Nick Pateras | North Korea
NORTH KOREA: INSIDE THE MOST SECRETIVE COUNTRY ON EARTH
In August 2013, I fulfilled a long-standing personal ambition by traveling to North Korea, arguably the most isolated and least understood country on the planet. This three-part series is a catalogue of my experiences during my eight-day visit.
Part one: it's all about the kims
Date of Entry: 13-8-102. As in year 102. Sitting nervously in an ostentatious Beijing restaurant the night before our tour began, I gripped my freshly stamped North Korean tourist visa with a renewed appreciation for what I was getting myself into. Of course I was already aware that the North Koreans, in a gesture of undying veneration, measured time not with the standard Gregorian calendar but instead from the birthday of Kim Il Sung, their nation’s founder. Still, seeing this bizarre dating system in use caused me to stir. It wasn’t long however, before I realized that this was just the first sip of several buckets’ worth of Kool-Aid the government intended to force feed me at every opportunity during my stay.
It is difficult to express to anyone in a secular or democratic society the degree to which the Kim family is lionized by North Koreans, or at least the measures taken by the government to preserve their god-like status. Without overstatement, the entire trip could easily have been branded as a course on the Kim dynasty’s ostensible accomplishments. It says enough about the puffery surrounding the family that Kim Il Sung remains the country’s Eternal President even two decades after his death, a title codified and bestowed upon him by constitution.
On our first full day in Pyongyang, just one before Koreans officially celebrate their liberation from Japanese rule, we were led to the famous statues of the two deceased leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Standing at over twenty meters, these bronze effigies were an impressively grotesque symbol of the regime’s self-celebration at the expense of the notoriously deprived citizenry. Funnily enough, despite the holiday being the following day, we were treated to a scene of hundreds of workers lining up to bow and place flowers at the figures’ feet. I had been advised by a fellow traveler that we would also be expected to pay our respects, but knowing in advance didn’t help my bursting indignation as I marched forward and bowed my head to two men I knew were responsible for hideous crimes against humanity. Refusing to partake would have been unwise, particularly so early in the trip when I knew I had to befriend the guides in advance of asking some awkwardly pressing questions later. Nonetheless, I felt my stomach churn, and upon stepping away I turned and took a photograph of Kim Jong Il’s crotch, in defiance of the requirement to frame both leaders in their entirety in any picture.
Feeling marginally redeemed but still in awe of the monuments’ grandiose, I hung back as my group was directed towards the bus. I was sharply barked at by one of our minders but not before I noticed that the flood of people walking the hill towards the statues had slowed to a trickle as our group moved on. Perhaps the timing was merely serendipitous, but I filed the memory away as the first suspicion that I was a spectator of a performance rather than local custom.
Throughout the week, the smiling faces of the Kims followed us everywhere. Their pictures were on every building, in every subway station and above every doorway. They also appeared on gigantic painted murals throughout Pyongyang, offering the only colour in an otherwise pristinely clean stitching of green trees and grey buildings, the absence of any advertising a notable non-feature. As if citizens needed any reminding of their leaders’ permanency, the passive-aggressive cheerfulness radiating from these images was a daily undermining of the word ‘democratic’ in the country’s official name.
Emphatically, the entrance to every site bore a statue of at least one Kim in an act of graciousness, playing with children or making a speech. I later learned there are over five hundred statues of this nature sprinkled across the country. As was the requirement, we were made to line up and bow each time, while a cameraman captured our deference several times over. It infuriated me to think the footage would likely be employed as educational material, demonstrating to children how even Westerners were humbled to step foot where a Kim had once strolled.
The nauseating sentiment of servility was further highlighted at the beginning of every stop, when our guides would instruct us on how many times each Kim had visited the site. “Kim Il Sung came to this location 85 times and Kim Jong Il 61 times,” they’d chime. Initially we dismissed this as no more than excessive idolatry, but our chuckles were replaced with astonishment as the guides went on. Every single success claimed by the factories, libraries or farming co-ops was attributed to the Kims. In an early instance, the guides proclaimed that Kim Il Sung’s advice to farmers improved their harvest manifold that year. When I inquired how a president knew about farming techniques, the guides played back that he was very well read and had previously met with several other farmers, who had marveled at his intelligence. Dissatisfied, I kept probing, asking what specific wisdom he had imparted. The answer: “He told them to do it for the people.”
Over the course of the week, practically everything we were told was articulated with the barely subtle intent of projecting the regime’s power and influence. On reflection, the endless adulation for the Kim family was the trip’s salient theme. This realization is critical to understanding North Korea, but on its own one would still hold a pixelated view of the country. A number of other abnormalities also became evident, some of which caused me to question my own outlook and upbringing.
Soon to come - Part 2: How to Convincingly Act Brainwashed.
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