My Week in North Korea

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

(Page 6 of 6)

That night we drove around Pyongyang. It is impossible to describe is what it’s like to be in a capital city that doesn’t have much electricity. There were some lights on in the high-rises, and some electric signs for restaurants were lit up, but most of the streetlights were dark. Yet the streets were full of people walking and talking while kids darted by on bicycles and rollerblades. Despite the darkness, I felt safer than I would in New York.

Kim went to the front of the bus, fiddled with a microphone, and began to sing a cappella. The song was “Arirang,” a traditional anthem of the Korean people. Though I didn’t understand the words, the poignancy behind it came through. The dark streets provided an appropriate backdrop to her voice. I grew up poor. I understood what it’s like to have pride in what you have, even if you have very little. And I understood what it was like to know what your poverty looks like to others. The guides must have understood this better than most of their countrymen. They could see how the poorest young tourists were still dressed better than all but the richest in North Korea.

The guides are exposed to more outside information than 99 percent of their country’s population, and speak with foreigners every day. Thanks to the tips they get, they are quite well off. As a result, the positions they hold are very competitive, and their loyalty to the state must be absolute. Or at least, they must be able to convey that impression to their superiors (who themselves must be able to perform the same pantomime).

Kim worked seven days a week for at least 12 hours a day—maybe 14. But she will never be able to, for example, buy hand lotion in the store, no matter how much money she has. She will never be able to see the Internet. She will never be able to go on a trip and will never be able to drive—let alone own—a car. She was in a position to live the best life North Korea had to offer, but she also knew enough to know that her life seemed inadequate compared to the rest of the world.

When Ayn Rand fled the Soviet Union in 1926, her cousin pulled her aside at the going-away party. “When they ask you in America,” he said, “tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery and that we are all dying slowly.” Did Kim feel the same way? I wanted to find out, but wasn’t sure how to ask. The fact was, she had less freedom to speak her mind than someone in Stalinist Russia nearly a century ago. Song’s job was to report on her, and vice versa. Everyone in North Korea is under constant surveillance and must answer to their comrades in weekly criticism sessions.

“You know,” I told Kim on our last night, “I came here to see what my family went through. And thanks to speaking with you, I really have a better understanding of how my mother grew up. She must have been a lot like you when she was your age, and her life was a lot like yours.”

Kim looked at me and paused. “Then your mother must have hated Russia.” Kim couldn’t have been more explicit. But she didn’t really need to be.  

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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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