I Went To North Korea: What You’ve Heard Vs. What I Saw

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I recently spent a few weeks in North koreans. Because that’s a moderately more unconventional vacation destination than Disneyland. Because Americans are about to be banned from inspecting like it’s an entire country that your mothers think is a bad influence on you, I thought you’d like to hear about it. Seven carefully self-controlled periods isn’t enough time to become an expert in different countries, let alone one this complicated, and the best people to tell the story are Koreans themselves. But they’re not really available right now, so here’s what an internet dick-joke novelist thought.


Some Myths Are Broken Almost Immediately

We are all endlessly mesmerized by North koreans, but it’s almost impossible to get accurate information out of the two countries. That combination has developed a dangerous scenario where anything that’s said about it , no matter how ridiculous, will happily be ingested up by Westerners looking to laugh at North Korea’s “insanity, ” like it’s a 25 -million-person-strong surrealist sitcom produced for our delight. No, a general wasn’t executed by mortar ardor .~ ATAGEND No, they didn’t claim to have discovered unicorns .~ ATAGEND No, they never said that Kim Jong-il shot five holes-in-one in one competition of golf .~ ATAGEND These legends begin as rumors or parody and are then recurred as fact by Western media because hey, it’s North Korea — it has is correct, right? It’s like expressed his belief that America is merely the sum of Twitter trolls and Florida crime narrations, but there’s an appetite for it.

Mark Hill
Kim Jong-il is apparently great at opening tractor doorways, though .

I’m not about to argue that the country is secretly a paradise. But if we reduce North koreans to a nation run by cartoon supervillains, it becomes evenly absurd and dangerous. Their government may be atrocious, but there’s still a clear logic to their actions — to dismiss them as madmen invites the psychotic imagination and feeling that nuclear war is just a birthed Kim Jong-un’s whim away. Unfortunately, our tour didn’t get the chance to sit in on any high-level strategy meetings, but that same pipeline of anticipate extended to all is. It may be foreign, and it may often be inhuman, but it’s not a dark fantasyland — there’s a ground for all of it, even if that reasoning rarely accounts for human happiness.

Even mere sightseeing debunked a good gob of what swims around online. There is, for example, a theory that Pyongyang’s metro depot consists of only two stops that run only when sightseers visit. Well, I go through six stops, and I can’t imagine that the government has nothing better to do with its day and resources than to establish hundreds of performers pretend to ride it with us for potential benefits of a motley accumulation of seeing columnists, teaches, and computer programmers. Shockingly, it is about to change that dictatorships are capable of conserving basic public transportation, presumably since they are like it when their people make it to work on time. But that’s all part of the biggest myth about North koreans …


No, They’re Not Just Doing It To Impress Westerners

A common reaction to hearing about my trip-up is that I’m not ascertaining real North koreans. I’m just seeing the very best divisions that they’re putting up as a front for the tour group. If everything about tours of North Korea is to be undertaken to impress foreigners, the whole concept is self-defeating, as even their most impressive spates fail to live up to a modest Western standard of living. Tabloids like to write breathless “exposes” about seemingly empty restaurants supposedly replenishing up with locals once sightseers sit down, as though Koreans snacking nutrient( wow, they think they’re people !) will blow the minds of sightseers seeing eateries where the lights glint and the bathroom doorways are too warped to close.

Tabloids also like to write about tourists who supposedly snuck out photos that the Korean government “doesn’t want you to see.” I was able to take over 3000 photos and videos without occurrence, and most of these supposedly “banned” photos either obeyed all the rules, or dickishly discounted a few simple entreaties, such as not taking close-ups of individuals without their permission( in the West that’s called being respectful, but when North Korea asks for the same politenes it morphs into ominous proof of misrepresentation ).

One site presents a picture of a department store as a secretive drive of “very stressful” snoop craftsmanship that risked the photographer’s life. In world, you weren’t allowed to take photos of department stores for the same reason that you wouldn’t placed 20 Korean tourists armed with cameras loose in a Safeway — it’s a busy working place where neighbourhoods are leading about their day and wouldn’t realize cameras being shoved in their faces while their efforts to pick out a cereal. Harmonizing to our Western guide, who has had to deal with people who smashed photography principles, the final result isn’t years of hard labor — it’s a bureaucratic nightmare for the guides while the delinquent gets to go back to the hotel and have a swim.

The reality is much more banal, more quietly tragic. Yes, the locates you encounter are self-controlled. You’re exclusively taken to Korea’s better schools and restaurants and accommodations, often like how a tour guide of the United States wouldn’t take you to check out Flint’s water supply and a CIA black-site before putting you up in a roach-infested roadside motel. But their top colleges and museums shortage igniting and air conditioning. Their fine tourist inns give you an hour of sputtering hot water in discolored bathrooms that scarcity shower leaders but feature insect roommates. Bathrooms in their top restaurants are sometimes backed up and ever filthy. The streets that take you to their massive tombstones are bumpy and pockmarked. Storage inventories examine thin. Freeways are repaved by hand, and decrepit women pick weeds in public ballparks. Their war museum has hundreds of flaming extinguishers strewn about in lieu of sprinklers. A mineral-water bottling mill ran into technical impediments. In the country you picture bony kine and exactly what we barely more than hovels. Children and the elderly act realms, some of the latter hunched over permanently. Everyone is thin, and many people examine tired. Signs of poverty and underdevelopment are everywhere and obvious. Obscuring it would be the greatest stage conduct ever been developed by humankind.

Believing that everything is designed to fool Westerners is laughable and arrogant. North Korea is well aware that an erratically lighted, broken-down bowling alley isn’t going to punch the mindset of tourists, and it’s dubiou that they’re desperate for the was approved by a duo dozen random nones with zero political force. What they do seem to want to show us is that life there is normal, in its own style; that “even North Koreans” go out with their friends and family after a day’s study. And that’s perhaps the most difficult occasion the West fails to understand. Signs of poverty were everywhere, but so were barrooms, volleyball games, playgrounds, swimming pool, families in parks, students boobing around … the greatest story is that life in North Korea is alien and unrecognizable to the rest of humanity. But despite the many horrifying gaps, life does go on.


A Few Sightseers Simply Seem To Crave Drama

Let’s go back to those supposedly rogue photographers who told tabloids that, if they had been caught, they would have faced severe penalty. While “were in” told repeatedly about the draconian consequences of breaking the law( if you’re planning to rob person, don’t do it in North Korea ), sanction for minor infractions came in a different format.

Nearly all Western sightseers visit the Palace Of The Sun, a massive, imposing mausoleum where the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are on display. This is an extremely important and somber point, where visitors are expected to be on their best behavior. Harmonizing to our Western guide, a sightseer once decided to say “fuck that” and perform a handstand, which is like taking a shit on the Lincoln Memorial. Nothing happened to him, but both sets of Korean guides supervising the trip-up were fired. It’s not fun to be unemployed in any country, but I’m guessing that it’s even less fun in North Korea.

It rapidly became apparent that while most tourists had done their homework, a few treated the trip-up as a spur-of-the-moment whimsy, like springtime breaking intersected with Alcatraz: somewhere you could get drunk inexpensive, attack neighbourhood girls, or jostle your camera into the faces of neighbourhoods like they were zoo animals.

One couple seemed sickened that Korea was full of Korean food; others grumbled that snacks were slow or that their bathtubs were stained, apparently unaware that they were living better than the great majority of countries around the world that didn’t speak the language the latter are ordering their drinks in. Most sightseers were great! But some retained a feeling of supremacy, as though it was a profound observation to point out that Korean technology was dated, or that an obvious falsehood told at a museum was, indeed, false. It was uncomfortable, like watching people lucky enough to have rich mothers taunt poor people for not working hard enough, but on a national scale.

The occasional flouting of rules( on our first night, one sightseer got drunk, tried to stray into a inn kitchen, then tried to leave the hotel fields altogether) have all contributed to a lot of puns about the potential to be arrested or killed, and observations from relevant rules breakers that they weren’t afraid of the consequences. They didn’t mention the possibility that it would be a neighbourhood get in fus for them.

A couple people were convinced that a automobile that seemed to be following us was full of secret government minders who were watching our watchers( it turned out to be a private tour that was seeing some of the same sites ), and likewise had considered that two clearly different people we had experienced throughout the day were the same secret policewoman masquerading as a waitress. One sightseer insisted that respectful questions from our Korean guides were part of a scheme to spy on us, as though they were going to cap off their 14 -hour eras by rushing back to their rooms and furtively noting further that Albert from Marseille is an accountant who love field hockey, the imperialist swine.

So, to a hand-picked minority, part of the appeal of visiting North koreans is police-state tourism — pretend to experience the oppression that the locals have to put up with daily, then be arrogant about having the freedom to respond with irony. There are blogs and videos of tourists sneaking into restricted areas of the main tourist inn, persuaded they’ll find an elaborate spy system dedicated to watching clients shower and sleep, as opposed to — and I’m just spitballing here — somewhere employees can have a smash from nosy Westerners, or work in private. The Otto Warmbier affair induces these escapades examine ominous in retrospect. Unfortunately, they likewise make it clear how such tragedies could happen.


North Korea’s Attitude Towards Foreigners Is Nuanced

North Korea builds provocative anti-American announcements about as often as children announce that they like ice cream, so it’s reasonable to assume that the two countries is full-of-the-moon of anti-American propaganda. In actuality, it was mostly limited to endow stores — for national societies that supposedly scorns capitalism, North Korea is very good at filtering sightseers into places where they can excitedly buy postcards and artwork publishes that outline their own culture’s downfall, amongst other souvenir. Even Victory Day, which celebrates the end of the Korean War, peculiarity colorful pennants and public dances, but no clues of Uncle sam being skewered.

The war is everything. The museum is sleek and massive , boasting chamber after chamber of exhibits, foyers idolizing war heroes, a recreation of a soldiers’ clique in both summertime and wintertime, a giant, revolving, 360 -degree diorama of the Battle Of Taejon complete with special effects, and endless showings of captured American war material. Most notably, the committee is also holds the USS Pueblo ,~ ATAGEND impounded in 1968 and presented as proof that, while the conflict intent, American aggression never did. The video that accompanies the Pueblo tour is complete with dramatic the declarations and music that generates a view of what it would be like if America was the Empire in Star Wars . There are also multiple coffee shops.

The vast majority of the museum is dedicated to the Korean War. China’s crucial contribution is heavily downplayed and not on the regular tourist road, as is the Soviet Union’s role. We were taught how America started the struggle( false ), how Kim Il-sung’s genius saved the commonwealth( it was mostly China bailing him out after cautioning him it was a bad theory in the beginning ), and how America perpetrated a parade of war crimes and arbitrarily bombed civilians( an ugly, largely forgotten fact ). North Korea’s own war crimes run unmentioned.

Every country requires foundational stories. America venerates the Revolutionary War, Canada has giant gold statues of Wayne Gretzky everywhere, etc. But a relatively short-lived tyranny in a property with a long biography wants stories more than most, and the struggle offer it. The museum sends a clear message — we prevailed an incredible succes, but the Americans could revert at a few moments, looking for retaliation and willing to bombard randomly again.

But that doesn’t means that North Koreans have been reduced to a dazzle hatred and dread of Americans. The museum guide’s lecture on the evil American imperialists was delivered with the feeling of someone who just wanted to get through another era, and she was happy to chit-chats and pose for photos. Despite the endless militaristic atmosphere, politeness and interest tends to win out. We were constantly asked about where we were from, one navigate joked that he liked American females since this is tall, you can scrounge up cans of Coke, and Titanic ( sans boobs) and Disney cinemas make it onto TV. Other Western pop culture exists in limbo — James Bond movies, for example, are accepted as long as you keep your love of them private( can we use that organization in the West too, delight ?) and we were told that it’s not hard to track down some other Western cinemas if you know a person who knows a person. It seems the average person would rather watch a movie than campaigned a conflict , no matter where you’re from.


Their Relationship With Their Chairman Is Complicated

It’s impossible to talk about North Korea without talking about their leadership. Images and statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are everywhere, and Kim Jong-un is spoken of with deference. Most notable are the monster pair of statues in every city’s square, where locals pay their respects by bowing and leaving blooms. The statues in Pyongyang are especially large, and specially disquieting.

There’s nothing inherently odd about memorializing dead presidents, and structure monster statues is arguably less strange than carving honchoes into a mountainside. But it’s impossible to reconcile the smiling faces of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il with the poverty and underdevelopment that extends out before them. They’re gravestones to a civilization that never quite got off the floor, even after decades of trying.

The commanders are credited, typically spuriously, with almost every accomplishment in the country’s record — sometimes instantly, sometimes by serving as inspiration or by providing a key hypothesi. These says, while countless, was ever as nonsensical as what we’ve listened in the West. There’s lots of talk of Kim Il-sung coming up with a genius farming technique or Kim Jong-il innovating doctrine patterns, but never anything that they are able to strike even a willing intellect as outside the realm of possibility. It does become absurdly excess at times — Pyongyang’s railroad museum is less about the development of their railway and more of an extended tribute to Kim Il-sung’s grandeur for coming up with the notion of “Hey, let’s have trains” in the first place, although as tourists we were always welcome to only half-listen while taking photos or straying off a little bit. But in many exhibits, praising the leaders was tacked on as an aside, a brief formality before the curator could get down to business( “By the mode, it was our beloved President Kim Il-sung’s plan to expand our steel industry, but anyway, here’s how we make it” ).

It’s easy to reject the entire population as indoctrinated thanks to the ceaseless message that the Kims is in charge of nearly every good notion the two countries has ever had. And it’s impossible to set ourselves in the headspace of someone who has had these impressions drilled into them since birth. But even over the course of a week, our positions shifted from “Holy shit, another portrait of the Kims! Let’s all goon and take drawings! ” to “Oh, hey, some more Kim stuff. Anyway, does anyone remember what time we’re having dinner? ” One can only speculate as to how many people on the street truly believe, and how many are simply exiting along with it so they can go home to their loved ones for another night. For what it’s worth, renegades have claimed that it’s merely boring background interference to a lot of North Koreans, like a country run by that friend you’ve learned to tune out whenever they start boasting about how healthy their diet is.

A system like North Korea’s needs some true-blue adherents to purpose, or at the least a lot of people willing to go along with it. Apolitical conversations with our Korean guidebooks about boasts or Western life could be interrupted with a quick aside about how great their leaders were, before segueing right back into the subject at hand, leaving us wondering if the latter are severe or exactly maintaining up appearings. And at times you couldn’t help but wonder if, deep down , no one actually feels, and the entire system is a mirage kept extant through sheer inertia.

Our Western guide have also pointed out that, behind closed- door, there is some quiet dissent and political dialogue between close friends, and that one of the side effects of a tyranny making its people a good education is that people will want to utilization their educations. Decades of entrenched red tape and infrastructure for punishment, centuries of social tradition towards the treatment of sovereignty ,~ ATAGEND and the analysis of danger versus wage are just as important to propping up Kim Jong-un as brainwashing. It’s easy to write off anyone who places up with it as a half-crazed adherent, but you’d be hesitant to foster rebellion too if it necessitated the health risks loss of food in your stomach, a roof over your manager, and the well-being of their own families. If you create a police state, you generate people who consider their options carefully before acting.

Perhaps the most telling anecdote of life under the Kims came where reference is ran for a walk through Kaesong ,~ ATAGEND where we could see through the windows of one row of houses. The homes were sparse and filthy, but on every wall were immaculate portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

It leaves you wondering if, the working day, they will be the focus of a very different various kinds of museum. But until then …


It’s A Country Of People Trying To Represent The Better Of Dictatorship

The most memorable encounter I had in North koreans was with a middle-aged man who worked at the Grand People’s Study House, which is like their biggest public library spanned with a community college bridged with a house that Ethan Hunt would try to break into.

He addrest flawless English, was funny and animated, and was heartfelt about working to provide knowledge to people. He was apolitical, and questioned us musing questions. He was honest about their budget issues, and seemed well aware that informing us of how they had switched from card catalog to computers passing Windows 2000 ten years ago was not bragworthy. But “hes taken” dignity in operating the two institutions where kids could come read and adults could brush up on professional skills. He’s the guy I’m going to think of the next time I visualize commentaries like these that are casually heartening for the death of millions 😛 TAGEND

There is no denying North Korea’s atrocious human rights evidence ,~ ATAGEND and memoirs of renegades who existed North Korea’s work camp are haunting. But apparently we often forget that those human rights abuses are applied to, well, humans. Seniors who were taking their grandchildren out for goes, and who violated into large-hearted smiles when people started fawning over the children. A picket at the DMZ, one of the more sensitive armed instillations on countries around the world, who cracked up at the goofy hat a sightseer had bought and asked if he could try it on. Teenagers at the water park who gossiped, chuckled, objected and motioned at, and can often fascinated by the abrupt appearance of awkward-looking white-hot dudes. These are people who enjoy virtually no exemptions and are regularly pressed into forced labor ,~ ATAGEND yet are still eager to show off their country’s verdant natural attractivenes and rich, apolitical ancient history. It is a nation of survivors .~ ATAGEND

There will probably never be conflict with North koreans , not even after North Korea’s latest threats and President Trump’s latest incontinent ramblings( remember when North koreans released a video showing Washington D.C. getting nuked ,~ ATAGEND and then nothing arose ?). The West doesn’t want the headache, and North Korean leadership known to be any conflict concluded with anything from their incarceration to their grisly fatalities. Hinder in brain that, every time a news site trots out a fearmongering “Will North Korea kill us all with atomic weapon? ” headline, the answer is “No, but they will continue to stir life miserable for their own people.”

And then there’s the travel ban. The controversy that it’s to the security of Americans hoops hollow given that people are still free to, answer, visit the front line in the battle against ISIS, risk get was abducted in Caracas, or trek into urban Afghanistan and publicly blame Islam. Censoring Americans from visiting North koreans stimulates for dramatic saber rattling, but likewise achieves good-for-nothing to improve the lives of Koreans, while eliminating one of the few opportunities for both sides to find each other as people instead of as headlines about nuclear obliteration. That may signify very few in the grand scheme of things, but it is not nothing .~ ATAGEND

Change in North Korea will likely be excruciatingly slow ,~ ATAGEND and it will almost certainly be painful, but hidden behind the headlines of militarization and madnes are narrations of modern engineering helping to smuggle the world into North Korea ,~ ATAGEND to people willing to jeopardy all is glimpse it. That’s fairly damn impressive considering that I fall into desperation when I’m without my phone for a few hours.

Special thanks to Koryo Tours ,~ ATAGEND who can take you to North koreans too if you want to prevail every trip conversation you’ll ever have with your friends. Mark has a notebook and is on Twitter .~ ATAGEND

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