How *Not* To Travel Through North Korea

by Gabriel Mizrahi on October 16, 2012

I’m often asked how I managed to capture so many photos and so much information in North Korea without a confrontation or a little trip to Yodok to explain/expunge my curiosity. Readers of The North Korea Blog recognize that the things I publish here reveal more about the country than the regime probably appreciates. For all that I do set down to paper, there’s a lot that I don’t, because I wouldn’t want my friends on the ground to endure any additional government-administered treatment. (Whatever the benefits of higher (re)education, no one wants to go back to school in North Korea.) And so the detail I include is often the detritus of much richer, gnarlier stuff I discovered on the ground, and that’s not an accident.

Citizens or actors? Depends on who’s doing the performing. Photograph by Andrew Lombardi

A Spiegel article last week reminded me why. In the piece — a sort of shoe-leather account of North Korea, if the shoes were meticulously shined and the leather avoided any new ground — Susanne Koelbl recounts her trip through the DPRK:

“Potemkin villages,” I scribble onto a scrap of paper for the interpreter, Mr. Kim. “What does that mean?” he asks. “It means that you are just showing us facades here to feign growth and progress, just as the Russian Prince Potemkin once did,” I reply. “You should google it.”

But Mr. Kim doesn’t recognize Ms. Koelbl’s spontaneous and perfectly-conceived reference, and she reminds us that Googling potemkin+villages “is not an option available to Mr. Kim,” because North Korea “is the only country on earth in which the people have no connection to the World Wide Web.” Let me ignore the pedantry for the moment and point out that by now, three days after its publication, a North Korean official has probably read Ms. Koelbl’s piece — online, I mean — and, after reading it, headed home to his Pyongyang flat and spent time with his family and probably had no trouble forgetting doozies like

In North Korea, there is no such thing as individuals. There is only the collective.

, and so what does it mean to

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say that “the people have no connection to the world wide web,” unless government officials don’t count as people, or at least don’t count as people whose familiarity with western media actually matters, which is a dangerous assumption when you realize that citizens are not their jobs (especially in totalitarian regimes, where, deceptively, it seems the opposite is true), and if anyone understands the irony of the regime and its relation to the outside world, it’s the officials with access to the Internet, and who do you think is most equipped to understand and/or change the regime? — and instead try to appreciate how frustrating it must have been for her that

Mr. Kim doesn’t understand why foreign guests always ask these questions: Why are so many men here dressed in uniforms? Does North Korea really need long-range missiles? Why does the government spend 60 percent of its budget on defense if annual GDP per capita is only $960 (€742) and the average adult only has access to 2,150 kilocalories a day? Why does the regime need reeducation camps? Why are we only driven on boulevards but are not shown any ordinary residential neighborhoods? And, finally: Why can we never move around without minders?

And also: Why is Ms. Koelbl the only one asking these tough questions? Which range from the sartorial to the ballistic to the nutritional, and oh, what’s up with the navigation — are you guys using Apple Maps or something? — and why can’t I just walk around by myself and stuff? Why Mr. Kim couldn’t answer these questions to her satisfaction is a mystery. And one we will never solve, because

This is too much for Mr. Kim. At the end of the day, he asks to be replaced.

And honestly, can you blame the guy? I would have asked for a transfer too. (n.b. for any future travelers: Something’s seriously wrong when the guy forced to live in the people’s paradise of North Korea finds your obsessive questioning so insufferable that he asks to be reassigned.)

Sadly, trips to the DPRK are filled with people like this. People who feel it’s their obligation (or, worse, just can’t help themselves) to point out that North Korea is [χ] and the U.S. is [γ] and we should be allowed to do [Ζ] and don’t you think it’s weird that [i], etc. You can spot these people as you make your way through customs at Sunan. They’re the ones putting their palms up and rolling their eyes when officials flip through their iPads, failing tragically to realize that the customs guys might actually be doing this for their own entertainment — just imagine how starved for cool toys these officials must be, how much fun that swipey fingertip motion is the first hundred times you do it — and not just because it’s their duty to be paranoid tentacles of the state. What these people ultimately miss is something so much more interesting than pointing out the truth (no matter how absurd/obvious it might be) and asking the Big Questions (no matter how important/self-evident they are), and that’s the fact that they’re in North Korea, on the ground, talking to members of the world’s most reclusive nation, witnessing a country stuck in time, talking about friendship and technology and meeting chicks on the Korean intranet, etc. etc. But somehow that incredible gift eludes most people.

A North Korean minder is just a local with an unusual day job. This one didn’t ask to be reassigned. Photograph by Andrew Lombardi

You see where I’m going with this. Once you stop trying to ask the Big Questions and prove that You’re Right and They’re wrong and ask whether you can take pictures of this or that rather than just being part of the experience as it unfolds, the pictures will emerge. You stop insisting and start listening, and stories tumble out of mouths. Data will dance in front of you like a performer at the Children’s Palace. Places and ideas you really weren’t supposed to know open up. But if you don’t, well… Ms. Koelbl knows what happens.

Before long, Mr. Hong [that’s the guy who took over from Kim] begins rolling his eyes. “Enough with these photos! They’re giving me a headache,” he says. Hong’s anger is directed at photographer Andreas Taubert, who is apparently taking far too many pictures. The argument over right and wrong images of North Korea will accompany us until the last day of the trip.

Of course it will! And of course it did. Because Koelbl & Taubert had to make it so. They turned the desire to document the country into an “argument” about what was “right” and what was “wrong” instead of what simply is. A surprising temptation error for an experienced journalist like Ms. Koelbl. Get the story whatever it takes, right? Even if you appear ignorant or silly or don’t always have your say? Still, she wants us to know that

Photographing mass gymnastics [hyperlink added] is basically okay, even though the dancers outnumber the audience in the stadium three to one. But military parades are taboo, especially when the army drives by in its smoke-belching trucks, some of which are powered with wood because of a gasoline shortage.

There’s a novel concept: the arithmetic of propriety. (But first, just for the record: Photographing mass gymnastics is not “basically okay,” but totally fine. Encouraged, even! I mean, you don’t round up 100,000 acrobats for the Korean version of Cirque du Soleil just for funsies. Someone better be putting those photos up on Facebook. And it won’t be the locals, because, as Ms. Koelbl reminded us, they don’t have Internet.) Which I’m still trying to wrap my head around. I think the logic of the photograph-this-but-not-that complaint goes like this: We can’t take photos of undesirable aspects of the DPRK, like embarrassing old-school military parades, or

battery vendors squatting by the side of road to sell their meager goods, because it could suggest that the planned economy is a failure.

And while these unseemly photo opps are a PR risk to the regime — even though they’re right out there in the open, and relatively few in number — we are permitted to take pictures of

huge

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parades, massive dance performances and, in the city’s stadium, a gymnastics demonstration so large that the mere idea of choreographing such an event — with 100,000 participants — seems unimaginable.

And that doesn’t make sense, because why are we prohibited from photographing some sad military parade and a few poor vendors, but encouraged (I mean, “basically okay”) to photograph a hundred thousand of North Korea’s finest? The mathematics just don’t make sense. Big spectacles should be off limits, and small spectacles should be fair game, irrespective of the nature of the spectacle.

At least I think that’s the argument. I’m honestly not sure. I also don’t see why the performer:audience ratio matters — indeed, one could argue that the performer:audience ratio in North Korea is always 24,500,000:1, if you believe that every citizen living under Big Brother is an actor, or becomes one around a pesky journalist, which by Koelbl’s ratio logic should make the entire country off limits — or why any of this is really a surprise to Spiegel at all.

And you can see how much the point was missed in the vague, prosaic descriptions. Does the mere “idea” of choreographing “such an event” really seem “unimaginable?” Or is it in fact unimaginable? Isn’t an idea by definition imaginable? Especially one that isn’t just an idea but a major cultural event that takes place for several months each year and is “a mixed form of comprehensive physical exercises with a combination of high ideological content, artistic quality and gymnastics skill,” in the words of Kim Jong Il? And isn’t it your goal as an intrepid journalist who ventured into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to make it imaginable, assuming it is not, which it is, so why not just describe it as it was, as something more than “huge” and “massive” and “so large?”

The Mass Games: an utterly imaginable spectacle. Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

But that’s the kind of prose journalists tend to produce about this country. Even one who does a fine job elsewhere and who, appropriately enough, has endured things that should sensitize her to the misdeeds of an overreaching state. If we can’t make sense of it, let us at least understand why it happens.

I don’t think it’s easy to articulate North Korea in words. Just look at my early writing about the place and you’ll see what sort of overwhelm and stupor I labored under to express it. But western accounts of North Korea matter a great deal, and my journey through the DPRK could not have been more different from Koelbl’s. But then, we actually spent time with our guides, and gave them cigarettes and whiskey and photos of our families before asking questions and sharing thoughts, aware (of course) of our motivations for doing so, but moved all the more by how much these gifts meant. Friendships, along with the real North Korea, opened up to me. I can only imagine how Mssrs. Hong and Kim would have responded had Koelbl approached them in that spirit. Hong probably wouldn’t have rolled his eyes, for a start. And Kim wouldn’t have quit.

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