Chapter 12 – Culture of Surveillance
No visitors to the DPRK are allowed to travel independently and, back in 2012, Americans were only allowed to enter the country via plane. Whereas everybody from everywhere else in our tour group had hopped aboard an overnight party train leaving from Beijing on the afternoon of September 27th which was due to arrive the next morning, about five compatriots and I took off the following day via flight CA121 from China’s smoggy-ass capital city.
On the plane to Pyongyang, I’d been sitting next to two British diplomats in their early thirties – one male and one female – who said they’d been living in a compound in the DPRK for the last several years. On account of how tightly everything was controlled in the country, they informed me that there was not really a whole lot for them to do besides hang out at the quasi-prison and mess around on the internet. During our chat, they also imparted that no more than two planes a day come in to Pyongyang Sunan International Airport which at the time had consisted of two runways and one building that looked about twice the size of your average Chicago Park District park house.
After it landed and we’d all filed off the aircraft in an orderly fashion, we were ushered by airport officials into a special “foreigners” immigration line to get checked into the country. Of all outlanders, I was about fourth in line, directly behind this 24-year-old dude named Adam who’d been sporting a pretty mean push broom mustache. In what I assumed had been their surefire way of making certain he wasn’t a spy, Adam ended up getting intensively questioned about his age and his hometown and other fairly obvious information listed on his passport that any moron could memorize after a minute of reading it over.
When Mustache Boy was finally let through and I came to the front of the line, I wasn’t really asked any questions and the guy didn’t even stamp my passport. I was just kinda let in and then was waved over by this MILFY-lookin’ Korean woman who’d already gathered the rest of the Americans from the flight.
“Hello,” she said and smiled, “nice to meet you. My name is Soo Yeon and I am one of your guides. Can I have your name please?”
“Timothy…” she repeated while looking over a piece of paper attached to a clipboard, “…Timothy what?”
“Lally. L-A-L,” I began spelling it for her until I glanced over at the sheet she was looking at and saw it was written in Hangul, rendering my Latin breakdown useless.
“Oh, okay. Here,” she said while putting a check next to some squiggles and ovals, “Lalllll-ly.”
After that, Soo Yeon took my passport, informed me that she’d be holding onto it for the duration of my five-day trip and gave me a little blue card which opened like but had been half the size of a typical Hallmark greeting card. On the cover, in addition to Korean script, had been the words “TOURIST CARD: DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF KOREA” as well as an oval-shaped emblem in the center which had depicted a hydroelectric dam.
Once I checked in with Soo Yeon, the group stood there waiting for one more evil no-good American scumbag to go through the process and I spent this time looking around the terminal. Like I said when we were landing, it by no means had been a big airport but, now from the inside, I’d noticed not only was it not big but it was rather plain as well. Or perhaps it just seemed that way because the feng shui had been offset by two overbearingly massive pictures on the wall giving off the eerie sensation that everyone in the place had been being watched by Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. This feeling – my first little glimpse of the overwhelming cult of personality, the all-powerful omnipresence of the “Great Leader” and the “Dear Leader” overlooking every waking aspect of North Korean life – I’d soon get very used to.
Over the next five days, I’d learn that these two portraits – which are always situated one right next to the other – can be found in every home, classroom and public building in the country. And whereas the streets in American cities are lined with billboards and bus stop advertisements constantly competing for our attention and our dollars, in the DPRK, the majority of public space that would normally be reserved for corporate logos had instead boasted images dedicated to the regime, demanding unwavering fidelity. I’d only seen one billboard in North Korea actually advertising some sort of product and it’d been a promotion for a locally made car along one of the main roads in Pyongyang. And since I’m sure the government had at least some partial ownership in the company, I consider that too just another shrine honoring the leaders.
Showing respect to the Kim family is not just something that all citizens must do, but it’s expected from all tourists as well. In front of an art museum where there’d been massive side-by-side bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il riding horses – one of which had been rearing back on its hind legs – our tour group was told to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a neat orderly line with our heads bowed in silence as one of our fellow travelers laid a bouquet of flowers that we’d been pressured by our guides to purchase at the foot of the equestrian monument. We were similarly coerced to show the same respect in front of a shrine at the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery. Since faith in any of the popular world religions will get you thrown in jail or a prison camp, the cult of personality is all North Korean citizens have. I’ve read that there are close to thirty-five thousand statues, murals and other “places of worship” of the like all around the DPRK that I’m sure, in front of which, the bouquets pile up on a regular basis.
After the trip to the art museum, we went over to a book shop. Whether the books had been autobiographical or written by some well-educated propagandist, every single selection in the place had been directly focused on the greatness of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il – most of which were available in all the major world languages. For shits and giggles, I picked up an English copy of one called Anecdotes of Kim Jong Il’s Life and oh man, is it disturbing. The fuckin’ thing’s no more than a non-stop catalog of exaggerated accomplishments divided by chapters with names like “A Blessing from Heaven” and “The Man Who Brings Sunshine.” How glorified each of these accounts are made me feel as if I were reading a book full of Chuck Norris jokes that people actually believe.
Ordinary people in North Korea are not allowed access to the internet but they can go to the library and there’s none bigger in the country than The Grand People’s Study House. The GPSH is big enough to house thirty million books but foreign publications are only available with special permission. However, the average Joe – or Kim I should say – can read all they want of the 10,800 documents, books and “on the spot guidance” written by Kim Il Sung who must’ve been a very busy man to have been able to pen so very much mind-raping nonsense. According to KBS World Radio, “The entirety of North Korea’s institutional documents including the constitution, labor laws, land laws and educational theses were authored by Kim. All publications, including newspapers, magazines, school textbooks, and academic texts, were prefaced by ‘words of instruction’ from Kim.” I didn’t have the opportunity to check any of those documents out, but after having read the type of shit they had over at the book shop, I find this fact piss-in-my-pants terrifying.
Education in the DPRK is universal and state-funded resulting in a supposed yet very respectable literacy rate of 99%. At the same time, however, all North Koreans must take bullshit classes dedicated to “The Great Kim Il-Sung,” “Communist Morality” and “Communist Party Policy.” And to once again reference KBS World Radio, “All North Koreans were taught at school that they were clothed, fed, and nurtured in all aspects by ‘the grace of the Chairman.’”
One of the first things I noticed as our tour bus drove between all these places in Pyongyang is how strange it is to see so many men – and women as well – who appeared to be ordinary citizens wearing those old-ass stereotypical green Communist uniforms. It seemed to me like a living reenactment of what I imagine China to have looked like in the 1950s. And more often than not, these people would be doing mundane activities like picking weeds in the park, digging random holes or sweeping up dead leaves and garbage. Of this laboring, we were told by our guides that in the DPRK it’s each citizen’s responsibility to keep their area clean – homeowners sweep the street by their houses, shopkeepers pick up by their stores and schoolchildren tidy-up the school. I don’t know what type of penalty is inflicted on those who fail to maintain their space, but the system seems to work as I didn’t see very much rubbish on the streets of North Korea.
Visitors to Pyongyang can stay in one of two designated tourist hotels and are not allowed to leave on their own without being accompanied by a North Korean guide. Our group stayed at the one called Yanggakdo International Hotel which had been situated on Yanggak Island in the middle of the Taedong River – a location that made it quite hard for any mischievous Westerners to sneak away and do some solo exploring if they were so inclined. In further attempt to squelch that curious element in visitors and deter us from venturing off, the hotel contained several bars, spas, billiards, a bowling alley, a barber shop, a massage parlor, a swimming pool and a casino.
None of the elevators in the hotel stopped on the fifth floor and the doors – as I’d find out when wasted and exploring – to it off the staircase had been locked as well. Rumor has it that the fifth floor is where a surveillance team hangs out and monitors the actions of everybody in the hotel.
One of the ten or so television channels we got in the hotel room – most of which had been international news channels – was a local one that I flipped on several times throughout my stay. The format of the station appeared to be all-Kim-Il-Sung-all-the-time. They would show the old dead man waving and making public appearances and then pan over to the crowds who’d inevitably be cheering wildly as if they were a bunch of teenage girls greeting the Beatles when they first stepped off the plane onto American soil back in early 1964.
As I mentioned, you cannot travel anywhere on your own without your North Korean guides who were pretty much the only locals we had the chance to interact with. I mean, sure, we could talk to the bus driver that didn’t speak a word of English all we wanted, chit chat with the bartenders at the hotel who only knew a few basic phrases or tell the cute young waitresses serving us food, “Yeppeoyo!” which, to my understating, means “you’re beautiful,” but pretty much anyone who was not directly affiliated with the DPRK’s tourism industry didn’t dare come near us.
I’d say that the most strict of our three guides had been Soo Yeon, the attractive female guide who’d first greeted me at the airport. She was a stickler if I’ve ever encountered one. Not only did she make sure that every rule had been followed, but she also made sure that we’d observed every Korean cultural custom to the fullest extent.
One night our group went to some fancy place called Thongil Restaurant in Kaesong whose specialty had been dog soup which went for five Euros a bowl. Although I believe that what animals we decide are and are not okay for human consumption is nothing more than arbitrary compartmentalization, I didn’t really feel like spending that much money on a bowl of shredded-up Lassie meat and instead stuck with a plate of kimchi and some other traditional Korean shit. That’s not to say, however, that I didn’t steal a pinch from the person sitting next to me. To me, the taste was fine but the texture had been all slimy and gross as if the chef blew his or her nose all over it just before serving the dish.
As I sat there – a chopstick novice at the time – trying my best to shovel food in my face with the primitive utensils, Soo Yeon would rush over and rearrange the sticks in my hand to make sure I’d been doing it the proper way. Using the correct technique, I was having as much luck getting the food into my mouth as a guy born without an anus would getting the shit out of his body. So, after a minute of trying it her way, I’d switch back to what worked for me and continue tossing the shit into my gullet. Soo Yeon would detect this and, without a word, would come up and manipulate my hand into once again holding them the proper way.
“But I can’t eat this way,” I told her. “It doesn’t work for me. I can’t pick up the food.”
She didn’t care if I starved to death. It was her way or no way. This pissed me off and made me wanna get really drunk. In suit, I picked up a bottle of beer off the table and refilled my glass.
“No!” she spat. “In Korea, you never refill your own glass. You must have someone else do it for you.”
“But everyone else is busy eating. I don’t wanna bother them.”
She again didn’t care and insisted I do it the Korean way which, as an obstacle to not only my sustenance but also my intoxication, I’d found quite annoying.
On one of the days, our group headed south to the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas along the 38th parallel as was decided upon in the Korean Armistice Agreement signed on July 27, 1953. The division is a hundred-and-sixty miles long and has a reputation as being the most heavily militarized border in the world.
During the drive down to this sectarian divide, we passed through a bunch of rural-ass farmland and we’d all had our cameras out the windows of the bus trying to snap some photos of the local people standing outside their tiny ramshackle homes when another one of our guides – this dude, Mr. Kim – flipped his shit on us.
“No photos!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “This is the forefront of our country! Do you understand!?”
I don’t think anyone understood but everyone put their cameras down and no one questioned him.
When we got to the DMZ, we went to what’s known as “the Joint Security Area,” “the JSA” or “the truce village.” The JSA is used by the two Koreas for diplomatic engagements that are held in the blue buildings known as the MAC Conference Room and the UNC Joint Duty Office building. Right outside these buildings, along the line officially dividing the bickering sister countries, two North Korean guards face each other while the third guard stands a few feet inland, facing the north and forming a triangle among the three of them. It was said to us that the two guards face each other at the border so they make sure that neither they nor the third guy will defect to the south while the third guy, with his back to the enemy, keeps watch for any civilians trying to get out.
Several months after my visit to the DPRK, when travelling in Iran, I met a German guy named Joseph who told me he’d been to North Korea close to ten times. He explained to me that, like the DPRK-appointed guides assigned to watch over our tourist group as well as the ones at the border, there will always be at least three of them because their job is to watch over each other as much as it had been to watch over us. He said to me that in North Korea all citizens must meet up with government officials every so often and report at least one thing that another citizen has done against the regime, basically leaving everyone living in a constant state of loyalty-demanding paranoia. He concluded the thought by saying that if there were only two guides or guards at the border, they might conspire to defect together, but the presence of a third person who might not agree with them or can rat them out to the officials for speaking out against the government is often enough to deter them from trying to leave or misbehaving in any way.
While we’d been at the JSA, I’d been pounding beers with my Australian buddy Gavin. Although we didn’t get wasted, by the time we hopped back on the bus to go to a different part of the DMZ referred to by our guides as “the white wall,” we both had to piss pretty bad. At the time, we’d been sitting right behind the third guide, Mr. Pak, who was twenty-eight years old.
“Hey,” Gavin said to me, “think I might piss in this empty bottle I got here.”
“Yeah?” I replied, pointing at the seat in front of me. “What about this guy?”
“I’m not worried. Pak’s cool. Have you talked to him yet?”
“Nah, I was worried he’d be like the others.”
“No, he’s not at all. Here, check this out,” Gavin reached up and started tapping Pak on the shoulder. “Hey, Pak, if you were to have had a few too many beers at the DMZ and had to piss right now, would you go in this bottle?”
“Oh no,” he replied. “Not me.”
“Well, why not?”
A large grin spread across the man’s face.
“I’m afraid I cannot do that because my dick is waaaaaay too big to fit in there.”
We soon after arrived at the white wall where we were greeted by a North Korean colonel who gave us permission to look into telescopes, spying on the south side of the DMZ. Before arriving in the DPRK, the people from the tour company had told us that as of June 2012, the smoking rate in the country of those over fifteen years old had been 52.3% and, as gifts to hand out to people we met along the way, we were advised to bring with us packs of foreign-made cigarettes. In exchange for some of these imported smokes, the colonel at the white wall was willing to pose for pictures with us tourists and I was lucky enough to get one of us simultaneously enjoying the aforementioned foreign fags.
After our visit to the DMZ, we headed back to the Kaesong Folk Hotel for the night where all the alcoholics piled into the barroom and started guzzling. There, I found a seat at the bar over by Gavin and Pak.
“I don’t have any more right now,” Gavin said, pointing at me. “Ask him. I bet he’s got a ton of dirty jokes.”
With a beer in his hand, Pak turned and looked over at me.
“Can you tell me a dirty joke?”
“Well,” I laughed, “what type of dirty joke are you looking for? Like, a sex joke?”
“I like sex,” Pak said in return. “How many times have you had sex in one night?”
“Um, I dunno. Maybe three or four. How ‘bout you?”
“The most I have sex in one night is five times. And not only sex though,” he paused for a minute as a sober Soo Yeon had been patrolling past us, “the girl was also sucking my boners.”
I burst out laughing as he and Gavin did the same.
“Yo Pak, that’s fuckin’ awesome, man.”
“Yes, I know,” he nodded and smiled. “Thank you. But, so, I like learning about dirty joke. Can you tell me one?”
“I don’t really know any jokes off-hand but I can tell you about some sex moves if you’re interested. Wanna hear ‘em?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Alright, you know what the ‘Icy Mike’ is?”
He shook his head no.
“Okay,” I began, “it’s when you take a shit and put the log of shit in the freezer and wait for it to get really hard and then you use that log of shit as a dildo to stick into your girlfriend’s vagina.”
“Oh my god,” the look on his face was priceless, “that is so disgusting.”
“Yeah, it is. Wanna hear another?”
He told me he did.
“Alright, this one’s called ‘munging.’ It’s when you find a woman who has just died recently and you take all her clothes off and lay her out on a table. And then you put your mouth around her vagina as one of your friends jumps up and down on her stomach and all her dead mushy organs come shooting out of her vagina into your mouth.”
“Oh,” he said, again with the hilarious expression, “that is so sick it is making me want to throw up. Oh god.”
After the ice had been broken by the Icy Mike, we switched the conversation over to more humane topics.
“You know prank call – on the telephone?” he asked me.
“Hell yeah,” I responded, “I used to make ‘em all the time when I was a kid.”
“Oh man, me too. So funny.”
“That’s so weird, man. When I think of North Korea, the last thing I think of is kids sitting around a telephone making prank calls.”
I’d then go on to try and explain to him that there’d been a girl at my high school named Austin Powers whose house my brother and I had constantly made calls to in the Dr. Evil voice and how enraged her father would get each time we did it, but Pak had never seen any of the movies.
“So,” I subsequently inquired, “you don’t get, like, any American movies or music here at all then, right?”
“No. Not really. But from America I very much like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys.”
“Of course. ‘Everybody,’” he began singing, “‘Backstreet’s back, alright!’”
“Shit, that’s awesome. We should get some KTV goin’ on in here,” I laughed. “But, uh, so, where’d you hear these songs from if you can’t listen to foreign shit?”
“For many years, I lived in Malaysia. English is only my third language. Number one is Korean and number two is Bahasa Malaysia. But I hear many musics there from all over the world.”
“How’d you get to live down there? I didn’t think citizens were allowed to leave.”
“My father was important in the military and I could do diplomat work down there. But now he is dead and I have to come back here to work.”
“Aw man, I’m sorry to hear about your dad.”
“Ah, yes. Thank you.”
“Do you miss Malaysia at all?”
“Yes, I love Malaysia. But here is my home.”
“Yeah, Malaysia’s pretty nice,” I nodded. “Lots of sexy ladies.”
“Oh yeah,” he agreed.
“So, were you in the military as well?”
“Does that mean you hate Americans?”
“I don’t like America,” he said without hesitation, “but I like American peoples.”
“Cheers,” I held up my bottle and clanked it against his. “Hmm, what else, what else? Um, you play any sports? You know taekwondo?”
“I used to be a professional soccer player and, yes, I also know taekwondo. I have a black belt.”
“Oh yeah? That’s tight. You think if I held my hand up outstretched over my head, you’d be able to kick it?”
“I could definitely kick your hand, but I would probably break it.”
“That’s so cool. You ever kick anyone’s ass? You ever use your taekwondo to beat anyone up?”
“Yes, one time,” he nodded, “one time very much.”
“Dude, let’s hear it. You gotta tell me about it.”
“Okay,” he shrugged. “It was when I was young back in the army. I was walking down the street in Pyongyang and two guys were walking at me. Sidewalk is not very big – not much room to move, but there was still room to move. I didn’t want to move and the guys did not want to move either. So I kept walking and they walked into me and give me a dirty look. It made me angry. I was young and I was crazy and so I go to one guy and I kicked him in the face. Then before the other guy could even move, I jumped up and kicked him in the face too. Then they both are laying there on the sidewalk. And I leave them and keep walking where I needed to go.”