North Korea 2008 – Prologue: That Famous Big Brother Feeling
Tagging a trip to North Korea onto the end of the Beijing Olympics made sense, and was surprisingly easy to do. As foreigners were not allowed to book or organise their own travel to ‘the world’s most secretive state’™, it was merely a matter a handing over money to an official travel company and accepting that a tour group was my only option. Handing over money truly does provide access; the problem is having enough, and in this case, I could afford a place in a group of around 30, mostly from Britain, and with no Americans allowed (literally, as Americans had to travel separately).
The following paragraphs relate to North Korea as it was during my visit in 2008, as rumours of Kim Jong-il’s stroke surfaced. In the broader world, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were collapsing as bankers and lenders far removed from Pyongyang got more than careless. Of course, North Korea has certainly changed since then due to time and the succession of the third Kim, Kim Jong-un. Nevertheless, the writing is described as the recent past because the purpose is travel writing rather than historical memoir.
Prologue: That famous Big Brother feeling
The greatest concern many visitors have in visiting North Korea is that the government is monitering everyone and will gladly abuse human rights. Dwelling on a location’s negatives is not necessarily constructive, but the proverbial elephant in the room should be addressed prior to all else because it is a pretty large beast.
For overseas arrivals in the country a tour guide is mandatory, and the near silent individual watching said tour guide in our group felt a little secretive. Whereas Mr Kim, our guide, was an open, positive and warm presence as he showed us the heres and theres, Mr Lee was quiet. The only moment I can remember him outwardly expressing himself was coming into the stadium toilets to round up people who had been absent too long. He is probably a delightful man once one gets to know him, and certainly a touch of paranoia came from our side, but it was difficult to ascertain exactly what Mr Lee’s job was beyond monitoring chaperone.
The presence of Mr Lee highlighted an important basic truth that visitors soon realise: the people treading most carefully in a group are the guides themselves. Mr Kim and the young Ms Kim were both excellent, especially in a job requiring a level of mental gymnastics whenever politics or an outlandish official story created an awkward moment. This was especially true of Mr Kim, who was less enamoured with the nationalist cause than Ms Kim. How an individual with common sense reacts when a site guide gives the official spiel and nobody listening believes a word involves skilled navigation. To be fair, nobody in the tour group was pigheaded enough to push him to justify himself or the words of others.
Rules, conversely, have no empathy. North Korea has some strict ones, but admittedly it was not particularly onerous to live within them when days were spent simply being shepherded between spots. It would be difficult to start a revolution because the only people listening would be other Brits, and there was no disseminating technology at hand. Mobile phones were handed over when entering the country, as expected, leaving only cameras. These were checked during a two hour stop on the China border when leaving, but officials were more curious about less exotic travellers, checking some Koreans’ luggage on the platform. Limits within the day trips were relaxed enough to be akin to ‘as long as we know where you are’ – for instance, it didn’t much matter where you stood in Kim Il-sung Square, as long as you were there.
The exception to this was the hotel, where guides have less control, and it is surely no coincidence that this was where the Otto Warmbier tragedy began seven years after our visit. The 21-year old guest was accused of drunkenly attempting to steal a propaganda poster from the second floor and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour. The North Korean authorities released him after 15 months in an unexplained coma from which he never recovered. It was in the hotel that some liberty was granted and then punished in a horrific way. Ultimately those concerned with safety on North Korean tours could consider that it is the space when given most freedom in which risks grow.
Finally, it is worth acknowledging that there are moments of protocol that are certainly used for propaganda. For our group this amounted to two instances within the week, both fortunately on the same day. Firstly was the obligation that one of the group be recorded laying flowers at a statue of Kim Il-sung, a task for which I volunteered. Everyone had been informed to bring smart clothes for this occasion, although looking rather unshaved and wearing a $5 tie I must look rather scrappy on the footage. In the afternoon, all were brought to Kumsusan to join the line walking past Kim Il-sung’s embalmed body. These moments feel like being political pawns, but in truth we have no idea where the footage went (bar a brief appearance on a purchasable DVD) and most people assess the moral compromise weeks before entering the country.
Such compromise does not appear in the rest of the daily actions on a North Korean tour. On one section of bus travel Mr Kim said there are good people in any country who simply want to get on with others, and it is fair to say he himself proved this. This was an element I took away from visiting North Korea, in that the guides, the restaurant staff, the shop workers and the few others we were permitted to encounter were decent individuals born into a bigger, harsh game. I could not speak to their education or political views, or what they spoke of us away from earshot, but most people are not loons until nationalism becomes involved. Suspicions of the North Korean apperatus do not need to translate into bitter views of average North Koreans.