Pictures of North Korea, part 8: the road back to Pyongyang

November 16, 2011 by Joshua
in Art, NorthKorea

Today’s pictures were from the bus ride back from the Demilitarized Zone and Kaesong to Pyongyang. The early bus rides featured a lot of very friendly, open, and educational interchange between the guides and us. For some reason Mr. Kim, whom we affectionately nicknamed Crazy Kim for his ebullience and outspoken expression, quieted down after the first few days. Our loss.

The road back from Kaesong (1)

I kept trying to catch pictures of propaganda signs, but always got the camera out too late or the bus was going too fast. I'd sit there for tens of minutes with a camera ready, waiting for a sign. Then I'd put it away and we'd pass a giant sign. The red and yellow sign in the middle looks like it says something from the government, but you can't tell from the picture. On the other hand you get a nice picture of a North Korean town.


The road back from Kaesong (2)

Now we're getting to one of the most colorful interchanges of the trip, illustrating how much visiting a place and interacting with them differs from hearing leaders of each place positioning against each other and calling each other evil, imperialist, or whatever.


The road back from Kaesong (3)

Mr. Kim and Jordan started playing children's games -- rock-paper-scissors type games. Here Mr. Kim was teaching Jordan a North Korean game where one player tries to guess which way the other will turn his head. If he guesses right he gets to hit him (lightly) on the forehead. Jordan realized he was getting hit in the head a lot and Mr. Kim wasn't. Everyone in the bus started watching these grown men acting like children.

I wrote the following about the above picture when I had posted it on a social networking site before putting it here:

The first of three shots showing how leaders could increase peace and understanding between nations if they followed suit. On the way to the DMZ, Mr. Kim, our dynamic and fun guide, is teaching Jordan a kids game where you try to anticipate each other’s reactions. It’s playful but you occasionally lightly hit the other person on the forehead if you anticipate their reaction.

As we all know, if it was fun in fourth grade it will be funnier now. The whole bus started watching. Jordan realized he was the one who kept getting hit on the forehead and asked when he would get to hit Mr. Kim back.


The road back from Kaesong (4)

Jordan switched to the game where you try to slap the other guy's hands while he tries to keep from being slapped. By now the whole bus excitedly watched them play. Who knew what to anticipate, but we all knew someone was going to get slapped.

What I posted on the social networking site

The second of three pictures of grown men playing games leading to fun and understanding.

Jordan, having figured out the North Korean kids game was going to result in him getting hit all the time and switches to whatever you call the game where you try to slap the other’s hands while they try not to flinch. Again, everyone is watching, anticipating someone getting slapped.


The road back from Kaesong (5)

Somebody got slapped! ... I may be reading too much into this picture, but it illustrates to me people can compete and even hit each other without becoming enemies. The joy in this moment is to me unforgettable. Kids are kids the world over, it's more fun to behave like children than not, and mature people can do it. We've transcended cultural barriers.

What I posted on the social networking site

The third of three pictures showing how diplomacy could be done — playing children’s games together.

With the tension high with all anticipating someone getting slapped, Jordan got Mr. Kim good and the bus roars with laughter. The action speaks for itself.

The road back from Kaesong (6)

The exchange reminded me of something similar at my older sister's wedding. Since she had lived in Japan for years, one of her friends came and brought her children, who spoke no English. My cousins' families came too with their children, who spoke no Japanese. For hours during the reception the kids found ways to play together -- duck-duck-goose, stuff like that, or made-up games, we adults couldn't tell -- having no problems with the language and cultural differences. Inspirational. It was perhaps the first time I thought the words, "If the world's leaders could see this there would be no more war."

What I posted on the social networking site

What do you know, a fourth shot of Americans and North Koreans having fun acting like kids on the bus from Pyongyang to the Demilitarized Zone. [oops, I got the bus direction wrong]

After the last beat, the jig wasn’t up and more fun was to be had. You can see Jordan’s got a bead on Mr. Kim and the bus can’t wait to see it unfold.

The road back from Kaesong (7)

On a more sobering note, last night's beer didn't go over so well with John. We all sympathized, but I was closest to him so I was responsible for recording the consequences of his earlier antics. He might have kids one day and they should know.

What I posted on the social networking site

The night before doesn’t seem so great to John now, as he embraces the wastebasket. I was the closest to him so the others urged me to take the shot for him to remember the moment by.


The road back from Kaesong (8)

If you're going to take a picture of a man's well-earned misery, you should do it right.

What I posted on the other site

A closer angle to see a man struggle with his previous night’s alcohol still in his system. I think I captured the pathos.


The road back from Kaesong (9)

You should do it not just right, but several times.

What I posted on the other site

What kind of jerk would take so many pictures of a man clearly not feeling well, showing no pride in his predicament? Well, that would be me, at the behest of the others in the bus.


The road back from Kaesong (10)

He had no idea I was there and didn't see these pictures until days later. They wouldn't let him empty the trash can just anywhere later and had to hold on to it responsibly. At a rest stop he recovered better. He was a great sport about it.

What I posted on the other site

And who among us has not been there?

I wondered, by the way, how much alcohol North Koreans drank. They pushed beer on us and served as much as we wanted, probably because alcohol is always profitable. I saw no bars there except at the places that specifically allowed foreigners. We weren’t allowed to go places on our own. I asked one of our guides if they partied in college and she said yes. When I suggested getting her friends and us together, she didn’t seem to get the idea of a joint party and the others in the group suggested I not push the idea.


The road back from Kaesong (11)

One of my favorite shots of three men by the side of the road.

What I posted on the other site

Another of my favorite shots — three men smoking, watching the world go by. The building doesn’t differentiate itself from others so there’s nothing special about the place. These guys are just watching Pyongyang happen, the one on the right dressed with North Korean style.


The road back from Kaesong (12)

If it looked good once, might as well take two. I took the shot from the bus. In person would have been rude for North Korean culture.

What I posted on the other site

A more dynamic version of the previous shot. I prefer this one because of that dynamic angle he leans at in the middle of all vertical and horizontal lines.


The road back from Kaesong (13)

Copying from the other site: This sign looked like propaganda, or at least nationalistic. Can anyone who speaks Korean translate it? It was one of the few signs I saw on the street. I saw only one advertisement, which was for a car. I saw many like this and a few big ones that were clearly propaganda. I had to look to find stores. None of them had the telltale signs of stores virtually everywhere else in the world, like bright and colorful fruits and vegetables displayed to the street and signs in the window announcing the products on sale. In Pyongyang stores we passed in the bus had no special markings I could identify. When I could see in the windows the shelves seemed sparsely populated, like one item per shelf division. I couldn't tell how people got food. When I described what I saw after getting home to a friend, who grew up in Romania, he smiled with recognition of having seen the same thing growing up. Outside Pyongyang I saw no stores at all, except the tourist shops for us, which just sold tourist stuff. In Kaesong, a city of 300,000 people, I saw no stores, though I wasn't looking intently. I met an economics teacher in Beijing who had visited North Korea. She said she had passed by some buildings that she could tell held markets inside from the noise inside, but the authorities keep them secret since they imply a breakdown of the centralized system. We also passed a department store in Pyongyang, I think near the library, but they didn't allow foreigners in it.

A Korean friend responded to my request on the other site

lingo/parlance/wording seems to be a little different in North Korea, according to an older Korean-American woman (from South) I showed some photos to. The wordings on the photo above say something like “our great leader […?]; Juche (like founder’s day, which is year of birth of Kim Il Sung) […?] our nation.”

Can anyone else help translate?


Read my weekly newsletter

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

1 response to “Pictures of North Korea, part 8: the road back to Pyongyang

  1. Pingback: Ultimate-Frisbee und (viel) mehr! Sehr lesenswerte Reiseerfahrungen und Gedanken zu Nordkorea « Nordkorea-Info

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter