The trip to north korea was a unique one for sure. I'm still trying to understand everything that I saw and experienced. I tried to go in with an open mind. To experience a place for what it was and make my conclusions about it layer. While there were things i found extremely human and admirable about the culture, such as their principle of self-discipline(a concept known as juche, literally meaning master of the body/self) and the simplicity of a utilitarian lifestyle, i also found some things contradictory and greatly troubling. there is a pervasive adoption of disillusionment imbued by the government and embraced by the population. There is an adolescent almost embarrassing adoration of these lies and the leadership who publish them through magazines and books. the bookstores we visited contained volumes upon volumes of books on or by Kim Jung Il and Kim Il Sung plus some books on the country and that was it. A magazine we read on the plane was outlandish in it's praise of the accomplishments of the system. From blatant lies about South Korean military movements to supposed technological progress the country had made and shared with the world. While there is unyielding potential when the human conjures up all focus and being towards a singular goal, it is frighteningly and fundamentally corrupt when the ultimate goal(which historically was to defeat the Japanese colonial power) has already been achieved or is gone or lost. Its as if the whole country is frozen in time. While the electric rail bus systems and steam powered trucks break down on the horribly inefficient concrete highway system, monolithic structures with no purpose except to exude an imposing aura of domination and symbol of success stand empty and pointless. All the withering hotels are decorated in lavish 70s design with colossal interior hallways like austere soviet airports. Our guides' main job was to keep us from wandering off anywhere we werent supposed to go and to make sure we saw only the best of what they had to offer. they were at times personal and connected on a human level while at other times strict and even derisive. One of the three, Mr Kim, took me jogging one morning because we shared the joy of being avid amateur athletes. He talked about his soon to be born daughter and how he would like her to be a doctor but doesnt want to force her to choose because his parents tried to force him into a military career that he did not like. But when i asked him to speak to me on camera about koreas social structure he gave me coy excuses and never opened up. We even talked about the free housing, free healthcare, free education, and subsidized food openly, but i think he didnt want to risk getting in trouble later and losing a chance to move up in the ranks. The higher you get in the society the more easy and comfortable your life is. The geography of the country is farmed 90% from what i saw. Only the rockiest slopes are left un tilled. We drove all the way from Pyongyang to the coast and there was rice patties, persimmon tree vineyards, and fish farms all the way. The whole population apparently spends time out there aiding the farmers in harvest. The capital city and each major township are similarly comprised of industrial factories which produce power and mammoth sized, drab, dilapidated apartment buildings that have fluctuating power and water. It paints a dark but atypical picture of a communist country that one could imagine in a movie about the soviet union or the novel 1984. I guess the remarkable part about going to a real place where it is actually happening is the human factor. Getting to see firsthand people getting married, soldiers doing their duty by stopping you from taking photos making you delete the photos then asking where you are from and smiling, or the farmers with speaker boxes in their homes connected to the capital hours away. These are just people within a system who are trying to make a go of it. There are no planes flying overhead, there are no billboards with advertisements, there are no city council buildings. There are signs all over the countryside and on every building but they are all white with bright red letters shouting slogans about the socialist party. They literally had exclamation points at the end. Every other korean is in the army. Building monuments, wiring the highway to be blown if south korea invades, and practicing routines for the next national exhibition parade. Its a country that believes its still at war or at risk of going to war. The government uses this to further its own pursuits. On the tv there are lengthy docu-musical pieces that portray navy ships launching missiles (fade-to) flower blowing in the wind (fade-to) machine gun carting soldiers taking the hill (fade-to) shimmering water all played to an operatic symphony with pro regime message. footage of the latest weaponry and arms of course was filmed in the 70s. One day they took us to see a US spy ship they had captured 20 years ago as a symbol of the victory over the 'imperialists'. what is supposed to come across as bragging rights of some kind was more like a desperate attempt to symbolize strength and progress. it was strange. Its a country that has been so isolated and brainwashed by propaganda that i can only imagine solutions in the 21st century, the age of communication. Where cell phones are more prominent one can only imagine it becoming increasingly more open. But as african nations have exemplified for a long time, authorities can manipulate a people willing to be manipulated. It is definitely a long difficult road ahead for North Korea.
Arrows flash. Elevator never comes. Take the stairs. Exit in the alley next to the hotel. Circle the block. Street names repeat. Futong, fu'an, guangshun. Extend the perimeter. Withdrawal refused. Stuck. Wander till new bank appears. Success. Buy ticket, ride subway. Crowded. Change lines. More crowded. Wangfujing, dongshishitiao, and gongyixiqiao stations. Old trains. Teens lost in iPad games. Racing, football, dreamin. Rise to the surface. All directions ambiguous. Follow curiosity. Landmark spotted. Monolithic train station. Join the ebb and swell. Taipingqiao, taipingqiaocun, liuliqiao. Slum-like side street. Pedestrian bent over sick. Rain, garbage, music. One more street just for kicks. Street vendors form farmers market with produce on bicycle carts. Cross the street a courtyard labyrinth. Halls, rooms, boxes. Tables, kettles, cups. Puerh-er, liu cha, oo-long tie guan yin. Old man in tiny shop. Shelves packed to the ceiling. Gestures, grunts, nods. Brews a cup with effortless care. Its more then the tea we share. Passing a shop with ladies sorting stems. Irresistibly inviting they welcome me in. Try more, buy more, leave. Dont leave. What is she saying? What does she want? Aggressively motions me follow. To the street, to the apartment. Meet family. Help daughter with english homework. Student posing as teacher. ni hau, xie xie, zai jian. Drink tea. Snack. More tea. Have dinner. Mooore tea. Take gifts, exchange numbers. Mother worried. Its raining. Take an umbrella. Are you lost? Yes. But its ok. Its good.