A rare glimpse into the North Korean soul
In April, I joined hundreds of intrepid tourists heading to Pyongyang for Kim Il-sung’s centenary birthday celebration. Most were seeking adventure. I was doing research for my next novel, which uses the ideological conflict between the U.S. and North Korea to explore the construction of national identity.
Every nation has its mythology – a reason why it is uniquely destined for greatness. For many in the United States, that reason is our Constitution and the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. I grew up believing that my country is a symbol of freedom for the world. The North Koreans also believe in their country’s greatness. Central to their myth is the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung and Juche, his philosophy of militant self-reliance. In North Korea, leader-worship is not a cult of personality – it’s a full-fledged religion. Images of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il are everywhere. Going to the annual art show is like following the Stations of the Cross: Kim Il-sung as a child, Kim Il-sung fighting the Japanese, Kim Jong-il at the factory with the workers. Around the country, their words – common-sense platitudes like “Plant more crops, harvest more rice” – are inscribed like the Ten Commandments on two-ton slabs of rock.
Judging from her offhand remarks, our local guide, Miss Song, is a true believer. When I question her in private about the repressiveness of the government, she flatly disagrees. Intelligent, educated, friendly, she is not a robot, and she certainly doesn’t act like she is afraid. Trying to put myself in her place, I imagine what it must be like to have your country occupied for 40 years, to be forced to speak another language, even to take a different name. Then the oppressor (Japan) leaves, and two other countries (the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.) come in, and literally divide your country in two.
Touring the demilitarized zone, with its acres of barbed wire and machine-gun-armed soldiers, I remember that the U.S and North Korea are still at war. No peace agreement was signed, only an armistice. A steel-jawed military guide tells visitors that the U.S. began the war. This is not true. It is true that millions of Koreans died compared with some 36,000 Americans, that the U.S. contemplated the use of nuclear weapons and that every form of industry in North Korea was completely destroyed.
Unsurprisingly, many of the tourist sites (the Fatherland Liberation Museum, the captured U.S. Navy ship Pueblo, etc.) celebrate North Korean resistance to foreign oppression. Even if the U.S. did not have 40,000 troops in South Korea, I think North Koreans would maintain a war mentality. Better isolation than that other slavery. Better to believe in the greatness of the leaders and the system than to believe you have no power.
Why did the U.S. stay after World War Two? Did we suddenly realize that Korea was a sovereign nation and decide to help the fledgling democracy in the South (which was not actually a democracy)? Did we feel guilty that in 1918 we rebuffed Korean nationalists, who, inspired by our own President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, asked for help against Japan? Or did we think that Korea, situated between China and the Soviet Union, was too strategically and economically important to govern itself? Miss Song’s desire to believe in a certain version of history is no different from my own. The difference is that I have access to information and experiences that might contradict it, and most North Koreans do not. Without Internet or alternative news sources, unable to travel freely, and with little or no interaction with foreigners, the average person simply has no grounds to question the system, or hope for anything else.
For the casual visitor, the violent oppressiveness of the regime is not apparent. Pyongyang, with its plentiful monuments and impressive public spaces, is, in many ways, a beautiful, thriving city. We see no litter, no traffic jams, no homelessness. Even so, after a few days, we become acutely aware of our own lack of freedom. Isolated from the locals, ferried from one sanctioned spectacle to the next, we protest. When our minders, two amiable men who accompany us everywhere, agree to take us to a park, we range like dogs off the leash. Ignoring their pleas that we stay together, I hand out chocolate bars to holiday-making families who sit on the grass eating and singing. In exchange, they offer orange soda and gesture for me to sit down. Young people shyly give the thumbs-up. People invite us to dance. They want to take pictures with us. Some of us even pose in wedding photos.
This is not the picture of North Korea I expected to see. And it does not erase the reality of prison camps in which an estimated 200,000 people are interred, the famine that killed hundreds of thousands, or the absurd folly of a government that spends its money on a faulty rocket ship while food shortages again threaten the nation. The authorities have shown us what they want us to see. Even so, they have not manufactured the pleasures of a warm spring day. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all of us are smiling.
Walking back to the bus, however, we are quickly sobered by what we see: In a clearing at the end of the park, men, women, and children line up for an arcade game, Kill the American Imperialist! I stop and stare. Am I really the enemy? Are North Koreans mine? Are we responsible for the perceived crimes of our countries? For a moment the boundaries between people and politics blur. Too impersonal to be intimidating, the game reminds me that ideology loses its grip in the slight, irregular spaces between humans. My interaction with individual North Koreans has been delightful and genuine. It is in this that I find hope for the future.
PHOTO: North Koreans playing an anti-American arcade game, courtesy Roc LaMontagne