North Korea trip highlights the power of good ideas and the problem of stuff


The first thing I noticed about Beijing after coming in from North Korea that afternoon was the hotel bathroom. OK, maybe it wasn‚t the very first thing. Beijing is a place with many wonderful distractions. But I was drawn to it as soon as I turned on the light in my diminutive, elegant room atop a skinny high-rise hotel in the old part of the city. The bathroom had a shining wood floor, light wood sink cabinetry with a trendy freestanding bowl sink, and, low and behold, right next to the shining sink was a tiny stand, marked with a price tag, and filled with various envelopes of luxurious bath oils and foams. They were large envelopes, probably about four baths-worth, and each one cost 10 yuan, slightly more than a buck. It looked like a cure for what ailed me.

The package I chose had a beautiful blonde babe on the front with her legs sticking suggestively out of the bathtub. I ran the bath, dumped in a little bath oil, thought, “Oh, what the heck,‚ and dumped in the rest.” It was the lure of luxury that attracted me, maybe, something that had been rather scarce in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) during the past week. Besides, there was some serious thinking to do, and I always do it best when immersed to the neck in bubbles.

But my bath stuff wasn‚t the magic potion I was looking for in ordering my thoughts about my trip to the DPRK. They haven’t made bath beads to aid that kind of thinking yet. Not even in China.

When I left the DPRK that morning, our guides/fellow travelers assigned to us by the ministry that takes care of visiting foreigners were, as always, attentive. They stayed and watched while we got through customs, as I forgot my hand luggage one last time and got snarled at by a customs agent unaccustomed to being challenged in bad Korean by a foreign woman about why she should go back for something.

All our folks did their jobs beautifully, making sure nothing would go wrong on our trip there. It was actually helpful to me, particularly because it was a new culture I did not know how to navigate. Our guides acted sort of as social secretaries for our tours, arranging things after hours (while I took baths and wrote in my travelogue, and tried to make heads or tails of what I was experiencing). It was, in fact, the only way anyone can see North Korea —- a lot of supervision is necessary. There‚s no renting a car and tooling around the countryside.

One Finnish woman I ran into, traveling alone, had two guys all to herself as she toured the country. She thought it was weird, but in the end, she liked the company and learned a lot more than she would have by herself. They ended up in a traditional-style hotel in Kaesong, sitting on the set of a movie that was being filmed by South Koreans, hanging out and toasting the film crew and each other during the numerous power outages that seemed to be part of life there.

I, on the other hand, saw Pyongyang and environs as a member of an official delegation. As such, it was necessarily a group process of being herded around from one place to another; I was always the bad one, making the group late, running off alone to take pictures, lagging behind, asking inappropriate questions, generally not being a team player. Nevertheless, I was treated with complete friendliness, courtesy and 100 percent Korean hospitality at all times.

A reporter’s perspective
Since it was a Korean American delegation, and the various tours were conducted in Korean, I had a translator assigned just to me. He was kind, culturally fluent about the West, spoke beautiful English, and had the patience of a saint. He also had a good sense of humor, fortunately, because I experienced quite a few moments of frustration in my efforts to act like a journalist in North Korea, and I made quite a few acid remarks about it.

Trying to do western-style journalism in a place like the DPRK results in a huge mismatch of values and clash of culture. It was one of the few real brick-wall experiences of my life in journalism —- feeling that I was often shut down on all fronts. 

This was one of the main issues I fulminated about during my bath that day in Beijing. What did I learn, what did I really accomplish? What could I do, and what couldn’t I do? Could I sort it out and explain it? Could I talk about the parts that are unknowable (at least on a first trip) to other westerners?

Above all, I wondered if I could finally explain to our readers why the coverage of North Korean matters seem generally to be so poorly executed, pat, and one-sided in the western press. What makes reporters act so stupid? I thought, toward the end, that I might be getting a clue about it. I have wondered about this numerous times over the past few years, after reading the same language about “the world’s most closed society,” the “mysterious nation” with its “crazy leader,” and the like.

One can rarely find anything interesting, descriptive, or even neutral about North Korea in the mainstream press. Why? After going to North Korea, and trying to be a journalist myself, I had a chance to participate in this experience, and to try to understand.

In taking a stab at it, firstly there’s the problem of what I call media culture. Basically, what is considered good newsgathering practice in the West isn’t even thought of in the DPRK. In the West, we use official reports as background only, when necessary.

What we really like is for people to go on the record, to talk about how some law or policy or injustice that personally affects them. We like individuals in the western press. We like the on-the-ground organizers, neighbors, local politicians, soccer moms, and nosey senior citizens.

But, theress no unofficial quoting in North Korea. People simply do not talk to reporters like that. Instead, reporter-type inquiries to ordinary people are viewed as simply odd or inappropriate.

If there is an official report, which is rare, that official report is all there is. There will be no embroidery of it by spinmeisters, opinionated little old ladies, or PR people on one side of the other; the stuff we thrive on here. The official information seems to be accompanied by a complete, deafening silence.

In my limited experience, the only information coming from guides or other spokespeople in North Korea consisted of hard facts. How many meters tall something is, when it was built, the history of a certain place, when Kim Il Sung visited there and what he said at the time. What I consider the really marginal stuff. No one really feels authorized to say much else.

And as far as personal experiences are concerned, people may well talk to unofficial visitors about their own lives and opinions. I couldn’t say. But in terms of talking to reporters, my experience was that it is simply not done. No one goes on the record. There is no airing of what I would call personal voices in the press. None.

I began to understand, about halfway through the trip, why I was feeling a sense of dissatisfaction and a growing sense of dread about having to write about this experience. What to say? I actually didn’t get a lot of material, per se, from a western media perspective. The “material” being quotations, personal interviews, feature profiles and the like. But, on the other hand, I did absorb a lot of knowledge. I know that, because it is all rolling around in my brain still. I was definitely changed by the experience.

Perhaps Mr. Kim, who has seen many western journalists come and go, and been discouraged afterward by most of their reports about North Korea, was seeing the light bulb turning on in my brain toward the end. He didn’t say a lot. Most of the time, he just held all my stuff, humored me, and tried to let me be myself. Which I appreciated more than anything.

The people who were our guides and assigned companions seemed to hold out great hopes for me as a reporter from a small independent press for Korean Americans. After a trail of western reporters who, they thought, misunderstood, or reported according to their own preconceived ideas, they were still hopeful that they might someday find a reporter who could write with some insight about their country. Further, our newspaper was recommended to them by a trusted person.

Therefore, they talked a lot about their hopes for my “support.” Support for what, I was not quite sure. I think it was the media culture intervening again. In our culture, the ideal, at least, is for the media to be independent, although there are special interests and leanings of one kind or another, all over the map. In the DPRK, editorial policy is seen as either favorable or not favorable. Either it ideologically agrees, or does not. It supports or it does not. 

“I like your ideology,” said one of the women officials at one point. She was one of the people who talked about my support a lot. We struggled with the translation, my Korean being far worse than her English. “I don‚t have an ideology,” I finally said. “Well, I like your ideas,” she finally concluded. I let it go. We could not talk to each other with the sophistication that was required.

Besides that, I did not know what I was feeling. Mainly, it was a lot of compassion, mixed with frustration. They truly wanted “support,” yet were not able to give me the tools to pursue stories in my western-media way. How could they expect to get support —- from anybody? That feeling persisted. It is still very much with me.

Harbingers of change
I was sad to leave on our last morning there. I was also uneasy, feeling that my job was not done in North Korea and that I still had much to learn before I would be qualified to write and speak about the complexities of that place. My sadness was exacerbated that morning by watching a group of young adult women, seemingly on their first foray into the big, wide world, dressed to the nines in their national costumes (known as chogori or chosun ott in the North, hanboks in the South), and dripping tears as they waved to their parents through the plate glass windows from the departure gate.

There is a joint venture in China, a traveling businessman told me, and these North Korean women have volunteered to go work in China. “Oh, look, my father is waving,” said one young woman to her friend (in Korean), and let loose a new torrent of tears.

Joint ventures, I was told, are one of the things that are changing in the North. There are certain adjustments being made to the system, according to some Korean Americans who have been on numerous trips. The desperate need for hard currency is driving reforms to allow commerce, some of which is evidently taking place in China. In North Korea, there are now some nice gifts in the gift shops, where there would have been nothing to buy a few short years ago, my Korean American fellow travelers told me. There are modest refreshment stands set up at various attractions for cold coffee and soft drinks. There was a tourist store to buy gifts, groceries and drinks. There was a store that sold nothing but beautiful collectible postage stamps.

There are also some sincere attempts at engagement with other countries, such as the Pyongyang Fifth International Science and Technology Book Fair, the purpose of my delegation, at which representative organizations from many countries displayed books to be donated to the library of the country’s foremost technology educational institute, Kim Chaek University. There is a much-lauded manufacturing district, a joint venture created with South Korean capital and North Korean labor, located near the border city of Kaesong.

There’s also a government group set up to seek out cultural exchanges with other countries. Some of the North Korean officials assigned to our group interacted with this committee in inviting foreigners for official visits. There are certain things happening. It’s not a lot. But it’s a start.

The pace of change in North Korea seems maddeningly slow to Korean Americans interested in the process because of their own family reunion issues. Of the Korean Americans in the delegation, one man was visiting an older sister who he had visited many times in the past, and another was reunited with siblings and nieces and nephews for the first time. A third delegate received word that the government would make an effort to find his younger sister, who was only 2 years old when he was sent by his parents to the south.

Korean Americans wish for a speedy process because family members who were separated are getting older, and there is a small window of opportunity to reunite these folks before the whole generation passes. The North Korean government is more inclined to go at things slowly and cautiously, whether they are introducing commerce or locating lost family members.

Change in steps or leaps?
We boarded a Koryo Air plane for the ride back, an elderly Russian-made passenger plane that my traveling companions exclaimed enthusiastically about. The planes this trip were a big improvement, they said, over airplanes they had traveled in on past trips. I was again dubious. For me, it was definitely of questionable vintage, and worse, there was no air circulating literally until he plane had started rumbling down the runway. Not good for my claustrophobia, and people were eating dry squid, which was odiferous in such closed quarters.

On the other hand, no one minded about seat backs being in their upright and locked position, or any of that nonsense. We just lounged and the pilot flew, and no one really bothered us. In contrast to the shabby interior of the airplane, the young cabin crew looked crisp and sharp in their red uniforms. They were attentive and served us spring water from Baektusan, sacred mountain and birthplace of the legendary first Korean king, Tangun. North Koreans, of course, revere it as the birthplace of President Jong Il Kim.

“This guy must be an old fighter pilot,” one of my traveling companions remarked dryly, as the big plane bucked and rolled in the crosswinds. The sad young women in their hanboks quickly became sick, sad young women. Every bump illicited small screams from the cabin and soon there were sounds of retching all around. “Wow, all that squid is coming back up,” my M.D. traveling buddy commented knowledgeably. I fanned myself with the emergency card, going into endurance mode.

When I wasn’t fighting back some solidarity nausea, I was thinking about the adventures of the poor young women and how the awful plane ride would probably be associated with their first memories of leaving home. Too bad it could not be an easier experience.

Leaving the familiar is never easy, and it can feel truly awful, even if the goal is a good one. Sometimes a leap of faith is necessary. It cannot always be done in stages.

The topics involved in the Pyongyang Science and Technology Book Fair, namely the dissemination of information, gave rise to a lot of conversations about what kinds of reforms can be done in stages and what kinds cannot. Of particular interest to the international, techno-savvy crowd at the book fair was the issue of the Internet.

One delegate, a mathematics teacher from Poland, pointed out that the matter of Internet access is central to the question of how change will be managed. Either Internet access will be allowed, or it will not, she stated. If it is allowed, a world of advances in technology, many of which change on a weekly basis, will be just as available to North Korean scientists, students, and academicians as they are to everyone else. If it is not allowed, North Koreans will not keep pace with networked colleagues outside the country. Internet is the only way in the technology field, she said. Further, it is the kind of change that can only be done in a leap.

There were some North Korean professionals I ran into who told me they had access to email, but no access to the Internet. I am not sure how that is managed, but it seemed to me at best a band-aid approach to resolving the issue of information access. The Internet today is the means by which we achieve a “flat” world, with universal access to information. Without the Internet, North Korea is left behind.

But, as my translator often told me, in polite exasperation, in answer to my endless questions about North Korean politics, reforms, and information access “People are not fools.” Of course, North Koreans want their country to advance and dig itself out of its current situation. They are also very aware of what could be lost in the process of economic reforms.

There is a sense of true Koreanness in North Korea. Everyone who visits feels it. People are gracious, generous and polite. They are full of legends, songs, stories and jokes. They revere their beautiful rocky mountains, rushing streams and tall pine trees. They are sincerely interested in people of other places, even Americans, whose government they officially view as a scourge. They want to sit around a bulgogi dinner, drink soju, make a big mess, and take turns singing songs. Just like Koreans everywhere.

As Bruce Cumings says in his book, North Korea, Another Country, if there is one inalienable right of individuals in North Korea, it is “the right to be a Korean.” Koreans have not always had that right. They know too well what it is to have it taken away, and so, whatever happens in the future, that right must never be compromised. That much, at least, all Koreans can agree on. 

The problem of stuff
That said, it is apparent that change is needed to improve the economy of the North. Whether it is accomplished through North Korean action, or through removal of some restriction by the U.S., or both, North Koreans must improve their economic situation. Most of my ideas about this have been formed from (somewhat long distance) observations of how Pyongyang people live. It is obvious, that although things may be improving, there still is not a lot to go around.

Of course, never once did I talk to an ordinary person about their life as an “on the record” interview, although I did chat with people informally about their lives. Still, people were very reticent. I didn’t learn a lot.

Actually, the person I learned the most from was a Korean American woman, back on her 14th or 15th trip to the DPRK. Secretly, I was calling her the “ambassador of stuff.” Having much experience associating with people in various positions in North Korea, she really had a sense of the small things people need and appreciate—for example, lipstick for the women in charge of speaking publicly at exhibits, and U.S.-made cigarettes for men. Wherever she was, she was first making friends, and second, fishing small items out of her handbag and discreetly giving them to her new acquaintances. Her manners were so warm and friendly, there were many liberties she could get away with.

All packed up and waiting in the lobby before we left, she asked me if I had makeup, moisturizers or lotions I could leave for one of the women. “They don’t have them, so they appreciate anything, even if it’s not brand new,” she told me. Of course, had I known, I would have unloaded most of my stuff like that gladly from my jam-packed suitcase, but of course, I was ignorant, so it was all stuffed at the bottom. Next time, I will figure out a way to diplomatically get rid of stuff before I leave.

There are so many small conveniences we take for granted every day. Previously, it would not have occurred to me to even offer anybody such tiny gifts. But everyone needs some stuff. It only occurs to us when we don’t have it. This woman helped me understand —- she had apparently seen much daily life in the North. The little she could do, she was doing. At very least, she was brightening people’s days.

An enormous amount of bigger things are needed in North Korea. Pick your category. The biggest one I noticed was transportation —- the need for gas and vehicles for ordinary people. Everywhere, I saw people walking, usually with some kind of load. They would be carrying shovels and farming tools in the countryside, large boxes and bags in the city. Lines for the bus were sometimes 50 or 100 people long and ten deep on the sidewalk. In every public bus, the people were packed in like sardines. In the countryside, I never saw even one tractor. Instead, there were oxen plowing the fields, looking like Korean brush paintings come to life.

Conversely, there were very few billboards advertising new, North Korean-made passenger cars, one called the Whistle, and the other the name of a bird, my companions told me. There was some excitement about this among the Korean American delegates. It is a significant sign of change. Evidently, certain people can afford personal cars, but so far, not many. There are wide, wide streets in Pyongyang, some six lanes across, which are virtually empty of traffic.

There is also a need for a huge quantity of farm labor in lieu of agricultural machines. It was rice-planting season during my trip, and even high government officials were assigned a certain amount of time in the rice fields. There were brown-uniformed soldiers and even groups of kids planting rice seedlings into the water. It is back-breaking, hot, nasty work, one Korean American immigrant assured me. A college professor I spoke to from the prestigious Kim Il Sung University was burned to a leathery brown from having just returned from his assignment in the rice fields.

It is a time-honored tradition, one of my companions told me, for everyone, even the king and queen in ancient times, to show solidarity by lending a hand with rice planting. Therefore it is a good idea for all the higher officials to be seen planting rice, to build esprit de corps with those they supervise. However, it was obvious to me that that professor, along with several other officials I saw, were not just working symbolically. They had been working hard, and for quite awhile, to become so brown.

How to reform, yet preserve
There is agreement all around that North Korea is now poised for a careful foray into capitalism. The way to buy stuff is to generate revenue from commerce. However, it is also true that many things are lost when the pressure of doing business overwhelms other more important concerns. In a place like the northern mountain resort of Mohyangsan, where the quiet is complete and the ruggedly beautiful landscape takes one’s breath away, it is apparent that many valuable things are free, yet can be lost without vigilance.

Mohyangsan is literally sitting on a gold mine, a guide told us. It was prospected for gold during the Japanese occupation, but President Il Sung Kim prohibited the gold mining after liberation, she said proudly, citing the risk of losing the pristine beauty of the place if the mining would continue.

People are not fools. They know this side of the equation too.

Whether it’s lipstick, bath oil beads, gasoline, cigarettes, or hi-tech information, everyone needs some stuff in this modern world. But it doesn’t all come down to who can get the most stuff. We in the U.S., and, I would venture, in South Korea, should be more aware of this balance too, and act accordingly.

And it is not only the problem of stuff, as we know. Here in the U.S., there has been much written about the famine in the ’90s, and lingering food shortages in the DPRK. One seasoned Korean American delegate told me quietly that yes, food shortages are still going on in some areas.

Food is not stuff. It’s food. It’s in a completely different, and higher category than everything else. The food problem still is Job One in North Korea. It is apparent in everything from work priorities, to conversations, to the landscape —- the careful square rice paddies and corn crops planted up to the road and on all the sloped hillsides, the rice planting assignments to everyone.

Learning from a very different society
Despite current problems, there is, nevertheless, much to learn from the North Koreans and what they have tried to accomplish in their society. After the war, Il Sung Kim brought the North out of poverty much faster than South Korea, and the North outpaced the South in many economic areas until the mid- to late-’80s. 

Il Sung Kim was a brave military leader in driving out the Japanese occupiers, and he continued to apply a military strategy to rebuilding the society, and to preserving the nation‚s independence. This can-do attitude is still very much in effect in North Korea. It is the essence of the juche (self-reliance) philosophy. There is a tower dedicated to this idea in Pyongyang. Not to a person. To an idea.

With a can-do attitude and a military-first society, achievements happen. For example, the level of universal and compulsory education in the North has always been high and literacy rates are upwards of 95 percent. Because of their free system, many can achieve a high level of education. Getting into college is a matter of passing an exam with a certain score, much like the system in South Korea. Once they get in, a college student’s education is free. The huge educational institutions I visited were a testimony to the number of students in the country’s university system.

There is also universal health care in North Korea. The best health care requires inputs of capital, and a high-technology infrastructure. North Korea, of course, does not have either of those things. But what they have, all can access equally. This idea, if it continues to be applied in a more prosperous economy, would be a notable reform.

There is a spirit of working for the common good in North Korea that is amazing to see, and difficult for the western mind to comprehend. There is never just one person working on a job, whether repairing a road, organizing a conference, or weeding gardens at a park. It is always a group effort.

Dearth of diversity
There is also much to learn about what the North Korean system has not done. For example, no newspaper or magazine I saw looked good. Breadth and diversity of opinion, lively debate on ideas —- this seems almost nonexistent in the North. The content of publications was poor by western standards, according to the Korean Americans I asked. The English-language periodicals I read were pure drivel.

It all comes back to ideas again. North Korea is built on a lot of good ideas. America is very like North Korea in that respect —- the founding ideas are all-important. That’s why I admire visionaries like Thomas Jefferson, for whom exchange of ideas and the ability to print them in a free press was crucial. To what extent we live out our good ideas is the measure of the society. The ideas themselves must be applied. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence that neither of our societies seems to apply its best ideas particularly well.

When there’s no diversity of opinion, there’s not a heck of a lot to talk about. The North Korean media culture I struggled with is definitely an outgrowth of the group-think that North Koreans profess to have. People often excused themselves from giving their opinions by saying things like, “Oh, I’m just an ordinary person, not particularly smart or qualified. Why don’t you ask to talk to an official about this?”

“You can ask anyone in North Korea, and it doesn’t matter. Everyone thinks the same,” several people proudly told me, in answer to my attempts to get what I would call “real interviews” with people.

Why is this viewed as a good thing? I wondered that a lot. I believe they would say it shows the extent of their peoples’ unity on the major issues. But as hard as I tried, I cannot buy this idea. To say everyone thinks the same is just as ridiculous as saying everyone looks the same. It cannot be true.

What could be true is that the experience of having controversy and sharing ideas has been gradually strained out of the culture, through various strong influences both positive and negative. Today, people do not have the experience of sharing views with one another, except possibly under the covers in bed at night.

Leave-taking, and opportunity
I left North Korea with a good collection of conflicting feelings and opinions, including a feeling of great compassion and pain for its continuing hardship. I would not be a good North Korean, I am certain. However, I don’t have to be one. All I have to do is respect North Koreans as “another country,” as Bruce Cumings would say, not more or less.

It is a puzzling place to many of us in the West. Nonetheless, we should not allow our puzzlement to give way to dismissal. We should not be passive about formulaic mainstream press coverage of its issues and its leadership. Despite its surface differences, this is a country of Koreans; its people are as deserving of friendship, help and understanding as any other.

People-to-people exchanges with other cultures can do great things. They break down our walls, deprive us of their beloved preconceived ideas, show us other points of view, make us open and vulnerable again. Reforms for North Korea should and must include greater opportunities for exchanges of people of all kinds, even stupid, nosy reporters like me, to go and see for themselves. Korean Americans should be on the forefront of advocacy for this.

More relationships, more descriptive and neutral media coverage, more exchanges of issues of all kinds will move the mountains of rigid political agendas. We should not neglect the opportunity to get to know North Korea, and to help it on its way back to prosperity. It is our missed opportunity if we do.