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I struggled to find the words. “It’s like a lobster that lives in the desert, and its tail can sting you with poison.”
“Oh, like a monster.”
“No, it’s real.” I pulled out my pen and paper and drew her a passable picture.
She stared at it and simply shrugged. “We don’t have that here.” I thought about how I knew about scorpions, and the ways were myriad: nature shows on TV, books, biology class, the astrological sign, action figures, horror movies, comics. But since they didn’t have any of these things in North Korea, there was no reason for Kim to know about them. The censorship was that all-encompassing.
Or was it? What did she know and how did she know it? I tried to feel Kim out during our travels together, stumbling for the borders of the ignorance she was forced to endure. They had a circus; did they have clowns? “Oh, you mean like a joker?” OK, so there was that. Were the rumors true? Had they in fact heard Gangnam Style? “I did, but I didn’t understand all of it,” she confessed. Yes, she had an “oppa” (big brother) like PSY referenced. And yes, in a moment of unintentional Orwellianism, she admitted to loving her big brother.
I couldn’t figure out how to ask Kim about world events or history. I knew this would be a touchy subject leaving for little back-and-forth. Picking her brain would easily come off as arguing, and would cause her native paranoia to kick in. I wanted to ask about the Holocaust, but knew World War II was an extremely sensitive area. I thought of the most world-famous event I could that would have little bearing on North Korea, and so at one point simply asked Kim if she had heard of 9/11.
“Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes at my obtuseness. “We saw it on the television.”
Her reaction was telling. She clearly felt that, though the media might be biased, it wasn’t particularly censored. In her view, the state media wouldn’t keep such major world events a secret.
I still remain quite surprised that they played the actual video. Despite the obvious reveling in America taking a hit, one can’t show 9/11 footage without showing something that most of us no longer register in those shots: the New York City skyline. The closest thing in Pyongyang is the 100-plus story Ryugyong Hotel (“The Hotel of Doom”) a never-finished monstrosity that’s been dubbed the worst building in the world and usually excluded from official photos. The comparisons between the wicked New York of their propaganda and the glowing skyscrapers, calling to immigrants like sirens of myth, could not be any greater.
The next day we were taken to the International Friendship Exhibition, the one place where we weren’t allowed to take photographs, which was odd even by North Korean standards since it’s an exhibit and an honest one. We passed through huge ornate doors and replaced our shoes with paper slippers, so as not to scuff the beautiful wooden floors. The climate inside was carefully controlled, and there were no windows. There were seven floors in total, judging by the elevator schematic. This is where all the gifts that the leaders received were put on display, for all the people to enjoy.
The basketball that Madeline Albright brought Kim Jong Il was in a case alongside kitschy Eastern European samovar sets. An old PC, complete with manual, was duly presented behind glass. As the exhibit guide took us around the first room, pointing out the significance of various objects, my eyes fell upon what is, literally, the craziest picture I have ever seen. It was a two-sided painting mounted on a pedestal. On the near side was Kim Jong Il in chain mail, wielding a broadsword, riding a tiger through the snow. On the verso he was in his traditional leisure suit, the tiger now splayed on the ground. Kim Jong Il stood with one foot on top of its head, smoking a cigarette, having just killed the tiger—or perhaps having just laid it.
There is a sense among Westerners that the Leaders are a sort of omnipresent Big Brother. This is true but imprecise. For while 100 percent of the signage is propaganda, there is far less signage overall than in the West. A typical subway car in New York City might have 40 ads, while the Pyongyang metro would only have one photo apiece of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Conversely, our president’s framed picture hangs in every government office. Of course, the DPRK doesn’t confine government to mere offices; it’s everywhere.
The propaganda has also been losing its effectiveness. North Korean founder Kim Il Sung is regarded as a war hero who “liberated” the DPRK from Japanese rule. Under his reign—and thanks to North Korea playing Russia against China for aid—North Korea’s economy actually outpaced the South’s for decades. But with Kim’s death and the rise of his son in 1994 came floods, an embargo, and a devastating famine. Kim Jong Il received popular blame for the carnage.
It may be easy to convince an isolated population that they have “nothing to envy in the world,” as one of their popular songs goes. But it’s practically impossible to convince them that they have more food this year than they did last. Even if that’s the fault of Yankee imperialist bastards, Kim Jong Il either authorized the actions or was powerless to stop them. The famous Kim Jong Il stories (“He has perfect pitch!” “He can shrink time!” “He can change the weather!”) serve a very real function: they’re political ads designed to convince a skeptical, not credulous, populace that the son is the equal to the father.
Evening in Pyongyang