- As the current North Korean crisis unfolds via Western and Chinese Media, it reminds me of a feeling during my visit of the DPRK during the 100th anniversary celebration of Kim Il Sung. It’s best described as a feeling of a plot unfolding in front of me, one without a beginning nor an end, but one that is directed for me personally. In time I decided that the best way to answer is through two stories:
The first story is about theatre, the other is about a song.
- Once you enter the country, a giant stage unfolds for those lucky enough to be visitors. Whatever you do, you are constantly observed and followed by two guides. They control you, the people around you and importantly, they also control each other. They know when you wake up, they know when you go to sleep – and they’ll make sure you know that they know.
- While being there I focused my camera on the totalitarianism of the place. A socially 'perfect', with hyper intelligent/artistic kids, clean and controlled, that's what they want you to see. However, what's striking is the emptiness of spaces, the darkness at night, and artificiality of everyone and everything you encounter. This put together create the overall feel of a huge movie backdrop, dark at night, and during the day filled with actors, that don't have any clear plot. Actually that makes them more like background actors, while you as the tourist are the star of the show, one that is strictly directed and pre-planned for you, there is no room for improvisation.
- And even though there isn’t a plot, everyone you are allowed to see behaves in accordance to a way of thinking, which resembles to a plot, just without story, climaxes or an end. Or maybe one where the story just remains in a constant hysteric climax, based on war that is long gone. Thus making the climax, anticlimactic.
And this is how it connects to what I am seeing on TV in the media now - a huge anticlimactic, ever so increasing climax, that just stays where it is. The climax has plateaued, if you will. And while we, outside of Korea, only see glimpses of that climax flare up every now and again, people in North Korea are forced to remain stuck on a war climax, stuck in time, in 1953.
- Engrained with the Juche philosophy and the bashing of American-Japanese Imperialism, repeated to you on every occasion, you slowly start to not only understand, but to comprehend the immensity that is North Korea’s propaganda. How impossible rational thought is, when you are being told the same thing over and over and over and over and over again. Your whole life.
- The most absurd moment, one that is almost "Malcovichian", happened during a walk through the mountains near the ”International Friendship Exhibition” halls of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. These halls in themselves were quite remarkable, filled with absurd gifts from world leaders and business men – gifts that range from German Kuckuck’s clocks to stuffed alligators carrying plates with wine glasses – and a Madame Tussaud type wax figure of Kim Jung Ill within a great hall, upon entering you are asked to bow, of course (strange elevator music playing in the background with some tweeting birds).We left the halls for a walk in the woods and to climb a hill. It was the big day, the 100th “birthday” of Kim Il Sung, and there was “spontaneous” celebrations and singing in the forest. Up until then I thought that was a cliché, that these things couldn't possibly still exist, that this was a thing of the past. No, it was real. Our guide explained to us in an increasingly excited tone, that this is proof that on the ‘great leaders’ birthday’ people would celebrate not only in the cities, but also in the woods.
- Certainly, and they also started dancing every time you pointed a camera at them – though they would immediately stop when you stopped aiming. Which of course became a bit of a game; up, dance, down, no dance. For a short period of time I became, like Craig the puppeteer in "Being John Malcovic", the master of the show – the theatre obeyed me, it became “interactive”. Until I stopped, realising that what I was doing was actually incredibly unfair to these poor people, that in fact for a short period I became the regime’s director of theatre.
But the most mind boggling and unexpected happened as we were climbing up the beautiful mountain, within that beautiful forest, embedded within the unspoiled nature reserve. We were alone with our main guide Mr. Park (name changed). The other guide had to stay back to guard the bus and Mr. Park, it seems, realised his new found ‘freedom’ from state observation; if only for a few minutes. It is then that he decided to open himself a little to us, and to express himself almost freely. And thus, with an almost perfect American accent, though with a clearly distinct Korean slant, he started to sing his very own favorite song:
Frank Sinatra’s “My way”.
I barely comprehended the what was happening when it started, but with every second that passed I noticed the irony growing as he sang the lyrics of freedom and individuality.
In that sense North Korea not only told me about itself and it’s absurd terror state, but also about the the dreams of its' people, even if I only saw glimpses of it.
And I also understood what freedom and self-expression means as I returned home. What it means to be able to decide what to do next and to be able to say the things you want. The moment I touched-down outside of the DPRK, I was, dare I say, rather euphoric.