The next day, half our group hung-over from drinking too much snake vodka, we arrived at the highly anticipated mausoleum. We had received strict instructions for this event – no jeans, no sneakers (I had to pick up a pair of flats in Beijing as my normal Adidas were apparently not acceptable), men must wear ties, skirts and dresses must be at or below the knee, shoulders must be covered, no smiling, no laughing, no speaking, no photography (they confiscated our phones and electronics), bowing three times at each leader’s tomb, etcetera, etcetera. As soon as I entered the mausoleum, I knew I would not be able to follow all the rules; two wax figures of Kim Il Sun and Kim Jong Il, each 3 meters tall immediately brought a grin to my face. I would love to describe the room but the only thing I can recall was how bizarre and excessive the entire experience was, but that was only the beginning. Walking in lines of 4, we entered the rooms holding the bodies of the 'great' leaders; it would have been a strange experience in itself just bowing to the huge leaders in glass boxes illuminated by red light from the ceiling, but the sobbing Korean women in traditional colorful dresses added whole other element. Crowds of women and soldiers accompanied us into the museum, visibly upset at the lives of their past leaders. I smile a lot when I’m uncomfortable, so viewing this made me so close to laughing that I thought I was going to get deported, or worse. The women looked genuinely distraught, but I am convinced that they are taught to cry at events and monuments such as this, essentially dishonoring their leader if they do not. We silently shuttled past all the medals, honorary degrees, and awards that Kim Il Sun and Kim Jung Il received from different countries during their years in office, shocked at the mere amount. It was overall a very surreal experience, being immersed in such a sense of national pride.
This sense of patriotism transferred over quite seamlessly into our next big visit, to the War Museum. Filled with captured US tanks, fighter jets, spy ships, bombs that “the United States Aggressive Forces attempted to exterminate Korea with,” and pretty much anything that could be used to humiliate and discredit the United States, the museum had a very clear version of history and a message to spread. We were seated in a small theatre to watch a film called, “What Divided Korea?” the answer to which, if you were wondering, is the United States. In the exhibit called “Atrocities Committed by US Imperialists,” the guides explained how America used chemical and biological warfare in conflict, dropping poisonous insects and napalm in order to exterminate their enemies and “kill as many Asians as possible.” To be honest, most of the information they were offering about the United States is most likely true or at least based in fact, although I believe they greatly exaggerated some aspects of American influence and demonized intention that were perhaps not as malicious as initially intended, while also minimizing other countries’ influence. We watched a panorama (the largest panorama in Asia, apparently) version of war and conflict with the United States, filled with dead US soldiers and burnt American flags, overlaid with propaganda and eerie traditional music. I purchased a book called “US Imperialists Started the Korean War” on my way out, to delve more into this version of history. Our tour guide gushed over the exhibit back in the bus, speaking of how important it is in order for school children to learn about the past conflicts using such proof as the museum provides (how reliable that proof is, I am not entirely convinced).
We followed up the war museum appropriately with a trip to the shooting range, where I shot my first gun (an AK47). Most fascinating part was how there were absolutely no regulations for the guns, as they were being tossed pretty much anywhere, and I’m a little cautious of any place that allows me to shoot a gun.
My opinion of the country and feeling towards this trip changed dramatically on the fourth day, and now I feel uncomfortable being here and sharing any of the pictures I have taken so far. We visited an elementary school, which I was vastly looking forward to, as I absolutely love talking to children. However, as soon as we arrived it was like nothing I had ever experienced; the children were waiting for us in the courtyard holding on to silks, ready to dance for us in an elaborate weaving ceremony. After they finished we were hustled into a room with a group of children in ballet costumes who immediately broke into absurd acrobatic tricks that made their small bodies look like spaghetti; definitely not things I believed eight year olds could do. A string of performances followed, including singing, instruments, Ping-Pong, more dance, English language skills, and even jump rope.
I believe I started crying at about Ping-Pong. What I was watching was not school, rather an exhibition. Putting aside the anti-America propaganda lining the walls with imagery of rockets and “satellites,” it was the optimum example of exploitation, with these children putting on full on performances with complete costumes for random tourists coming in 1-2 times per month in non-tourists seasons and 1-2 times per week in warmer months. I knew that people were not able to choose their careers, that the government chose it for them, but it was horrifying to see how forced it was at such a young age. It makes economic sense for careers to be determined by skill, but makes for horrendous human rights conditions. People were in awe at the performances, wondering how long it took for the children to achieve this level of talent, but to be honest I do not want to know the conditions that brought this about. I was genuinely afraid for any student who played a wrong note or forgot a single step, I could see the flash of fear run across their face with a quick look to their teacher every time it happened. It was the most forced and disingenuous show of education that I could imagine – especially as it was winter break and school is not currently in session, meaning that the students literally came in specifically to entertain us. Even the language classes were a performance with the children singing, “I like English, this is my classroom, I love it here;” it was as if I was watching a cult in the midst of brainwashing the youth. It was child labor, a way to remind foreigners of how impressive their society is when in fact it just reminded me of how horribly messed up it was; it was a factory, churning out talented workers from the time they are born against their own will for the improvement of the nation. It is a perfect demonstration of community over the individual, with complete disregard for decisions or human rights.
The rest of the day seems like an angry blur now, including a trip to a library where the guide blasted Beatles in a reading room in order to impress us with their technology, completely disregarding the people actually working in there. In fact, they turned on the lights in a different reading room specifically for us; I genuinely cannot fathom the amount of special treatment tourists get in order to make the country seem so much better from afar. We visited a large tower, some museums, historical sites, the metro system. The most interesting occurrence that happened was when we arrived at some museum a couple minutes too early and watched as the people scrambled to turn on the lights and look busy, opening up solely for our arrival and most likely closing as soon as we left. This seems to be a common occurrence. I asked our guide about feminism during this time, if women desired more power in society. She told me that men and women were equal in the DPRK, women are respected and given the same rights, especially if the woman have lots of children. Like most questions I ask here, I was left unsatisfied with the mostly defensive and vague answers possible.
The night continued with bowling, beer, and karaoke – a very strange capitalist American-esque experience in a very anti-American society. The next morning we arose at an early 5:30am to board our flights and trains. I was supposed to take the 23-hour train back to Beijing, but I apparently misread the information and realized that you can only use the 72-hour China visa if arriving by international flight, so at the last minute we had to squeeze me onto an already full flight. It was very chaotic and at times I thought I was going to be stuck in North Korea for quite a bit longer (the next flight was days away). As Kim, my incredibly sweet DPRK guide, sat with me, she asked me how I liked the trip. I responded with vague compliments, knowing that I couldn’t give my true opinions. She smiled, “Please tell your friends back home that we are not the same as western media portrays us, we are just like all of you. I hope you come back soon."