Well, here I am. I am back from the enigmatic North. It was truly an amazing experience and I am so glad that I was able to go and be a part of a team who offered hope and made a difference in a few people’s lives. Being one of the most closed countries in the world, we don’t get a lot of first-hand information about North Korea. We hear bits and pieces and we try to fit them together to create a full picture of this mysterious place. I had a lot of presuppositions before heading up there and some of them were spot on. Others, however, were very different. So, I feel it is my responsibility to let you know what I was able to witness. Please join me in a little game of “North Korea: Fact or Fiction”.
1.There are no cars on the roads. Fiction. In Pyongyang (the capital city), there are a lot of people with cars. There are nice, new green and yellow taxis, sparkling clean Lexuses and BMWs, and a good number of average-looking cars. There are a handful 50’s era vehicles as well as a good number of military transports but they are not the only ones on the roads. Granted, their traffic problems are not going to equal Seoul’s any time soon but the images I have seen of ghost town streets just aren’t accurate.
2.There is no electricity outside of Pyongyang. Fact. Yes, the satellite pictures you have seen of North Korea at night are correct. On more than one occasion, we had to travel several hours outside of Pyongyang and drove back at night. As my grandmother used to say, “It was blacker than the inside of a cow, kid.” No houselights, no streetlights, nothing. Even in the capital city, I noticed that people were accustomed to keeping flashlights with them and would pull them out if they were walking after sunset. I had hoped that so little light pollution would allow for some pretty spectacular stars at night but I guess the air quality (pollution from North Korea but also blown in from China) keeps you from seeing much at all.
3. The landscape is barren. Fiction. I had read that in North Korea, trees had to be cut down to serve as firewood, which resulted in a sparse, balding landscape. This couldn’t be further from the truth, at least where we traveled. I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful scenery everywhere we drove. Vegetation was everywhere, carpeting the rolling hills and lining the lakes and rivers. Being spring, the flowers were in bloom and purple lilacs brought color and fragrance to the verdant backdrop. I found our drives to be very picturesque.
4. Propaganda is everywhere. Fact. This is an enthusiastic yes. Propaganda has been painted, posted, carved, and erected everywhere. Even when you think that you are in the middle of nowhere, there in a field is a giant sign encouraging you that agriculture makes the Fatherland strong or that we should all do it the Korean way. In every building we entered, slogans were pasted everywhere offering all kinds of “encouragements” about how to live and whom you should thank.
5. North Koreans live in total isolation from the rest of the world. Fiction… kind of. For this question, it depends on who you are. If you are Mr. Kim working in the fields in the countryside day in and day out, you are pretty much isolated. For those in Pyongyang, however, there is access to a lot of information. Our minders held many conversations with us about current events and American movies. Our hotel rooms had televisions that had several channels including a Singaporean news station and an American movie channel. As far as I could tell, the news didn’t seem to be censored, either. We saw updates about North Korean nuclear tests and I watched a documentary about the families from North and South Korea who were able to meet for a weekend a little while ago. I know that the vast majority of the population doesn’t have access to the outside world (this has a lot to do with #2 as well) but information is getting in.
6. The Kims are everywhere. Fact. By the Kims, I mean The Great Leader, the Generalissimo, and The Great Chairman themselves, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un. The Great Interior Designer (whoever that was) must have been inspired by 1984. The Kims’ faces are plastered everywhere in order to see everything. Every household has the two older Kims’ faces hanging in their living room. I know because as soon as the electricity came on in the city, you can look in and see four creepy eyes staring back at you with their plastic smiles. Giant murals show the fat, happy Kims encouraging the North Korean people to do it the Korean way and party members (read: everyone) sport a lapel pin with the face of either the two deceased Kims or the current Kim. I imagine the current Kim will get a few more murals painted with his face encouraging you about the Fatherland in the not-so-distant future.
North Korea is a fascinating and complicated place. I don’t pretend to understand its complexity after having visited for just a few days but these are a few of the things I observed. Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and prayers during my time there and I am grateful to be back home!