Surreal in North Korea

by Suzanne Brandt

North Korea was so fascinating I wanted to share it with PAN members. September 2012, we embarked on a trip to China, North Korea (DPRK), and South Korea with a group of Peace Action members. Below is taken from an email I wrote to friends during our trip:

The trip has been extremely eye opening! Everything you do that isn’t expected and is outside of the tight parameters and rules (you sometimes don’t yet know exist), gets reported. Less than 8 hours across the border deep in their country I took an unauthorized photo of a cute house with a fence. An old lady was making soup and her family went crazy. The man chased me and grabbed the phone out of my hand. They are very aggressive! One of the three Minders sent to watch over the 16 of us plus our 4 guides helped me to get the camera back and we deleted the picture but it was reported to the authorities. They are afraid not to report incidents because everyone watches everyone. If you don’t report an incident and someone else does, that could mean camp or demotion of class etc. for the person responsible for you. In this case the Minder that was supposed to be watching me was responsible for my actions. I was told our departure took longer due to this and a few other minor incidents caused by the others when I left the border last night. The sad thing was we were on the street pretty far away and I had a friend from the group in the background of the picture. After the interrogation as to why I took the picture (because I liked the blue border on the brick fence), they shook their heads as to why I would want that picture and the heartburn it caused for all the reasons mentioned earlier. They are very paranoid. Imagine the mounds of paperwork just on all of this policing of people. They would not let us interact with any locals unless it was totally pre-approved with the specific people you are allowed to speak with.

We had a great two days in N Korea. We are back at the China border (on the free side) and feel grateful for our freedom which still isn’t very free compared to what we take for granted every day! We head to Pyongyang via flight first thing this morning where we have to return our phones etc. (They will keep our phones and other electronics at the border in an effort to keep their people from knowing anything about the outside world.) We are heading to the Arirang Mass Games. It is a big deal over here with 120,000 people participating for a fraction of visitors – less than 1,000 mostly from China and about the same amount of locals. Their Great Leader will likely be there tonight as it is their independence day today which means no pictures.

This was just one of many stories. Another time, we pulled up to the factory we were to tour and a huge group had gathered outside the factory for a meeting. We couldn’t tell exactly what it was but initially we could look at them from the bus. Once we started taking pictures, they punished us by driving the bus further up the street and we had to wait until they dispersed. They were trying to figure out what to do with us and who to report it to since we took photos. We were left on the bus without the Minders when they were preparing our arrival. We think it was a normal propaganda and self-criticism meeting where they tell on themselves and explain how they will do better. They say these gatherings are a normal daily occurrence. These meetings also reaffirm how great their country is as well as their Great Leader.

The issue is they don’t want us to have any pictures where they don’t look like a prosperous country and any “unplanned” photos could be used as negative propaganda. Remember, this is the most isolated country in the world.

The factories we toured yesterday all made everything by hand. Assembly lines were filled with women performing their one simple task over and over for 10 hours a day 6 days a week. It was surreal and extremely inefficient, nothing automated about it yet they were so proud, we were allowed to take pictures! They cut all the molds and sew each piece together manually. They also put various labels from “Made in China” to Vietnam to DPR Korea. They know people don’t want to buy anything from N Korea so they switch labels. It is especially difficult to get the trade going post sanctions.

We went to a bustling market (remember, this is a limited economic trade area set up as an experiment and it is illegal to trade outside the (only) black market. We were not able to take photos anywhere in the market which was a shame since there were 8-10 workers for every shopper. I saw where they kept the dogs (a delicacy) for sale. They had been boiled slightly to remove the fur. They looked every bit a dog despite removing the heads.

We crossed back into China last night for the night before our flight back into another area of N Korea early this morning. The border crossing takes over 2 hours each way and you must go through 3 stations getting 3 stamps each way. When we were getting ready to leave, the Minders went through every picture we took so many of us changed memory cards to show only vanilla photos. We were still forced to delete several photos. The border patrol also went through every picture from every camera. They deleted 8-10 pictures on average from each person’s camera. Any picture of Kim Il Jong that missed even a small portion of the statue or mural was considered disrespectful and we were forced to delete them.

We met another foreigner who had to write an apology letter to the government for throwing a newspaper in the garbage of his hotel room which contained a picture of Kim Jong-il. They see it as an offense for anyone throwing a picture of him away. Instead, you must hand the newspaper (or whatever has his picture on it) to someone who will collect it and neatly fold the paper. I don’t know what they do with all the papers since Kim Jong-il is everywhere?! Another person in their group had to write an apology letter for stepping inside the room where the Great Leader was born to get a better photo. They take these shrines very seriously! You can’t even sit on the ledge by a monument or painted mural of him and there are over 20,000 such monuments in the country. Someone in our group sat by a ledge far from the mural and a traffic police from the neighboring intersection blew his whistle and kept waving his traffic paddle until he got up. Everything is so surreal here and there is absolutely no element of choice. All locals must wear a pin of the leader on the left side of their chest and will be written up if they don’t. You can’t buy a pin; you must earn one as a citizen.

The most shocking thing so far was the paintings and painted murals both in the shoe factory and the Middle School where we met with kids. The pictures were all of war and showed the Koreans fighting the US soldiers. They all wore helmets with USA written across the top. We saw everything depicted from children pulling chained US soldiers along and bazookas being stabbed into US soldiers surrounded by the fire to N Korean female soldiers showering fire on a USA tank. This was in an area we weren’t supposed to see in the Middle School leaving me shocked at how friendly and interested the kids were in getting to know us. The other propaganda painting was proudly displayed in the factory with no other art to be found. I snuck up to the second floor of one of the Middle Schools we visited. They had an entire wall with real photos of dead people – the atrocities of the Korean War. I couldn’t read the signs but am sure it didn’t portray the US in a positive light.

We visited a maritime university yesterday and it was all scripted. We never go anywhere until the Minders get the clearance. Everything we saw at face value was orchestrated for our benefit. The problem is they are so far behind the times and don’t even know it so it is awkward. We saw a room full of kids studying but they all looked like they were posing – stuck on the same pages of their notes like they were just re-writing them. The other class showed a maritime docking ship simulation which barely moved. I wasn’t even sure the steering wheel was connected to the cartoonish graphic of the ship.

Last night’s meeting was completely out there! We met all of the heads of Rason. They gave a 90 minute power point presentation on how Rason will look in 5 to 7 years according to them. They have less than 200,000 people now and no cars. Their buildings are small 3-4 story ones. They showed all of the reasons they think this area would be a good investment and explained their 3 largest investments from outsiders – a repaved freeway from the China border to this town (a 2 hour drive) with no expectation in return (other than water rights by their docks for a fee), a casino that sits totally vacant because N Koreans can’t go in leaving such a small possible client base able to visit it, and another one that hasn’t returned a dime of investment yet. The plans for this expanded city look like 8X more people will move into Rason. The graphics look like parts of other RE developments as if someone cut and pasted Miami and Dubai into a graphic to visualize the new plan. There are no cars and really, in most places, no people. They whole thing is surreal!

With a straight face, the key leader lit cigarettes and told us we should invest in Rason! We definitely entered the surreal world. There was a large conference table with the middle cut out for dozens of cheery, multi colored plastic flowers which are the norm everywhere!

At the end of a long dinner, I retreated to my room and tried to sleep on a wooden frame with a 2 inch thick mat. My room was connected to the Karaoke room. I don’t know what it is but all Koreans belt it out to karaoke music as they are confident in their ability to sing. They are the worst singers but they always grab for the microphone. I finally fell asleep with earphones in my ears trying to block the screeches coming from the next room.

Probably the most eye opening experience was when we had been driving all day visiting various rural areas and were 20 minutes from Nampo. A wood burning truck with a load of coal was stopped in the middle of the road. Normally the main roads are very wide (up to 10 lanes for military planes to land if needed because there truly are no cars in this country) but this wasn’t a main road so it was narrow.

The road was impassable with the broken down truck in the middle so our group jumped out and asked if we could push the truck out of the way. The Minders agreed as did the man sleeping in the truck. We pushed and the man couldn’t operate the truck so it crashed into a deep ditch in the middle of a corn field. Luckily no one was hurt but the frame on the 1970’s truck bent and the windshield broke.  Within 2 minutes, several police were there. The most telling thing about their country is both the assistant watching the truck, the Minders, and the police told us to leave immediately. This would be horrible to have an incident involving foreigners. We were forced to leave before all of the villagers came out. Having us there would have completely muddied the report and created exponentially larger issues for them. As it stands, both the assistant and the driver (who was in town looking for repair equipment) probably lost their jobs and may have had to attend re-education camp for a week or two despite doing nothing wrong.

What I find incredible is that I can get reported for taking a photo of something I shouldn’t but it is perfectly okay to push a huge truck into a ditch and leave without any responsibility as if the incident didn’t exist. We really struggled with that. The men who were in control of the truck could never in their lifetime afford to buy the truck though no one owns a vehicle. It is not allowed as only the government owns vehicles or property for that matter.

Having said all of this, I do believe they are going to open the country up to capitalism in some controlled fashion. Kim Jong-un just got rid of the top Military putting himself in charge and rid the government of his Dad’s leaders. They are also talking about letting farmers keep some amount of surplus over the quotas they have to produce for the government.

We also visited a university allowed in by the government. It was founded by an American Korean and Americans are paying for it. We went to speak to one classroom studying capitalism (they all want to learn about it despite it being illegal to have any type of capitalism outside of the special economic area of Rason). I picked up a book and it had all American companies from Blackstone and EBay to Disney with case studies and pictures of the leaders of these firms. It was a very strange text book – almost as if someone copied several articles from Forbes magazine.

When I asked the college students what area they wanted to visit, they individually said they hadn’t thought about ever leaving N Korea even for a visit. These poor people have no confidence to even speak up in an isolated setting. They are afraid to even dream of a better life. The brain washing and indoctrination is incredible.

The DMZ was also very interesting! We saw it from the North and South. The South was surprisingly very uptight and wouldn’t let us take photos of their building or sit in the chairs in the neutral room we had just been in days before – sitting in those same chairs taking photos we now were no longer allowed to photograph.

There were millions of mines in the 4Km neutral zone and the S Korean/ US soldiers had to wear sunglasses to avoid irritating the N Korean soldiers. The N Korean soldiers would taunt the S Korean soldiers by making faces and pointing then report the incident if the S Korean soldiers reacted. They are always reporting incidents which are costly and a waste of time to address so they wear sunglasses to avoid interaction. Both soldiers guard their area and the separation is a 6 inch high, one foot wide concrete curb so they truly are right beside each other.

We also toured the tunnels the N Koreans made to invade post the 1953 Armistice agreement. They denied the 4 large and long tunnels in which 30,000 troops can pass through per hour. They tried to say the tunnels were abandoned coal mines. They painted the tunnels to look like coal. The problem is there was no coal nearby and the direction of the tunnel boring proved it came from the North. A defector working on the tunnels alerted the S Koreans to these tunnels. They know of at least 4 long tunnels.

Overall, the experience was incredible with a great group of YPO’ers from 9 countries. We are planning Iran for 2013!