Friday, September 19, 2008

North Korea, part 1

There are moments when I forget I’m in North Korea. I’m sitting in a restaurant looking out at the beautiful mountain scenery, eating Chinese food with foreigners and speaking English. I could be anywhere, but since there is kimchi on the table and I feel completely comfortable, this is most likely South Korea. I am riding on a bus and all around me are gracefully yellowing rice fields, with green mountains on the margins. After hiking in the mountains, I dip my feet in the crystal clear water. Fish begin nibbling at my feet, and next to me are a group of Koreans singing Korean songs, drinking soju and eating grilled meat.

Then something interrupts my musings. The people next to me won’t look me in the eye or answer my questions. The rice stalks are too short for this time of year and don’t look healthy. There are few cars on the street, and not many people either. And I have to accept the uncomfortable thought that there is absolutely no way that I can hike in these mountains alone, or wander around the city, go to the store and buy different kinds of soju, or have an innocent chat with people on the street.

This is the reality of being a tourist in North Korea.
It is a privilege to even be allowed in to this country that has a healthy (?) suspicion of foreigners and the kind of hatred and prejudice they may bring with them. Particularly Americans, with their undercover CIA spies and plots to assassinate the Dear Leader. On top of that, we don’t “behave”: our group doesn’t move together, people are constantly wandering off, taking time to take pictures, asking questions about everything except what our guide is trying to tell them, and not paying much attention to others. We make unreasonable requests – we complain about the cost of everything, and someone wants to go home early to do their laundry. Capitalism and individualism at its finest. Because of this, everything takes twice as long to do. Our tours are cut short. They have to tolerate slips of the tongue, and references to Kim Jong-il being sick (more on this later).

On the other hand, some members of our group get upset with the constantly changing schedule, the way that we are suddenly asked to pay for extra things that we weren’t aware of before, and how we are limited by what we can do or say. We are reprimanded for saying “Kim Jongil” without saying “General” in front of his name; we know (western?) facts about Kim Il-sung that are not recorded in their textbooks; we are subject to boring talks and videos in museums and not allowed to walk around and enjoy the fresh air when we want to. Coffee is not available at every corner. We can’t wear blue jeans.

It is a classic clash of cultures. But for me, having lived in South Korea for so long, it is a strange experience. The language, the people, even the mountains are familiar to me. The hiking trails are maintained in a similar way, the water in the rivers is just as clear here as in Seoul. Except for the slogans venerating the 2 leaders on the rocks.
A government official asks me, don’t you feel like you’ve come home? I don’t know what to answer, knowing he won’t like the answer I want to give to him – yes, it feels like South Korea, or at least the South Korea I have experienced. But no, I’m not sure if Korea, South or North, is my home. So I nod politely, and say the only thing I can honestly say. “Yes, it’s beautiful here.”

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