Nov 01 2009

School in the DMZ / Yankees in North Korea / Potemkin picnickers

by in Asia, North Korea

Over the past few weeks there have been several interesting articles about North Korea. The first, “Soldiers, Mines and Sounds of Children Playing” is actually about the South Korean Taesung Elementary School, the only school inside the Korean DMZ.

Kim Han-seul, a fifth-grader, attends a most unusual school. Each morning, his school bus picks him up at a bustling town outside the Demilitarized Zone that separates South and North Korea. It drives through wire fences, tank traps and military checkpoints along a road flanked by minefields.

After a 50-minute drive escorted by a military jeep with a blue United Nations flag, the bus unloads Han-seul and a score of other students at Taesung Elementary, the only school inside the Korean DMZ, a heavily armed no man’s land guarded on both sides by nearly two million troops facing off in an uneasy truce.

The second article is from NPR’s Louisa Lim, who spent five days in North Korea and basically had the exact same itinerary as my tour group. In this article she details the DPRK’s misrepresentation of history at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the USS Pueblo and interviews U.S. tourists who were visiting the country while she was there:

For those few American tourists — about 300 so far this year — who visit the Hermit Kingdom, the experience can be discombobulating. The Americans are segregated from other tourists, even at mealtimes, and often feel they are given a hard sell on the evils of American imperialism.

Scott Nguyen from California said the message was clear.

” ‘You evil capitalist swine pig. You screwed us over, and you’re continuing to screw us over. If I had the opportunity, I’d punch you right now.’ That’s really the feeling that I got,” he said, adding that even after leaving North Korea, he was still feeling the effects of the relentless barrage of propaganda.

“In some sense, I have to retrain myself to call it United States of America, and not Imperialist America, because that’s all we heard,” he said.

But Frank Cruise from Detroit, who was in the same tour group, said he hadn’t felt any personal animosity against him.

“Maybe some people were more suspicious than others, but I liked the people very much,” he said.

I dunno, maybe they had different rules in place after our group left, but the part about Americans being segregated from other tourists is false. Yes, there were no non-Americans in our tour group, but that was only because other nationalities are not as restricted as Americans (i.e., you can stay for longer than five days and take the train out of the country rather than fly). All tour groups, American or not, eat breakfast in the same banquet hall, and when we were confined to our hotel for the night we hung out with plenty of non-American tourists.

As for the experience, yeah, it’s quite “discombobulating” as she puts it, but I didn’t personally feel any animosity from the North Koreans we interacted with. Or at least I didn’t get the impression that they wanted to punch me (who knows, maybe they did, but they certainly put a smile on their face while they fantasized about it). Rather, it seemed to me that the long-winded speeches on U.S. Imperialism were basically lines that the guides had memorized and were required to recite at various points throughout the tour. There was no emotion behind the speeches. I was amused when, during our trip to the DMZ, one of our guides actually apologized ahead of time that the North Korean officer would be using the phrase “U.S. Imperialists” several times. The propaganda videos, museums filled with artifacts from wartime exploits that never happened, and anti-U.S. rhetoric never affected me because I knew it just wasn’t true. It was just depressing that the entire populace was being lied to.

The third article “Picnic in North Korea” describes another tourist’s recent trip to North Korea and her suspicion that the picnic of joyous locals was staged:

To get to the beach, you walked a path where a young boy sat painting a picture of the waterfall — it was almost too picturesque. The locals had spread out a feast of kimchi, bulgogi, mounds of fat purple grapes, cold bottles of beer. Soon some of the picnickers were cheerily exhorting us to join them, even picking up food with chopsticks and depositing it straightaway in people’s mouths. Beer was poured; songs were sung. It was the first time I’d seen North Koreans smile wide, toothy grins.

After a while the tour guide sauntered over and reminded us that we weren’t supposed to talk to locals. She didn’t sound convinced of her own words. I suddenly started to see everything anew. Why were the picnickers here in the middle of the workday? Why was their food, those perfect pyramids of fruit, untouched before they pulled us over? Even the boy; I peered at his easel as I walked back and saw he was using a kind of paint-by-numbers kit.

This article was rather timely, as over the past few weeks I’ve had several friends ask me if our “impromptu dance party” with the Pyongyang picnickers was really that impromptu. My gut feeling is that it wasn’t staged (and there were several big differences between my experience and Ms. Lee’s), but truly I just don’t know. I suppose the government could have rounded up hundreds of its citizens, placed them in a park with food and drink, and instructed them to be hospitable to the group of 16 unimportant American tourists who would soon be walking through the park. I certainly wouldn’t put it past the regime. But then again, we’ll never know.

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