Reality, fiction hard to discern in N. Korea

What foreigners see is choreographed

October 30, 2005|By GADY A. EPSTEIN | GADY A. EPSTEIN,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- The government escort seemed troubled: Something had not gone according to plan.

A small group of visiting Americans had managed to talk with a North Korean whom officials had not selected in advance, a construction worker studying the works of the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung at the national library.

After the Americans walked away, the construction worker warned their escort that he would report the official to higher authorities for "protecting" the foreigners as they asked questions. The escort came away disturbed in a way that makes sense only in a society where you can never be sure who's watching.

"The people control the state," the escort said. And a citizen's complaint could doom a career, even a life.

The incident is chilling enough on its face. But the more chilling fact about North Korea is that so much is choreographed for outsiders that one can never know exactly what to make of what one sees and hears.

When a young woman who works at Pyongyang's monument to the government-sponsored ideology called Juche declares that she would like to marry a man like the "genius" Kim Jong Il, are those her true feelings? When a North Korean army colonel at the Demilitarized Zone insists that the United States started the Korean War and remains the only obstacle preventing the reunification of Korea, does he believe that?

The government escort's fear of a construction worker seemed to offer a glimpse behind the curtain at the machinery of social control, but could that, too, have been part of the show?

The one unwavering fact about North Korea is that its citizens must live in a government-constructed reality, even if it contradicts what they might see for themselves. This alternate state has managed to survive the death of its creator, Kim Il Sung (president-for-eternity); the collapse of its original sponsor, the Soviet Union, and a famine in the 1990s that may have killed more than 2 million people, or about a tenth of its population.

Today North Korea may be a failed economy, but it is not a failed state. That is because more than perhaps any other government, this government exercises nearly total control over its people and shields them from foreign influence.

That, some foreigners in Pyongyang say, is one of the reasons the regime decided recently to expel some foreign aid workers despite a desperate need for food and medicines from the outside world. And that also complicates North Korea's diplomacy with the outside world such as the nuclear talks expected to resume soon, because any grand bargain that brings this Hermit Kingdom into the community of nations also risks exposing the country to more outsiders.

A recent three-day tour of Pyongyang and the Demilitarized Zone demonstrated the lengths to which the regime goes to maintain control over its people and its history, and made clear that this alternate reality cannot withstand too much contact with the outside world.

For example, in much of the rest of the world, Kim Jong Il is a brutal dictator who keeps his 22 million subjects imprisoned by a cult of personality. To Choe Hye Ok, 26, in the North Korean capital, he is something else entirely.

"He is a real genius," said Choe, the tour guide at a 558-foot tower honoring the government-sponsored national ideology of Juche. "You see, I'm not married yet," she says, blushing and laughing a little, "but I'm looking for the general Dear Leader's style. I like his style."

Inside North Korea, Kim is hailed in government propaganda as not only a wise leader, but a sort of superman: a great marksman who hits only bull's-eye after bull's-eye with his pistol, a gifted musician and writer, a brilliant theoretician and, as Choe testified to, a "noble man." It is impossible to say who believes all this and who does not, but it would seem difficult for the cult of the Dear Leader -- and therefore the legitimacy of the regime -- to survive a full opening to the outside world.

Over the past few months, Kim has invited thousands of visitors, including Americans, to come look at the country he runs, and at how well he controls it, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the ruling Korean Workers' Party.

What the visitors see is in every sense a show. Six nights a week, tens of thousands of children, gymnasts and Korean People's Army soldiers have participated in meticulously choreographed performances that celebrate North Korea's version of its history, including the valiant struggle for liberty against the American imperialist aggressors in the "Fatherland Liberation War," as the Korean War is known here.

These performances go by the Korean name of "Arirang," named for a tragic Korean love story. But they are best understood by their more generic label, "mass games," which begins to suggest how, through hundreds of hours of practice and repetition, individuals become cogs in an operatic machine.

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