Stomping Grounds: Pyongyang

“The sets and backdrops must be changed continually in such a way that they can portray in a varied manner change in place and time.  If the place of the characters’ actions is fixed unnaturally or if a change in time is not depicted, the logic of life is ignored.  Surroundings which do not change with a change in the characters’ actions will be unrealistic and make no contribution to bringing out their personalities.” — Kim Jong-il, On the Art of Opera

Four days ago, preppy jagoff Otto Warmbier returned alivish to America after serving a year in North Korean prison trying to take a poster.  Stealing shit is considered at least a frownable offense in most societies and North Koreans are especially sensitive about their imagery.

It’s been over three years since I’ve been to North Korea and I haven’t yet written about it.  Most published accounts by Western visitors paint their authors as mischievous Greek heroes who snatched a chew toy from the jaws of Cerberus.  It’s these Scott Templetons that encourage hijinks from the likes of Warmbier.  And still, DPRK authorities have treated these frat boys with more compassion than the Smiley Face Gang.

Pyongyang is a massive, beautiful city.  The most glaring fact from the ground is that funding of public works has outpaced personal wealth to a tragic degree.  The way Mogadishu is a bombed out shell of a once-great city, Pyongyang is a great city that never was.  The streets and hotels are empty.  During the day we tourists were eyed with suspicion by the locals.  But there were genuine moments.  These are real people, after all.  We drank every night and sometimes there was karaoke.  We had awkward conversations in English, in wordless gestures, and in telephone games of makeshift chains of whoever fancied they could speak whichever language.  And to return home and tell tale of these ubiquitous human scenes is to be met with awe, contempt, and anger.   Why would you go there?  It’s all fake, they say.  It’s state propaganda.  Well, it’s not not state propaganda, but that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation.

 

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