North Korea?  Why on earth?!

Well, I had this nostalgic thought fueled by some number symbolism: I lived in the DDR (East Germany) for 25 years.  It was the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this year (November 9, 1989) and North Korea, pretty much the last full-fledged communist country save Cuba or westernized China, is alive and kicking.  I had to see what it was like.  How does it compare to life in the DDR?  Does a trip like this bring back long-lost memories?  It does compare and it did bring back memories.

Much could be said about all of this, but somehow time got away from me.  Traveling in a group is not conducive to daily blogging.  And traveling in a country where a single wrong word or the wrong picture can put you behind bars was not conducive to putting my thoughts on paper.  I am not very good at writing after the fact.  The semester started, so much of the Japan material had to be sifted through, babysitting my beloved grandson Tillman took time and now it’s nearly 2015 and still no blog entry.  I wonder if this blog will ever be written…

The only person I could think of who would be crazy enough, willing and able to do such a trip with me was my travel partner of 2007, Nicola, who went with me to Pakistan.  She generously allowed me to link my blog to her travel entry of our lackluster tour of the DPRK.  Many thanks, Nicola!  I did not feel quite as strongly as Nicola about getting the hell out of the DPRK.  I was rather amused by the endless tours of heroic monuments and showcase farms or factories which only thinly veiled the truth.  I was not amused by the subtle signs of hardship which a well-trained population was desperately trying not to reveal: the broken bikes, the shabby old buses, the dark cities, the unsafe concrete used for construction, the dozens of workers who cut the grass lining the highways by hand (!), the buildings which are repaired without cranes or scaffolding, the few cars on the road — all handouts of the government for good behavior — the hard currency stores full of goods reserved only for the party elite and on and on.  Shortages, shortages and more shortages.  It was East Germany on steroids.

Most shocking perhaps was the realization of how well indoctrination works in the DPRK.  The East Germans were good at pretending.  Nobody would indoctrinate them successfully ever again; not after the Nazi experience.  But the people in the DPRK seemed to be genuine about the love for their leader.  How could this be?!  We could not find out as contact with the locals was restricted to our two leaders, minders of each other, who would give us nothing but the party line.  The few times we mingled with the population — at the amusement park and in the metro — people were positively afraid of us!  A smile would be answered by a stone face.  A seat next to me in an overcrowded metro would remain empty.  Getting too close to a foreigner, an enemy, could spell trouble.  And in a country where only the government decides what is trouble, and where only the government draws the ever shifting red line which is not to be crossed, caution is in order.

And so here it is, Nicola’s post and pictures (we pretty much all took the same pictures, as ordered).  A timely post, given the release of the comedy movie The Interview.  Enjoy!


P.S.  Comments on Nicola’s blog are most welcome (as are the ones on my own site, of course).

A Happy New Year to you all!  ET

2 comments so far

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  1. Thanks for the referral and the kind words about my companionship. It was certainly an “experience” but not one that I’d necessarily like to repeat, I am still having difficulty explaining to people over here that it was in fact one of the safest trips either of us has taken in recent years. Provided you stick to the rules.

    Safety while travelling to far flung destinations is an overriding consideration as we totter on the brink of all-out global conflict and neither of us is likely to have much luck convincing our relatives that there is every bit as much danger closer to home. We will have to think carefully about how we can complete our Pakistan odyssey but I heard from Saeed at Christmas (he was never an ultra-orthodox muslim, was he? remember the Johnny Walker?) and I know that he and his family would take care of us but now is just not the time.

    What are your plans for this year? Indonesia? I’d love to see Borobudur; perhaps the best thing to come out of the DPRK experience was the invitation from that lovely family that we met on the North Korea trip.

    My Nepal/Tibet trip is not until mid June so I could pop out to meet you for a couple of weeks on one of your peregrinations. I don’t know what the weather is like in Michigan but it’s bloody awful here. It’s just as well I’m flying out to Chennai tomorrow to start a tour of Southern India. I’ll try to upload a few posts just to make you REALLY envious. After all, what are friends for?

    All the best to the family

  2. I am behind for we were in California with our kids for Christmas but I do so look forward to following you on this most interesting journey. Thanks to the two of you for giving me the chance to “touch” a country through your eyes.