking forward to, as I absolutely love talking to children. However, as soon as we arrived it was like nothing I had ever experienced; the children were waiting for us in the courtyard holding on to silks, ready to dance for us in an elaborate weaving ceremony. After they finished we were hustled into a room with a group of children in ballet costumes who immediately broke into absurd acrobatic tricks that made their small bodies look like spaghetti; definitely not things I believed eight year olds could do. A string of performances followed, including singing, instruments, Ping-Pong, more dance, English language skills, and even jump rope.
I believe I started crying at about Ping-Pong. What I was watching was not school, rather an exhibition. Putting aside the anti-America propaganda lining the walls with imagery of rockets and “satellites,” it was the optimum example of exploitation, with these children putting on full on performances with complete costumes for random tourists coming in 1-2 times per month in non-tourists seasons and 1-2 times were week in warmer months. I knew that people were not able to choose their careers, that the government chose it for them, but it was horrifying to see how forced it was at such a young age. It makes economic sense for careers to be determined by skill, but makes for horrendous human rights conditions. People were in awe at the performances, wondering how long it took for the children to achieve this level of talent, but to be honest I do not want to know the conditions that brought this about. It was the most forced and disingenuous show of education that I could image – especially as it was winter break and school is not currently in session, meaning that the students literally came in specifically to entertain us. Even the language classes were a performance with the children singing, “I like English, this is my classroom, I love it here;” it was as if I was watching a cult in the midst of brainwashing the youth. It was child labor, a way to remind foreigners of how impressive their society is when in fact it just reminded me of how horribly messed up it was; it was a factory, churning out talented workers from the time they are born against their own will for the improvement of the nation. It is a perfect demonstration of community over the individual, with complete disregard for decisions or human rights.
Our last night was filled with with bowling, beer, and karaoke – a very strange capitalist American-esque experience in a very anti-American society. Before I left, Ms. Kim, my incredibly sweet DPRK guide, sat with me and asked me how I liked the trip. I responded in vague compliments, knowing that I couldn’t give my true opinions. She smiled, “Please tell your friends back home that we are not the same as western media portrays us, we are just like all of you. I hope you come back soon.”
Our last night was filled with with bowling, beer, and karaoke – a very strange capitalist American-esque experience in a very anti-American society.
North Korea is a strangely idyllic world. Pyongyang, looking like a 1960’s film depicting the future with it’s space-age skyscrapers peppered with neon lights, is filled with bikes, pastel colored buildings, and a focus on the collective goals rather than that of the individual. People are careful and avoid eye contact with foreigners at all costs, and the streets are clean with not a speck of litter visible anywhere. People are seemingly happy, immersed in pride and adoration for their country and leader, but it is only due to their constant busyness, complete ignorance of the rest of the world, and the intense regime of propaganda imposed on them daily. Locals are severely limited, having to gain travel permits to enter or exit any city in the country, and must provide rationale for any internal movement. However, things are somewhat less restricted than I previously assumed, with people out ice-skating, children exploring playgrounds, and locals even playing beer-pong with us. Resources are limited, with lack of power forcing people to carry around flashlights in order to make their way through the pitch-black streets and underground tunnels at night, and I am confident that food is much more scarce than my tour would lead me to believe. There is a vast oversupply of labor and a lack of genuine work to do so people are overworked with menial jobs to make up for the difference, rewarded with food rations instead of wages, only to be awarded actually money as a potential bonus.
There is a stark lack of factual knowledge in the country, but as one of my guides explained, “what locals lack in information, they make up for with life experience. While they may at times seem naïve, they have lived long and difficult lives.” While I am more than confident that my experience was a highly curated façade of the true country, I am happy to have seen it for myself, if only to know that it was the wrong thing to do. The amount of money I spent on this tour contributing to the economy and in turn the regime is menial in comparison to the destructive impact that the tourists have on the local community and way that the society is formed. I understand that it would only hurt the locals if the tourism industry disappeared as it employs so many people, but I genuinely believe that the exploitation of DPRK residents and general havoc that foreigners have. From taking pictures as if they were in a zoo to playing music and being loud and often quite disrespectful at monuments and public buildings (even libraries) to forcing restaurants and shops to open up solely for tourists, foreigners create an incredibly destructive environment, perpetuating the government’s child labor and ability to force people to create a fake society for visitors.
Foreigners create an incredibly destructive environment, perpetuating the government’s child labor and ability to force people to create a fake society for visitors.
My overall advice: don’t go to North Korea, at least not for a simple tour. The country is amazing, beautiful, interesting to see – but you will not answer any questions; rather, you will just perpetuate a long lasting cycle of tourism and exploitation of the local communities, and if you’re anything like me, be overcome with an intense sense of guilt.