I have been moderately fascinated by North Korea as long as I have been aware of its existence and its political system. An isolated, poor country, shunned by its neighbours and run by a psychopathic government… What’s there not to be curious about?
Often referred to as “communist”, North Korea is as communist as Dick Cheney is a Democrat… The label is there because of the masses of assistance the North got from the Soviets and the Chinese, and while there was some liberal use of the “commie language” as well as symbolism (hammer and sickle, the colour red, and so on…) and certainly no shortage of Soviet/Stalinist era art/propaganda, the government has ever so slowly moved away from anything resembling communism and places heavy emphasis on the personality cult of Kim Il Sung, the original dictator installed by the Russians, and later Kim Jong Il, the chubby son of the first guy.
Personality cults are awesome, but only for those personalities, and so the stories of their greatness grew and multiplied like mushrooms on a pile of manure after fresh spring rain… Over the years increasingly bizarre claims have been made about the “Great” and “Dear” leaders: “when Kim Jong Il was born, a great light appeared in the sky…” , “the leader can control the weather with his mind…”, and “they know everything about everything”. The leader-worship became a state religion, and anyone who spoke against it, a heretic. And, as per usual, the heretics ended up dead. Except in North Korea several generations of family members get punished for such transgressions, and so whoever doubted Leader Kim’s ability to write 10,000 books in a year ended up in a gulag with their parents, grandparents, and children. This served to discourage any scepticism, and did a fucking fine job of that, for over the years, dissent became so tiny, it is almost microscopic and insignificant.
To prevent outside contact with such ridiculous ideas as “democracy”, “accountability”, or “food”, possession of black market radios, cell phones or DVD’s is illegal. Not just illegal, but often punishable by death. A few years ago a senior administrator of some state company was publicly executed in a soccer stadium for the unthinkable crime of making… overseas phonecalls!
Yup… North Korea.. A worker’s paradise!
Shortly after releasing the North Korea series, I was covered with hundreds of angry messages from viewers. Most of them were mentally challenged trolls who will write/say anything just because they are trolls and trolls need to talk, but some of these comments were so infuriating that there was no other response possible other than “WTF” followed by some stupid reply/joke/whatever.
A common theme I have discovered among the haters of these videos is that “(I) should not be knocking North Korea because USA also has blah blah blah (homeless people, hungry people, unhappy people, crazy religions, etc.)”. As if, any argument can be disabled by uttering the magic words “but US also…”. Fucking nimrods… Even if US was the fucking Nazi Germany run by the Gestapo, that has nothing to do with the fact that North Korea is fucked up beyond all reason, and that, if anything, we should be striving to fix BOTH countries.
But, as I said, those are trolls and idiots (there IS a disclaimer at the beginning of the series about it being offensive to idiots), and there is no need to dwell on those…
Lately, however, there have been more comments not so much about how I am being a dick picking on North Korea, but regarding the exact manner I go about doing it. Namely, my sarcasm, my tendency to blame the victim. Those comments DO carry certain merit, but I do have an explanation: I did not go to any of the gulags and laugh at the victims. I did not go to up to starving homeless kids and preach about my moral superiority. Nope. instead, I was put on a government junket tour, and for several days got bombarded with retarded amounts of North Korean propaganda. All of us had to hear about how awesome, best, wicked, special, tallest, biggest, fastest, coolest, hottest, cheapest, most expensive everything was. All these superlatives thrown at us by the North Koreans themselves. That causes a person to develop a level of cynicism and sarcasm is one of the ways of dealing with the situation.
While the street kids and the people in the gulag are not responsible for the situation, the blame, ultimately rests with the silent masses of North Koreans who allowed the government to amass so much control over their lives that their own thoughts had become dangerous. Kim Il Sung’s and Kim Jong Il’s evil got out of control because the citizens were too keen on conformity and taking the safe, easy path, rather than challenging the leadership. Yes, it is too fucking late now, but I am not telling North Koreans to revolt, rather, I am being a dick towards anyone who prescribes silent conformity in other places around the world. There is a huge global shift towards fascism right now, and the North Korean scenario will be quickly transplanted elsewhere if people keep their spineless demeanour.
It is this general hate/disdain that I have for the lazy, selfish masses of drones who will do anything to conform as long as it gets them their daily bread and maybe an iPhone… And in this way, I do blame the citizens of Afghanistan, Iran, and other shitty countries where citizenry will just follow the crowd, because, tradition, respect and you know… tradition and respect.
Only respectable things are respectable. Egotistic psychopaths claiming to be gods are not. Nor are their ideas. Nor their followers. I will not afford respect nor sympathy to people that cause so much shit and suffering in the world any more than I afford sympathy for drunk drivers who get into accidents.
I hate nationalism. I hate xenophobia. I hate fascism. I hate flag-waving patriotism. I hate tribalism. All these things separate people from other people, and isolate them behind walls. Then they fill the people’s heads with stupid ideas of superiority over the people on the other side of the wall, and the need to exterminate them.
North Korea is ALL ABOUT nationalism, xenophobia, fascism, tribalism, and flag-waving patriotism. North Korea is a fantastic lesson for humanity, which is too preoccupied with jobs, money and iPhones to notice that we are all pumped shitloads of stories about our own great leaders…
Read, learn, and act.
Our trip was organized by an outfit called KTG (www.north-kora-travel.com), but all actual guiding, transport, and accommodation was provided by KITC – Korean International Travel Corporation. No matter which outfit you book with (Koryo Tours, Young Pioneer Tours, whatever…) you will end up on the same bus and with the same guide.
The price was about 200 Euro per day, which made it one of the more expensive travel experiences, but then, this is one of the more interesting destinations, so if you want to play, you gotta pay.
We flew in on an Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang, and after having our luggage inspected for cell phones (remember, no outside contact allowed), we were picked up by the KITC team and taken from the airport to our hotel. The Yanggakdo Hotel is a huge skyscraper located on an island in the middle of the capital city. The idea is that if you are on an island, you will have a harder time sneaking out and seeing too much of the worker’s paradise.
The hotel itself reeked of second hand smoke, and was almost totally empty. Thirty-some floors of empty rooms. Yikes. The outside excitement matched the inside – the city was totally blacked out, as if terrified of the allied bombings. This is mostly due to the fact that North Korea has been experiencing some staggering energy crises since the early 1990’s, when the endless supply of cheap Soviet coal and oil suddenly… ended…
We were placed on a tight schedule of visits to commie-style monuments, museums of bullshit, statues of the fucking great leaders, and so on. We were told all kinds of stupid tales, heard glorious stories of conquest and achievement, and so on… But all the lies had plenty of cracks between them, and you could quickly make out that behind the glorious facade there was a lot of shit going down in this messy country.
The things that immediately tell you that we were being pumped full of shit was the fact that we were told not to talk to anyone and to not take pictures of locals. Why such fear of contact? If you really think your country is so awesome, then wouldn’t you be proud of it? Wouldn’t you want the citizens to brag to the foreigners about the 3 hours of electricity they get these days!?
One of the guides told us that the locals were… SHY! So when we were driving through Kaesong, we were not allowed to take pictures of the dilapidated city.. because they might object. Ha!
Everywhere we went we were supervised. Everywhere we went, someone was telling us to not take photos. To not talk. To walk faster. To not waste time. It was… AMAZING!
It was a sort of blend between being on an International Red Cross inspection of Auschwitz and being an inmate there myself. I had served 2 years in the military, and still remember the stress of being at a constant risk of being bitched out for something random… That exact same feeling came back during the time spent in North Korea. It was amazing. I know that this is not exactly selling the trip to anyone, as people usually don’t pay 200 Euro a day to be stressed out, but for me, the overwhelming presence of the government agents watching my every move was spectacular.
At one point, just to fuck around, in the middle of a dinner, I got up and ran for the bathroom. The minders had no idea I was going to do that, and suddenly two of them bolted after me, only to realize what I was doing, and so they pretended that they too needed to take a piss. Spanktacular!
Filming the series under these circumstances was quite a challenge, but my choice of camera helped. I used my old and tattered Fujifilm S-5100 which, on the outside, looks like a low-grade digicam, but happened to have an excellent video function and a great microphone. The advantage of filming with a digicam is that no one knows you are filming. You probably noticed that some of the shots were quite shaky – thats because the camera was not being aimed, rather, just left on and carried around. Very often I would be talking while filming, just to take attention from the fact that I was gathering video. In some scenes it was obvious that I was talking to the camera, but I tried to make it look like I was talking to someone else at the time OR that this wa s ashort just-for-fun video by a giddy foreigner. Sometimes my stealth was not there and I was quite obviously filming: it was either impossible to hide, or we faked that we were impressed and that’s why were trying to “take photos”.
Towards the end of the experience, the guides knew that I was shooting video, but they had no idea that i gathered 20GB of footage, and also they had no way of knowing what the hell I was going to do with this, with a default conclusion being a boring “nothing”. The files then got nicely tucked away in the deep corners of Erik’s computer with some backups on random memory cards scattered throughout the luggage, while the main memory card inside the camera only contained politically-correct photos to make the overzealous guards at the airport think that we were Kim-lovers. Erik shot a heap of photos, and some of the other travellers also contributed their videos and photos, which, altogether, was plenty.
The 20 GB of video was not as spectacular as some of the footage gathered by NGO workers (and their accomplices) in North Korea, but still managed to show a good amount of the oddity. I supplemented my footage with stuff from other sources to be able to tell the story in a smoother and more visually stimulating fashion.
What was there to film? At first, you would think ‘not much’. Statues, monuments and museums. But for all the stories of economic success and independence, we were constantly bombarded with evidence to the contrary. Empty streets, sad, gray buildings, empty stores, poorly maintained infrastructure of all kinds, no lights, thin people, and… no pets. The whole time in DPRK we did not see a single pet, other than a starved dog at an IKEA-style fake farm. Someone could easily excuse this as simply a lack of interest in pets, but I wold lean towards the other theory: all the pets got eaten. So the story can be told not by the stuff that was there, but by the stuff that WASN’T there…
Every day we were fed with bullshit excuses, random cancelations, and all kins of dinky little lies in between. There as a vist to a fake hospital full of fake patients. A fake historical site. A fake museum peddling the fake version of history… And so on… Heaps of talk about “the wall” built by the south, but then a barrage of excuses why we couldn’t go and see it. And always told not to take photos of this, not to take photos of that, and so on. Then, suddenly, in a hospital, photos were encouraged! That was the best indicator that we in fact visited a “Potemkin hospital” of sorts (this is a reference to the Soviet era “Potemkin Villages” – fake settlements designed to show the world the great successes of the USSR) and you know a country is FUBAR when you need goddamn Potemkin hospitals!
By the time we made it out to Beijing, I thought we were back in the free world. And you know things are fucked up in a country if BEIJING makes it look like a bastion of freedom…
Here is a gallery of random images taken on the trip. As you can imagine, this is just a tiny sample of the better/more interesting pics, and even then you will recognize plenty of the places from the videos.