What do I have in common with Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Edward Fowle? No, we are all not serial killers. But we have all gone on vacation to North Korea. The difference ends there. Miller and Fowle are in jail in North Korea, and I am back home, writing this story.
North Korea aka the Hermit Kingdom possibly the most surreal and absurd place on the planet is not high on tourist circuit. I’ve never heard any of my friends share with me they were going to Pyongyang, the capital, for a long weekend. It is estimated that only several thousand western tourists visit a year.
In fact, the US State Department has updated their warnings for US citizens. “North Korea detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours. Do not assume that joining a group tour or use of a tour guide will prevent your arrest or detention by North Korean authorities.” There is no US Embassy in North Korea if you need assistance.
There is no independent travel in North Korea, no backpacking. If you wish to visit, you need to sign up for a highly choreographed trip with a tour organizer. My group trip was comprised of twenty foreigners packed on a bus with three North Korean “guides”, our bus driver, and our Canadian guide from the tour organizer. There was no free time. You could not leave the hotel for a quick jog before the day began. You could not leave the hotel to grab a soda. A guide led the group, with another guide trailing the group, with the third guide floating around. There were another 25 million guides watching over us as well. For every North Korean followed your moves.
North Korea wants tourists for two reasons. One is cold hard cash, something that North Korea is very short on. Second, the North Koreans believe they have one up on Steven Spielberg. For every tour is their version of live theatre. It is their opportunity to showcase the socialist paradise they have created through juche (self-reliance).
Part of my preparation prior to visiting North Korea was watching the grossly engaging Vice documentary with Dennis Rodman. Well worth 30 minutes of your time. One moment that stood out was at the 15:50 minute mark. Rodman visits a computer lab. One hundred North Koreans are huddled over their computers. After a minute, you notice that while all of the computers are on, not one individual is actually doing anything. They are simply staring at the screen. It is the North Koreans’ attempt to prove to the visitors that they are part of Al Gore’s internet. The reality is no one has access to the internet in the country. Check out the video!
During my trip, three moments stood out for me in the surreal category.
We had a visit to a food stuff factory, think biscuits. Our guides led us into the control room of the factory. As the guide droned on about the factory, I lazily glanced around the room. After a moment, I noticed the man at the computer was reading a book. All of the computer screens were a dark abyss. The nine flat screens were dead black. This modern factory lacked a special ingredient, electricity.
Our group also was able to visit a high school. We were brought to an English class were the children chimed out some English phrases. They were well-behaved and engaged. But their English was understandably basic.
After the visit to the classroom, we were brought to the computer room. I stared at the screen. “Spatial Cluster Modeling” and “Smooth Particle Applied Mechanics” were just some of the subject matters the children were “studying”. Hhhhmmmmm. Spatial Cluster Modeling. As a university graduate from a fairly good school, I simply had no idea what this was. Wikipedia describes it as:
Cluster analysis or clustering is the task of grouping a set of objects in such a way that objects in the same group (called a cluster) are more similar (in some sense or another) to each other than to those in other groups (clusters). It is a main task of exploratory data mining, and a common technique for statistical data analysis, used in many fields, including machine learning, pattern recognition, image analysis, information retrieval, and bioinformatics.
It was quite evident that these children who were struggling with English were not studying Spatial Cluster Modeling.
While the first two examples of the surreal represented the worst in the absurd, the Arirang Games would electrify even the most jaded individual. The hour plus long epic show had over 100,000 performers in the May Day Stadium which can hold 150,000 spectators. This synchronized-socialist celebration is a tightly choreographed display of dancing, gymnastics, music, and fireworks celebrating the history and successes of North Korea. A human video screen of 50,000 performers visually narrate the performance.
Check out this cool video!!!!