Work in Progress

“In the best travel, disconnection is a necessity. Concentrate on where you are; do no back-home business; take no assignments; remain incommunicado; be scarce. It is a good thing that people don’t know where you are or how to find you. Keep in mind the country you are in. That’s the theory.”
–Paul Theroux

A human who loves the world, finds beauty in the unknown, and can't keep her feet on the ground. I like finding unique (and cheap) ways of making my way around the globe. Interacting with people while living, learning, and loving the culture I'm surrounded by.

Monday, October 17, 2016

DPRK - from an American Imperialists Point of View

(If you haven't read my post about why I decided to visit North Korea, you can read it here.)

Well, I made it. I made it out of North Korea, with absolutely no temptation to steal anything from the restricted floor of the Yangakdo Hotel. I made it out with no regrets. With a drastically changed perspective on the country that has been looming overhead, almost literally. It's been a consistent curiosity of mine while living in South Korea. How has the separation affected the culture, the people? How does the North view the South? What's education like? How accurately is western media portraying this mysterious country? These are all questions that I pondered before visiting the DPRK. I can't say I've fully answered them all, but I do know that I left the country with a lot more unanswered questions than when I first arrived. This is being written many months post trip, so I've had a lot of time to reflect and think about the experience. I've probably been putting off writing this because it has been so hard to figure out what I want to say. Now that I've had the chance to be more vocal with people about it, I've been able to narrow down my ramblings to topics that I've found I talk about the most.

**Throughout this blog I may speak in absolutes (ex. North Koreans hate America). Please remember that these are just generalizations, as a person and their ideals are not defined by where they happen to have citizenship. 


One of the things that propelled me to travel to the north was so that I could see how the division affected the culture and the people. Aside from the obvious and expected propaganda and the fact that the North is poor and the South is not, there were a couple differences that really stood out to me. 

My use of the language did not prove as useful as I was hoping. North Koreans speak much more formally and have adopted no English words. "Konglish" does not exist here, and the honorifics are much different. They also want to talk about really different things. My first conversation in Korean was with one of my North Korea tour guides, who was really dang excited to have a chance to talk to an American in Korean, let me tell you. I failed, miserably. I haven't had many conversations in Korean outside of a restaurant or taxi, so the personal questions he was asking were not only hard for me to understand, but hard to answer. 

North Koreans look a little different. They are much more tan, probably because they do more manual labor and don't have access to sun creams. But, just because sun cream might not be readily available, the woman are still quite concerned with covering up their skin while they are outside to avoid the sun. Oh, and they seem much smaller. A tour guide asked, as we were surrounded by hundreds of children at Kim Il Sung's birthplace, how old I thought these kids were. I guessed about 7 or 8. When he told me they were between 10 and 12, I was shocked. They were so skinny - not the typical Korean thinness, but a more malnourished kind of skinny. I told him they also acted younger, and had more of an innocence about them. They aren't glued to their phones and the wonder in their eyes as a group of foreigners climbs through them and their classmates was priceless. 

The buildings in Pyongyang were much more colorful than the autonomous grey scale feeling of a typical city in South Korea.  One of the things I noticed was that there were long phrases or names of places above a lot of the buildings, especially in comparison to what I'm used to in the South. It was abnormal to see so many syllables plastered above these buildings. I wish my Korean were better, so I could tell you more about what it says over the building. All I can recognize are Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. If anyone is reading this and knows what it says above the building pictured below, comment and let me know!


The presence of Confucian ideals is seemingly just as present in North Korean culture as it is in the South. A form of class structure exists in both, obviously in a much stronger sense in the North where the country is divided into workers, farmers, and intellects. In the South, there are various Confucian ideals that make it hard for someone who is in a lower economic class to break out of their pay scale. In order to make more money, you need to have higher test scores. In order to have higher test scores, you have to have money to pay for tutors and college. People get jobs based on who they know. Family name and reputation is often more important than, well anything really - and it's a vicious cycle. 

North and South Koreans both work really hard - to no avail. They spend all their lives working to (usually) never reap the benefits of their efforts. South Koreans are luckier in this aspect, as they have more freedom to make their own choices. Although, societal pressure in the South can often feel constricting and prevents people from really doing what they dream, opting to do what their family thinks is best instead. 

Education in both countries have similarities. Children spend their young lives focusing on what someone tells them they are supposed to be when they are older. Very high stakes are placed on tests and children are ranked in their classes, which are more often than not displayed publicly in the school. In the science and technology focused middle school that we visited outside of Pyongyang, photos were even placed above the rankings, the lowest and highest students clear for everyone to see. Because education is such a huge focus, teachers are well regarded positions in both countries. 



I was pleasantly surprised at how many organic interactions I was able to have with the general population. I approached people in the metro stations, military personal, school children, and staff at the places we were visiting and tried my best to speak with them. I was often a little too shy slash worried about how these people would react to me trying to talk to them. Once I realized they were all really nice (to my face), I was able to venture out a little more. 

I was able to get to know my tour guides quite well, and shared quite a few alcoholic beverages with them. I convinced Mr. Kim, my favorite guide, to ride a roller coaster with me at the fun fair. On our last night I witnessed him drunk and bowling with all of us in a wife beater, slurring cuss words and flexing his muscles. I always sat in the front of the tour bus, which meant I got to overhear some of Mr. Kim's conversations. Most of the Korean I couldn't understand, but I noticed him asking our Australian tour guide a lot of questions about the people on the tour and things outside of North Korea. Later, I found out that Mr. Kim actually has full access to the internet. It makes me wonder how aware he is. Does he think the outside world is crazy, like we think North Korea is crazy?

My favorite interaction was definitely unexpected. At the DMZ we were given a tour by this middle-aged military man. He didn't look friendly at all and my Australian tour guide mentioned that he was a bit of a sour-patch. He probably didn't use the word sour-patch, though.  This man was impressed when I said, "Can we take a picture together?" In Korean, even though he tried not to show it. He looked right past me and at my tour guide, his comrade, and asked how I know Korean. After my guide explained, he looked at me and nodded his head. We took a quick, very unpleasant photo, and then he got mad because now everyone wanted a photo with him. Afterwards, we had to line up before moving on to the next spot. I naturally wanted to be in the front of the line. As I walk up to where he is standing, he notices me and then I notice him holding back this smile before he says, "You speak Korean well." By the end of the tour I was joking with him about loving to take pictures and drinking too much beer. 

We were able to visit a middle school on our last day. I wasn't surprised that it didn't seem much different from a South Korean school. After introducing myself in front of the class and announcing that I was a teacher, their instructor asked, "What do you teach?" As I replied, "I'm an English teacher" the class let out a chorus of approving"ohhs". After everyone got a chance to introduce themselves their instructor asked me if, since I'm an English teacher, I could help them with their pronunciation. I bet he was picking on me because I had just announced myself as an American who taught in South Korea - double whammy (just kidding, kind of). I started to walk around and see what they were working on. I asked a question, and before anyone could answer, this girl stood up and asked me, "How long have you been in Pyongyang? Have you been to Munsu Water Park? Our Great Leader built such an amazing park for his people and without him..." blah blah blah. All this very creepy, very well spoken but obviously memorized propaganda. This is when I realized why so many North Koreans would be learning how to speak English. With tourism being one of the biggest exports (along with meth-amphetamines and giant statues), of course they want their youth to be educated in all the RIGHT things to say to a western tourist. It makes sense that's the focus and scope of their English curriculum, spouting propaganda. 
Then we were able to have about a 10 minute conversation with a student. I squatted down next to a really sweet girl who told me she wanted to be an English teacher. She also told me I'm very beautiful, so that had me questioning her honesty from the get go. 
  • She wants to teach younger students because they memorize things quickly. 
  • When I asked her what English speaking country she would most like to visit, she very quickly said that she doesn't want to travel. North Korea is the best country and she doesn't need to visit anywhere else. 
  • She asked what made me happy. When I replied, "Being here, right now",  she was confused and said "now?" in Korean. I recognized the Korean word and repeated it back to her. She was surprised I spoke Korean and asked me to speak more. I probably said something about liking kimchi. 
  • She's happy when she gets a good score on a test. Which is exactly what my students in the south would say. 
  • I asked her is she is stressed and she said yes. She feels like her heart is weak and that she isn't strong enough. 
  • She asked me why I don't have a husband or children. I told her that I like to spend my time traveling the world and meeting new people and doing new things, and right now I don't want a husband or children. She was surprised and quickly changed the subject. Maybe they haven't covered the 'world travel' chapter in their text books yet. 


One of the most important things that I took away from North Korea has to do with my understanding of perception and individual realities. While at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, my perspective was challenged. Imagine sitting in front of a film of atrocities that your country committed, that which are a stark contrast to the history that you (and most of the world) has been taught. People on the tour, at one point, turned and looked at me and asked, "Is this true?" As an English teacher, I have to be clear with my pronoun usage, so let me elaborate. "This" referred to the accusations of things like biowarfare, the violent murder of women and children (which were all depicted by elaborate scenes throughout the museum), and torture of North Korean Civilians. 
In that moment, all I could say was, "I don't know, I wasn't there." The North Korean account of the war is much different from any other account than I've ever heard - that's all I can say for sure. It was frustrating not having internet access to fact check as the tour went along - as I'm sure Wikipedia would have some very contrasting ideas.

I was interested to learn from my tour guide that, more often then not, North Koreans who have defected have a hard time adjusting - especially in the South. Imagine having your sense of reality completely shook - being told that throughout the course of your entire life, almost everything was completely fabricated. People will even leave the country, and when they take classes to re-learn history, it can take them months before they stop thinking that it's just the outside world trying to trick them, just like The Great Leader said they would. A woman wrote that, when being reeducated about the Korean War, she thought that the rest of the world was conspiring to hide the truth. It didn't occur to her that it was her country who had lied. 

The idea that we choose (or are given) our own truths was really solidified while in the North. It has made me much more understanding of the civilians in the North, as well as the random and varied people that I cross paths with on a daily basis. 
Truth can be subjective; based on an individuals own perception. What a person believes is largely based on what they have been told, or the experiences that have lead them to be who and where they are today. 


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