North Korean Tourist

(This is a summary of a Foreign Policy magazine interview of Patrick Chovanec, link here.)

Patrick Chovanec is a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and has been allowed to enter North Korea with a tourist group twice—once in 2008 and again in 2010. To say that the rules are strict there would be an understatement—there are no cell phones allowed, all books must be checked, no talking to natives is permitted unless authorities specifically allow it, and a tour guide must be present at all times. Professor Chovanec starts off by describing Pyongyang–it is a city of dull, gray, concrete buildings where only the politically elite are allowed to live. Because of a lack of electricity, there are very few to no lights at night. People often wander in the dark. There are—surprisingly—a fair amount of luxury sedans (BMW, Mercedes, etc) on the streets. Next, he describes the northeast section of the country, where the famine in the 1990’s hit most seriously. Now there are large markets where people sell what they are able to grow by themselves. The rumor is that the North Koreans are in for another famine, and unfortunately Chovanec seems to see the signs. In this part of the country there are no paved roads and, “at dawn, the whole town wakes to recorded patriotic songs and messages blared from loudspeakers. During the day, people walk around pushing their belongings — including their children — in makeshift wheelbarrows. At night, police jeeps cruise the dark like sharks, shouting harsh commands over their megaphones at passersby.” Propaganda plays a huge role—from the loudspeakers to the posters of North Korean tanks running over enemy soldiers in the primary schools. The government doesn’t seem to particularly like anyone, even China.

Chovanec was also able to visit the North Korean “Mass Games”, for which more than 100,000 participants prepare almost year round. He claims that the “Games” blew the opening ceremony Beijing Olympics away. Games notwithstanding, he feels sorry for the people, saying that these are normal people, living in abnormal conditions.

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