Contrary to what most people expect, it was easy to get into North Korea. However, I did start to worry that it might not be so easy to leave. Our group leader had visited a few times before and was confident the penalty for transgressions would be deportation rather than incarceration. He emphasized this didn’t mean there would be no serious consequences, but that the repercussions would be for our local guides rather than us.
Our two North Korean guides, Mr. Kim and Mr. Lim, joined our group as soon as we arrived at the airport, right after we handed in our mobile phones. They immediately explained the rules. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere, not even the hotel carpark, without a guide in attendance. We should always remain in a cluster, because splitting up caused additional difficulty for the guides. They are supposed to keep a watchful eye on each other, as well as us. We got to know our guides as they gradually relaxed, so we tried to reward their trust by not causing any trouble.
Our accommodation was basic, and we quickly adapted to the idea that electricity was a luxury. Water was also a scarce commodity, sometimes restricted to an hour a day. On one occasion, we had no water for more than 24 hours. I kept my bathroom door firmly closed, as the smell from the drain competed with the smell from the toilet.
Mr. Lim was surprised when I asked him whether everyone worked for the Government. "Of course not," he replied, "some people work for the Government, but others work in the state army, state-organized farming collectives, or state-owned factories." It was difficult overcoming the differences in our experiences. I often had to reword questions two or three times to obtain information. I don’t think our guides attempted to mislead. In their minds, there was no need to, because life in North Korea might not be ideal but it was far better than what we had. The Dear Leader protected them from the American Imperialist Bastards. Their citizens looked after each other: "All for one and one for all" is a DPRK catchphrase. Health care was free. Schooling was free. Adult education and retraining were commonplace and encouraged. Our guides boasted that North Korea had over 2 million intellectuals. I managed to control the urge to suggest that a true intellectual needs freedom for reason and debate not pressure to follow blindly or that weekly lecturing in doctrine was not exemplary education.
After visiting a ‘model’ collective farm, we asked about employment. Did young people always follow their parents’ occupations? What if they didn’t want to work on a farm? Our guides were once again confused. There is no question of choice. No one applies for a job or decides on a career. The Regional People’s Committee makes all such decisions. It knows what positions are vacant and how the candidate can best serve the Dear Leader and community. All a North Korean needs to do is to study diligently, take every opportunity to participate in community life, and show continual dedication to and enthusiasm for the Dear Leader. Then career prospects are reasonable, provided everyone else in the extended family, including long dead ancestors play their part. Any displays of individualism or straying from the marked path could result in a job moving dirt with bare hands or plucking blades of grass. I saw people occupied in these and even more menial tasks on our travels.
We weren’t allowed to photograph people performing menial tasks, or anyone dressed poorly, or anyone in the army, or any strategic buildings, or…. The list was long. I was stopped twice and the photos in my camera were examined. Luckily, I had not transgressed on either occasion. After my photographs were so carefully examined, it occurred to me that the examiner might be seeing parts of North Korea for the first time. While I was nervously wondering why it was taking so long, they were enjoying a virtual scenic tour.
Truly mixing with local people was impossible. We saw lots of people, walked with them, sang with them and even danced with them. Yet, they didn’t want to speak to us. It wasn’t just that they were unsure of their English, as some of our group spoke fluent Korean. It was dangerous for them to speak to us and no-one wanted to take that chance. Plus, what was the point? However, the majority did want to demonstrate their friendliness. They would smile and wave, even those on military duty. They mostly relished having their pictures taken and seeing their photos on screen.
Everyone belongs to some form of institution all of their lives. Stay at home parenting is discouraged, so children go to nursery school at the age of 3 months. All along the way, each person’s character and ability are continually assessed and reports are filed. Children are pushed to join the Youth League and are rewarded at age 14 with a lapel pin portrait of the Dear Leader. These pins are highly prized and failure to obtain one is unthinkable. Each residential building is managed by a committee, there are also area committees, regional committees and on it goes. These committees are required to provide reports on everyone at different stages of their lives, which impact on schooling, employment, medical care, housing, marriage, and being elected for any of these committees.
Twice a year, there is a sharp reminder of the far reaching control exercised by the Dear Leader. Each Spring and Autumn, everyone (and I do mean everyone) is required to help with the planting and harvesting. Like everything else, farming is highly regulated: "the right crop at the right time on the right land" is another catchphrase. They plant double and triple crops trying to maximize production on 2 million hectares of arable land. Still, the centrally-planned agriculture is insufficient to produce food for over 24 million people.
Being in the DPRK was like being an extra in a futuristic movie. It made me realize that film plots about complete control by a ruling power are not quite as far fetched as I had thought. North Koreans have existed under three generations of ‘Kims’ and many have no recollection or even knowledge of anything different. Every action and thought of a North Korean is targeted for control and/or manipulation at an early stage in their life. Under the current regime and those foreseeable in the near future, prospects for North Korean citizens remain somewhat grim.
Sue Sandberg is a travel enthusiast who enjoys sharing her experiences and adventures. She has lived in South Africa, Australia, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. You can follow her at www.suewombat.com.