Part 2 of 2
Rick informs us that there has been a last-minute addition to the itinerary. We’d be the first ever to experience a showing of one of the DPRK’s most famous movies, with the star actor in attendance. If we are interested. We shake off our stupor.
The show is about to begin, but I’ve got to use the restroom. Of course. Miss Kim and I scurry down the marble-floored hallway. We burst into a large conference room, a Mid-century masterpiece. Our giggles echo in the silence. I use the restroom first, and then Miss Kim takes a turn. I wait for her in the empty room. Huge portraits of the Leaders beam down at me. Miss Kim rejoins me. A sigh of relief escapes her, then a giggle. I cast one final glance over my shoulder at the Leaders, at that room so lost in time, and slip out the door behind her. My head spins. Reality ripples and elongates. A funhouse distortion. Unsettling and captivating. They are supposed to be miserable. Bad people. The enemy.
We arrive back at the group just in time to file into the theater and take our seats. I look over my shoulder at Rachel, the Australian guide for the other group. She slouches in her seat and runs her long fingers through her tangled blonde hair. A wave of envy washes over me. Her fierce, amused defiance. She has the best job in the world. Her cigarette raspy voice proclaims, “Those two look like that group Autobahn in The Big Lebowski.” I look where she’s looking. The Latvians walk down her row and take a seat behind me. Rachel and I mimic German voices and lines from the movie.
Mr. Eurovision asks, “Why are you laughing?”
“We both think you look like Flea from The Big Lebowski.”
A look of pure dismay flashes across his face.
I quickly add, “But you’re much cuter than he is.”
Dismay melts into slyness. He leans over and whispers in my ear, “Maybe we can meet tonight and talk about it. You’re hot.”
I sink into my seat, cheeks aflame. He’s young enough to be my son.
The cheesy pickup lines fade away as People’s Actor Cha Sung Chol walks to the front of the theater. He wears a long gray Revolution jacket over dark blue trousers. The female Korean guides giggle like high school girls as they translate our questions. He is their equivalent of Chuck Norris. One of their most famous actors.
Lights off. Order Number 27 is the name of the late 1980's action film. Images flicker across the screen. Gravity-defying stunts and razor-sharp taekwondo moves. Eternal fight scenes. The usual tropes are present. People's Actor Cha Sung Chol is the very picture of honorable hero. A pretty female spy captures his heart. A slick villain. Melodramatic score. Red guerrillas are the heroes. Poignant death scene of the sensitive soldier. And, yes, even some humor. Rendez vous at a swanky bar. Cocktails and jazz. Leisure suits and sunglasses. We groan, cringe, laugh. There is no mention or appearance of the Leaders, only the Party.
The Day of the Sun dawns. The most important holiday in the DPRK. It is the birthday of Eternal President Kim Il Sung. Here, in the DPRK, it is not 2016, but Juche 105. Time began with the birth of the Sun. The gray haze that has enveloped Pyongyang since our arrival has dissipated. We bow, we dance, we drink, we listen and absorb. We ascend. To the top of the Juche Tower. In a square far, far below, hundreds of tiny bodies swarm. Behold the vision of absolute unity.
I circumnavigate the tower, sweeping my eyes across a panorama of hivelike structures. So many windows. So many souls within. Gathered around a screen, rapt faces bathed in the cold blue cathode ray glow. Time for your regularly scheduled programming, dear citizens. Those who control information control perception.
Whatever happened to those who never spoke up in the beginning, while it was still possible? Before the doors slammed shut and the noose tightened. While there were still others hoping for others to stand up with them. Are they still alive? It's been three generations. They must have eventually succumbed. Or perished.
How much of our beliefs originate in our souls and how much is planted in the pure, fertile soil of our young minds? We are conditioned to obey authority, to idolize and emulate the rich and famous. We are certainly not taught that belief is a choice, not an obligation.
How does one even begin to disentangle oneself from a lifetime of manipulation? It's so much easier to turn the responsibility over to a trusted authority. But when that entity turns out to be dishonest. What then? Cognitive dissonance arises to save us, like some twisted superhero of the psyche. It takes an incredible amount of courage to examine one's beliefs. Dive deep into their origins. It's less shameful, less painful to go on believing the lies, rather than admit you were fooled. The betrayal is so profound.
We missed the fireworks, it seems. Too much time spent at the microbrewery. Too many beers consumed. To placate us, we are taken to the square to watch the rehearsals. No sooner do we arrive than a general marches towards us and barks at our guides.
“We must leave now,” Miss Kim says.
Voices blast out of the murk, followed by a procession of marching bodies. A ferocious chant. “Do it in one strike!” I gasp and freeze as they march by, each step perfect in its precision. I turn, with some of the others, and fall into step. And the exhilaration of oneness floods me. We pull ourselves out of the flow and watch, as the marchers are swallowed up by the darkness.
And so it is done. The portal back to our world looms before us. Miss Park and Miss Kim place their soft hands in mine. “Julie! Thank you very much for your respect.”
Miss Park's eyes shine with tears. “Please. Tell people about us. We want to be left alone.”
I bow my head. “I will. I promise.”
I am waved through customs. No search of the memory cards or luggage or body. They are more concerned about contamination from the outside than revelation from that which escapes.
I lower my eyes to the floor, searching for the line I drew. It seems like so long ago now. But it has vanished.
“No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.” – Edward Bernays, Propaganda
***Edward Bernays was an American theorist who is considered to be the “father of public relations”. His 1928 book Propaganda explores the psychology of mass manipulation from the perspective of one who believed in its necessity. The book can be read online at Archive.org
The names of my fellow travelers and guides have been changed.