Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Welcome to North Korea - We Have Some Rules

Probably the first thing to say about our trip to North Korea is – there were some rules we had to follow. One or two. Or three. These were explained to us, pretty forcefully, before we set off. Rules like, for example –
  • You do not have freedom of movement. Everywhere you go, you will be accompanied by two guides from DPRK's state tourism agency. In the evenings you are confined to your hotel – unless your hotel happens to also be on an island. In which case, you are confined to the island.
    The Yangakkdo Hotel in Pyongyang – they call it 'the Alcatraz of fun'
    (Photo from Virtual Tourist)
  • You are not free to talk to the locals – and if you do try, they will probably not want to talk to you. The tour guides make clear which people you are allowed to engage in conversation - and they will either be other tour guides, or members of the military. Or tour guides who are also members of the military. 
Don't talk to me...
...but you can definitely talk to me
  • You do not have freedom of expression. Call it politeness if you like, but you do not criticise, and you certainly do not mock, the Dear Leader or his father during your visit. Doing so can cause serious problems - for you and for your group.
  • Your contact with the outside world is extremely limited. Your mobile phone and passport are taken away from you at the airport. Your hotel's 'International Communication Centre' is not the hub of connectivity the name implies. (The guides will say to you, without irony, "On the second floor of the hotel is the International Communication Centre, where you can send a postcard.") You can receive phone calls from abroad in your hotel - but you should expect that someone may be listening in, and watch what you say.
In fact, the need to watch what you say is a feature of your entire trip – and even extends to conversations in your hotel room. There is no privacy on a holiday in North Korea. The Lonely Planet Guide to North Korea drily notes that:
"While most hotel rooms are probably bugged, there's only a very small chance anyone's listening."
... which is not entirely reassuring. And since our tour was – for reasons we needn't go into – somewhat higher profile than most (it had nothing to do with Sam or me), we were instructed to act as though we might be being listened to at any time. So you can't even come back to the hotel room and yell about what you really thought of the day's activities.

I might just be a hotel sofa. Or I might be listening to you.
But it's the reverence towards Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung (the Dear Leader and Great Leader, respectively) which really permeates every aspect of your trip. You may not have to bow at every statue of the DPRK's rulers – but you do have to stand quietly while your hosts bow. For anyone used to a Western level of respect for politicians, this can be pretty jarring.
You don't have to bow - but don't think about giggling...
To take another example: you are warned that you must never throw away a Korean newspaper - because newspapers contain images of the Dear Leader, and such images must be treated with the same respect as the man himself. (How North Koreans do dispose of newspapers was never explained – but we were assured that there's an elaborate system in place.) One tourist who did make the mistake of chucking away his copy of the Pyongyang Times – into the bin in his hotel room – was reported to the hotel's management by the cleaner who tidied his room. He had to write a letter of apology.

You're even expected to fold your newspaper in a special way so that the Dear Leader's face doesn't get creased.

Respect me, respect my image
In a similar vein, there are also rules about the kind of photographs you're allowed to take at the (numerous) statues of Kim Il Sung which you are privileged to visit each day. You're strongly encouraged to snap away at the statues (the guides love it when you photograph the statues), but you aren't free to take any photograph you like. Specifically, you're forbidden from taking photos which don't include the Eternal President's whole body - especially not arty close-ups of individual parts of his anatomy. If you want a giant picture of Kim Il Sung's nostrils, you'll have to Photoshop it when you get home. Your camera may be checked on your way out of the country, and offending shots will be deleted.

Not ready for my close-up
Needless to say, all this reverence is pretty tough to swallow for a Western tourist - and not just because of any feelings you may have towards Kim Jong Il's regime. (Here I'll just refer you to the health warning which applies to all our North Korea posts, and make no further comment.) It's not just about your attitude to their rulers, it's also about our attitude to our own political leaders. Laughing at politicians is pretty much a British institution - we have newspapers and TV shows entirely devoted to the art. Indeed, we have shows specifically dedicated to desecrating their image:

This would never be allowed...
... and this would get you imprisoned
Which means that a common response among Western tour groups (and certainly a response among ours), is a sudden and overwhelming desire to act like schoolchildren. Seriously – every time you're confronted with a statue, or a museum, or a memorial wall dedicated to the exploits of the Kim family, while the guides tell you in hushed tones the exact dimensions of each photo of the Dear Leader ("this picture is 25 inches by 19 inches...") – you find yourself wanting to be... well, rude. And angry. And silly. You want to heckle, snigger, make snarky comments, turn a cartwheel – anything to lighten the leaden mood of sombre reverence. But if you give in to that impulse - by asking an awkward question, or giggling, or simply trying to wander off – you immediately see the look of pain on the guide's faces. Their respect for their leader is genuine (or else you wouldn't be meeting them). Nothing you say is going to shake their faith. And, like anyone else, they don't appreciate being mocked.

Of course you know about all these restrictions before you travel (you don't hear anyone in the airport yelling "You want to take my phone? Are you insane...?"). But what you don't know is how you'll react to them. All these rules (and more I won't bore you with) combine to create a feeling of incredible... pressure. You don't really get to blow off steam anywhere, for the duration of your trip – not in your room, not on the tour bus, not even on the plane home (we flew with Air Koryo, North Korea's state airline, where even the pre-flight safety announcement includes an expression of grateful thanks to the Dear Leader, for making today's flight possible). By the time you arrive back in China, you're wound up pretty tight.

In any case, you get the idea about the rules and resrictions – I doubt much of it surprises you. (Except maybe the newspaper thing - I mean, that's weird, right?) In our next post, we'll talk about what you actually do on a tour of North Korea - where they take you, what they let you see, and why. In the meantime, just to give you a flavour of the surreal atmosphere, here's a short video of a Kim Il Sung statue in Wonsan - which continuously plays the theme from Dvořák's New World Symphony. (I mean continuously - even during power cuts.) Apparently it was one of Kim Il Sung's favourite pieces of music - and you hear it all over the place.

It's an extremely short video, because I'm not entirely sure we were supposed to take videos at all. In any case, it does at least have his whole body in frame...

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