The Dream Life of the North Koreans

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A couple poses under a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his predecessor and late father, Kim Il Sung

Most visitors to North Korea find the place weird, but can't quite explain why. On a rare trip last month, another traveler told me it was like going to “the moon, with people.” I had my own epiphany: North Korea is Pleasantville. Just as in the Gary Ross satire of the 1950s sit-com vision of reality, life in the kingdom of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il is always as pleasant as a picture postcard. The streets are tidy and orderly, the citizens patriotic and the children sing in perfect harmony. From the plastic flowers in the hotels to the plastic music of the Arirang mass-gymastics-and-propaganda fest we were expected to attend, sugar-coated kitsch appeared to have run amok.

The regime likes to show off the Arirang festival to foreign visitors (Kim took then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to a similar event during her 2000 visit). Staged at night in the giant May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, the pageant features tens of thousands of costumed dancers, gymnasts and singers performing an elaborate tribute to Kim and his father — North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung. Thousands of children seated on the bleachers opposite the spectators flip colored flash cards to create an ever-changing backdrop of slogans and uplifting images. ”They are fighting for the happiness of our people,” reads one slogan as flash cards form a tableau of parachuting soldiers. Later, a group of child performers — girls dressed in pink and boys in blue — run toward us and start shouting: “Thank you Great Leader Kim Jong Il.”

The children's eerily perfect execution of their routine creates an impressive performance. They have clearly spent a long time rehearsing. Stranger, perhaps, is hearing the show's utopian themes echoed in conversations with ordinary North Koreans. “Thanks to the wise guidance of the Great Leader, life has improved so much,” one earnest soldier tells us as our minder looks on. “The army and the people are all aroused in the great struggle for a prosperous country.”

Yet, even a brief, strictly controlled visit yields clues that all is not right in Pleasantville. In recent years, growing exposure to the outside world and the spread of grassroots markets around the country appear to have eroded totalitarian controls and changed mindsets in the doggedly Stalinist state. How much is hard to say. But a Russian scholar on our tour notes that the crowds aren't as passionate as they once were. In the 1980s, “You could see their eyes shining,” says Andrei Lankov, who lived in Pyongyang in 1984-85. “People are maybe not learning the truth but (they are) getting tired.”

There are other hints of unpleasantness: In the center of town, we pass a poster of a huge fist smashing down on a startled soldier. An American? I ask. “You can think like that,” replies our guide. Later, chief minder Choe Jong Hun lectures us on Washington's treacherous attempts to get North Korea to disarm unilaterally through the six-party nuclear talks (the latest round last week produced no results). “After that the U.S. is going to invade our country,” says Choe. “Such talks are not necessary.”

Visitors — even Americans — are treated with courtesy but we find that our guides can quickly turn snarly. The kid gloves come off one night when we return to our hotel. Somebody has taken pictures without permission, a serious violation of the rules.” If there is anybody who doesn't keep these rules, our committee wants you to return to your country,” says guide Pang Yu Gyong “and we don't care how.” With no trace of pleasantness in her voice, she adds: “So please keep these principles, I warn you.”

The flash of steel is revealing. Pang, we later discover, is the granddaughter of the founder of North Korea's repressive state security apparatus Pang Hak Se. “My grandfather was very faithful to the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and Comrade Kim Jong Il,” she tells me. Indeed, one scholar estimates grandfather sent ten of thousands to the gulag.

In his musing on the workings of communist ideology, Czech writer Milan Kundera notes about what he calls the two tears of kitsch. “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass. The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass.” Kitsch denies the earthy messiness of life. And “totalitarian kitsch,” he writes, outlaws individualism, doubt and irony, because they risk exposing the beautiful lie it is designed to sustain. The gulag, Kundera argues, is “a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse.” But in Pleasantville, of course, there is no mention of any gulag, only of children running on the grass.