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At the far end of the terminal was a makeshift X-ray scanner manned by military men. As my jacket went through the machine, the soldier gestured for me to empty the pockets. I took out my iPod Touch. “iPhone?” he asked.
The iPod Touch is identical to an iPhone in every way except the ability to make calls. I wracked my brain as to how to explain this to him. “No,” I said. “It’s an iPod.”
He gestured to me to hand it over to him. The soldier flipped it over and read a label that I had never noticed. That is how I learned the other difference between an iPod Touch and an iPhone: The back panel is clearly labeled accordingly. He handed it back to me without another word.
While waiting for the rest of the group to get through, I saw a vision outside the airport that blew my mind: A relatively (very relatively) well-dressed woman was walking in the parking lot, talking on her cellphone—which are pervasive in Pyongyang, as I later discovered. A soldier stopped the woman and made a comment, clearly something along the lines of “Papers, please.” I watched her roll her eyes and practically could hear her snorting with disgust. Her disrespect was far greater than any I had seen when the NYPD asks for a bag check. She dug through her purse—still talking on the phone—and handed the soldier a small card. He waved her on her way as I stood there wondering how such an exchange could be possible in a patriarchal, militaristic regime.
We tend to think of North Korea as being stuck in time, but that is an incoherent description. One can get stuck in traffic or in line at the airport, but “time” is a very big place. In the parking lot encounter, for example, the soldier was dressed in a 1950s military uniform. The woman wore the sort of cringeworthy 1980s pantsuit that a fresh-off-the-boat Soviet immigrant might view as the acme of style back home. Both were “stuck in time,” in different times, like a flapper talking to a hippie.
So while the contemporary Internet might be forbidden in North Korea, there’s a thriving black market in VCRs—the better to watch foreign videotapes on. Though I didn’t think of it at the time, the woman and the solider provided a perfect metaphor for where the modern dynamism in North Korea lies. The army is stuck in a Cold War rut, while the black marketeers—more often than not female—become “wealthy” and powerful by flouting the laws and bribing whoever they need to bribe. It’s capitalism de facto, not de jure. And it’s growing, as the poverty-stricken government becomes increasingly unable to feed its enforcers.
Phil introduced us to our Korean tour guides: Song, the male, and Kim, the female. Song was in a shirt and tie, while Kim was in a pale skirt/suit combo. Both were quite upbeat and spoke flawless English. (Their names have been changed for their own protection.) Their accents were very minor; the cadence of their speech was more foreign than their pronunciation of words.
As we drove to our hotel Kim began to give us some background information about North Korea. She never once referred to “Dear Leader” or “Great Leader” the entire trip, instead speaking of “General Kim Il Sung” and “Comrade Kim Jong Il.” Even then, the mentions were few and far between.
Every minute of a North Korean tour is accounted for. This sounds a great deal more ominous than it feels; it’s just a function of a well-planned itinerary, the very point of a guided tour. One of our first stops was to see the Martyrs’ Cemetery, where the Koreans who fought the “Jap bastards” (as they are described locally) in the 1930s and ’40s were buried. Each headstone was topped with a bronze bust, carved in an almost art-deco style.
At the very top center of the cemetery was the ultimate North Korean martyr: Kim Il Sung’s wife and Kim Jong Il’s mother. Kim Jong Suk (always called the “anti-Japanese heroine”) is the Mother Goddess in the North Korean mythology. She allegedly doted over her husband constantly, cutting off her hair to line his shoes as he singlehandedly defeated the Japs. We all bowed before her grave with due reverence. As the group milled about the cemetery taking pictures, I pulled Kim aside. “Did Kim Jong Suk have any other children?” I asked her.
She froze, and for the first and only time during my entire trip her affect became tense. “…Yes,” Kim said. She said it in the same way a Mississippian would reply if asked whether his state was known for lynching. Kim didn’t want to lie, but neither did she want to talk about it at all.
I apologized, telling her I didn’t mean any disrespect. I deduced what fueled Kim’s reticence: Despite being forced to learn the legends of the Kim family in excruciating detail, North Koreans know few actual facts—and never ever ask questions. Kim Il Sung’s second wife is a non-person, for example, and to this day few people anywhere know how many times Kim Jong Il was married, and when. It is not known where Kim Jong Un lives; there is no equivalent of the White House in North Korea. In fact, government buildings don’t have signs to illustrate what lies within. If you needed to know where to go, then you’d know. Otherwise, mind your business and don’t ask questions.
The laws in North Korea are oppressive, but they aren’t completely ambiguous or arbitrary. They generally boiled down to three principles: 1) Don’t denigrate the Leaders, 2) Don’t denigrate the government, and 3) Don’t acknowledge anything is wrong. It’s this last one that explains so much of the apparent insanity behind so much of what North Koreans say.
In the Vice video, Shane Smith asked why he was the only one eating in a giant banquet hall, only to be told everyone had just left. Absurd? Of course. Inexplicable? Not at all. For to acknowledge that there are no guests can be viewed as a criticism, and criticisms of the status quo mark you as a troublemaker. Troublemakers in North Korea fare even worse than the average citizen.
Besides being conditioned to fib, North Koreans are deliberately starved for information. Like a real-life version of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, Pyongyang for six decades has largely succeeded in keeping its population unaware of world history and current events. There is one state television channel. Reading foreign materials is a felony, and North Korean prisons are some of the most brutal the world has ever seen. Add the regime’s nasty habit of taking three generations of a family to punish a given individual (to “purify the blood”), and you’re left with a population living in woeful, inflicted ignorance. In fact, North Koreans are only permitted to go abroad if they have family members left behind—hostages to be punished should anyone think of defecting.