Weird things I saw in North Korea
Weirdness is subjective, of course. I’m only describing what I consider weird. And I want to stress that I don’t consider nor mean to imply that weirdness is bad. I consider it interesting. As a friend said, “Nobody is normal.” I celebrate individual differences. I put “weird” in the title to get people thinking and asking themselves questions.
In particular, I hope people will consider questions like these, which I think help you learn about and improve yourself:
- Do they consider these things weird or unusual?
- Do you consider these things weird or unusual?
- What do we do that they would consider weird or unusual?
- What do we do instead and why do we consider that normal if we do?
- Are any of these things absolutely weird or just relatively?
- How many of these things do we consider better than our alternatives? Why don’t we implement them?
Needless to say, the following are only my observations. I can’t comment on what I didn’t see. Nor do I claim what I saw is definitive.
Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il images and statues are nearly everywhere. Most of the buildings we entered were big public ones and they tended to have giant statues of them in the entry, then pictures of them all over. By giant, I mean thirty feet high or more. Outdoor structures could be much taller. Most histories the guides told us revolved around those two people.
They have big highways, almost empty. The road from Pyongyang to Seoul, which we took to the Demilitarized Zone, where it effectively ends, was a divided highway with two or three lanes in each direction. The east side was closed nearly the whole way. We barely passed or saw vehicles in either direction. In many places children walked and played along or on the highway.
That road was nothing compared to the Children’s Highway, if I remember the name right — the road we took to the farm they showed us. That road had probably five lanes in each direction. Again, we saw almost no traffic. Nonetheless, we used all ten lanes. Why? Because the potholes and places where the road was in unusable disrepair often took five or more lanes.
They don’t let you talk to anyone outside officially approved, probably specially trained people.
They don’t let you do anything without your guides.
They don’t let you go anywhere you want — not just to cities but even outside the hotel or outside the bus.
The histories they tell at most sites typically feature an enemy who wants to harm North Korea. They describe that enemy as “imperialist” and “aggressive” and it’s nearly always the United States or Japan.
They don’t name allies. I don’t remember them mentioning the Soviet Union or China, except to mention that the fall of the Soviet Union contributed to difficult economic times after its fall, though through the loss of trading partners. They mentioned nothing about loss of outright aid from those partners.
They mention nothing about aid from the United States in any way, nor from South Korea.
Their histories make them sound like victims in an aggressive world, not having committed any acts of aggression.
They make outrageous claims about Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il. Obviously outrageous ones include that Kim Jung Il hit several holes in one his first time playing golf and bowled a perfect 300 his first time bowling. They also claim Kim Il Sung played a larger role liberating North Korea from the Japanese than other histories document.
All public projects showed images of one of them directing the project — for example, leading engineers in building a bridge or leading farmers to the fields.
They dress exclusively conservatively and uniformly, nearly always in drab colors.
All adults wear the same lapel pin of Kim Il Sung.
Kim Il Sung remains, after dying, the President of the country.
Whenever they mention Kim Jung Il, they call him Leader Kim Jung Il.
Because of their accents, “Leader Kim Jung Il” sounds like “Little Kim Jung Il.” It took us a few days to realize they weren’t describing his achievements as a child.
Their power sometimes goes out without warning. Even in Pyongyang, at night few places’ lights stay on.
My first night in Pyongyang, looking out the hotel window I could see presumably half the city and could count by their headlights all the cars on the roads: two.
We went to their rail museum. It taught you nothing about railways. Several exhibits were models of train stations noteworthy for nothing more than Kim Il Sung or Kim Jung Il having visited once. Maybe I misunderstood. We had trouble figuring them out. Even granting that they wanted to elevate their leaders, we couldn’t get why they made all these models with no other relevancy than one visit. Why not make models of every single place they went?
We saw no jet contrails in the sky there.
They had a lot of military people, though not as many as I expected, nor as many as other countries I’ve visited.
Rumors I heard from non-North Koreans while in North Korea included that North Korea tied the United States for the highest per capita rates of citizens incarcerated; that one of three citizens participates in an informant network, more than three times more pervasive than the Stasi in East Germany; and they must participate in regular “self-improvement” talks with government officials that include talking about their faults and problems they see with people around them. I have no independent verification of these rumors.
I saw no restaurants except the ones we went to and almost no stores. The stores I saw had nearly empty shelves inside.
One town and one farm we visited had loudspeakers blaring what they said was news but whose tones sounded to us like propaganda you couldn’t turn off.
The model farmer’s home they showed us had what looked like an intercom, but was a one-way speaker they could turn down but not off that started every morning at 6am for everyone in the country.
Our guides knew the Kim Jung Il had children, but didn’t know anything of his wife, even her name. They didn’t seem to consider it odd that they wouldn’t know.
Pyongyang’s public building architecture was grandiose. Regular buildings were almost purely functional, with little decoration. Buildings outside Pyongyang were also nearly almost purely functional. Many buildings were unfinished.
Pyongyang’s grandiose architecture and the lack of cars results in people having to walk a lot. We would see people walking where the closest thing they could be walking toward was far, and who knows if they were going to that place or farther?
When they showed us a farm, they didn’t show us any fields or crops. They did show us a fifty-foot high statue of one of the Kims with some workers, a model farmer’s home that didn’t seem that typical, and a weird Andrew Sisters / Lawrence Welk-like singing and musical performance that mystified and perplexed us. That farm was the one with the loudspeaker that blared what sounded like propaganda.
One of the places they took us to was an ostrich farm. Another was a shooting range where one of the targets was a live chicken, though the most distant. If you shot the chicken you got to keep it.
For the weirdest thing of the trip I have to apologize because I haven’t been able to reproduce or even reasonably represent it. The tour of Kim Il Sung’s former office, now mausoleum, featured a room where they gave us an mp3 player narrating something about North Korea and Kim Il Sung. That narration and its style defies all explanation, at least that I’m capable of. I can’t find words to describe the tone, subject, word choice, or anything of that narration, except to say it was the craziest, bizarrest narration I’ve ever heard. It sounded grandiose and attempted to be compelling, but was more humorous. The best I can say is it matched the tone of Winston Churchill at his best mixed with Crusty the Clown with the crazy wild optimism of Ed Wood, as played by Johnny Depp, and the crazy hope of Ronald Reagan. You know how sometimes people without great educations use big words to sound better educated, but end up sounding less educated? The words of the narration sounded like someone like that trying to reproduce the tone of the King James Bible, but reaching something more like Eliza, again mixed with Winston Churchill.
Again, I recognize that description doesn’t help you understand what we heard. If anyone else who heard it reads this and can help describe it, please do.
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