As the current North Korea crisis unfolds, I am reminded of a feeling I got when I visited the DPRK during the “100th birthday” celebration of Kim Il Sung.It is a feeling of being stuck in an ever-climatic plot, with no beginning or resolution. Yet in times when the ever-watchful state does look away, one can see glimpses of hope and change. The best way to explain what I mean is via two stories:
The first story is about theatre,
the other is about a song.
Upon entering North Korea, a giant stage is revealed for visitors. Whatever you do, you are constantly observed and followed by two guides. They control you, the people around you and importantly, they also control each other. They know when you wake up, they know when you go to sleep—and they make sure you know that they know.
When I was there, I focused my camera on the totalitarianism of the place. A socially “perfect” environment, clean and controlled, North Korean children both intelligent and artistic—that’s what they want you to see. However, most striking of all is the emptiness of spaces, the darkness at night, and artificiality of everyone and everything you encounter. All this adds to the overall feeling of being on a giant movie set, filled with background actors, while you, as the visitor, are the star of the show. Everything is guided and directed by an invisible Director—there is no room for improvisation.
And even though the scenes that unfold have no plot, the people you are allowed to see all behave in accordance to a way of thinking – acting out a story with a perpetual climax yet no ending, a plot based on war that is long gone. Whereas we, outside of Korea, only see glimpses of the climax flare up every now and again, people in North Korea are forced to remain stuck in a wartime climax, stuck in 1953.
With the “Juche” philosophy and the bashing of American-Japanese Imperialism, repeated to you on every occasion, you slowly start to not only understand, but to comprehend the immensity that is North Korea’s propaganda. How impossible rational thought is, when as a North Korean, you are being told the same thing over and over and over again. Your whole life.
The most absurd scene, one that is almost “Malcovichian,” occurred during a walk through the mountains near the “International Friendship Exhibition” halls of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung (these halls in themselves were quite remarkable, filled with absurd gifts from world leaders and business men – gifts ranging from German Kuckuck’s clocks to stuffed alligators carrying plates with wine glasses).
As we were walking through the woods, we encountered what can be described as “spontaneous” celebrations and singing in the forest. Our guide excitedly explained to us, that this is proof that on the “Great Leaders’ birthday” people would celebrate not only in the cities, but also in the forests.
Certainly. They also compliantly started to dance every time I pointed the camera at them, stopping only when you stopped aiming. This then turned into a bit of a game—up, dance, down, no dance. For a short period of time I became Craig the puppeteer in “Being John Malcovich.” The theatre obeyed me, it became “interactive.” But then I stopped, and realised that what I was doing was actually incredibly unfair to these poor people, and that in fact, for a short period, I became the regime’s director of theatre.
But the most mind-boggling and unexpected happened as we were climbing up a beautiful mountain, within a beautiful forest, embedded within an unspoiled nature reserve. We were alone with our main guide Mr. Park (name changed). The other guide had to stay back to guard the bus and Mr. Park, it seemed, realised his new found “freedom” from state observation, if only for a few minutes.
At that moment he decided to open himself up a little to us, and to express himself almost freely. With an almost perfect American accent, although retaining a distinct Korean slant, he started to sing his very own favourite song:
Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
I barely comprehended what was happening when it started, but as the seconds passed I noticed the irony growing as he sang the lyrics pertaining to freedom and individuality.
In that sense, North Korea not only told me about its absurd terror state, but also about the dreams of its people, even if I only saw glimmers of it.
And when I returned home, I also understood what freedom and self-expression meant. What it means to be able to decide what to do next and to be able to say the things you want. The moment I touched-down outside of the DPRK, I was, dare I say, rather euphoric.
A tram drives by the lit Monument to the Foundation of the Worker's Party. Other parts of the city are pitch black.
Kim Il Sung had a soft spot for the arts, and thus included a brush with hammer and sickle. Bushes are lit by fairy lights at night, which adds to the overall feel of artificiality.
Kim II Sung Square at night. The principal place where parades, political events, mass demonstrations and meetings take place.
According to our guide, Kim Jong-il was personally against the idea of having his statue next to his father. But the people of Korea decided to erect his statue anyway, in a sign of how much he is loved and missed. Kim Jong-il's statue was revealed on the day this photograph was taken.
The Victorious Fatherland, yet another wartime victory monument. It was built for the 40th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
Mangyongdae Children's Palace, a place where the brightest are engaged in extra-curricular activities. Children as young as 6 years old play Jimi Hendrix on guitar and others play drums like Keith Moon—but without any understanding of pop culture, just as a demonstration of technique and skill.
A traffic warden controls traffic, but the streets are empty. In the background, people are getting ready for the parade.
A police officer stands in front of children while teachers get ready for the 100th birthday parade.
Here's a view of the Pyongyang subway station. The main stations are decorated in the tradition of the Moscow subway, grand and luxurious. The trains are from East Berlin, a leftover of the German Democratic Republic.
Ryugyong Hotel is a 105 story building on the Pyongyang skyline. Construction started in 1987 and halted in 1992 when the fall of the Soviet Union caused an economic crisis. In 2008, construction resumed by Orascom Group who denied that their recent $400 million telecommunications deal with the North Korean government had anything to do with it.
Security guards watch the crowd at a fun fair. Civil clothed guards ensure that no one ventures too far.
The Game Centre is located in the middle of a fun fair—possibly the most enjoyable part of the city.
A woman in traditional dress crossing empty street in front of United Korea Gate. This gate is at the city entrance of Pyongyang. The dress of the woman mimics the monument.
The watchful eye of the state? More serious looking people at the abandoned fun fair at the fringes of a show for tourists.
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