Hong Kong, April 22, 2013 As the current North Korea crisis unfolds, I am reminded of a feeling I got when I visited the DPRK during the “100th birthday” celebration of Kim Il Sung. It is a feeling of being stuck in an ever-climatic plot, with no beginning or resolution. Yet in times when the ever-watchful State does look away, one can see glimpses of hope and change. The best way to explain what I mean is via two stories:
The first story is about theatre,
the other is about a song.
Once you enter the country, a giant stage is revealed for visitors. Whatever you do, you are constantly observed and followed by two guides. They control you, the people around you and importantly, they also control each other. They know when you wake up, they know when you go to sleep – and they make sure you know that they know.
While being there I focused my camera on the totalitarianism of the place. A socially ‘perfect’ environment, clean and controlled, North Korean children both intelligent and artistic — that’s what they want you to see. However, most striking of all is the emptiness of spaces, the darkness at night, and artificiality of everyone and everything you encounter. While you, as the tourist, is the star of the show that is strictly directed and pre-planned for you; there is no room for improvisation.
And even though there isn’t a plot, the people you are allowed to see all behave in accordance to a way of thinking – acting out a story with a perpetual climax yet no ending, a plot based on war that is long gone. Whereas we, outside of Korea, only see glimpses of the climax flare up every now and again, people in North Korea are forced to remain stuck in a war time climax, stuck in 1953.
With the ‘Juche’ philosophy and the bashing of American-Japanese Imperialism, repeated to you on every occasion, you slowly start to not only understand, but to comprehend the immensity that is North Korea’s propaganda. How impossible rational thought is, when as Korean you are being told the same thing over and over and over again. Your whole life.
The most absurd scene, one that is almost “Malcovichian”, occurred during a walk through the mountains near the ”International Friendship Exhibition” halls of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung (these halls in themselves were quite remarkable, filled with absurd gifts from world leaders and business men – gifts ranging from German Kuckuck’s clocks to stuffed alligators carrying plates with wine glasses).
As we were walking through the woods, we encountered what can be described as ‘spontaneous’ celebrations and singing in the forest. Our guide excitedly explained to us, that this is proof that on the ‘Great Leaders’ birthday’ people would celebrate not only in the cities, but also in the forests.
Certainly. They also compliantly started to dance every time I pointed the camera at them, stopping only when you stopped aiming. This then turned into a bit of a game – up, dance, down, no dance. For a short period of time I became Craig the puppeteer in “Being John Malcovich”. The theatre obeyed me, it became “interactive”. But then I stopped, and realised that what I was doing was actually incredibly unfair to these poor people, and that in fact for a short period, I became the regime’s director of theatre.
But the most mind boggling and unexpected happened as we were climbing up a beautiful mountain, within a beautiful forest, embedded within an unspoiled nature reserve. We were alone with our main guide Mr. Park (name changed). The other guide had to stay back to guard the bus and Mr. Park, it seemed, realised his new found ‘freedom’ from state observation, if only for a few minutes. At that moment he decided to open himself up a little to us, and to express himself almost freely. With an almost perfect American accent, although retaining a distinct Korean slant, he started to sing his very own favorite song:
Frank Sinatra’s “My way”.
I barely comprehended what was happening when it started, but as the seconds passed I noticed the irony growing as he sang the lyrics pertaining to freedom and individuality.
In that sense North Korea not only told me about itself and it’s absurd terror state, but also about the dreams of its’ people, even if I only saw glimpses of it.
And I also understood what freedom and self-expression meant when I returned home. What it means to be able to decide what to do next and to be able to say the things you want. The moment I touched-down outside of the DPRK, I was, dare I say, rather euphoric.
-- ENDS --