Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Missing Leg: North Korea

About six weeks ago I stumbled on a webpage for the Korean Friendship Association, which seemed, on the surface at least, a shadowy front for the North Korean government to try and encourage tourism and investment. Upon navigating to the travel section of the site, I noticed that barely a month before M and I were scheduled to depart on our grand tour, there was a delegation set to visit on the 100th Anniversary of Kim Il-Sung.
9 months before that, when I had sat down and drew the map that appears as the background of this blog, the idea came up to travel to North Korea. After some research I found out the prohibitive cost, usually a few thousand dollars for just a few days. I realised that this would seriously compromise the reach of the remainder of our journey, so we disregarded North Korea as a potential destination. Upon having seen this new trip would coincide with these celebrations, I was forced to re-evaluate this assessment and conclude that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and might warrant the necessary curtailment of social activities required to raise the funds to get there. 

To bring those unfamiliar with the top tier of North Korean leadership up to speed - Kim Il-Sung, the father of Kim Jong-Il, has been dead for seventeen years but is still the president of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (the exact name of the position is written in the North Korean constitution as the "Eternal President of the Republic"). The NK propaganda machine never seemed to work out a way to deal with his death, so the celebration of his 100th anniversary would be, in a country that has become as synonymous with mass totalitarian spectacles as they are with spoilt-brat diplomatic manoeuvres, something worth seeing. 

The first phase specified on the KFA website was a preregistration (with an entirely separate process for US citizens) which required no deposit of the eventual 3000 euros. So M and I went right ahead and preregistered. We never expected to hear anything back - the website explains that there is a limit of 30 people per trip, which we assumed would be the total foreign intake for the entire tour, with no rival tours allowed. We were both shocked when we had emails the next morning from korea@korea-dpr.com telling us that we had been accepted and to continue to the next round we were required to deposit 450 euros into a paypal account in Spain. Now, further investigation was required. 

I read the itinerary, properly this time, and found there, in writing, that if our visa was rejected or in the case of a "major problem" our deposit would be returned. But certain other facts came to the fore - M's acceptance number was lower than mine, despite the fact that I had sent mine before his. This told me that it was not an automated system on the other side. Scams performed through paypal are unusual because the electronic paper trail which links directly to a bank account which is far easier to trace than simple credit card fraud. Analysis of repeated email communications with this address revealed that whoever was on the other end had, as well as a fairly consistent informal style, a command of the English language superior to one just gained just from formal lessons. In other words - this appeared to be a relatively low risk deposit, which seemed to have a small operation, perhaps one man, at the other end who was probably not a North Korean native. 

I was right on in my analysis but am embarrassed to find most of the following information available on the website itself. I did a bit of research into the KFA and found that it was indeed a one man operation, run by the aristocratically named Spaniard Alejandro Cao de Bénos de Les y Pérez, who had fostered an entirely unique relationship for a westerner with the North Korean authorities. He had a North Korean passport as well as receiving several awards and medals, one directly from Kim Jong-Il. Alejandro, according to his wiki page and a documentary made about him entitled "Friends of Kim", regularly organized trips for foreign delegations. It seemed this guy was legit insofar as the tour itinerary was possible for him to organize.

This only left one question - was it worth the money? My saving regime was already stretched to the limit but then again as much as it costs money to set up a new life, conversely, money seems to appear when you disassemble an old one (security deposits, holiday pay, etc) so I would come into enough money before leaving that would make it possible. As another major con it would also mean another month away from my Giulia and I felt that I was already putting a great deal of pressure on our relationship being away for seven months. On the other hand there was potential here for this to be a remarkable piece of travel reportage - one I could use to add heft to my slender writing portfolio. I considered it a no-brainer that North Korea, a country so isolated without mobile phones or the internet and only one state run television station, would be an incredibly interesting travel destination. 

I was very surprised by the reaction I got from people when I told them I was considering travelling there. "Why the hell do you want to go there?" "Oh it would be so depressing!" etc. I was hard pressed to explain myself outside "Don't you reckon it would be really interesting?" and I thought that it might come off as a tad perverse to lay down excessive amounts of cash to witness the abject misery of an entire nation as a backdrop of a grotesque theatrical display. Yet there is a strain that runs through certain people, mostly men, of my generation, which is fascinated with these sorts of dismal regimes. It might be worth a brief explanation because I think, that people who do not understand it would be tempted to attribute it to simple morbid curiosity. There is more at work here as well than just a sense of adventure although this is definitely an element which furnishes mere interest with the addition of a sharp thrill. People living in economic conditions so far at odds with our own is also not a sufficient reason for interest (otherwise it would definitely just be morbid curiosity). A culture which warps and shifts to conform to a particular agenda, one which is malleable to the degree which reality is omitted as a collective blindspot is getting a little closer to the mark. Yet when we consider the role that advertising plays in our world - it is evident that our willingness to accept, without regular outrage,  as a consequence of living in a modern western context, a constant stream of half-truths and ideals masquerading as facts, we are little different in this respect than the North Koreans. What is particularly fascinating about North Korea is the complete lack of dissenting voices and the unified nature of this warped reality. Instead of our world which is homogeneous because of it's unrelenting chaotic noise - where advertising claims of scientific solutions to the five signs of ageing are met with an eye-rolls - the lies of North Korea must, at least, appear to be believed. This is a completely alien concept to members of my generation and carries with it a myriad of questions - how much do the general public actually believe what they are told? Can an official line dictate reality in spite of what people see and feel? In other words - when they are told that North Korea is a flourishing nation producing amounts of food exceeding their requirements - how do they deny the existence of groaning that is, literally, in their gut?

It has already been pretty well documented exactly what happens in a trip like this - by Vice Guide to Travel and the BBC's Holidays in the Axis of Evil - and written reportage to name a few examples. There seems to be very little variety in these predictably stage managed tours - the itinerary is always various national war museums, statues and treasures (always including the captured USS Pueblo) displays of opulence in the form of banquets of inedible foods held in immense nearly empty halls and shops full of goods not available to the natives, and always with the inevitable mass games spectacle as the conclusion. It is impossible however for the party to manage everything completely - and as such cracks would emerge in official story. It is these cracks that would provide the most fascinating insight into what life is actually like in North Korea - for example Ben Anderson describing the silence and darkness that falls over nighttime Pyongyang or Hitchens seeing people trying to scavenge individual grains of food from fields or Shane Smith having a game to table tennis with a tea lady, as probably as her only customer in six months. The lies are so unified and grotesque that they are are easy to distinguish from truths.  So any future trips to North Korea would not be interesting as a repeat performance of the same nauseating lie but the accumulation of these cracks could provide the only real picture to the outside of what life is actually like.

I pitched this idea, in the form of a proposal, to a number of Australian publications which needed not to provide any money upfront and just needed to express interest in the subject matter. None did - giving reasons that could mostly be divided between 'We already have people there covering this' and 'this is outside our sphere of influence'. The former is unlikely as journalists have a great deal of trouble getting access while the latter is sad indictment of the Australian journalism which is now seems solely concerned with domestic affairs. If you think I'm being bitter walk into any Australian news agent and count the number of publications written in Australia that have an international perspective - you won't need to take more than one hand out of your pocket. The most mystifying response I received from a major monthly magazine's editor, who despite me mentioning North Korea in the opening sentence of my proposal replied with "Burma is a bit far from our Australian focus alas, but thanks." 

Eventually I lost heart and decided that if the story would not be printed, a major pro for this leg of the trip had now disappeared. This tipped the scales firmly in favour of remaining in Sydney for another month instead of signing up on such a tour. Imagine my disbelief when I walked into the lobby of the ABC after our Christmas lunch to see Kim Jong-Il had died. This has once again brought the world's focus, albeit probably momentarily to NK. I am left to wonder what would have happened if I had taken a punt and leapt into the unknown to retrieve a few shard of reality back to Australia if anyone would be interested.

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