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.