Part 1 of 2
Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) - April 2016
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.” – Edward Bernays, Propaganda.
Air Koryo flight 252. Beijing to Pyongyang. Cruising level is reached. The in-flight entertainment screens creak open. Long-legged ladies dressed in identical white dress suits perform on a stage. It is Moranbong, the North Korean version of the Spice Girls. It is said that each lady was chosen by Kim Jong Un. On a video screen behind them, his cherubic face looms. He stands on a mountain top, the wind blowing through his hair.
Most of our tour group took the train from Beijing, a 24-hour voyage. Those of us who took the plane are spread around the cabin. The elderly man seated next to me is traveling with another tour company. He is from Denmark. “I wish to see a different perspective,” he tells me during our conversation. His ice-blue eyes sparkle. He furrows his bushy blonde eyebrows. “We only hear our side.”
I smile. “This is why I'm going, too.” My eyes flicker to the video screen. I will leave all of my conditioning behind. I will be like an anthropologist visiting a tribe that has been cut off from the outside world for more than half a century. No judgement. No interference. Just pure curiosity.
Upon arrival, I meet up with my group at the customs line. I am the only woman.
Dan from Oregon shakes his head. “I can't believe I'm in North Korea.”
The others nod, a mixture of exhilaration and apprehension on their faces.
I draw a line in front of us, my heart pounding. “Here we pass into a parallel dimension. Are you ready?”
Their eyes shine in reply. One by one, we step across.
Train and plane groups coalesce. Dan shifts to the group that will stay longer in the country. Our groups will merge and diverge during the journey. Rick, our Australian guide, is all arms and legs and cheekbones. Part supermodel, part praying mantis. He reviews the itinerary with us over dinner. And then acqaintances are made, with dizzying enthusiasm.
We are: two middle-aged Polish men who have visited over a hundred countries in a quest to visit them all; two Latvian dudes, one of whom represented his country in Eurovision; five young Austrians who are here as a grand finale to their Trans-Siberian odyssey; a Canadian father and his son, who has also set out to visit every country in the world; a German couple; a solitary Dutchman; a British couple; a Venezuelan who had once worked as the interpretor for Hugo Chavez; two solo American dudes; and then there is Jane from Toronto. And me. The two solo females.
Up with the sun. Breakfast consumed and off we go. Let’s jump right into it, shall we? Today we visit The Palace of the Sun, The Pyongyang Metro, The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, and Kim Il Sung’s birthplace.
The Palace of the Sun is the most sacred of places. We leave our cameras and backpacks at the reception. A woman pats me down with dainty, gloved hands. She turns my necklace over to check for a hidden camera. After the inspection, the group clusters together. We have made an attempt to dress up, but our clothes are rumpled and we are disheveled. The young Austrians’ jacket cuffs hang below their fingertips. They bought their suits in Beijing. No time for tailoring.
“The Koreans are so perfectly put together,” Jane says. “They must think we’re a bunch of slobs. Then again, they don’t know what it’s like to travel with only a backpack.”
“Or travel at all,” I add.
Miss Park stands before us. “If you do not wish to bow, let me know now. You are not obligated. We ask that you are silent until we after we leave the chambers.” There is no refusal, so she directs us to a moving walkway, which transports us deep into the cavernous structure. We are paraded past paintings of the deceased leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The Sun and the Shining Star. Deeper and deeper and deeper we go, accompanied by images upon images. Every achievement, no matter how banal, is worthy of equal celebration. A source of delight for the Leaders. Behold! Turtleneck sweaters, overhead projectors, ostrich farms. Behold the fruit of the proletariat. The Sun and the Shining Star gaze into the distance, beaming with jubilation. Their hands shield their eyes. The future is so very bright, indeed.
Hundreds of soldiers stream by in the opposite direction. Most of them stare straight ahead. Those who look at us show no expression, but for tear-reddened eyes.
One by one, we step off the conveyor belt. A blast of air shoots up from a floor vent. A final purification. Alex from Chicago is in front of me. The air blows his bushy, waxed mustache straight up. Quick as light, he twists the ends back to perfection. My face reddens. I take deep breaths. Now is not the time to laugh.
We file into one darkened room and then another. The bodies of the Leaders are bathed in a red glow. Their facial features are indistinct, like wax melting in the sun. We line up as instructed, and, when given the order, we bend forward in unison, return to upright, and then stride towards the door. We emerge into a light-filled room filled with gifts from foreign leaders. Medals and other various honors. Even Pope John Paul II had sent a token of his admiration. See?
Jane and I sit next to each other, taking turns at the window. Rick folds himself into the seat in front of us. The bus ferries us through the streets of Pyongyang. Brand new skyscrapers tower overhead. At the intersection, the bus halts. A van with loudspeakers on the roof pulls up next to us. My fingers tighten around my camera. I lean over to Rick. “What are those vans?”
“Those are propaganda vans. You'll see a lot of those.”
“Do they actually call it 'propaganda'?”
“Yep. They call it what it is and are very proud of it. We’re going to a propaganda bookstore today, at some point.”
Miss Park, one of our local Korean guides, looks over at us.
“Can I take a photo, Miss Park?”
She nods. “Please do. You don't need to ask all the time. You can take photos of anything but military.”
I take the photo, then turn to Rick. “We are told photos are not allowed and we can't talk to the locals. There are so many rumors.”
He rolls his eyes. “My favorite is the one about the fifteen state-approved haircuts they are allowed to get. It was all because someone saw a poster in a hair salon of suggested styles. As if you never see those in Western salons.”
The bus jolts into motion. I settle back in my seat. Few will believe anything I say upon my return. It was risky to come here, but not because the DPRK is dangerous. I will be scolded by acquaintances and scoffed at when I share my stories. Some readers will unfollow my blog. An ember of anger ignites within. I owe no one an explanation for being curious. For searching for my own conclusions.
“'Propaganda' in its proper meaning is a perfectly wholesome word, of honest parentage, and with an honorable history. The fact that it should today be carrying a sinister meaning merely shows how much of the child remains in the average adult.” – Edward Bernays, Propaganda
The childhood home of Kim Il Sung. I stand on tiptoes to peer over shoulders into the doorways of the modest home. The table is set. The beds are made. A memory floods my mind. Henry Ford's birthplace and workshop in Dearborn. Thomas Edison's laboratory. The obligatory field trip for all children from Michigan. Two impeccable historical restorations are momentarily superimposed upon one another in my mind.
I turn to Rick and whisper, “Why do most men wear the same jacket? Is it government issued?”
“They can wear whatever they want,” he answers. “They choose not to. The Revolution jackets have never gone out of style.”
Miss Park strides ahead of the group. Face forward. Sharp, precise steps click click click on the pavement.
I scurry forward. She rolls her eyes and quickens her pace.
“I’m sorry you feel you need to avoid me, Miss Park. I’m here to learn about your country, not to criticize it.”
She freezes. The shock on her face melts into a smile. A slight bow of the head. “Thank you for your respect, Julie.”
Night in Pyongyang. Because of the sanctions, electricity is precious. The departed Leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, glow against a backdrop of glittering skyscrapers. Beacons in the darkness.
Fountains dance on the bank of the Taedong River. We pause in silence, lost in our individual reveries. So much to process. A song blares out of loudspeakers. The female voice swells. My heart melts. Even here, there is romance and passion. Tears sting my eyes. A lump grows in my throat. Oh, to love like that! A tall, elegant shadow comes to rest beside me. I turn to her. “Miss Park. This song is so beautiful. What is it about?”
I feel her smile in the dark. “It's about the Party flag.”
Day Two’s agenda: the Demilitarized Zone, dog soup for lunch, and, if we behave ourselves enough to get special permission, the Wall That Does Not Exist lookout. A good part of our group is nursing wicked hangovers, having spent the previous night in the hotel’s subterranean karaoke bar and retro bowling alley.
At the DMZ, we line up and march from site to site, as instructed. And hear their side. Afterwards, we congregate in the parking lot. The Poles, who have remained silent for most of the voyage, join the circle. Marcin says, “It is an interesting comparison to our propaganda.”
I nod. “It’s more antiquated, for sure. Ours may be more sophisticated, but I suspect it will seem much more blatant upon our return to the real world.” I take a deep breath and exhale. “Or maybe it won’t.”
Chris from California narrows his eyes. Words spit through clenched teeth. “What do you mean, our propaganda?”
I freeze and exchange a look with Marcin. I have lived in formerly communist countries for over a decade. The effects of totalitarian society linger, even after two decades of so-called freedom. I have family in Poland. One of my cousins had to flee to Switzerland because he was about to be arrested for handing out anti-communist literature. The Communists didn’t have to patrol or spy on citizens. They only needed to open an office in town and wait for informants to come to them to tattle on neighbors, friends, family. The Perfect Citizen is a most effective enforcer. Peer pressure is more powerful than any law.
I allow myself to speak. “I haven't consumed the media for years. Any media. Even alternative. I formulate my beliefs based on direct experience.”
Chris’ face tightens. “Well, I like to be informed.”
Alex adds, “Don't you want to know what's going on?” His long red curls are pulled back into a ponytail. He strokes his mustache and twists the ends into needle-sharp points.
I shrug. “It depends on the definition of 'informed'. I don't consider listening to self-proclaimed experts and analysts who have an interest, usually financial, as being informed. That's all the news is nowadays, isn't it? Besides, I'm okay with not knowing everything.”
Ah, yes. The narrow-eyed head shake that I know so well.
“I'm not trying to convince any of you. I'm just sharing my views. I don't need, or even want, everyone to think the same way as I do. We all perceive the same thing differently and none of it is false. There is no ultimate reality. No one knows what's really going on.” I scan their faces. Scorn, alarm, amusement. A wave of shame washes over me and my mouth comes to rest. I am part of the problem. I have yet to reach the point where I’m able to speak up and defend the right to my truth.
The bus glides through the countryside. During the long drive, we pass only a handful of other vehicles.
Jane turns away from the window with a shake of the head. “Yes, it’s poor here, but it’s clean. I was just in Bhutan and it’s poor as fuck. And let’s not even mention India.” Her lips curl into a wry smile. Her family is from Calcutta.
“Isn’t Bhutan supposed to be the happiest country in the world?” I shake my head. “I don’t know. The Koreans don’t seem any unhappier than we are, with our constant division and violence. “
Francisco from Venezuela, who is sitting across the aisle, frowns at me. “What are you talking about? That’s a terrible thing to say.”
I shrug. “This is all they know, all they have ever known. For generations. Look at them. Really look at them. I’m definitely not saying this is preferable. For me, anyway. I wouldn’t have made it past preschool here.”
Francisco pauses, stares off for a few seconds, then nods. “I never thought of it like that.”
Into the streets of Pyongyang. I lean my head against the window. My eyes droop. I may not have joined the others in last night’s festivities, but I’m every bit as bleary-eyed and incoherent. But I couldn't doze even if I tried. At night, I toss and turn, my mind a maelstrom. What is real?
I gaze out the window. We pass by squares filled with thousands of people. They are practicing for the parade and mass spectacle for the upcoming Worker’s Congress, the first since the 1980s. It is said Kim Jong Un will officially be named the Supreme Leader.
My vision blurs. Crowds of citizens drift towards home in a synchronized, dreamy shuffle. Muted shades of navy and khaki and brown. Then I see her, striding along in a fuchsia trench coat. A wild rose in an endless field of wheat. I watch until she vanishes from sight.