I have spent the past 33 years ignoring as much as I could what was being told or shown about North Korea. As I was dreaming of getting the chance to get there some day, I didn’t want to be influenced by any other view beforehand – this is true of every place I travel into, and is what gives me this appearance of not knowing much of what is going on in the world.
It seemed to me particularly important in the case of North Korea, most isolated country in the world and by definition living in a totally different version of the world than us. Obviously, I had some awareness of what I should expect there. But I also had my own fantasies and question marks.
In this first post of a series related to my travel to North Korea in October 2014, I will focus on these general impressions, starting from those in line with expectations, which turn out to be no more than the surprises.
5 BIG THINGS THAT WERE JUST AS EXPECTED
1. The propaganda and personality cult. Being as well-travelled in totalitarian regimes as I can, I already had elaborated experiences in this field – but there is so much to tell about it that I will dedicate a complete story in a later post.
2. The mass uniformity. North Korea is not only a totalitarian regime but also one of the very collective Asian cultures – obviously Geert Hofstede was not able to screen North Korea in his huge IBM survey in the sixties, but he did South Korea which turned out having a collectivism index comparable to Asian and South-Asian countries such as China or Indonesia, where in-group belonging primes in a tightly-knit society. Building on that, not surprising that the regimes organises mass events, where everyone is dressed the same and acts the same, as support of the national psyche and propaganda.
3. The traffic ladies are a well-known phenomenon of North Korea that even I was aware of, and they are not a legend! Slowly being replaced by automatic 3-colour traffic lights, and therefore endangered species, traffic officers are yet still there in many intersections. They are not just girls though, but also pretty boys!
4. Dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity was something that I did expect I would have to face during and after my stay, and I have not been disappointed. Guides do vomit the national propaganda to you and there is never a way to verify or even challenge what is being said. The non-said part is even more substantial and many questions remain unanswered. Why is our guide suddenly telling about something insignificant whereas there seems to be a mass reunion on a big square at the other side of the road? Is she hiding something or not? Another typical example is our visit to the Pyongyang metro, which comprises of 17 stations but where we were allowed to visit only 2, “because the other ones are being renovated”. Is this the true reason or not? Will we ever know?
5. Finally, the lack of freedom was completely on track. Not only because you cannot walk around freely without having a couple of “guides” watching you, but also because visits are in a group and always sticking to it. It is a bit sad and funny at the same time, but all my fellow travellers and me ended up having the exact same photos. And since we had plenty of discussions to exchange our impressions, many of our comments post-travel are also the same…
7 BIG THINGS THAT SURPRISED ME MOST
1. Haze in the morning. Funny but in all my fantasies about North Korea, I had never been thinking of the weather conditions. Turns out that there is a very strong haze every morning – and since they make you stay on high floors in some of these big 50-storey hotel buildings, I woke up every morning rushing to the window with goose bumps and excitation to look over surrealistic Pyongyang. The fact that very often there would be music being played on the street from loud speakers only added to the bizarre effect.
2. Pyongyang itself surprised me most. It is huge, or at least much bigger than anything I could have imagined, with enormous buildings spread over the city. It made for very nice views from the surrounding hills and from the tall buildings such as the big hotels but also the Juche tower.
3. The nation is the fundament of the Korean dictatorship. Frankly speaking, I had not captured this at all and I was convinced the regime had started in a socialist revolution like in Russia. But I was wrong, the initial and deep motivation of Kim Il-Sung was patriotic and it was liberation from the Japanese feudal colonialism. This has a significant impact on many visible aspects of daily life in North Korea, as there is no such strong rupture between national folklore and socialist culture. For example, many women wear the traditional hanbok on important days; some of the arts are still partially influenced by tradition; a lot of national psyche and animism from the Northern mountains has been incorporated in the official biographies of the Supreme Leaders. And of course, all North Koreans dream of a reunification with the South (by North Korean terms).
4. North Korea is not a consumerist society, and I was dying of seeing what this looks like. I was expecting something like a Russian new city of the Far-East Siberia minus the big brands billboards. Actually, it was more complex than this. No consumerism also means less of the excesses and decadence of the West. There is no traffic congestion, there is no litter of packaged goods anywhere on the streets, people are well disciplined. Everyone tries to be dressed smartly and to act smartly, which was very revealing versus a number of ridiculously casually dressed tourists giggling about sex jokes, some of whom you constantly have to remind about their potentially disrespectful behaviour.
Beyond this, there is a true enthusiasm for the society’s achievements: where in the West most accomplishments are private and punctuated by a disillusioned shrug, North Korea does celebrate as a nation and for example builds a huge Metro Construction Museum to tell you everything about the construction of the metro (denigrators would say they were so proud of the Metro Construction Museum that they also built a Museum of the construction of the Metro Construction Museum!).
5. North Korea is modern. It is not a mass consumerist society, but there is modernity. Many apartments have solar panels (again, denigrators will say that’s because it helps during power cuts, but I invite them to also think of the positive of it), we have seen some advertisement billboards for a locally-produced car and some LCD screens around in the city. That all seems pretty healthy to me and makes me say – why not?
Under the pressure of China though, North Korea is expected to further develop as China wants, and it is not impossible that this is how North Korea’s exception will slowly disappear. Recently, China managed to impose to North Korea to open a joint-venture supermarket which is a quite incongruous thing to see in such a place.
6. People are just normal people. People raise families, walk on the streets, go to work, put flower on their balconies and go out for a pick nick in the park on Sundays. We tend to forget that. School kids wear uniforms, but try to distinguish themselves by wearing different accessories, as normal kids.
7. The last, most surprising thing is that I could go crazy in North Korea. I was afraid I would have to contain myself at all times. It is true that I really had to in certain circumstances – such as visiting the mausoleum where they keep the taxidermy Kims (no idea why I suddenly fantasized about Kim Il-sung’s mommy winking at me, but it made me close to bursting into laughter which could have been a reason enough to kick me out of the country if not controlled).
But I was also given moments of pure hilarity in contact with the locals, and while I kept checking on my guides to make sure I was not doing anything inappropriate, I was amazed that they nodded at me with a benevolent smile. On several occasions, I thus found myself dancing with locals on the streets, in parks, under the Party monument, blending with them and exchanging smiles, proving that politics is just politics and who cares about all these governments – what we all are is just one race of humans.