Tuesday, 20 December 2011

North Korea Blogging - a Health Warning

Is this a health warning symbol? Let's say it is...
So the Dear Leader is dead. The North Korean people – some proportion of them, at least – are mourning publicly (the videos are extraordinary). And the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is about to experience that rarest of things, political change. What happens next is anyone's guess.

Dear Departed
Sam and I spent eight days in North Korea in October, travelling to three different cities across the country (Pyongyang, Wonsan and Hamhung) as well as the demilitarised zone. It was, without question, the strangest week of our lives. We've been meaning to post a few photos and thoughts ever since we got back, and Kim Jong Il's death has certainly prodded us into action. However, blogging about a trip to North Korea isn't at all straightforward – so here's a preliminary health warning:

Tour companies operating in North Korea make one thing abundantly clear to visitors: even after you leave, you are not entirely free to write about your experiences. You aren't supposed to write newspaper articles, you aren't supposed to make documentaries, you definitely aren't supposed to publish devastating critiques of the regime's injustices.

Now, you may ask, what's to stop you? The regime, after all, holds no power over you after you leave.

Ah, that's true, say the tour companies – but the regime can punish the only people in North Korea with whom you are allowed to form any kind of emotional bond during your trip: your guides. Your unfailingly polite, kind, English-speaking guides, with whom you spend almost every waking minute of your time in North Korea. You get to know about their families, their daily lives, their hopes for the future... and you are told that if you 'break the rules' after you leave the DPRK, they will be punished for your actions.

Write mean things, and the kitten gets it
It's emotional blackmail, of course. The threats may even have more to do with the tour company's business model (they don't want to be locked out of the country) than with any threat held over the guides' heads. But the point is, we have no way of knowing. Emotional blackmail it may be, but it's effective emotional blackmail – because it might just be true.

So we're going to play by the rules. (I mean, aside from the picture of the kitten, we're going to play by the rules.) In the posts that follow, we'll write about what it's like to be a tourist in North Korea, as honestly as we can. We'll post lots of photos of statues –

We have like 9,000 of these
... and lots of blurry photos taken from the window of our tour bus...

... and about 8,000 like this...
... but we're going to leave any kind of political condemnation to one side. If you're looking for a comprehensive critique of Kim Jong Il's regime, this definitely isn't the place to find it (you could try Google).

But if you'd like to see some of our photos, and get an idea of what it's like to visit the world's oddest country - stay tuned...

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