Chapter 13 – The Brighter Side of Evil’s Axis
While touring through Pyongyang, we were shown monument after monument after monument dedicated to the greatness of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. We were shown the Arch of Triumph which had been modeled after and looked quite like France’s Arc de Triomphe – only it was slightly bigger. We were then showed the Juche Tower along the Taedong River which is a giant obelisk presumably modeled after the Washington Monument…only it was designed to be one meter taller than the Washington Monument. Sensing a trend here?
Although I’m almost two-hundred percent sure it’s bullshit, we were told by our guides that Kim Jong Il is credited with designing the Juche Tower which was completed in 1982 for his old man Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday. It supposedly contains exactly 25,550 granite blocks (365 x 70) – one for each day of the Great Leader’s life – and is meant to commemorate the elder Kim’s ideology of Juche.
The Juche Idea is a principle based off Marxism that was revised by Kim Il Sung to include self-efficiency, self-reliance, nationalism and a belief that all things Korean should come first. All of these concepts came shining through in a propaganda video our tour group had been forced to watch in an American ship called the USS Pueblo that had been captured by the North Koreans in 1968 and now stands as a museum dedicated to their greatness along the banks of the Taedong River. The video contained images of US personnel doing violent things and used endearing terms such as “imperialist American pigs” throughout.
It made me a bit uncomfortable to know that this type of hateful information has been used to brainwash an entire nation of people since Kim Il Sung rose to power in the late 1940s – that they make their identity as a nation, their purpose in this world, the destruction of all things American. At the cost of stunting their growth and breeding a whole country of potentially fucked-up people, if I had to guess, I’d say the implementation of a common enemy helps to give meaning to their collective suffering and to keep the tribe together under a unified directive. But then again, what the hell do I know?
Believe it or not, my main reason for wanting to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was not to expose myself to how big of a mindfuck it must be to live and suffer there, escape, see what life’s like on the outside and be floored when realizing what’s been done to you and all your compatriots over the years. Nor did the deciding factor in my wanting to visit North Korea have anything to do with Dennis Rodman or how he’d managed to “Worm” his way into the heart of the current chubby-cheeked, bowl-cut-having leader of the DPRK. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the “bad boy” had yet to make his first visit back when I went in the fall of 2012. The reason that I was so adamant about stepping foot in what is viewed by my grandpa who’d fought there in the ‘50s as “the arsehole of the earth” had been to attend the then-annual – they’ve currently discontinued it – Arirang Mass Games.
The Mass Games is a grand and tightly coordinated artistic and gymnastic exhibition that takes place in Rungnado May Day Stadium which, with a capacity of 150,000, is the largest stadium in the world. The performance includes approximately 100,000 of Pyongyang’s 3 million residents. That’s 1 out of every 300. It’s said that once a citizen is picked to be a performer – a selection that could happen as early as age five – that it can be very disruptive to their daily lives due to the constant practicing that is necessary to memorize all the elaborate routines but since the sacrifice is considered such a great honor, the chosen ones will most likely end up sticking it out until retirement.
During the performance, we spectators had sat on one side of the stadium and in the seats directly across from us were an estimated 30,000 school children. It was these kids’ responsibility to hold up booklets with different colored images that, when all seen in relation to one another, form a giant mosaic. Throughout the show, the pages were flipped in unison, subsequently altering the image that we saw from the other side. And because I’m guessing they’d be sent to labor camp if they did, the children never missed their cue. Meanwhile, as angelic Korean music filled the stadium and set the mood, down in the field below, the rest of the 100,000 showmen danced, marched, did crazy acrobatic shit, carried out elaborate human stacking schemes and had even been shot out of cannons, all the while constantly changing outfits throughout the show.
As treacherous as this may sound, the North Korean Mass Games had literally been inspiring enough to not only bring a tear to my eye but also send them rolling down my cheeks. It’s easily the most impressive and flawlessly coordinated performance ever devised by humankind. Of course, when I say this, I’m not referring to the symbolism behind the story of Arirang – the blind glorification of the Kim family dynasty, the Workers Party, the armed forces and the DPRK’s wish to reunite with South Korea under their terms and conditions – but to how this bittersweet beauty came to be.
No way could anything so extravagant yet so delicate ever under any circumstances be coordinated in “the free world.” Only through oppression and total control of an entire country’s collective psyche could you convince so many people to cut hours from their work and give up their free time to dedicate so much of themselves to take part in a performance honoring their country. I like to compare it to a beautiful bundle of flowers springing up and out a fly-covered pile of manure pinched from some heifer’s asshole in the not-too-distant past – ahem, Kim Il Sung.
I’ve never felt so tingly all over and been so disgusted at the same time before in all my life. That said, the only thing more upsetting to me than the regime’s tight control over the brainwashed people that led to such a stellar performance was the fact that I didn’t get drunk enough there to take off all my clothes and see how far I could get streaking across the field before a sniper put a bullet in the back of my stupid fucking American head.
Although the Arirang Mass Games was definitely the highlight of the trip, one memory – one so simply human and one that so starkly contrasts everything else we’d seen, done and been told during our five days there – had occurred on the afternoon I arrived in the DPRK.
On the flight over from Beijing, I’d been treated to the worst meal I’ve ever been served. It looked and tasted like someone opened up the bag on a lawnmower, grabbed a handful of freshly cut grass, chucked it in a bowl, poured water on it and called it lunch. The backyard special, I opted not to ingest.
As we got closer and began our descent, I gazed out from my window seat on the port side of the aircraft onto the lands controlled by the Axis of Evil and felt an unexpected sense of serenity come over me. The varyingly verdant late September shades of the rolling meadows comprising the outskirts of Pyongyang had looked as peaceful as peaceful could be.
“How,” I remember asking myself, “how could a place so fucked up give me such a peaceful easy feeling?”
Outside the airport, our American convoy piled on a bus behind one of our appointed guides named Soo Yeon. She stood at the front of the auto and began talking to us on a microphone as the driver – a middle-aged dude who I’d end up smoking quite a few cigarettes with while never catching his name or saying a word to on account of the language barrier – put the pedal to the metal and started taking us the approximate fifteen miles to Pyongyang’s city center.
During this transit, a light rain had been falling and, after paying attention to Soo Yeon for as long as I could before my AD“D” had hijacked my attention, I started staring out the window of the bus at the same fields I had from a bird’s eye view on the plane about an hour-and-a-half beforehand when, in the distance, appeared the largest and most vibrant rainbow I’d ever seen. It didn’t take long before everyone else – Soo Yeon included – had taken notice of it as well and put everything on hold to bask in its splendor.
While we’d all been staring out the window at this thing rising over fields of tall grass richly illuminated by the long-angle light of the late afternoon sun, an army bus that’d been heading the same way pulled up alongside us on the two-lane highway. Out every window of this vehicle, men dressed in the type of stereotypical green Communist army uniform that I can’t picture Fidel Castro in anything but had been, with both hands, frantically waving at us – a group of Americans who these men had been indoctrinated by the regime to hate above all else, at whose images they supposedly take target practice during combat training.
“Hello! Hello!” they all shouted with shit-eating grins spread across their faces. All us Yanks on the bus immediately jumped up and started waving back. No more than five seconds later, their bus had overtaken ours. The moment was gone but will never be forgotten.
Photos from the Arirang Mass Games…