Aside from Dennis Rodman, around 1,500 western tourists and 9,000 Chinese tourists visit North Korea (DPRK) annually. I am one of them. Last year I departed my temporary hometown in southern China for a five-day Sporting Interest Tour. My primary focus on the trip was to continue my Beloit studies by exploring similarities between myself and DPRK citizens projected through sport. This focus was arguably surpassed by three conversations examining multicultural etiquette, offensive speech, censorship, freedom of expression and identity-politics.
It’s always worth establishing first principles. It would be unlettered of me to claim to be an expert on conducting cross-cultural conversations. In recounting my conversations and lessons from this extreme scenario engaging with ‘the other’ I hope you may find parallels in your own cross-cultural, morally-derived and politically-charged conversations, or lack thereof, on Beloit’s campus and in the surrounding community.
THE GRAND PEOPLE’S STUDY HOUSE
After deplaning from the only one-star airline in the world, I anxiously passed through the arrival terminal’s customs and inspection and was promptly greeted by my tour-guides /minders, Pak and Son-Hyang. They were top graduates of a specialized vocational school where they were taught exactly what to say (and what not to say) to foreign tourists. Nevertheless, Son-Hyang’s effervescence and hospitality and Pak’s patience and vivacity supported our seven-person group’s cultural discovery everywhere it was permitted.
On all DPRK tours foreigners are first given a glimpse into religious-like fanaticism. We
seven stood before, and all but one bowed to, two towering monuments, one of Kim Il-Sung and the other, his son and better known tyrant, Kim Jong-Il. We crossed Kim Il-Sung Square, main military-parade thoroughfare, and walked towards the entrance of an august public library which tore through the skyline. This was The Grand People’s Study House. Before arriving I knew seldom other opportunities would present themselves to engage with someone not associated with my tour. Akin to a child with its parents in a market, I wandered away from the group every chance I could get. This was my first gamble.
Like mannequins with a pulse, readers occupied desks gazing into books and blank computer screens. These phantom learners littered the Study House as I meandered through near-empty shelves, hollow catalogs and an insubstantial list of novels particularly devoid of foreign authors. My panorama was microcosm of the DPRK, requiring citizens to do that which is acceptable only if done voluntarily. Without appeal, I approached the reference desk. Vulnerability is not always the most welcomed companion, but it’s consistently the most loyal. Speaking in Russian to conceal my ‘Americanness’ I unsurprisingly asked for Orwell first, Kafka (walking through the halls brought The Trial to mind) and Rushdie. From the start we were talking past one another, she restricting my questions to party-lines and rehearsed answers such as, ‘this is the wrong section, we don’t have time to find them, etc.’ and me, a wandering foreigner requesting novels by describing Big Brother and Fatwas.
The night before I learned that our hotel, The Yanggakdo, was missing a fourth floor elevator button because it was reserved for government officials’ audio-surveillance of our rooms. Big Brother doesn’t always need to be surreptitious or even discreet, but it’s worse when it is. Feeling justified that the clerk wasn’t the only one listening to my questions, I peered over my shoulder and back again. When the clerk returned she informed me that she couldn’t find any copies of 1984 or Satanic Verses. But, I was handed a book on basketball and Gone with the Wind in English. It was progress of a sort.
Meeting up with the group shortly after this exchange, we ascended to the Study House’s balcony in order to view our next stop across the Taedong River. This was The Juche Tower, an imposing obelisk crowned by a flame and triad symbol of the DPRK, the sickle,
hammer and artist’s brush, all representing Juche. Awfully appreciative but unmoved, I continued to ask about the library’s contents in a more forthright tone with Pak and Son-Hyang. Easing into the conversation, I began asking if they studied there as children and students. Though I was unable to ask them to whom do they give the right to decide what books are allowed, what is harmful or offensive speech or who they award the task of censor, I was able to ask them how they know what they know and what happens when they learn new information that contradicts the old. Their obscurantism couldn’t cloak their diaphanous and almost imperceptibly coy smiles. Deciphering between false and genuine smiles was no small task but became clearer over the next few days.
In turn, they peppered me with similar questions about U.S. diversity and censorship. Fortunately, there was no verbal sleight of hand, our command of English and Korean was wide enough to prevent such a thing. Though Pak and Son-Hyang were bright and witty, outlining the treasure trove of English shaped by regressivism and their fascist and nationalist counterpoints was like p/laying tennis without the net. They knew the U.S. political spectrum quite well, so to make it plain I specified that intolerance rests comfortably on both ends. They were perplexed. Where they live there is nothing to envy. To tolerate and be tolerated are quite different concepts in themselves and were equally foreign to my new friends.
We ended our first day atop Juche Tower. I soaked in the panoramic cacophony of dilapidated buildings and high-rise hotels before descending and exiting outside into an Anti-American protest at the tower’s base.
DMZ AND KORYO UNIVERSITY
We spent our second day in Kaesong, DPRK’s southern-most city. Two hours through the desolate countryside, four checkpoints and an extra passenger later, we entered the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), site of the Korean War / Fatherland Liberation War armistice agreement and disputed territory in an ongoing war with South Korea. Atop the outpost’s balcony, South Korean and US soldiers were a stone’s throw away and DPRK soldiers were within arm’s length. The sterile, political rhetoric and propaganda dominating the negotiation-room’s architecture and atmosphere was thoroughly contrasted by a serene, natural palisade of ancient pines and modern gardens embracing our nearby second stop, Koryo University. Within its single building were relics belonging to the Korean Peninsula’s oldest university and first Confucian Academy’s founders and leaders.
Finishing the tour early, we rested on a picnic table beneath the shade with our compulsory DMZ military guide and the University Guide from Koryo. Initiating conversation, I chose to defend my own position and thereby all others being brought to the table. If one can’t ask questions on a university campus that may offend, make others feel uncomfortable or question their own values and ideas, where can they? It can be a terrible fate being condemned to see both sides of an issue, but an even worse fortune being relegated to see only your own. So given our surroundings, I intentionally asked questions about the role of DPRK education in regards to peace and war.
Participating in what I thought would be a multi-culturalist conversation, where all ideas
are permitted and anyone can speak, turned into verbal pugilism. I’ve found it prudent to assess the degree to which one identifies with one’s own ideas irrespective of company. You may encounter people who entangle their identity with their ideas and sometimes so much so that they are inherently defensive when they’re challenged, mistaking it for a personal attack. In North Korea’s state of such flagrant childhood indoctrination, official and mandated narratives and punishment of opposition, this is amplified.
I fortunately found my ideological analog in the DMZ Guide. All other people I met I suspected of acting or playing along as good citizens should, but there was no acting in him. This soldier was a keen supporter of Juche and sworn enemy of the United States, and undoubtedly knew where I came from before he boarded our bus at Kaeson’s last checkpoint.
While most individuals are capable of compassion in agreement, fewer are compassionate through the course of compelling and combative disagreements. Our conversation was not unlike the combination of a safe. One full turn failed to unlock a change of opinion in the other. It took a combination of advance and retreat with each step leading to an agreement or an irreconcilable dead-end. We shared only a solidarity about the toxicity of identity-politics. Our conversation’s progress was cultivated by disputation, but was intermittently soured with the censorious impulse. One needs to know they’ve crossed the line to know where it lies.
I have approximate answers and different degrees of certainty about different things; like living in a constant state of revision, where the two best conditions to be in is either wrong or confused. I’m not absolutely sure about anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about. Even so, I can say with a high degree of certainty that there is no absolute truth, no perfect solution, no ultimate end-goal or anything of the sort. While penetrating and pernicious, any claim to the contrary is either an admission of willful ignorance or unsubstantiated arrogance. Frustrating but predictable, the infallibility, legitimacy and absolute authority of the Kim dynasty was not contestable here nor anywhere else. There is a dividing line between presuming an opinion is correct because on every previous occasion it wasn’t refuted, and assuming its truth without submitting it to the rigor of refutation. Refusing to hear an opposing viewpoint or something that is offensive because one assumes it’s false, is the same as assuming that one’s personal certainty is absolute!
I noticed when the soldier spoke he was directly addressing the person who addressed him. Yet when Pak, Son-Hyang and even the University Guide finished their thoughts, each looked to the soldier and one another for what looked like approval. One can’t maintain control unless they have something to withhold. As a non-party member and university representative, I suspect our guide’s portrayal of self-abnegation and capitulation to dogma was heightened given that she was sitting between a Swedish woman and one of the local war-zone’s finest.
Within the conversation my attempts to expound that if all but one person agreed on the truth of a proposition it would be that much more important to let that opposing individual speak, that something may be extracted from an individual’s way of coming to their conclusion however ludicrous it may seem, that the majority attempting to silence a minority is no more justified than a minority attempting to silence the majority, and that one becomes a prisoner of their own opinion if they refuse to listen to and challenge someone who doesn’t share their position, were all understood, yet rejected. Despite the DMZ Guide’s sincerity to engage, it seemed he was only internalizing my and other westerner’s points so as to gain the upper hand on the next tour group. The apotheosis of the ostrich was strong with this soldier and thus the group.
KARAOKE, COFFEE AND SOJU
The last three days of the tour were more amiable and active. We watched a soccer match at May Day Stadium (largest in the world), bought books and posters at the Foreign Language Book Store, spent an afternoon at a water park and stamp museum, we fired
guns and crossbows at a shooting range, spent an evening on roller coasters and bumper cars, taught children to throw American footballs, and were all handily defeated by Pak in ping-pong. On our last day, behind Mt. Taesongsan and the temple adjacent, we played our own soccer match, using t-shirts, backpacks, and boxes to create a makeshift pitch. I invited onlookers and groups of old women with their grandchildren, in their trademark red scarves to join us, with some success. Their curiosity and warm reception highlights that connecting through a shared passion increases our understanding of ourselves and those whom we perceive to be different. When we took to the pitch, we weren’t Korean, Swedish, Irish, or American, we were goalies, defenders, mid-fielders, strikers, and subs. Playing against a former DPRK National Team goalie gave the game and scoring a goal some extra weight! Though we pushed, slid, yelled, argued and cheered, the informal setting painted our game in an affable light.
Out of all of these activities, the best was yet to come.
Nothing quite brought us together like a few hours of coffee, Soju (Korean rice wine) and butchering karaoke songs in the basement of the Yanggakdo on our last evening. It was here that Pak and Son-Hyang finally opened up to us about their personal aspirations, family life, loves, losses and achievements. They impressed all of us with their knowledge about the ‘rest of the world’s’, history, admitted there were labor camps and skimmed over other topics which seemed prohibited from discussing with foreigners at any depth.
Neither sought out the false security of the consensus but were rather raised into it like their parents and grandparents before them. Despite having to request permission for internal travel, they hoped to travel abroad. Son-Hyang was particularly fond of Europe. I got the impression they cared for their families, lovers, communities, music and entertainment more than the propaganda they avowed throughout the tour. (In fact, after the water park we met Son Hyang’s mom while she was dropping off something for her and Pak couldn’t withhold talking about his upcoming wedding.)
I’d contest they were rational enough to reason themselves out of thoughts and behaviors they hadn’t reasoned themselves into, but the capacity and willingness to rebel is reserved for the most courageous. At the end of the night, a hotel worker had the unenviable job of kicking out drunken foreigners from a night of karaoke.
Between hugs and well-wishes at the airport the following morning I told Pak and Son-Hyang that Chicago was waiting for them.
Though our cultures couldn’t be more different, we all bear the scars of our lowly origin: our myopia, prejudices, preconceptions and misunderstandings arise from the clash of values and expectations. Engaging with ‘the other’ unfortunately often includes an element of dehumanization. But, I think there’s an art and science to constructive engagement with non-like-minded people. The art consists of trying to improvise more inventive and welcoming means to break the silence around issues you feel are important enough to devote your effort and time to and the science lies in trying to make the silences bearable. This is now carelessly misrepresented with the sanguinary phrase “picking your battle”. While this experience expanded my perspective, the synthesis of my travel to North Korea with all other encounters I have had has fine-tuned it: no idea is above scrutiny nor is any person below dignity.