Posted on July 26, 2013
So back to my original question about the DPRK: What lies beyond the fog?
After one week it is impossible to have any definitive answer, as the government works very hard to keep things shrouded in mystery. This realization, while not surprising, is still disappointing. The game of politics is in full gear.
However, the ‘embrace’ from the local people, muted compared to the West, was a thrill. Especially the rare moments when we could glimpse into their lives. Such moments were brief, yet very welcomed as the trip seemed overshadowed by the government’s attempt to control all aspects of society (and our travel).
Big Brother was disheartening. The country, in many ways, has become a tragic comedy.
The comedy being that the DPRK is viewed internationally as the Hermit Kingdom and the butt of many jokes, which ends up masking the great tragedy of the people: the people who endure and sacrifice in propping up this malignant government at the expense of their dreams.
The population lives on a lot of hope amid great despair. Hope in that Kim Jong-un will act on youthful idealism, and do what is right for his people. Despair in the military rulers, who have been so deeply corrupted by power that any transition may be impossible.
While many questions are unanswerable, as my past posts have shown, the DPRK is filled with a population of great people. While they are somewhat skeptical and stoic in public, beneath that veneer shines curiosity and warmth.
It starkly contrasts the oppression of the government.
The last night in Korea was spent at the Pyongyang Fun Fair (a carnival that is open to the public), and I marveled at the ease in which we were able to mesh with the locals. While the trip as a whole allowed us a very narrow view of the society, it was still enough to open eyes.
The country has been stagnant for decades, but the changing dynamics of the world and flow of information has already triggered the inevitable transition of the DPRK into the 21st century.
There are heroes in the DPRK, but they are not the ones immortalized in bronze statues or paintings. Rather, they are the ones who flash genuine smiles and, when possible, ask probing questions about the world.
They are the ones who see that ‘living in a system’ is not an ideal way to live; unrealized dreams will eventually catch up and take over a life. They are the ones who see difficulties for future generations, and that triggers the desire for change.
Desire, when strong enough, can be the impetus for change. It is this desire that surprised me during my final week in the DPRK. It was in the background of every defining moment I had in Pyongyang and Kaesong: desire for connection fueled by curiosity of the world.
If you would have asked me two weeks ago, I could have confidently stated the DPRK was a nation without any understanding of the outside world. Today, it is much more of an enigma.
As I head out to the train station to say good-bye to the Europeans and Canadians I have met during my time here, I see groups of young Koreans getting ready to board a train into China.
There has been 50 years where creative minds have remained idle here in the DPRK, and I believe those days are gone. “Change is a comin’…” is what the youth of Korea are now shouting.
Will the transition of change be peaceful? The world sure hopes so, but change will be on the terms of the Korean people.
As I watch the train pull out (being an American, I am banned from any train travel…), my mind reflects on the past week.
We have this short period of time on Earth to enjoy life. To enjoy the different people and cultures of the world before we make that final walk towards the end.
Wouldn’t that final walk be great if we all walked through together, in peace?
Posted on July 12, 2013
What lies beyond Pyongyang? This was a question that I have been pondering for a few days. The city, as any capital city in the world, has its moments of allure. As I mentioned earlier, it is a place where I could spend a fair amount of time learning and enjoying a new culture.
The DPRK has already been a far cry from what I had expected, which led me to wonder what else was out there. A glimmer of an answer was captured as we traveled down south to Kaesong.
As expected, the landscape was very similar to farming villages seen throughout China (and Asia). Was the countryside poor? Yes, in the sense that the farmers lived a very rough life of working in the fields all day, and there is no question they get by on less compared to their countrymen who live in large cities.
While the DPRK government tries to hide this from the outside world, I can only shake my head. Sure, you have your sensationalist reports such as the Panorama program on BBC (led by the infamous John Sweeney), who are an embarrassment to journalism, trying to play up the angle of “this is what the DPRK doesn’t want you to see…” But it is irrelevant.
Poor people, and poor areas do not like to be exploited, and I would not care to be filmed or have photos taken for the sole purpose of being ogled by foreigners. Why is this surprising?
However, if true travelers had access to the countryside of the DPRK, the number of beautiful photographs of farmers and the land they till would vastly out number negative reports. Although the farmers are poor, they are proud and they are respected for the work they do.
It does not take much imagination to see what a great place this world could be if we had farmers as our leaders. The respect of farmers is strong on both sides of the DMZ.
The Unification Arch between Pyongyang and Seoul
The drive south to Kaesong did allow the time for us to exhale and take in the scenery. A switching of gears to catch a glimpse of the agricultural side of the DPRK as well as to explore a little of Kaesong, a historic city as well as a neighbor to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
As the opening photo showed, on the drive down we had perhaps one of the most glorious sunsets I have ever seen. It started off as simply a nice sunset, with different hues of yellows and orange that arrived as we stopped at the well-known “tea shop” rest area halfway between Pyongyang and Kaesong. The capture of this sunset scene is below.
As we got on the bus, and traveled perhaps 20 more kilometers, the skies switched from the typical yellow/orange to a pink & purple hue that is as rare as it is beautiful. Fortunately the guides agreed to stop the bus so we could step out and take in the beautiful sight (the opening photo of this post).
The sunset and dusk made up for the late arrival into Kaesong and the disappointment of being restricted to stay on hotel grounds at all times. After the drive, I had hoped to be able to walk around the town a bit but also realized such freedom was very unlikely. The hotel we were staying in Kaesong, however did make up for that disappointment as it was a traditional Korean hotel (Minsok Hotel) located in the old town with houses from the Joseon Dynasty (1392 ~ 1897).
One thing I have been very grateful for is that there are a few North Koreans that speak Mandarin Chinese. It has led to some pretty funny comments, and always their shock, surprise and wonderful smile that this ’round-eye’ can speak a language they understand. What has been the fun part about this, is that they get the humor (my poor wit), and really have a good laugh.
At one shop, I ended up buying Kim Jong Il‘s book “On the Juche Idea“ (an incredible cure for insomnia), and I ask the lady helping me about the Kim Il Sung pin she was wearing and how I would love to trade the pin I was wearing (a Chinese & DPRK flag) for hers. I added that such a trading of pins was “a common tradition where I am from when meeting new friends.” She had a great giggle and one of the most mischievous grins I have seen, but without pause waved her finger “no” – enough said.
The meaning I sensed is that these pins mean something deep to them, and it just is not possible to part with them. Whether it is an attachment to a pin they treasured deeply (cultish in nature), or a fear of repercussions if they are seen without one (or worse yet, seen giving one to a foreigner). I hope it is the first one, as the paranoia created by the second option seems a bit scary, and eerily possible.
The main reason to travel down to Kaesong, was to visit the DMZ from the view of the North. It was going to be an intriguing experience, in part because we had two women from Sweden in our group who had visited the DMZ from the view of South Korea. They said that it was a bit terrifying, as the soldiers were stern and they were warned many times of the risk (the potential to be shot by a North Korean soldier).
These two gentlemen would quickly end my ’15-seconds of fame’ scampering to the South
Given this very bleak and macabre story of how the DMZ was managed in the South, we figured that visiting the DMZ in the North would be worse: the danger and seriousness was going to be “amped up” to the maximum.
We assumed wrong. The DPRK soldiers were definitely all business (some minor restrictions on photography and movement outside of the group), but they also used common sense. In the words of people who had visited both the sides of the DMZ, it was the North that seemed to have more rational heads about them. That is a scary thought.
Abandoned Kansai wrote an excellent article describing this area: http://abandonedkansai.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/north-korea-panmunjom-joint-security-area/
In short, at the DMZ, we saw the best of the DPRK military troops I suppose. Guys who had strong personalities, but who could not help cracking a smile and showing us a side that seemed to say “we take this situation seriously, but we also understand that neither side is going to step out of line.”
While the soldiers on duty were pure seriousness, the ones who had to interact with us were respectful and approachable (via a translator). They received respect because of their demeanor and attitude…never were they condescending. While I have never been to the South side of the DMZ, the Americans, Swedes and Belgians who had all visited the Southern DMZ (both ROK and US military), felt more at ease and secure in the North. That blew me away. Still does. I want to check out the Southern side of the DMZ to form my own opinion.
The city of Kaesong itself was quite nice… The air was fresh and scenery quite beautiful, and the historical significance only added to the allure. The prize of Kaesong was the Koryo museum, which was incredible, and I am not a museum person. Again, I will let Abandon Kansai do the honors with his great write-up: http://abandonedkansai.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/north-korea-kaesong-koryo-museum/
During the tour, one of the guides was very polite, and while initially not too keen on being photographed, once she was relatively confident that she was not going to be the center of attention, she nodded enthusiastically. She was very excited to see how the photos turned out.
The final thought, as we drove out of Kaesong was that for being so close to the South – the differences between the ultra-developed society of Seoul, starkly contrasted the bare-basics of the DPRK.
This led me to wonder what the DPRK has to offer. To many, the answer is clear: a more “authentic” Korean culture. There seems to be a strong pulse of Koryo that moves throughout this country, and I can see why the Korean people yearn for reunification. Both sides have so much to gain.
Posted on July 9, 2013
Watching the children of the Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace perform was impressive, and after the show there was a lot of talk about how hard these kids had to work…then came a magical comment from Alexandra Kostiw, when she stated: “kind of reminds you of the Honey Boo-boo culture back in the States…”
Amid the laughter, an idea was born.
What are the role models of the kids in the DPRK and how do they compare to the role models for kids in the USA?
Reality TV has become one of the best exports of the USA this past decade (not quite sure that is a good thing to promote), and almost every Asian country has its youths (and parents) riveted to local reality shows.
So I figured I would take a quick look at three areas and see whether the kids from the USA or the DPRK are better equipped for the future.
Round One: Television ~ How TV influences children of both cultures
Considering that TV is perhaps the best educational tool ever created, and it looks like we are reaching new highs in quality programming with great shows as:
Unfortunately, TV programming is still in its infancy in the DPRK, they are only able to offer the following:
Pretty much one choice of propaganda in the DPRK. My guess is that while it is a little horrifying to have a daughter admire the stars of “Teen Moms”, at least in our hands is a TV-clicker that allows us to switch between the propaganda of FOX news and CNBC to Toddlers & Tiaras and Kim Kardashian.
As for the DPRK, since the electricity is cut most of the time, their children do not even get the educational value of TV. Instead, and this is rather funny, they actually have to read something called “books” and there are also utensils called “pens and pencils” where children have to actually write out the words on paper!
Can you imagine the quality of adults they will grow up to be with such limitations?
Clear victory for the USA!
Round Two: The Deification of Kim ~ How the myth of Kim influence our children.
Now this is a tough one.
Every place I go, be it in the buildings, on the subways, on billboards, newspapers and everywhere I look, I see photographs of Kim.
However, after a week in the DPRK, I saw almost as many photos of their Kim as I did our Kim, which probably why I felt so at home. This competition is too close to call.
Given that our Kim just had a beautiful baby girl named North West (no middle name), I say we make a deal with the DPRK. We give Ms. North West the middle name of “Korea” and then export her and Kim to the DPRK where they can star in “Keeping Up with North Korea Kardashian…” or better yet, the ultimate DPRK reality show: “Kim Vs. Kim”
During sweeps week, “Kim Vs. Kim” could have a great battle of egos where the DPRK holds their first democratic elections to decide which Kim stays.
Based on the photos alone, another win for the USA.
Round Three: Music ~ Music to Inspire our Children
The DPRK primarily has classical music. Mostly beautiful, but old Korean songs, with some European classical music as well. Their folk songs have lyrics that promote hard work, respect of women, study and taking care of the older generation. Not much else. Very old school.
The USA, well we have too much to choose from: Wheezy, Jeezy, Snoop Lion, Diddy, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy…well, you get the picture. And the lyrics..a great way for foreigners to study American English.
When a few DPRK youths asked me the best way to study American English, I just point them to the most popular hip-hop and rap albums and then an incredible website (www.gizoogle.net) that translates old-school English to something our modern youths understand much better. This is the very web site I use to communicate with my younger nieces and nephews these days.
For an example, the above paragraph I just wrote is translated by www.gizoogle.net as:
“When all dem DPRK youths axed mah crazy ass tha dopest way ta study Gangsta, I just point dem ta da most thugged-out ghettofab hip-hop n’ rap mixtapes n’ then a incredible joint (www.gizoogle.net) dat translates old-school Gangsta ta suttin’ our modern youths KNOW much mo’ betta n’ shit. This is tha straight-up wizzy joint I use ta communicate wit mah younger nieces n’ nephews these days.
Brilliant. Another win for the States.
Bonus Round: Basketball & Diplomacy ~ Sports/Politics and Children
During my time wandering around, I saw several pick-up basketball games with local kids and workers on the open courts of Pyongyang and Kaesong. Not a real hot bed of basketball talent.
However, in this bonus round, I say we play a 2-on-2 game with myself (6’2”) and Mr. Diplomat of the Year, Dennis Rodman (6’7”), and not only would we tower over those guys on the court, but Dennis could use his diplomatic skills and probably get them to hand over their “Air-Kim” basketball shoes as well.
Plus with a 15-course meal to share with Dennis’ new best friend Kim Jong-Un, I think the USA sweeps the series:
Strange, but given a choice between the USA educational system, crippled by tax cuts every year and getting worse, we soon may lose any advantage we have over such countries as the DPRK. It is very cliché, but “investing in education is investing in our future.”
Of course, there is no competition when it comes to intellectual freedom – and for that all Americans should be proud. We just need to make sure that we give enough resources to at least create a base for our children’s intellect.
FYI: one bizarre but brilliant educational plan for children, is sending them to a children’s summer camp in the DPRK. Being an American, my first thought of course was to combine this with a reality show of American kids visiting the DPRK. The summer camp program for international children is sponsored in part by our 51st state Canada (kidding). Information can be found at: http://www.pyongyangproject.org/ .
Posted on July 3, 2013
Standing beside a small garden, a simple scene transforms into a moment that will never be forgotten. A heart-warming conversation between a mother and her child as they laugh and happily correct the very rudimentary Korean they heard (a simple ‘hello’). Their smiles and eyes communicate more than words ever could as they look towards this ‘big nose’ foreigner, giggling again as they helpfully pronounce 안녕하십니가 “annyeong-hashipnikka.” As their smiles broaden, slowly the camera moves upwards hoping to capture a bit of this magic, then “pow” just like that the scene changes. All is “Lost in Translation.”
The giggles stop. The child runs and the mother turns away in shock from the camera. And I am left standing wishing I could speak a bit more Korean than a poor “hello.” Putting the camera down, the conversation slowly picks up again and this time I leave the camera alone and they once again become engaged in correcting my Korean.
When traveling in foreign countries, there always seems to be a limiting factor when shooting and I have always referred to this as “shooting on a leash.” Generally, the term leash is metaphorical, primarily due to the lack of language skills that can limit the quality of photography, however it also can be literal in meaning where there are physical barriers that prohibit the chasing of a photo opportunity as well.
Shooting in the DPRK, I am experiencing a frustratingly large mixture of both.
This is not abject criticism, as every time I travel and shoot there are barriers. It is what makes capturing a good photo rewarding, and usually a good photographer can break through some of the basic communication issues with the locals and, if only for a few minutes (or if lucky, a few hours), become a small part of their day.
Language constraints are usually a common barrier when traveling, so I cannot make any real complaint of not being able to reach out to the locals…except that here, it is not easy. There is an undercurrent of tension, with both the locals and foreigners not quite sure what is allowable and what is not. One thing that does seem clear, foreigners and locals should not mix, and it is best to remain at arm’s length.
Of course, I had to be reminded of this a few times after straying a bit too close to the opposite “side” below…
The reason for the ‘physical leash’ appears to be pretty straightforward: distrust. The DPRK government is well aware of idiots who have used benign footage to twist and create sensationalist reports (e.g., John Sweeney and the Panorama team at the BBC…which I hope to address later), and therefore there is a greater tendency to restrict photographers.
Unfortunately, “they” restrict without really knowing the implication of such restrictions…more criticism from the west. It would seem that if the DPRK government would allow greater access and freedom with the local population, both sides would benefit. Granted, it would be a scary first step for the Kim regime, but I would guess that it would win favors domestically and internationally.
Unfortunately, no such changes are on the immediate horizon and the last thing our guide needs, already with a difficult job, is pressure from above that they allowed unfettered access when it is not allowed. I understand and do accept these terms…as there is still much to be seen, and focusing on the positive results in happiness (and better photos).
Given what I have just written, what is most frustrating, though, are the moments where it does not take much imagination to see a local ‘Pyongyang-ian’ accepting an invite to sit down over a coffee, tea or smoke and discuss life; to understand what lies within their realm, as well as to understand what lies beyond.
That is what I want. That is what I miss.
These political walls of distrust between “us” and “them” are getting smaller, and the access to understanding life in the DPRK is not as difficult as I had imagined. It is inspirational when such moments do arrive, even if it is just for a flicker of an instance.
Most photographers enjoy capturing emotions, to explore the lighting and natural setting that together helps to answer the question “why?” Finding great people by following the flow of the day is wonderful. While somewhat of a futile battle to expect this much in the DPRK, I am not giving up hope as there were true flashes of brilliance in the eyes of many today.
Almost any internet search of photos taken in the DPRK will result in many monuments, statues and propaganda, all of which are fine and interesting, yet it starkly reveals a shortage in shots of the Korean people. I believe an unintended result of this is that it de-humanizes the DPRK population.
Why? Perhaps because the western media refuses to focus on the human aspect of the DPRK, but mainly because the DPRK makes this easy as they keep their population hidden from the world. The largest shock I have experienced in my few days in the DPRK is the wonderful, albeit somewhat stoic, Korean people.
Above: The Arch of Triumph and Below: Film Studio
Crap, I am starting to get political again…and I do not want to. Back to photography.
One of the great joys of ‘street photography’ is the intimate surrounding what a photographer can create. The additional back-story within shooting a scene helps create more interesting and unique photos. While the lack of language skills (and the political scene) makes this effort more difficult, there are still many bright moments.
When the leash is off, and a moment arrives where we can get close to locals…it is impossible not to get a little excited.
The first moment that we had some unfettered time with locals, was at one of the arts and crafts studios. As one of my friends joked, “I think they were as surprised as I was, when we both learned from each other that we did not have claws or maniacal stares as we were led to believe!” Both sides were getting a better taste of each other, and it was pleasant.
My first couple days, all I could think about were the locals and their very stoic faces. I wondered if they had been indoctrinated not to talk to foreigners (as we are the source of their troubles via sanctions and restricted trade).
It was at this art studio where the softer side began to come through. Artists tend to have more of an affinity for human connection, so perhaps that played into the scene and the connections started to click.
As our group worked their way through the studio, I pretty much trailed as doing so made it a bit easier to capture the personality of the artist and work. After the initial unease faded away of a group of foreigners stomping in, I hoped the artist would be more relaxed and open for a connection.
An example is with this painter. As I was carefully shooting, and mentioning a few things to the guide, he surprised both myself and the guide by shyly looking up occasionally and smiling, and finally said something that was translated as: “I hope you like my work, although this is just a simple work, if coming from the soul it can be beautiful.”
This made me feel great, although my poor American wit almost had me reply, “Did you mean coming from Seoul?” but thought better of it and instead I asked him about the colors and if such a beautiful landscape exists in the DPRK. Captain Hindsight agrees that this was the right tack to take.
The painter, and his comment and reactions, reminded me of an artist I knew in China. A great gentleman, and as such, it made this moment much more real. Very sincere.
There were three workshops visited: painting, pottery and embroidery. Each was very impressive, although it was impossible not wonder where the market was for these beautiful items. The answer I received when I asked the question was logical and concise: “they are sold or given as gifts.” It was a natural instinct to try to dig deeper into this reply, but realized the answer was perfect as it was.
The embroidery was amazing…and earlier, when visiting the National Gift Exhibition (gifts given to the Dear Leaders from provinces around the DPRK), on display were some of the most remarkable pieces of embroidery I have ever seen.
The outside of the National Gift Exhibition was very dreary, but it hid some great wonders of work created by Koreans around the country.
On the above photo, one thing that I never really got use to was the pins that everyone wore on the right hand side of their shirts, depicting their ‘Dear Leaders.’ One discussion one night with my traveling companions, we wondered if they truly felt such a genuine emotions for their Great Leaders (a cultish feeling) that wearing the pins were extremely important, or if they were just part of a habit of everyday life and not too much thought went into pinning them on.
I will try to find out as this trip moves forward.
One of the more interesting part of the art studio, was the ceramics and pottery section. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was a potter (ended up working for Gladding, McBean in California on Franciscan ware), and while I wish I had a creative pottery gene in me, I have tried & tried again, but I’m all thumbs.
As the workers practiced their craft, it seemed as it they were in a zone. Very deep in thought, which is why their work was impressive. Yet, it made asking any questions risky, as the last thing you’d want to do is break into their work rhythm.
Later, our guide was disappointed that I hadn’t ask more about pottery, as she too really enjoyed pottery but laughed and said all she could make was a warped plate. I told her all I could make an ashtray…take a ball of clay, slam my fist into it and, voilà, an ashtray.
The other area that shined was the visit to the Pyongyang subway. Granted, it was clear that all foreigners taken to the subway would be herded to the best stations and would ride the best cars (part of the leash again), but still an experience.
On the subway platforms, there was one item that impressed the most and it was the ‘reading stations’ that were set up: a simple newsstand that held eight pages of news that could be read by the local population.
It was an iconic sight, as almost every Communist fueled government that existed at some point had such reading stations, so seeing it here was somehow reassuring. In the 1990s, during my first travel to China, such stations were common everywhere on the streets, and even today they play an important part of everyday use.
Very simple yet majestic.
One reason many Chinese come to the DPRK is to experience a culture that has very similar ties to China’s history under Mao. Throughout the visit to the DPRK, many Chinese were amazed at how similar the society of the DPRK of today resembled “China from 30 years ago…”.
Such thought can give people hope, because tied to these descriptions of the current DPRK society is the idea that the DPRK will evolve sooner rather than later. It is a good bet that China will give Kim Jong Un some very good advice how to transition his totalitarian government into something more transparent with ‘capitalistic’ tendencies.
As for these specific photographs of the reading posts, one man stood out among the rest, as he appeared well read and also appeared, pun intended, as well “Red”, the perfect communist intellectual. As to why he emitted such a feeling, I do not know. Later in discussions with others about Red, they did not see anything special with this person. That is part of mystery and power of photography. It can tell a story from the shooters point-of-view which may makes zero sense from the viewers point-of-view (and vice-versa).
Similar to the way “we” view a certain aspect of the world versus the way “they” view a certain aspect of the world. The ‘correct view’ may be very relative.
As for this man, now named Red, under any other circumstance a street photographer/journalist would be tempted to say hello and ask “what’s in the news today?” and have the conversation carry on from there.
Instead, due to a lack of language and a difficult environment, I took a different route and stepped back and began snapping photographs. It would have been possible to engage the man, and it could have been a wonderful conversation – or a disappointing rebuff. I will never know, as I took the most convenient way out.
Sometimes it is good to push the envelope a bit, and sometimes it is not. Similar, I suppose, to how politics works, when an uncomfortable situation arises…what is the easiest way out? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
One aspect of photography, and any profession I would guess, is that those who keep their emotions in check and move deftly within new environments tend to get the best results.
Regrettably, this was not me on this trip, as I was wondering around with my eyes gleaming and jaw dropped, trying to take in all that was around. There was electricity in the air every day, and it was difficult for me not to just bounce around freely and enjoy the surroundings. This led me to wonder how the population in Pyongyang thought of us foreigners walking around with intrigue permeating from our every breath as we took in the sights of the DPRK culture?
Perhaps sharing similar thoughts as…
No matter where in the world, I am finding out that the hearts of genuine people are everywhere, and long to be touched.
As for Pyongyang, there is a feeling of strangeness just about everywhere (it is the Hermit Kingdom after all), but it also has many great similarities of cities in Asia. It is a city with a beat and culture all its own (the strangeness), but also a city with infrastructure, rush hour, cars and buses that give it the same feel as other cities. It is these very aspects of similarities that also accentuate the largest difference that sets Pyongyang apart: there are fewer people involved.
This attracts me. There are no large crowds, no great hustle and bustle…just life. Just a population waiting for a great spring day when they can all come out in full bloom. And hopefully I will be there, sitting at a coffee shop with a local “Pyongyangian” discussing life and what lies within and outside our realms of understanding.
Posted on June 30, 2013
What lies across the border?
Looking into the DRPK from across the Yalu River (鸭绿江), I was met with a beautiful sight of a bridge from a thriving Chinese society venturing ahead into a shrouded mist of mystery, taking the question of “what lies beyond the DPRK border?” and putting it into physical form.
A perfect scene to contemplate the question: “Why is this enigmatic land hidden from the modern world in blankets of fog and misunderstandings?”
Granted, it was a little after 5:00am in the morning, so if it wasn’t for this photo I would have shrugged off this vision and marked it up as another strange dream, fuel by a little Chinese vodka (白酒) the night before. However, the morning chill and the coffee in my hand were awakening my curiosity as I peered at this scene. It felt as though I was entering a fantasy.
Awake and heading into a new ‘Heart of Darkness‘ as Joseph Conrad once coined. With a few biased expectations in my pocket and a building excitement that either the beliefs I currently held of the DPRK were true, or perhaps there was more to the story that was not visible through the fog.
Speaking of fantasy, little did I know that in my first full day in the DPRK, one of my oldest fantasies would come true: acting. One thing I should state very clearly, if you detest acting, then it is perhaps wise you do not travel to the DPRK.
My reason for stating this is that the DPRK custom is for all foreign guests to show respect for their ‘Dear Leaders’ often in the form of bowing before statues of their likeness. It is my assumption that you may have a different impression of the ‘Dear Leaders’ than your hosts, as I did, and thus the need for acting.
The best example of this is at the Mansudae Grand Monument, a place every foreign visitor must visit and pay respects to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. It was moments like these that I would guess that even Richard Burton would be jealous of my performance. Choose whichever Richard Burton fits your picture…the American actor or the British adventurer, Richard Francis Burton. I’d go with the adventurer.
This moment was not an unexpected one, as paying your “respect” to the great leaders is made clear before you get on the plane. There is no getting around this formality. It is more accurate to believe that you are paying your respects to the Korean people and their philosophy, as Juche and Communism in theory are actually pretty powerful. They just suck in practice.
The process of paying ‘respect’ included bowing and laying flowers at the front of the statue. The bowing I had rationalized and thought no problem, the issue however was that I had thought the laying of the flowers part would be done by a representative, saving us from the charade, but no it was the Full Monty.
I will admit very freely that I did not feel comfortable laying down the flowers, and if it wouldn’t have gotten me in trouble, I would have given those flowers to the first pretty woman I saw (which were many…but I will leave that for another post).
As I mentioned, for the paying of “respect,” the laying down of flowers was the most uncomfortable. Yet, however uncomfortable this moment was, it was matched by the surreal aspect of what is at the heart of DPRK politics.
There is something I do need to mention, because it freaked me out. When I approached these huge statues, I was hit by a feeling of awe. Considering the circumstances, it was a creepy feeling. I was not alone, as I talked with other Westerners about this, and they too had similar emotions. These statues are huge, very well done and with the reverence of the place and people and the lighting, it is impossible not to feel any emotions.
Fortunately, I read a post by author Alec Nevala-Lee quoting Peter Sellars on the affect that the act of “looking up” has on people (http://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/look-up/). I now understood that tilting the head back and up is an act that the body is not accustom to, so there can be a strange sensation. Although in Sellar’s example, he used Michelangelo’s incredible Sistine Chapel…not quite in the same league as the Kim statues.
Still, it was an eerie feeling to have, and I also put this down to the fact that I was in the DPRK. Viewing the statues was the hammer driving the nail home: staring upwards at these behemoth statues within the cultist ambiance of the day. Quite out of the norm for me.
The ceremony at Mansudae Grand Monument did not bother me much and it brought forth a series of introspective thoughts about people and their rulers. There is something to the saying “when in Rome, do as a Roman…” and going through this ceremony of respect in the DPRK (or in any other country) is a necessary step and perhaps the only way to begin to understand the culture.
In the case of the DPRK, ‘being a Roman’ is the only chance to even begin to fathom what goes on in everyday life in this country.
Sure, these required “shows of respect” are a little bit ridiculous for most Western foreigners to stomach, perhaps even becoming more of a joke toward the leaders than respectful, but then again this ridiculousness is a perfect initiation and introduction into this country.
It also gets the wheels moving, wondering just what makes this place click? Coming from my past knowledge of the DPRK (mainstream western media), it seems that the deification of the Kims’ follows a common path of past Communist societies, deepening misperceptions of the government.
Have you ever been caught up in a lie? It started off very small, almost inconsequential, but over time it developed a life of its own.
This is my take on what has happened here in the DPRK: a feeling that this whole place is beginning to catch wind of the secrecy and ‘misperceptions’ of the world beyond the DPRK borders, and it is creating fear within the government. What was once a small innocuous lie has grown too big to manage effectively, and at some point (as with all prevarications) the truth will eventually leak out.
Do not read too much into my next statement, but I believe the initial strength of the North Koreans is quite honorable. The DPRK is built on self-belief, self-reliance and a strong country that did not want to rely on foreign powers. Sound familiar anyone? It is similar to what a group of Americans in 1776 believed in and did something about.
Whether it was under the guise of ‘democracy’ or ‘self-reliance’ is irrelevant, it was a choice of a population. A belief they were willing to fight and die for, as North Koreans wanted something similar to what our revolutionary forefathers sought: a better life. I respect anyone who fights for their freedom to do as they choose.
The problem for me, of course, is that I am not too sure the decision after the war of increased isolation and a government that hides them from the rest of the world is what they bargained for. However, hindsight is always 20/20.
Also, remember at the time, the DPRK had a whole group of countries which to rally with, a standoff between the Communist bloc and the rest of the world, both sides each believing in their hearts that they were correct. Of course, it sucks to be on the losing end and I think that is the reality that the DPRK is having a tough time reconciling. The list is long, and for the most part pretty clear-cut on how this whole thing will end:
Every one of these countries have gone through reform (or are in the process) so it is inevitable, isn’t it? As George McFly would say: “you are my density”, and it appears that reform is the destiny for the DPRK. Question is, when?
As mentioned, history shows a pretty good track record for societies seeking the truth, and if the façade is a false one, the ruling party will crumble…and I imagine that Kim Jong Un is fully aware of the history. Considering Kim Jong Un is young and from reports, intelligent and well versed in the international infrastructure, I think he is the ‘perfect recipe’ to become the idealist leader, who understands it is time to open the DPRK to the international community. I know, it makes me sound crazy, but it is my optimism doing the talking.
From talking with Koreans around the world, the strength of Korean culture is the backbone of the DPRK society, and this is very much respected by the population in the South (politics aside). This is an aspect of culture that is, perhaps at its best, underestimated and misunderstood in the West and as foreigners, we just cannot discard this logic just because we are culturally immune to its effects.
The key in the “coming out” of the DPRK is China. China has the perfect blueprint for transitioning a cultish socity into one ready to contribute to the international community.
Not to get off point too far, but part of the spirit of the DPRK can be seen in the Mass Games celebrations every year. I have watched many of these from afar via video, and they are powerful. Part of me is very aroused by this spectacle, yet I also see productivity of the people being channeled into entertainment and propaganda, when it could be used elsewhere (like production). Then logic steps in and realizes that without any international support, there is little production, no great release for creativity and evolution of a society. It is difficult to have one (high productivity) without the other (free trade and a relatively open society).
By shielding the mass of population of how the world has evolved, the government has kept news regarding the stagnating standard of living away from its population. However, such news is becoming more difficult to control, and while many intellectuals are fully aware of the poor state of the DPRK economy, it gets attributed to UN sanctions and “the imperialistic dogs of the USA.”
To sit and listen to a lot of anti-US propaganda, it is important to realize that it is possible that the local people may hear things that may not be fully accurate (cough, cough). Yet, do not be naive to think it doesn’t go both ways. People on both sides understand that engaging a nation and its people is a heck of a lot better than threats and sanctions…yet here we are.
People are the same everywhere. After a good, hard day’s work, we walk home and live the best life that we can create. Within a normal day of existence, we also end up having to trust those in power to do what is best for our country and us. At times this may be contradictory.
Can a government be somewhat admired for clinging onto values that it once held at the beginning of its existence? Self-reliance and establishing a strong unity within the population is honorable. Perhaps for the first decade(s), there was some respect for the strength of such people, but things have gone pretty askew right now, I guess is a mild way of saying it.
There is a definite fog surrounding the DPRK, and cutting through it will be impossible without the leaders of the country taking their international responsibilities seriously. The actions of the DPRK government seem counterintuitive, as if they are uncertain how to get out from underneath all the deceptions created. Perhaps that is the biggest stumbling block in front of them now. Will they ever be able to legitimize themselves?
Unlike the photo that opened this post (showing the bridge from Dandong China that is the lifeline of trade for the DPRK), the bridge in the above photo is called the “Broken Bridge” brought to you by Gen. MacArthur and his squadron of B-17s and B-29s during the Korean War [edit: John E., has corrected & confirmed that only the B-29 Superfortresses were used]. It has been left as a reminder of US aggression. It serves as a good metaphor for the DPRK government as a whole, clinging onto the past at the expense of its future: a broken bridge is just that, it has very little practical purpose.
Posted on June 28, 2013
The brink of peace? OK, perhaps it is just the absolute stillness of the night, the crisp fresh air (anything is fresh after a few days in Beijing) and a calm that penetrates the dark night that gives me this feeling of ‘peace’. Having just arrived in the DPRK, I am still in a bit of a bewildered state. [FYI: this will be a first in a series of posts written while in the DPRK last week].
I am not sure what to expect, as there does not seem to be anything restless with this calm, nothing but a sense of relaxation. Of course, being from the USA that immediately sets off alarms as we are taught early on that the DPRK is evil (actually an “axis of evil”), so there must be something dark and menacing out there, correct?!? The US media and government never distort the truth, do they? Regardless, my paperwork made it through and I have arrived (although no stamps in the passport…).
♬♪♬♪♫ Moonlight Over Pyongyang… ♬♪♬♪♫ Nice title for a song, and I’d love to be able to write something moving to celebrate the peace and tranquility that rests over this city tonight, and I assume every night. Being a bit ambitious, perhaps a symphony to capture the spirit of people, their hopes, loves and dreams that create such great places as Paris, Hong Kong, NYC and even Cairo. All places where people are allowed to have beautiful thoughts and dreams, and transform them into great works of art.
Why can’t Pyongyang and all of the DPRK one day provide the world with the same? Strange thoughts on my first night, as I admit I am quite skeptical of just about everything the DPRK could offer.
That said, flying into the DPRK and to the capital city of Pyongyang, I was pretty stunned by the beauty of the countryside. A blanket of green consisting of mountains, trees and farmland that left me wondering what was in store for the week as we descended into the city.
With only one evening in the DPRK under my belt, I’m not sure I am qualified to attempt any such eloquence as song or poetry. Perhaps on my way out of the country, inspiration will hit and I can try out my talents on DPRK Immigration officials. For now, the only thing I can offer are my expectations coming in.
Expectations are easy. As I mentioned, I am American and we are pretty much programmed to expect a brutal regime where its citizens will look upon us with some disgust. These days, internationally, that may be par for the course as the US government makes Americans easy targets in the international community. While discomforting, it does emphasize why I love the USA all the more, as freedom should never be taken for granted and understanding the good along with being able to speak freely of the bad makes a true patriot.
Of course, growing more cynical as I get older, I trust all media (and governments) about as much as I trust the Pyongyang Times… A wonderful paper, if you like pure propaganda at its flowery best (it gives the old China Daily of the 90s a run for its money). Something to think about: propaganda machines are just about everywhere (FOX news, CNBC, Pyongyang Times, etc.), whipping up stories with sensationalism to back a belief they want to be taken as fact. Difference here, in the West we have a few more choices and resources to find the truth for ourselves.
Funny thing about the Pyongyang times, in the DPRK a photo or image of the great leader (Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un) must be treated with “great respect.” What does this mean? Well, for example, the copy of the Pyongyang Times that I received on the plane should not be folded in half as it would create a crease on the leader’s face.
The newspaper we were given on the plane were given to us flat, so when it came to putting the paper away, the only way to get around this was to fold the paper in thirds. Pretty easy solution, except when I went to read the inside pages, I had severely creased all the other photos of the “great leaders” on those pages…which upon viewing, the person sitting next to me joked “We’ll see you again in about 10 years when you’re released…” Sometimes, there is just no way out.
Also, another great piece of info to pass on: throwing a newspaper away with the photo of one of the great leaders on the cover is disrespectful as well…so I suppose you will forever see me holding a “folded-in-thirds” Pyongyang Times from here on out.
One person said upon hearing this: “where the heck do they put all the old papers if they can’t throw them away?!?” Good question.
So as I look out onto Pyongyang, I wish for some solitary music, something to catch the spirit of this place. I come up empty. Rather, I can imagine a deep, somber beat of footsteps trudging onwards playing in my mind…music to represent the worry about the life their children may have: uneasiness, with little opportunity for expression. Perhaps it is this silence that I am hearing. Silence like this tends to make men and women fight to create a better tomorrow…although I expect if I mentioned this to one of our guides, they would say “Of course, that is what happened on June 25th, 1950 and we achieve this goal.”
While I have had very little time to get a feel for the DPRK, it does not take a sociologist to understand that there is a chasm between “us” and “them”. A very stoic society, and with all this deification of their Dear Leaders blazing from almost every building and being pushed onto the local population…can they even grasp what “the real world” is like?
With the rain coming down as we came in, I did not see many people out and about, so the quiet, greying weather perfectly matched my expectations on what I would see in Pyongyang. A dull, grey machine that does not have any noticeable human parts. Not to be trivial, but the DPRK does not have the best PR in the States. Whether my feelings will change after a week, who knows? It will be fun to see how I picture this place after a few days, and hopefully the weather will pick up.
As for our hotel, it is actually pretty brilliant. Fills every expectation of a pre-80s Soviet/Communist Hotel: dated, but solid and with a little bit of intrigue. We are staying on Yanggak Island at the Yanggakdo Hotel, also know as the Alcatraz of Fun (via the Lonely Planet guide-book) as foreigners are allowed free rein on the island, just don’t think of leaving the island on your own. Hotel California may be a better name.
Ryugyong Hotel – Still Under Construction
It would have been great to have had the opportunity to stay at the above pictured monstrous Ryugyong Hotel, which pretty much dominates the Pyongyang skyline (the largest building), yet after 36 years since construction began, it is still unfinished. I believe that falls into the category of “white elephant.” It does serve as an example of how the fall of the USSR hit the DPRK hard, crippling its economy and stopping all major construction. Not sure what its future will be, but there are still discussions of the Ryugyong becoming perhaps another ‘Hotel California’, an enclosed enclave for foreign guests.
As for now, I sit at my Yanggakdo Hotel window very tired and smugly admiring my Canon 70-200mm lens. I say “smugly” because technically it is illegal to bring a 200mm lens into the DPRK…nothing like being a little bit of a rebel. Although, truth be told, the worst that could have happened is they would have taken the lens and held it until I exited the country, and I brought the lens specifically as I heard that DPRK customs have been flexible with foreigners bringing in a 200mm lens (I am not that brave, especially with my camera equipment).
As one of my good friends told me: “taking your 200mm lens that is technically illegal to bring into the DPRK…yeah, I can see this is going to be an eventful trip for you…” My final shots of the first day:
Looking west of the Taedong River (right hand side), you have the Juche Tower in its nighttime glory (along with the lights of the Workers Monument and May Day Stadium).
Looking east of the Taedong River (left hand side), you have the Folklore Museum, Kim Il Sung Square, Mansudae Theater and Pyongyang Pavilion and department store.
I would like to imagine that in those well-lit areas of the night, the streets are teeming with people strolling, kids playing and lovers dreaming…but the silence I hear outside makes this thought far-fetched. So the symphony I wish to compose will just lay in my head, waiting for another day. I heard there is karaoke, a casino and bowling alley in the basement of the hotel, so I just may head there instead…
Posted on June 6, 2013
All apologies to Lennon-McCartney for borrowing their line…great song.
For my last post before I head off to the DPRK. To keep consistent with my latest post on the Golden Hour of photography, I have put the below shot as a send off. With this photo, I need to give thanks to our the men & women in uniform who ensure our liberties and freedoms ring strong and true. Thanks for making all this so.
See you at the end of June.