Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Democratic People's Republic of Korea - part 4

I have seven parts planned altogether to tell my mini story of North Korea, and I thought number four would be a good time for a light intermission. At least that’s what I thought this post would be, but after writing it out, I personally found it to be one of the most thought-provoking.

I can remember so clearly one moment on my trip. I was in the back seat of the bus looking out across the countryside and I was thinking about what it meant to be a human being. Rice terracing stretched as far as I could see and hunched bodies with baskets on their backs spotted the landscape. Where the square fields intersected there would be an occasional small structure made of bamboo. Each one was a couple of meters off the ground and just had a flat floor big enough for a farmer to lie down on, and big fresh green palm leaves for a semi-roof. What stroke of luck was it, that I was born exactly where and when I was, instead of where and when that farmer was born. Was it lucky at all? What is her life? When she thinks about humans, what does she think about? When she lies down on her bamboo mat, looking out across her rice fields, is she getting bitten by mosquitoes? In several hours of driving I saw only one tractor, and it was very, very old. There were cows for tilling and horses for transport and there were humans for work. It was all very clear. The sun was setting and as it became difficult to look out across the bright orange sunlit land, my attention turned inwards to the bus. One of our local guides, Mr. Kim (so many men in DPRK are called Kim, can you guess why?) always sat at the back of the bus with a few of us. We enjoyed talking to him about his country and found that after a few days of having treated him with respect, and more importantly, as one of us, he turned out to be a first-rate guy.

Mr. Kim was a very special North Korean who had a life vastly different from the average experience of his fellow citizens. His parents lived in China as business people working the connections between PRC and DPRK, so from a young age he was destined for a job which tiptoed along the border of his country and the rest of the world. Just like all young men in DPRK, he fulfilled his compulsory military duties after leaving school, but after serving he was essentially destined for the Korean International Tourism Company (KITC). The government has complete control over the KITC and is super selective when it comes to staff. Understandably so. These guides work and exist in a limbo land of constant risk – moving between two sets of reality. Two different worlds with competing and contradictory fundamentals. Mr. Kim is very aware of ‘the other side of the story’, and to treat him – or any other guide – otherwise would be an insult.

Gareth told us the story of one man on a previous tour who had taken it upon himself to ‘educate’ the guides about how shit their country ‘really’ was. He sat down with one particular guide and bluntly asked her sensitive questions about the history of the wars, and then made her listen to ‘what actually happened’. He asked about her feelings towards The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sun, and when she replied in the same way all North Koreans would (that she loved and admired him as the founder of her nation) he told her about all the horrible things that he did in history, how selfish he was because of his corruption and how stupid he was because of his Juche ideas. He insulted North Korean people by making an example of how terrible their education system was, and told her about the comparative quality-of-life statistics between his country (England) and hers. He spoke about his country as a nirvana land of free speech, free religion and freedom of identity where the people ruled the government and had the internet. He ‘taught’ her about how unhappy she was. He sat down with the intention of trying to make her understand how shit her life really was. I don’t know how long he talked at her for, but I do know that she left crying.

Was she crying due to the revelation that this British man intended to impose on her? No, she wasn’t. She went to Gareth, crying, saying “he treats me like a child.” There was no revelation. She isn’t an idiot. She isn’t a savage that needs to be cultured. She has access to the outside world and of course she has heard the other side of ‘The North Korea’ story. She was crying because she was tired of fuckheads coming to her country and treating her like an imbecile. What was that man trying to achieve? Did he enjoy making her feel like a prisoner? She already knows she is. Did he enjoy making her feel that way with the knowledge that he was leaving after seven days, and she is trapped there for life? What choice does she have? No choice. North Korea is her life, that does not mean she deserves to be treated differently than other human beings. We are born into our lives. More often than we like to admit, they grow around us and we can only watch as things progress.

Hearing this story threw me a pretty big curveball. I looked at our guide Mr. Kim again, in a slightly different light. Somebody was showing him their iPod touch. (Now that is something I will never forget -  watching a North Korean try and learn to play Angry Birds. What a universal moment. Talkabout mindblowing. ) The person had saved a Wikipedia page onto the Touch and managed to sneak the device past the customs entrance checks. I was too far away to see any of the details of the page, other than the Wikipedia format and logo, but what I did see was Mr. Kim reacting to the page in front of him. It was the image of a man truly torn. He was an intelligent and naturally curious individual, he had access to the outside world and knew about the organism of the internet and Wikipedia. He also, very clearly, knew that he shouldn’t be looking at such information. The result was Mr. Kim becoming very subdued, and feigning tiredness, retiring to a different section of the bus up front near the other guides. What I had witnessed was a mild version of the dickhead anecdote. Somebody saved that Wikipedia page intending to either ‘educate’ Mr. Kim, or to use him as some kind of experiment just to ‘see what he would do’. I don’t like to think of these examples of human nature, but some troubling questions about humanity certainly do arise on these kinds of journeys to these kinds of places. Often from the most unexpected places. Who would have thought my notions of such things would be changed from within the tour bus.

That evening one of the nice British tourists in my group told me that at one of our stops to a supermarket, he offered a local man some pieces of chewing gum – the pellet kind. The shop clerk was astonished and so so excited, he thanked the British man profusely and carefully put the two pellets in his pocket.

What do you even begin to think about when you hear that story?

I think about it every time I see chewing gum now. I went on this trip looking for some answers, but as usual, I just got more questions. 

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