Friday, September 11, 2009

Journey to the Hermit Kingdom

Two Canadian journalists went to North Korea last month and described the experience in an article for The Globe and Mail. Free of the typical experience of those who visit the country, who are typically shepherded around in tour groups, the Canadians were given an unusually close look at the Stalinist outpost.

Two things stood out to me, the first being the grinding poverty and technological level that can perhaps best be described as medieval:
Some of the scenes we saw as our train rolled through a succession of crumbling towns and farming communities on its way to Pyongyang were startling. An entire village waded in a canal, dredging it with their bare hands. An old woman and a younger woman walked, kilometres from anywhere, carrying jugs of water attached to bamboo poles slung over their shoulders. Weaponless soldiers in mismatching footwear filled sandbags for a war the government insists could start at any time.

In a country with chronic food shortages, rice and corn fields are everywhere. The problem, however, lies in the outdated techniques on which the farmers are forced to rely in the absence of fuel and farm equipment. In the hundreds of fields through which we drove by train and car (there seems to be plenty of fuel for tourists and government officials) during our stay, I saw only two antiquated tractors, only one of which was moving. Even though the fields were many hectares in size, most of the work was done with hoes and spades, or by digging in the soil with bare hands.

There were few cars even on the streets of Pyongyang, and almost none outside of the country's showcase capital city. In the countryside, it was almost as common to see a farm animal in the middle of one of the divided four-lane highways as it was to see a private car.

Though our guides bragged of the city's mass transportation system, which costs just pennies to ride – a standard part of the tour involves showing off a metro system decorated with larger-than-life murals celebrating the achievements of Kim Il-sung – the vast majority of North Koreans seemed to walk wherever they were going, even if they were travelling from one town to the next.

It was obvious that even bicycles were too expensive for many. On the day we left, we saw dozens of uniformed pilots walking the 24-kilometre distance between Pyongyang and the capital's main airport.
The other noteworthy element is the appeal of Western culture and prosperity, which serves both to inspire North Koreans and question the approach taken by their own country:
It was also clear that for all the tanks and missiles deployed in the Korean peninsula, the strongest weapon the United States possesses is still the “soft power” that helped it win the Cold War in Eastern Europe, the lure of a culture that allows complete freedom of expression.

During our five days in North Korea, I repeatedly lent my iPod out to North Koreans I met, watching their reactions as they listened to songs and watched films unknown in a country where Internet access is denied to all but a very few and there's no such thing as a music store or a movie channel.

One Pyongyang resident who borrowed my earphones hummed along to the soft chorus of Nelly Furtado's All Good Things (Come to an End) , and gleefully started the song again as soon as it was over. At another juncture, I was asked to help write out the lyrics to Billy Joel's 1983 hit Uptown Girl .

Hip-hop and alternative rock music proved less popular, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall , the raunchy Judd Apatow comedy that, regrettably, was the only movie I'd downloaded for the trip, drew a slightly mortified thumbs-down. But the excitement generated by these rare glimpses of Western culture was far more revealing than the rote recitations of propaganda we received at stops like the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War – otherwise known as the Korean War – museum, the monument to the foundation of the Workers Party, or the Great Leader's mausoleum.

“Our hatred of American imperialism and our feelings for the American people are not the same thing,” one 20-something woman said after revealing an affection for Britney Spears songs and Harry Potter books. She, too, wore a red Kim Il-sung button over her heart.

After a week of dining in restaurants that had the same five music videos on rotation – all of them melodramatic hymns to the Dear Leader and the mighty North Korean military – it was easy to see how Oops, I Did it Again would be a breath of fresh air.
The appeal of our very way of life is the most effective weapon in the U.S. arsenal, and yet it is one kept tightly sheathed through economic sanctions. Our policy of isolating a country that prides itself on self-reliance and shuns foreign contact is something I do not understand. Beyond being morally bankrupt, depriving the North Koreans of exposure to Western ideas and commerce brings their eventual freedom not one day closer.

You can read about another visit to the country here.

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