North Korea: A Country with No Books
After returning from a visit to North Korea in 2007, I eagerly uploaded to Flickr hundreds of photographs I’d taken of Pyongyang, Kaesong, Panmunjom, and the Myohyang area. While posting my photos, I discovered that versions of my favorite pictures were already online. Almost everyone who’d managed to visit the DPRK had snapped that little bell hanging from the eaves of the International Friendship Museum. Everyone had captured the same subway car in the Yongwang metro station, the tumbling Arirang gymnasts at the Mass Games, that same chrome Kalishnikov catching the light.
What a foolish American I’d been to think that I’d had a rare and one-of-a-kind experience. Of course the North Koreans maintained a robotically similar presentation for all their visitors, providing everyone with the same rooms in empty hotels, seating them at the same tables in abandoned banquet halls, lecturing them all via the lone docent in the Korean Central History Museum. I’d known that the visit would be highly scripted and that genuine interactions with citizens wouldn’t be possible, since it’s illegal for them to speak with foreigners. Still, I’d thought I’d had a unique look at North Korea, only to discover I was wrong.
In America, we believe that each person is the central character in his or her own story. In the stories we tell ourselves, characters’ deep-seated desires and motivations send us on trajectories toward what we strive to attain. Along the way, there are complications and conflicts that challenge us and invite us to look inward, but in the end, our characters change, grow and understand.
In North Korea, however, there is one narrative, written almost exclusively by the Kim family. The twenty-three million other people in North Korea have been conscripted to play secondary characters in a national script that starred only Kim Jong-il. These masses had to forego their own yearnings and aspirations in order to play their assigned roles. Failure to do so could result in imprisonment. For an entire populace, change, growth, and spontaneity were dangerous. Acting upon a personal desire, whispering a hidden longing, revealing your true feelings—all the human actions we think of as essential to a character—had be censored by the self lest they be punished by the state.