Last week I posted a bunch of fun stuff about North Korea (Yeah, I’m obsessed). This week I interviewed an American who travels there annually for the Philly Post named Ray Cunningham. The interview is really interesting. However, due to space and time considerations, we had to leave out part of it. I thought I’d post below. Also thought I’d post a few more cool photos Ray took while he was there as well (You can check out all of his North Korea photos here). I really think North Korea is the most fascinating country on earth, and the more I read and learn about it, the more intrigued I am. It’s really the last bastion of Stalinism (though there is a tremendous black market in North Korea apparently, just as there was in Soviet Russia). So for people my age who were in their teens when the Berlin Wall came down, and can never understand the fear that our parents had for communism, it serves as an example of what people feared of a repressive communist regime. That said, like anywhere else, the story doesn’t begin and end with political ideology. In fact, the real story here is how people have adapted to their lives in such a political system. I had a few more questions for Ray that were more about his personal experiences and less about general travel there. I think you’ll be interested in his answers.
Most Americans have a view of North Korea through the lens of the Cold War, the Korean War, the media, and the North Korean media projection of themselves. What they know of the inside of the country is nothing – save for a few photos of a strange leader, goose stepping soldiers, and a missile launch. Korea pulled up the draw bridge and went into isolation so everyone is to blame for this.
To understand North Korea is to first understand Korea. What you are seeing is not Communism but a form of Confucian extremism. We stopped the bus one day on a rural farm road to use the bathroom which turned out to be a corn field and on the road was a sign. The propaganda banner read “We do things the Korean way.” I questioned our Worker’s Party of Korea member on the bus about what this meant. After being enslaved by the Japanese and freed by the efforts of Kim Il-sung the Korean people won their freedom and they must make their way in the world under their own efforts and with their own means. They want a country that gives them the right “to be Korean.” This regime has more to do with the Koryo dynasty of the past than Karl Marx. Another thing to remember is that the Koreans are fiercely nationalistic – a response in part to being oppressed by the surrounding nations. Isolation, nationalism, an ideology of self-reliance (Juche), and a view of the past (right or wrong) of what a Korean state should be has led to a nation state very different from anything on the planet. Studying Korean culture is the first step in understanding why things are the way they are in North Korea.
This is not to condemn Korean culture. The Korean diaspora worldwide is one of hard work and success. The Republic of Korea rapidly moved into the world community and there is no reason to view a unified Korea as anything but a successful and prosperous country.
If North Korea was some mountain kingdom in the Himalayas where the founding deceased king was worshipped with eternal devotion and his son, the prince, was followed you might find it quaint. With red flags, parades, tanks, missiles and nuclear weapons it is much less desirable.
The one thing that has surprised me was how friendly people are. The Korean people we meet are genuine and friendly. One might think they would be angling for a gift or a favor as people often did in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. This is not the case. The contrast in their lives and ours is so startling that we cannot help but leave a flashlight, batteries, soap, food or something practical for them to have. One man was fascinated with a glow stick that I was using on a road at night and I gave it to him. The Koreans love to look at our technology items and it is not surprising that iPods are the item most left by tourists in North Korea.
What was the most interesting thing you did while in North Korea?
Most all of the activities that we do as tourists are arranged and choreographed. As much as the North Koreans try sometimes things do not quite go as planned. It was a busy summer season in Pyongyang and the number of foreigners in town was quite high and the available hotel rooms were full. Our group was taken to a hotel in a smaller town that was obviously not used for westerners. This town was what I would call “the real North Korea.” Tourists do not often get to see how people live in the smaller towns and this was a valuable lesson. Music and propaganda blared from loudspeakers until 11pm. At 5am the speaker began with the national anthem and propaganda. “Be sure to keep the Dear Leader in your thoughts today” was one part of the message. It is fascinating to see glimpses of the society that others do not see. At other locations we had to haul our water or live in the dark. To see the society as the people live it is a rare opportunity.