Day 10 (23 April 2016)
It was way too early in the morning, and I knew this because there was almost no one around in the hotel when I came down to the lobby. Even the reception was unmanned.
I went to speak to the only person I could find at the lobby, the doorman. I dragged my luggage towards him and I could see that he was getting a panic attack. I had no doubt in my mind that he thought I was trying to flee the hotel.
But I only wanted to leave my luggage at the lobby before I went up to the breakfast room and I could not just leave it there without telling someone. After lots of pointing at my luggage and some gesticulations, I left my luggage near the doorman and went for my breakfast.
The ride to the airport was sombre. There was nothing of that cheeriness of the day I arrived. Actually I was a little sorry that my tour had ended but mostly happy that I was finally leaving the restrictiveness of this strange country. Throughout the last four days of part 2 of my tour, I just could not help feeling a little tense about being alone and escorted around by so many people almost everywhere.
E my male guide said that he hoped to see me again “next year”. I could only reply with a little laugh although he seemed serious about it. I honestly do want to see the rest of the country especially its almost mythological Paektusan. However I am not sure that I want to go through that feeling of being guarded the whole time again.
I finally saw my passport again just before checking in for my flight. My visa was gone of course. I do wonder why I was not allowed to retain my visa since as far as I could tell there was no sacred image on it (besides my own face).
There was that last niggling concern I had before I left the country. I was a little worried about whether they would do a thorough check on my possessions again like how they did when I came in. M, the elderly American gentleman from part one of my tour, had told me that he was told by someone who had been to North Korea that the checks at departure would not be thorough. The onus of ensuring that visitors toed the line while in the country was wholly on the guides and not customs.
I was not worried about being caught with items I should not have taken. I was however worried about being caught with photographs I should not have taken. My blood ran cold at bag scan when the officer in charge told me to wait and uttered “equipment check”. I took it to mean that he would be checking my equipment. But it later turned out that he was referring to his equipment.
I waved my final goodbyes to D and E my guides and went into the holding area. I felt a little sad to say goodbye to them. I think I was getting quite fond of them.
A bus transported us to the plane. A group of middled-aged Japanese people (I heard them speaking Japanese to each other) was on the same bus and I was surprised to see that they were all wearing the sacred party pin. I wonder if they were Japanese residents of Korean descent who had just finished a visit to their ancestral home. Did they support the Kim dynasty for otherwise why would they be allowed to wear the sacred party pin?
On the plane, I sat next to another tourist. I noticed her Malaysian passport and I started talking to her. I was really happy to finally meet someone who spoke like me after so many days in a strange land. The lady was on a grand tour of China and Korea with her friends. She had already been in China for about a week before crossing over to North Korea. She would spend a few more days in China and then head to Seoul.
One good thing about visiting North Korea is that they do not stamp passports. That way no one will ever know if someone has ever been there unless he offers the information. This made things very easy for the Malaysian lady who was going to be in both Koreas within the span of a week.
Just as it was done when I entered North Korean airspace, an announcement was made as we were crossing the Yalu River. And then in a flash I had left North Korea.
This was the strangest trip I had ever taken. I had by then been to quite a number of countries but nowhere had ever been like North Korea and I suspect that I will never go to another country like it. Since this is such a special country I want to put on record some thoughts I had during my visit before I forget them.
Kim Jong Un only has one sibling, his sister.
Yes, that appears to be the official position. M had tried asking A, our female guide in part one, about Kim Jong Un’s siblings. A insisted that he had only a sister.
I am quite sure that A knew about all the rest of the Kim brothers but for reasons unclear to me was not allowed (at least not publicly) to acknowledge their existence.
As is widely known, facts in North Korea are mutable and dictated by the government. A ‘fact’ is always presented, if it can be presented in the first place, in a form that the government thinks is good for king and country (and likely in that order of precedence).
Presenting facts in a purposive way also often entails blocking access to certain information, especially if such information contradicts the story that the country wants to tell. So for example tourists will never get to see the abject poverty that very likely exist in the countryside. In fact we believe that this is kept far from the routes that tourists are taken down so it will never be seen by foreigners. We might have encountered people from the countryside along the highways but they never looked emaciated. In any case foreigners were kept very separate from most North Koreans. The locals on their part seemed to know that they had to leave us alone.
The North Korean authorities probably provided their tour guides with a standard FAQ to help them handle certain questions from foreigners. The types of responses to such questions that I had encountered ranged from interesting but unconvincing ones to the peremptory “we do not talk about these things”. When M asked why we could not wander about on our own, A remarked that it was for our own good since we might get lost and the locals could not speak English. When M on another occasion asked what the job of Kim Jong Un’s sister was, A replied that they “do not talk about these things”. And if all else failed, there was the awkward silence to fall back on.
I am pretty amused with the attempts to convince foreigners of certain things. Take for example this publication made available on the flight home. The publication was in English and so I trust was catered to tourists. There were the usual articles praising the country and its leaders but a particular one about South Korea aroused my interest most. It spoke about the terrible shape of the south’s economy and provided figures to show that it had a massive unemployment problem.
A person without some basic knowledge of South Korea might actually believe in what was written. It was that well-written. But did the writer really think that foreigners would believe him? On the other hand, there is some likelihood that the writer really did not know what the south was truly like but considered the south from afar and through the lens given to him from young by his great leaders.
Despite the different attitude towards truthfulness in the country however, I think that it will be unfair to say that every North Korean person who changes the truth do so out of ill will. In fact they must believe in good faith that they are doing the right thing for the good of their country. It bears remembering that North Koreans have been brought up and live in a far different reality than the rest of the world.
One of my conversations with E on my last night somehow strayed to Japan. Of course we could not help but talk about World War Two. The North Koreans will not let people forget that they had been occupied by the Japanese for 45 years.
But E said something else that stunned me. He said that Japan should never have been allowed to exist.
Throughout my tour, I sensed that North Koreans still seemed to believe that they were being threatened by almost everyone in the world with America as the leader of the gang of bullies. At the moment even their ally and benefactor China no longer seemed as supportive of them. It was almost like they believed they were existing in a “The World versus North Korea” global order.
This insecurity seemed to me to have started at least at the beginning of the 20th century when the Japanese came along, occupied Korea and started to eliminate Korean culture. Unlike the other former Japanese occupied countries however, the bitterness never left the North Koreans. Of course China and South Korea are today still taking Japan to task for its wartime atrocities and refusal to properly acknowledge and apologise for them. However this probably stems now more from a sense of outrage than victimhood.
Then when the Koreans were finally freed from the Japanese the Korean War followed soon after. It made good political sense for the communists to blame the Americans for the devastating war and all of its after effects, and to continue blaming them to this day. I suspect the fact that the Americans were aided by several other countries during the Korean War helped to influence the North Koreans’ perception that the world was against them.
North Korea follows a policy called “songun” which means “military first”. It became official policy after Kim Il Sung’s death but had its roots when Korea was fighting the Japanese in the 1930s. Under this policy the military is accorded greater importance over other sections of North Korean society. Songun is today a guiding principle in government together with juche.
One possible reason for the establishment of songun is the country’s perception of its own insecure position in the world. The insecurity was also bolstered by various crises that happened to the country in the 1990s, e.g. the fall of the Soviet Union and then the famine a few years later.
The North Korean government probably prefers to maintain the national insecurity. They do not seem to be doing anything now about that insecurity anyway except to perpetuate it. I am not sure if everyone in government still truly believes that the country is under siege but the people in power definitely appear to be milking the insecurity for all its worth.
Another possible reason speculated for the adoption of songun as a policy was that it was all part of Kim Jong Il’s plans to secure his power. The most important position that he had held just before his father’s death was in the military and so he needed the military to help him when his father died. If this reason is true then it was a very successful use of the country’s feelings of insecurity for political gain since the military could attain primacy only if the country felt a great need for protection.
Socialism (or perhaps totalitarianism) may be the skin and muscle of North Korea but everything else about the country remained traditional Korean. The world appears to only know about the North Korea with its strange politics. But peel all that away and one gets a North Korea that is mostly what it has been for centuries.
The country’s traditionalism actually explains how the Kims have been so successful in cultivating and maintaining their cult personalities. I never thought of this until M made a remark about how Koreans had previously been just as deferential to their kings. In ancient China the emperor was regarded as the son of heaven and had mandate from heaven to rule the land. The Chinese emperor’s status was therefore practically divine. I am quite sure that the Korean philosophy on the status of monarchs cannot be any different from the earlier mentioned Chinese philosophy.
It is very important to see that the North Koreans are a lot more than what they are often portrayed in the media. They are not just communists. They are Koreans first.
I had always believed this and I think the trip confirmed it. North Korea is the safest country in the world to have a holiday in.
How can it ever be unsafe? Everything is carefully planned for and monitored. Tourists are accompanied by special ‘bodyguards’ at all times other than within the safety of their hotels. In any event I am very sure that any North Korean who wishes to commit a crime against a foreigner will be swiftly and brutally dealt with. We must remember that having a foreigner become the victim of a crime means a serious loss of face for the country.
There is no safer holiday destination in the world than here, although the safety comes at the cost of personal freedom.
Before I embarked on this trip I was warned by several people that I might be wrongfully arrested on some false charge. This was especially true to them in light of the Warmbier incident that had happened shortly before my trip. But even the North Koreans need some real cause to incriminate an ordinary foreigner. Detaining a foreigner unnecessarily is very bad business and the country is doing tourism in the first place to earn much needed foreign money.
I met a friend for lunch after I had returned home. He was brash and had strong opinions on just about everything. We of course chatted about my trip and he jokingly asked if I was finally convinced about the greatness of the North Korean system. Had I become one of them?
Like most people, my friend was very against the North Korean regime. That was perfectly reasonable to me. But he could not understand why anyone would visit a country that was “fake”.
He was of course referring not only to the fact that North Korea tends to have different beliefs about the truth, but also the prohibition against ordinary North Koreans interacting with foreigners. As for the tour guides who are specially trained and assigned to take care of tourists they are undoubtedly approved by the system and invariably members of the more privileged class of people. How representative can they ever be of the country?
I remember my friend had just been to Bangkok at the time and enjoyed himself at the clubs and bars. He loves talking to people and one of the things he always tries to do is to find people at the clubs and bars he visits to talk to. He feels that he is learning about the country from these people. But what percentage of people in Thailand visits glitzy clubs and bars in Bangkok? Are they representative of the country?
The fact that North Korea keeps getting bad press seems to colour people’s perception of the country’s ordinary citizens. However all decisions for the country are made by a very small group of people, if not just one man, and the general populace never has anything to do with them. It is like reading about the existence of racism in some country, which happens rather frequently lately, and deciding that that entire country is therefore racist.
I also noticed, from conversations with people or online articles, that there is a pervasive belief that North Koreans are “brainwashed”. The TV footages of mass public lamentations that ensued from Kim Jong Il’s death definitely did nothing to improve that image. Indeed during my tour I noticed that North Koreans always spoke as if nothing could ever get accomplished without their great leaders.
Nevertheless, while the psyche of North Koreans may be incredulous to us outsiders, we simply cannot forget that they live in a warped and highly isolated world. The North Korean mindset is but a product of this world. It is so highly condescending for one to describe North Koreans as “brainwashed” merely because their way of life is not agreeable to him.
Another common strange belief is that everything a foreigner sees in North Korea is staged. I have to agree that certain things may be staged. That is part of information control I think. But even in Pyongyang the showcase city people do not live scripted lives like in some Truman Show. The North Koreans’ reality may seem unreal to outsiders, but that does not therefore make them or their lives unreal.
In fact, ordinary North Koreans are no different than most people in other parts of the world. They are like us making the best of the situation that they are in and trying to live their lives the best way they can under the conditions and within the confines of their environment. I will always remember my conversation with A about her two children and the pride on her face and in her voice as she spoke about them. She sounded exactly like any proud parent in any part of the world.
We need to give North Koreans back their humanity. Their reality is dictated by the environment they live in and they have no choice in where they live. Their government may treat them like statistic, but we ought to know better. Even if we cannot reach out to them directly and help them, and no matter how much we despise their leaders, we must at least regard them with respect.