My Week in North Korea

A Soviet-born American tours the Hermit Kingdom and finds humanity in a most inhumane place.

(Page 4 of 6)

No wonder, then, that so much is in a permanent state of disrepair. Everything in North Korea is shabby. Everything. To point out a problem is only a hair away from a complaint, and that brands you as a troublemaker. So all the money goes to construction, with nothing for maintenance. Every carpet had a stain, every wall had a crack. The hotel elevator buttons were mismatched. More than one bathroom during the tour had a faucet that was rusted through. Everywhere there was at least one fly—even on the plane.

The Shabby Propaganda Machine

The central focus of Pyongyang is the two leviathan statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, where citizens cheerfully sweep the area clean with brooms set aside nearby. But directly adjacent to this political Mecca and wedding destination was Mansudae Fountain Park. The shabbiness extended there as well.

The park, Kim let us know, is where couples and families went for “gentle walking.” I could not help but wince when I heard her say that. I realized that dozens of Westerners had heard Kim use that expression, and not one of them had told her how silly it sounded. I thought back to my family members pleading with me to correct their English if they made mistakes. The cost to speak correctly was zero, but the benefits of communicating clearly were high. I myself speak three languages, and know how important it is to learn idiom.

I pulled Kim aside in the park and let her know. “The word we use is ‘stroll,’ ” I said. “You take your wife for a stroll in nice weather.”

“Oh! OK! ‘Stroll.’ How do you spell that?” As I spelled it out she mimicked writing with her finger, the better to commit the term to memory. “Thank you. Thank you very much!” Her gratitude felt out of proportion, until I realized that the only access she had to non-textbook English was encounters like these. The guides had a list of Western media that was permitted to them—Titanic, Jennie Gerhardt, Jane Eyre, and Dickens—but anything else would bring severe consequences. No matter how conscientious, they couldn’t really improve at their job.

I thereby made it a point to teach Kim as much as I could, without correcting her in front of other people. She would pull out a frayed notepad and write down what I said, while asking me to corroborate what others had told her. I had not heard of a chatterbox being referred to as “having a monkey in your ear,” for example. Neither could she understand why “having a monkey on your back” meant being in the throes of addiction (or what addiction was, for that matter).

I wanted the expressions I taught her to be jarring to hear in North Korea. I hoped that the tourists who came after me would do a double-take, and stop seeing Kim as a North Korean robot but as what she was: a young woman growing up in a country governed by a very dated ideology. If any future tourist to North Korea hears expressions like “bestie” or “frenemy,” I’m the one to blame. There was also “get it together,” “you’re a mess,” and “you’re a hot mess.” I admit my delight to teaching Kim “get on my level” only to have her mischievously respond, “Don’t you mean for someone to get down to your level?”

“You should be a teacher,” she told me. I bit my tongue, for I was embarrassed to imagine what she would say if she knew the truth. Part of my reason for going was to do research. I co-author books for celebrities by trade, and was toying with the idea of writing Kim Jong Il’s “autobiography” based on what is presented as fact in the DPRK. I wanted people in the West to understand what the North Koreans really thought, and I wanted to do it in an entertaining pop way. (One successful Kickstarter campaign later, and the book will be ready by the fall.)

The next day we drove to a location in the countryside. There we heard a soldier give us a lecture about the secret concrete wall that divides the two Koreas, allegedly built flush with the countryside so it would only be visible from the north. According to the brochure—yes, there was a brochure—the concrete wall “was built by the south Korean puppet clique at the instigation of the U.S. imperialists, their masters, in order to divide the territory and nation in two for ever” [sic].

Then we were taken outside to look through mounted binoculars at the wall. Whether we saw a wall, a path, or just some dirt was impossible to say.

As my tourmates struggled to figure out how to take a photograph through binocular lenses, I caught sight of a mantis swaying in the wind. The insect reminded me of a fable which I thought Kim would appreciate. “Do you know the story of the fox and the scorpion?” I asked her.

“No,” she said. “What’s that, a ‘scorpion?’ ”

“A scorpion,” I repeated, making a stinging gesture with my fingers.

“I don’t know,” she said, still not following the term. I wasn’t that surprised; once when I asked my grandmother how to say “stingray” in Russian it ended up becoming a conference call with the whole family wracking their memories.

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  • Raston Bot||

    What's green and sits on the porch? My Jap, I paint him any color I want.

    That joke kills in North Korea.

  • Hoss||

    That's funnier than the crude "jap"
    joke, above.

  • Almanian!||

    You don't want to buy Japanese tires. Know why?

    Cause when Dago flat Dago "wop, wop, wop...." !!!

    OK, not ALL of these jokes work by substituting Japanese for others...

  • Almanian!||

    [Animal Mother to Japanese soldier beside him]

    "Thank God for the sickle cell, huh?" Mmmmmmm - nope.

  • Almanian!||

    "You know any motherfuckin' Japanese RACE CAR drivers? I think you see my point..."

    No, see, this just isn't working...

  • Almanian!||

    *pulls out sides of throat with both hands*

    What's this?

    A Japanese kid choking on a piece of rice....

    No, see....

  • Almanian!||

    You know why the Japanese guy walks around carrying a car door?

    So when it gets too hot, he can just roll down the window....


    OK, THAT one worked.

  • fish_remote||

    What's the fastest way to blind a ....(looks around furtively).....a Japanese guy?

    Put a windshield in front of him!


    Thanks I'm here all week!

  • Almanian!||

    I don't get it.


  • ZackTheHypochondriac||

    “Then your mother must have hated Russia.”

    I have to admit I didn't expect that and it hit me pretty hard. The tone of the article was surprisingly optimistic for a reason article on NK and I was kinda hoping for a happier ending that she was at least not miserable with her life.

  • Curtisls87||

    This. A floating sense of melancholy was rising in my mind until this line. At once, I thought, how poignant, how clever, and how utterly sad.

  • Metazoan||

    Yeah, that was a pretty powerful line.

  • NebulousFocus||

    +1 :(

  • Paul.||

    “I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison.”

    He wasn't the first defector into a communist hellhole to come to the same conclusions. Luckily, he survived his realization. Not everyone did. Choose wisely, Mr. Snowden.

  • Sevo||

    "Choose wisely, Mr. Snowden."
    I'm not sure Snowden has a lot of choices right now.

  • Paul.||

    Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader

    Wasn't that the title of the New York Times' 2008 presidential endorsement?

  • PACW||


  • Paul.||

    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

    So they are more like America than we thought.

  • Paul.||

    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.

    I believe the proper term is an 'un-person'.

  • Paul.||

    1) Don’t denigrate the Leaders, 2) Don’t denigrate the government, and 3) Don’t acknowledge anything is wrong.

    So the New York Times style guide.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    It is populated by the children of a 1990s famine, malnourished orphans with oversized heads who never grew.

    Must have been all that Victorian-style capitalism.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I tried to feel Kim out during our travels together

    Now the truth comes out.

  • Rhywun||

    I'm assuming the crime rate is lower - in which case, one would certainly feel safer. I've felt safer walking around the streets of Beijing than in any American city - doesn't mean I'm a commie or I would ever want to live there.

  • Metazoan||

    If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose.

  • Sevo||

    Metazoan| 7.23.13 @ 8:58PM |#
    "If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose."

    Beat me to it.

  • Metazoan||

    If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose.

  • Metazoan||

    If you exclude the crime committed by the government, I suppose.

  • Metazoan||

    Wow, I really meant it I guess :P

  • Boisfeuras||

    I'd be skeptical of how much lower the crime rates actually are under totalitarian regimes. The Soviet Union and China still had organized criminal syndicates, the vory and triads. Totalitarian states have no reason to publicize accurate crime statistics, which undermine their own legitimacy.

  • Greendogo||

    I agree. I have to think this would have to do more with the attempt to maintain an aura of civility and control for the tourists.

  • Tejicano||

    I don't see where this is even a question.

    If you are walking around a place where you are obviously (by your race and clothing) a guest of the State no local will so much as cross your path when they know that any crime committed against you will reflect poorly on the State and most probably end with that local and his/her entire extended family being thrown into a living Hell on earth. No line could be clearer and no punishment more extreme.

  • MappRapp||

    Dude is like totally rocking it man. WOw.

  • Luddite||

    Pariahs on the world stage, North Koreans proclaim a philosophy of self-reliance and absolute autonomy they call “juche.”

    I wager that one might pronounce "juche" as "juice". So is that the DPRK version of swag?

  • MOFO.||

    Ive always heard it pronounced like jew-shay

  • Faceless Commenter||


  • ||

    Antisemitism, straight up.

  • sphilben||

    What's the highest mountain (산) in Korea? 낙하산 (parachute)!

    Hmm, it's funnier in Korean.

  • XM||

    Why do Americans call Koreans "gooks"? Because when they get off the airplane in America, the first thing they say is "Migook!" ("America" in Korean)

  • BrendaMitchell||

    what Jonathan implied I'm surprised that you able to get paid $8990 in a few weeks on the internet. have you read this site...

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    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.

    I read somewhere that the police/military will shut off all of the power to a building, then check room by room for VCRs and unapproved tapes.

  • Tomblvd||

    They don't have to shut off the power, they just wait around until it goes off by itself, which it always does.

  • XM||

    Subak, not Supak.


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