Monday, August 6, 2012

Seven days in the DPRK - Day 7

Note: These posts provide a summary of one tourist’s experience in North Korea in summer 2012. This trip was conducted without external financial support, and nothing herein should be construed as condoning or supporting the actions or policies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I approached the yellow striped line outside our hotel and froze.

Yellow Line
Since the Yanggakdo Hotel - the so-called “Alcatraz of Fun” - is located on a narrow island in the Taedong River, we’re free to wander without restriction. We just can’t cross the bridges. Even so, I’d never walked outside the Yanggakdo without a guide. The days had been so packed that I got used to sleeping as late as possible. By evenings, I just wanted to shower and watch a little TV. Dave was partial to the Olympics, which meant that I saw lots of table tennis and badminton.

This morning, though, I decided to leave the hotel alone. So I woke early, pulled on my least stinky set of clothes, and took the elevator down. Outside, buses were wheezing in lines, waiting for Chinese tourists (most of the Westerners were gone). The air was damp. The glass doors closed behind me and I strode down the tree-lined road. That's when I saw that painted line.

The border was probably meant for auto traffic, maybe to limit the passage of bus drivers. Still, I was afraid to cross. I thought about all the times we’d been reminded not to get our guides into trouble, and I recalled that second visit to the Mass Games, the panicky prospect that one of our guides might get fired because of my cluelessness. I also flashed back to last night, the fear of being alone outside an amusement park. Transgressing DPRK rules can be dangerous.

Consequently, it’s easy to internalize North Korean discipline. After just a few days I’d composed a mental map that pulsated with yellow neon lines, significations of authorized movement and permissible passage. This line, the one etched on the road, hailed all the others. Someone told me that he’d jogged around the island a few days ago. I could therefore certainly cross the line.

I’d been standing in the middle of the road for the past five minutes.

Now a new anxiety began to metastasize. Was I being watched? Did my odd behavior inspire a supervisor somewhere to pick up a phone? Just what was I doing out here? I needed a rationale, an excuse for standing in the road like this. I fished out my camera and turned around slowly. I’d stepped outside to snap a photo of the Yanggakdo. Of course! Just position the building in my viewfinder, check the vertical alignment, and...


I couldn’t get the entire building in my frame; I was too close. Maybe I could settle for a close-up shot. Perhaps a nice shot of those buses. Then my photographer’s instincts took hold and I turned back around. I was going to get that shot. I started to walk and then to jog, bounding away from the Yanggakdo. No way I’d let some silly traffic border scare me.

Loping toward the island’s edge, I imagined this place as a sort of North Korean Disneyland where each manicured hedge obscures secret machinery [William Gibson once called Singapore “Disneyland with a Death Penalty,” which is nothing compared to this place]. The yellow line had fallen from view when I turned around a second time. There it was: the Yanggakdo Hotel, neatly captured in my frame.

On the road to the Yanggakdo Hotel
I snapped my pictures and hurried back.

Later that morning David and I met our guides and toured the Party Founding Museum. This was the site where Kim Il Sung led his party to establish nearly unbreakable control over the country. We joined our docent, an older woman who regretted that she’d never met the Eternal Leader, and toured the building. We saw Kim’s original office and a drawing for an alternative version of the Workers' Party of Korea hammer-brush-sickle insignia. As usual, the tour was produced solely for us. Of course what we lacked in numbers we augmented with questions.

Party Founding Museum
In the afternoon, we drove to the Pyongyang’s Korean Film Studio to wander the backlots. For days, David and I had traded questions about our experiences. “Front stage or back stage?” I’d ask, using theoretical shorthand to gauge David’s perception of whether we were experiencing a scripted moment or something more (presumably) genuine. Thus we both were jazzed at the prospect of touring a literal backstage transformed into a perfect "front": a reservoir for the construction of ideology.

Here we found near life-sized versions of an ancient Korean village, a Japanese city, and even DPRK versions of European mansions. On many structures, facades are painted and ornamented uniquely, meaning that one backdrop could be transformed into four different buildings for the same movie. Along the edge of the property, corn grows, both as a potential setting for an agriculturally-themed flick and also to help feed studio workers. David whispered to our guides that I study these sorts of places, assuring them that I was probably enjoying this stop more than any tourist they’d ever had. They insisted that I take every picture I could possibly want.

Andy stalks the perfect frame
For almost a couple of hours we drove from lot to lot, each a tightly packed conflation of styles and references, collectively an empire of signs signifying the power to spin out an endless stream of messages. I twisted my cap backward to more easily snap pictures. This place seemed like a great site for HDR post-processing. How else could the Korean Film Studio appear but as a hypersaturated cartoon version of itself? I thought about these pictures as proof of the place I’d visited, and I dreaded the prospect of losing them. With their disappearance, the trip might as well have never happened.

Thumb's up
At one spot, David took a picture of his thumb, mirroring a poster of a guy giving a thumbs-up. I naturally took a picture of David. Just a little Photoshop magic and I could rotate his thumb to more closely reflect the poster. Maybe one day I will. And why not? The studio is a spectacle of simulation for the most earnest of purposes. In the DPRK, words like “propaganda” and “ideology” contain no sense of absurdity or detachment. They are performances of power without a hint of irony.

Korean Film Studio
Before we left, a studio representative allowed us to watch about ten minutes of a movie they’re editing. It’s the story of a woman who refuses to marry a man until he becomes worthy of being photographed with the Dear Leader. Spoiler alert: He smartens up, they marry, and she is blessed. The script is based on a true story. Apparently Kim Jong Il heard about this woman and ordered the production of a movie about her life. And he insisted that she portray herself on the screen.

Backward reels the mind.

Film studio mural
There's just one more major stop: the Grand People’s Study House. Our docent is especially determined to assure us that the library has some books in English. At a computer terminal she says, “We have Mark Twain.” I'm not sure how to respond, so I go for something safely generic: “That’s great," I say.

“Would you like to see?”

“Well, no. I’m sure you have him.”

“Really, it’s easy. I just type in his name...

Now I can confirm that North Korea’s Grand People’s Study House has some Mark Twain. They also have “American Pie" on CD.

Unfortunately it’s the Madonna version.

Grand People's Study Room
Outside a window I catch sight of Kim Il Sung Square. Clouds have rolled in and a drizzle has begun to fall. The place is filled with kids - thousands of them standing and sitting in lines - practicing for the upcoming torchlight parade (“They can go home if the rain gets really bad,” one of our guides assures us).
"Can we take pictures of the Square?"

Of course we can.

Kim Il Sung Square
Before we get dropped off at our hotel, the guides take us to a coffee shop. David and I flip through overstuffed menus featuring cappuccinos and day-glo fruit drinks. One of our guides asks an oddly general question: “When is the happiest day you can remember?” We all pause and think before taking turns. David tells his story and I tell mine. We wait for her to share. She starts, painting broad outlines, setting the scene. Then she stops.

The story might get her in trouble, she explains.

David and I grab dinner back in the hotel before rejoining our guides for beers in the “Teahouse.”
Throughout the afternoon we’ve praised our guides. We’ve thanked them for being so helpful and kind to us. They’ve thanked us for our patience and open-mindedness. But now after so many days in such close quarters, we’re running out of things to say. 

Then the guide flashes a shy smile. 

“I’ll tell you my story... 

... as long as you promise not to tell anyone.”
One last view from the Juche Tower


The next morning [“Day Eight,” technically] we pack and meet our guides one last time. They confirm that we’re checked out of the hotel, and they return our passports. David and I have prepared three innocuous gray envelops, each containing cash. Our goal is to ensure that the driver and each guide receive an envelope without being seen by the others. We have no idea whether we’re following appropriate protocol or just making asses of ourselves. Throughout this trip, that's been a common concern.

Approaching the airport, we cruise by posters and murals of heroic North Koreans standing tall against foreign aggression, praising the brilliance of their Leaders, and building the Pyongyang Worker’s Paradise. I think about another picture I saw years ago: Boris Vallejo’s poster for National Lampoon's Vacation. The image features Chevy Chase atop a marble hill, his muscles glistening with sweat, his legs gripped by scantily clad women. He’s two parts suburban schlub, one part Conan the Barbarian.

Such has been this trip, a labored performance and a performance of labor. We have only spent a week in the DPRK, and we’ve encountered few moments that have not been carefully scripted. A
glow with our own heroic deeds, we will share an epic adventure with friends and colleagues. But we can’t take ourselves too seriously. It wasn't that amazing, really. We filled out applications, paid fees, stood in lines, sat on buses, took pictures, bowed on command, and left without incident. We played our roles. 

Still, I wonder about our guide's secret storyWas it real? Were her words a revelation of something beneath the surface of things? Or were they just another layer of artifice? One last souvenir.

Predictably, David and I put the pieces together differently. David’s no fool. He possesses healthy skepticism about what we’ve seen. But he feels something genuine in these moments too. Me? I remember moments that mattered, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have come here. At the same time, I can never quite get rid of a nagging fear that the entire trip was merely a stage-set for artful storytelling. We'll take a long time sifting through this experience. We agree entirely about one thing, though.

We will never tell the guide’s secret.
Day 6 | Return to Beginning

All photographs - except for "Andy stalks" - © Andrew Wood


Andrea said...

Forgive me if commenting is inappropriate. I am currently reading a book called "Switch" by Chip and Dan Heath, and reading of your experiences in North Korea mirrored one of the ideas in the book. The book is all about change and how to switch ideas, procedures, and performance within a community. One of the cautions is that challenging your logical side to overcome your emotional side for any duration of time is exhausting. That is what I think would be true about this visit for you....that you would be holding emotions in check constantly in order to present a pleasing appearance, to the point that if it had been me, I would have been completely drained by the end. Your pictures and commentary on the entire are amazing, and I am so happy you got to travel and see so much. I think I will be reflecting on what I have read for quite a while. Thank you for sharing.

highway163 said...

Inappropriate? You could never be... I'm just glad to hear from you, Andrea! And I totally get the connection you've made. Visiting the DPRK was exhausting, and not just because of the constant movement and juggling of activities. The emotional code-switching was an endless stream of micro-adjustments: to share, to elide, to hint, to obscure, to hide... When we got back to Beijing, David was up for hours of walking. Me, I just stayed in our room for about a day and a half, decompressing (and photo-editing!)...