Saturday, September 10, 2011

Democratic People's Republic of Korea - part 6 (conclusion)

Our hotel was on a little island with one bridge in and one bridge out. One night we went for a walk around the island by ourselves without the guide, and the next morning we recived a sombre scaolding about the "incident".
I suppose the final thing I would really like to talk about regarding the North Korea trip fits itself rather well into a kind of conclusion for this series of posts. A trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is more like a journey back in time than it is a distance of space between one place and another. I think, above all, North Korea taught me a lesson about history. About the way that systems and societies develop through time. About the way that human beings themselves change in nature over time – ‘evolution’, I believe it’s called. Not in a biological way, of course, but in a way that makes us look back on our ancestry and feel both pride and horror simultaneously. It’s the same kind of way that you look back on your teenage self and feel repulsed. No? Just me? Okay then let’s move on.
Government-published newspapers sit in public stands like this for people to read. The papers cannot be scrunched or put in the bin because the have Kim's face in/on them. If someone intends of getting rid of the newspaper, it must be respectfully folder (preferrably without the face folded) and respectfully placed somewhere for someone to respectfully take it away.
Upon arrival I was quick to notice that DPRK was the splitting image of what China was in the late 70’s early 80’s when it was first opening up. Not because I’m particularly good at that kind of observation, but because it was so damn obvious. Take clothing, for example. A communist government seeks to keep all citizens as one big unit of inseparable equality, and regulating clothing is the perfect way to do that. It is a natural conclusion to draw, then, that in their grey uniforms and standard outfits, they might in fact look incredibly similar to how China did several decades ago, because at that time China was also a strict communist country. It helps that they all have the same colour of hair too, but the example extends to every single visual variable of the nation. The architecture is instantly recognisable and could be from Soviet Russia. The current trains are often old gifts from the Soviets, or at least made from Soviet designs, and the plane I flew from Pyongyang back to Beijing was the Air Koryo airline whose planes are all decommissioned from original Soviet use. The newspapers are all owned by the state and are painfully predictable, bearing a striking resemblance to the propaganda leaflets of Nazi Germany. The big portraits of the Kims everywhere are straight out of the Dummies Guide to Communism. These are only the visual examples, but my point is that North Korea could be one of many countries if you only travelled back in time instead of across the land and ocean.
They all wear the same clothes. Either the uniform of all grey (left), or a pale shirt with black pants. All of them.
The not-so-visual examples of policy, control and fear, are much more offensive examples of course and need not even be listed again here. On the whole it is a terrible country, but riddle me this: as fair-minded people of advanced civilizations with wondrously clear notions of what humanity is, do we still deem it as acceptable to call a tribe of people living off the land as ‘savages’ because their society is not as ‘developed’ as ours is? Do we still believe that ‘we’ are better than ‘them’ because we appear to exist centuries ahead of them in science and table manners? No, we do not. We are taught that the word ‘different’ is to be used in place of ‘better’. I used to think that was a load of politically correct rubbish, because none of my people died from smallpox anymore and forks are great for spaghetti, but the Masai people do not commit suicide from accumulations of unpayable bank loans, nor do they really contribute to global warming. When a child has learning difficulties in class and falls behind she is no longer beaten, and when a pup is born the runt of the litter he is no longer drowned. I believe I am coming to understand that many of the differences between different countries of the world exist not because of a difference in the fundamentals of humanity, but because of a discrepancy between time frames.

Perhaps I am not making myself clear. When I landed back in China I felt as though I was free again. Yeah. I felt free – in China. How crazy is that? Pretty damn crazy. If I went back 40 years ago, I would feel as suffocated in China as I did in North Korea. If North Korea opened up tomorrow and we went 40 years into the future in a Tardis, I honestly believe that as a country, it would enjoy great levels of general betterness. How long is fort years? It’s really not that long. Not that long at all. The people I met in North Korea were not evil. They are communist because they were raised that way, in the same way that you and I believe in a system of voting which is often messy and ineffective. They are the same sacks of blood and organs and spirit encased in skins that differ only ever so slightly from yours and mine. Give them the gift of openness and forty years, and tell me what you think would result. Everything important about a human being gets better with time. 

We were, of course, subjects of intense scrutiny and attention.
What this kind of thought also reveals to me, is just how far China has really come. In the same way that people are born into different circumstances in life, I think it is possible to say that countries begin in certain (read: unfair) circumstances. Hardships and setbacks that they begin with – things that they have to carry on their shoulders where others have no weight. Even culture and tradition can be weights themselves, and such things are inseparable from the country itself. The opium wars and the Korean wars, the struggle against and then for and then against communism. A massive population over a massive space with unsteady leadership. Every country has a cross (or several) to bear. Long ago it was decided that when it comes to measuring human beings against one another, a paradigm like social Darwinism simply isn’t fair and will never work. We might be running the same race, but nobody begins on a equal starting line. Perhaps humans, and indeed countries, cannot be wholly judged on where they stand now, but by how far they have come. Australia is such a young nation. We have metaphorical rosy cheeks and always had bigger siblings to help us learn the ropes. We are still, in fact, within the Commonwealth and being about 200 years old (as opposed to thousands of years) we do not have heavy weights of history or culture or tradition holding us down. Australia may have started with convicts and a bloody and disgusting battle for land with it’s rightful owners, but compared to a lot of countries, we have it easy. We began with democracy – there was no need to fight for it and there is no ‘losing team’ who resent it. Our nation began with all of England’s history behind us. We were able to learn a lot of lessons from others’ mistakes. We are the classic youngest child.

Just one example of the many, many monuments that we saw. They have a thing for monuments. Seriously. So many.
I have begun to look at China with a softer eye. This doesn’t meet that I don’t see the faults and sores, but I believe that I now have a fuller perspective of their weight. I know the scale now. Before I went to North Korea I didn’t realise what 1 meant compared to 10 when you’re comparing countries. The trip has made me to reevaluate what I originally thought of as being ‘terrible’ and ‘shocking’, and it’s also made me a lot more perceptive to the good that occurs right under my nose. The transformation that China has undergone has been a rapid and epic one, something akin to hurricane or cyclone. They began with a rough false start, and have been sprinting madly ever since. Things like the ‘one child’ policy give me faith that China is on the right track and things like Tibet make me think it isn’t, but I know for sure that if spitting in public makes me truly furious, then my perspective is way off. It’s all about perspective and it’s all about the scale, and I’m trying not to sweat the small stuff now that I can see how small it really is.

I wish I could go back in time to see what China was like when it first opened up. I have no doubt it would bear a striking resemblance to what I saw in North Korea (but perhaps slightly more populated). I feel as though I just met the parents of China and saw it’s childhood home. Now I understand where it comes from and how far it has travelled from it’s origins. How often do we dismiss an individual on infinite grounds, only to feel guilty and offer redemption when we discover a sad past – a difficult beginning. Being bullied does not excuse the act of bullying, but it helps us to understand. My trip to North Korea helped me understand China in a way I never could have imagined.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, North Korea. Now, not every traveller can say they have been there! :)

    You took amazing photos and you write very well. I am very glad I am at least able to read about it.


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