I have spent the past 33 years ignoring as much as I could what was being said about North Korea. I was dreaming of getting the chance to get there some day, and I didn’t want to be influenced beforehand – this is true of every place I travel into, and is what gives me this air of not knowing much about 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, 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 kept many open question marks.
In this first post of a series related to my travel to North Korea in October 2014, I will focus on my 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 cult of personality. Being as well-travelled in totalitarian regimes as I can, I already had elaborated experiences in this field – but the North Korean version is quite uniquely overwhelming.
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 has a collectivism index comparable to Asian and South-Asian countries such as China or Indonesia.
In these cultures, 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, and they are not a legend! Slowly being replaced by automatic 3-colour traffic lights, and therefore endangered species, traffic officers are still there in many intersections. They are not just girls though, some are boys!
4. Dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity was something that I did expect I would have to face during my stay, and I have not been disappointed. Guides recite the national propaganda and there is never a way to verify or even challenge what is being said. A lot is non-said, too, and many questions remain unanswered. Why is our guide suddenly telling something insignificant when there seems to be a group reunion at the opposite side of the road? Is she hiding something or not? When we visited the Pyongyang metro, which comprises of 17 stations, 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 as expected. You cannot walk around freely without having a couple of “guides” watching you, and all visits are with the group you belong to. Iad and funny at the same time: all my fellow travellers and I ended up having the exact same photos. And since we had plenty of time to exchange our impressions, many of our comments post-travel are also the same…
7 THINGS THAT SURPRISED ME MOST
1. Haze in the morning. 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 tourists stay on elevated floors in 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 or 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 with a socialist revolution like in Russia. But I was wrong: the initial and deep motivation of Kim Il-Sung was patriotic, 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 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 into 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 to see what this looks like. I was expecting something like a Russian new city of the Far-East Siberia minus the big ad billboards. In reality 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 anywhere, people are well disciplined. Everyone dresses smartly and acts smartly, which is very revealing versus a number of ridiculously casually dressed tourists giggling about sex jokes, a few of whom you regularly have to remind to watch out their potentially disrespectful behaviour.
Beyond this, there is a true enthusiasm for the society’s achievements: when in the West, most accomplishments are private and punctuated by a disillusioned shrug, North Korea does celebrate as a nation by, for example, building a great 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 think also of the positives), there were some advertisement billboards for a locally produced car, and a few LCD screens around in the city.
Under the pressure of China though, North Korea is expected to further develop the way China wants, and it is not impossible that 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 Pyongyang.
6. People are normal humans. 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 sunny Sundays. We tend to forget that. School kids wear uniforms, but they try to distinguish themselves with distinctive accessories, as normal kids do.
7. The last, most surprising thing is that I was able to go a bit crazy in North Korea. Afraid I would have to contain myself at all times, it is true that I really had to in most circumstances – such as visiting the mausoleum where they keep the bodies of the Kims. No idea how the fantasy of Kim Il-sung’s mommy winking at me came about, but I was 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.