Silence: North Korea’s most chilling sound
By Petteri Tuohinen
The strangeness of North Korea becomes apparent already on the flight from Beijing to Pyongyang. Before the safety demonstration the passengers are shown a video praising the strength of socialism and the country’s dictator Kim Jong-il.
A magazine is distributed among passengers praising an “asteroid pill” developed by North Korea.
According to the magazine, the medicine contains ingredients from asteroids. It is said to promote growth in children, prevent cancer, and protect against the effects of radiation.
A visit to North Korea, the world’s most isolated country, has been a dream of mine for years. If I had been given a choice of visiting the moon, or North Korea, I would have bought a ticket to Pyongyang.
Already at the airport in Pyongyang time seems to have stopped at a moment decades in the past. In addition to our aircraft, there are only old Soviet planes, and some helicopters on the edge of the airport.
Immediately after getting off the plane, the tourists start taking pictures: of the plane, of the terminal building - of anything. They’ve never seen anything like it.
A North Korean who is returning home behaves differently. Before donning his jacket, he carefully removes a pin with a picture of the nation’s father, Kim Il-sung, from his shirt, and carefully places it on the lapel of his jacket.
Every adult in North Korea wears such a pin. It is mandatory.
It becomes apparent very soon that it is not possible to ask ordinary North Koreans things like whether or not they know that they are living in a bubble.
“Tour guides” follow visitors everywhere, translating questions and answers as they please.
No profound points of view are forthcoming from the guides either. Questions about the country’s leaders bring answers of praise that have been learned by rote.
“I was at school when I heard of the death of Kim Il-Sung. The sky fell down then. All Koreans wept. It was impossible to believe”, one of the guides said.
Often it happens that the guide gives no answer at all, simply remaining silent and looking in another direction. It is a chilling kind of silence.
“Do you know what it is like in Seoul, the capital of South Korea?” I ask the guide.
“Pyongyang is the capital of the Koreans. We are all happy here, and we have no need to go to Seoul”, the guide answers.
“But do you know what it is like there?”
“I don’t know. I have not seen any pictures.”
“Wouldn’t you like to visit there?”
Thousands of other North Koreans have not been content with silence. Instead, they have hopped across the Chinese border to Freedom.
The choice had to be a difficult one. The price of one’s own freedom is losing a family, possibly for ever.
Families are punished for a family member’s disloyalty to the state. Work camps in North Korea are bleak.
Some of those in the North Korean elite are quite aware of what kind of a bubble the people are living in. One such person is a young Pyongyang woman who has lived in Yemen and Singapore because of her father’s work.
“There was plenty of sand in Yemen. Singapore was better.”
“Would you like to move to Singapore?”
Conversations with North Koreans often conclude in an absurd manner. During a visit to a model farm the guide was asked when their best crop was.
“It was in 1998.”
“And when was the worst crop year?”
“We have not had a worst crop year.”
While having a beer one of the guides says that he knows about the Internet, and has even used it once.
“Did you go on to Facebook?”
“Yes, I looked for a textbook there.”
“No, I mean Facebook.”
Between places on the tour the tourists are taken to restaurants where no local people are to be seen, and hardly any tourists.
The guides sit at their own table, away from the foreigners. At one restaurant, the guests are entertained by a unique selection of music. Blaring from the loudspeakers in turn are El Bimbo and Für Elise.
North Koreans live in a world where an attack by “the imperialist United States” is a daily threat, where the country’s dictator needs to be worshipped without question, and where the start of the dictatorship is spoken of as a “liberation”.
The citizens have been taught that “The United States is a terrorist power”, and that each of the stars in the country’s flag symbolises a massacre conducted by the Americans in other countries.
It is hardly surprising that South Korea has a centre dedicated to helping North Korean defectors adapt psychologically to life in the free world.
When coming from China to Finland on holiday, one enjoys things that would normally be self-evident facts of life: being able to access Facebook, reading newspapers that can freely criticise the government, and that politicians are chosen by the people.
The same kind of relief is felt when returning from North Korea to China.
Freedom is relative. There is more or less of it in various countries. In North Korea it does not exist at all.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 3.10..2010
More on this subject:
The manipulative world of North Korean cinema
Previously in HS International Edition:
North Korea: Personality cult - Round Three (28.9.2010)
A spy machine with eyes and ears everywhere (28.9.2010)
PETTERI TUOHINEN / Helsingin Sanomat