It leaves you wondering if, one day, they will be the focus of a very different kind of museum. But until then …
It’s A Country Of People Trying To Make The Best Of Dictatorship
The most memorable encounter I had in North Korea was with a middle-aged man who worked at the Grand People’s Study House, which is like their biggest public library crossed with a community college crossed with a building that Ethan Hunt would try to break into.
He spoke flawless English, was funny and animated, and was passionate about working to provide knowledge to people. He was apolitical, and asked us thoughtful questions. He was honest about their budget issues, and seemed well aware that informing us of how they had switched from card catalogs to computers running Windows 2000 a decade ago was not bragworthy. But he took pride in running an institution where kids could come read and adults could brush up on professional skills. He’s the guy I’m going to think of the next time I see comments like these that are casually cheering for the death of millions:
There is no denying North Korea’s atrocious human rights record, and memoirs of defectors who survived North Korea’s prison camps are haunting. But apparently we often forget that those human rights abuses are applied to, well, humans. Seniors who were taking their grandchildren out for walks, and who broke into big smiles when people started fawning over the kids. A guard at the DMZ, one of the most sensitive military instillations on the planet, who cracked up at the goofy hat a tourist had bought and asked if he could try it on. Kids at the water park who gossiped, laughed, pointed and waved at, and were generally fascinated by the abrupt appearance of awkward-looking white dudes. These are people who enjoy almost no freedoms and are routinely pressed into forced labor, yet are still eager to show off their country’s verdant natural beauty and rich, apolitical ancient history. It is a nation of survivors.
There will probably never be war with North Korea, not even after North Korea’s latest threats and President Trump’s latest incontinent ramblings (remember when North Korea released a video showing Washington D.C. getting nuked, and then nothing happened?). The West doesn’t want the headache, and North Korean leadership knows that any conflict ends with anything from their imprisonment to their grisly deaths. Keep in mind that, every time a news site trots out a fearmongering “Will North Korea kill us all with nuclear weapons?” headline, the answer is “No, but they will continue to make life miserable for their own people.”
And then there’s the travel ban. The argument that it’s for the safety of Americans rings hollow given that people are still free to, say, visit the front lines in the fight against ISIS, risk getting kidnapped in Caracas, or trek into rural Afghanistan and publicly criticize Islam. Banning Americans from visiting North Korea makes for dramatic saber rattling, but also accomplishes nothing to improve the lives of Koreans, while eliminating one of the few opportunities for both sides to see each other as people instead of as headlines about nuclear annihilation. That may mean very little in the grand scheme of things, but it is not nothing.
Change in North Korea will likely be excruciatingly slow, and it will almost certainly be painful, but hidden behind the headlines of militarization and insanity are stories of modern technology helping to smuggle the world into North Korea, to people willing to risk everything to glimpse it. That’s pretty damn impressive considering that I fall into despair when I’m without my phone for a few hours.
Special thanks to Koryo Tours, who can take you to North Korea too if you want to win every travel conversation you’ll ever have with your friends. Mark has a book and is on Twitter.