11 January 2014

North Korea is fascinating -- fascinating enough not to visit

North Korea fascinates me, though I'm not sure what intrigues me most. The government run by a family, in the best medieval dynastic tradition, perhaps -- who needs "The Tudors" or Richard III when the Kim family and their circle recreate the drama for real in the 21st century? I mean, dating someone in the higher echelons of a Western government can lead to scandal, political downfall, a tell-all book, and decades of being a comedian's punchline. But in North Korea, sleeping with the wrong person can put you on the wrong side of a firing squad ten years later.

Or maybe what fascinates me is the completely subjugated and brainwashed public, who wear compulsory jewelry while the army appropriates food from shopkeepers, and people starve while the government stages elaborate anniversary celebrations.

Or perhaps it's the brutal treatment of imprisoned criminals and political enemies, or reported methods of execution that are so extreme that news agencies that should know better take a "release the hounds!" execution story at face value for days.

Yet while I find North Korea fascinating to contemplate, in the abstract, from my desk or sofa, I can't imagine ever going there. Not as a journalist, not as a missionary or tourist, and for the love of christ certainly not as a returning veteran of the Korean War, which North Korea considers still an active, ongoing war. And I'm reminded that I've discussed this kind of thing before. There are places in the world that Americans just shouldn't go to. This is a shame, and the problem lies squarely at the feet of our government and its policies, actions, and failures of diplomacy with these places. Or, with North Korea, it's not solely the fault of the U.S., because the dynamic on the Korean Peninsula is a few hundred years in the making and there's a huge country next door that's had more than a little bit to do with the current situation. But the bottom line is that you can't always get what you want, even if you're an American.

Or Dennis Rodman. I don't understand why he's gone to North Korea and sung "Happy Birthday" to Kim Jong Un. I don't understand how he can blind himself to North Korea's reality -- recognizing, of course, that we in the West aren't getting all of it, and, again, some of us were easily fooled by the death-by-dogs story. I don't know if he sees himself as a bona fide door-opening, curtain-drawing cultural ambassador; or if he's not fully aware of conditions in North Korea for dissidents, the rural hungry, and so on; or if he is fully aware, doesn't care, and is having fun being treated like a king; or if he's simply clueless. I'm not sure which situation I'd like it to be.


upyernoz said...

I would totally go to North Korea as a tourist. But I would not go if I were in any of the categories of people who the regime doesn't like (e.g. journalists, veterans of the Korean War, missionaries, people with connections to South Korea). The problem is that you wouldn't see a lot of the stuff that makes NoKo so bizarre as Western tourist are only admitted with state-sanctioned tour groups that are kept in a carefully controlled bubble. But I would still go, just because I think some of the bizarreness would inevitably poke through.

Glomarization, Esq. said...

You're a braver person than I am! I'd definitely prefer to keep my trip to North Korea purely vicarious.