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Road Trip to North Korea

February 7, 2012

Time for the big report: our road trip to North Korea. Now, this title is, I acknowledge, a bit misleading – we did not actually enter North Korea, but we were close enough to see it – this is accomplished from a border city by the name of Dandong, where it’s possible to walk along the riverside promenade, and gaze directly into North Korea, which is a mere few hundred feet away.

The proximity of such a place provides a dramatic spectacle; while China has been busy upgrading and expanding itself over the last few decades, very little of the same type of change has taken place in North Korea, primarily due to its desire to retain an inward focus and attempt to get by with minimal interaction with the outside world.

While this may not be the stated purpose of those who are running the country, that is the overall effect  – a near-complete state of insulation has been put into place, and the populace neither sees nor encounters much of anything that didn’t originate from within North Korea’s borders.

The situation is rather different for North Korea’s best friend, ( if such a term can even be applied, which it scarcely can anymore) – China. You see, it is China that provides an interface and connection between North Korea and the rest of the world, which goes back to the days when the two countries were brothers-at-arms, solidifying the communist party’s reach, while resisting (alleged) Western Imperialism, and such.

But at this point in time, one gets the sense that China is basically tired of carrying along this sickly half-cousin; while China’s economic expansion and international profile has experienced tremendous growth pains, such growth has at least taken place – in North Korea, at least by what can be derived from existing documentation, growth is taken to mean whatever level is above “absolute bare minimum”. Sure, the official news channel will issue a steady stream of accomplishments, but such news, at least on the internet, doesn’t even come from servers located in North Korea; the “Official News Agency” runs off a domain hosted in Japan.

The background is long and depressing, but the photos are fascinating; so let’s get to them: here’s views from across the Yalu River bridge – take careful note of how the buildings and such look:

View of North Korea

 One can sense, merely by looking, the feel of an infrastructure whose condition has remained largely unchanged since the 1960’s. Its countenance bespeaks an entire nation’s ability to endure a truly closed-door society. North Korea’s philosophy of Juche, translated as “Self-reliance”, has allowed it to remain in a kind of nether world somewhere between the industrial age and Orwell’s 1984 – except that it’s now 2012, and the country’s only major development has been the death of its 2nd leader, Kim Jong-Il, the son of Kim Il-Sung who led the North Koreans to “Victory” against the U.S., at least purportedly.

Sarcasm notwithstanding, North Korea’s relationship to the rest of the world is, shall we say, delicate. The Chinese delight in their having “beaten” the U.S. in the Korean war, and it’s not hard to see why one’s countrymen might take pride in such a David-vs.-Goliath matchup – but there were no “winners” in the aftermath of this cataclysm, and truly, the “Loser” was the people of North Korea. One look across the Yalu river tells you why.

View of the bridge connecting North Korea and China

  Note the ferris wheel that denotes some sort of amusement park on North Korea’s border town – one gets the sense that the purpose was to demonstrate North Korea’s capacity for the trappings of the good life, at least in appearance. Vegas odds would probably bet for that thing being out of service 98% of the time.

The bridge is another matter, as it is one of the few actual ports of entry from North Korea into China, and vice versa. Apparently, trains trundle over these tracks once or twice a week, and most likely carry little more than the most crucial diplomats and crates of raw goods, as well as the usual liquor, cigarettes, and sweets or whatnot to fuel the never-to-be-escaped process of insider influence, bribery, and other forays into corruption – these are legendary throughout North Korea, and it should put no one to shame to point this out.

Of course, the natural retort is, “Hey, the U.S. has corruption, too!”, which is all well and good a point to make, but there is the little matter of scale – an actual, centralized, communist-party run country inwhich the government is the sole provider of everything, has a much darker strain of human nature running through it, and it manifests itself in the way such things have done throughout history – by massive internal infrastructures that are little economies of scale, trading in whatever black-market goods might help one into a better job, a much-needed surgery, or what have you – and alcohol and tobacco remain the preferred grease in this wheel.

One really wonders what that train trip is like; that will have to be a trip for some other day, because I’m pretty sure that as an American, I’m not even allowed to visit North Korea, at least not unless it’s a diplomatic or food-giveaway mission of some sort.

Finally, as the country attempts to shake off its collective grief over the recent death of North Korea’s second “Leader”, it’s worth wondering how that twenty-something-year old guy is going to work out. You see, despite the proliferation of North Korea literature that tells us in great detail how the governing philosophy of Juche means that the people rely on themselves, they are in fact led by a family dynasty – on whom they are expected to rely fully – even to the point of being singled out if your tears didn’t flow sufficiently at the recent death of Kim Jong-Il.

The family dynasty element of North Korea’s leadership would appear to conflict directly with its proclaimed communist leadership, but that’s a debate you can’t get into, mainly because there’s no North Koreans around to debate with. You see, they’re not even allowed to visit the outside world, much less emigrate to it. Those who defect are ensured that every member of their family back in North Korea, up to and including distant relatives (depending on how high up the chain the defector is, it can be reasonably conjectured) will be taken away and put into prison. This is how such emigration is “discouraged”.

So the challenges for the new leader are quite apparent, and first of all, what’s he going to be called? Kim Il-Sung, who “Liberated” the country into its present yoke, was known as the “Great Leader”, and the national literature hails him as such. When he died, and his son took over the leadership, we were told that the son’s title would be the “Dear Leader”, apparently since “greatness” couldn’t be honestly bestowed on this fellow, who admittedly hadn’t brought about an amazing military victory the way his father had.

Thus we are left with the puzzle of what this new guy (Kim Jong-Un) will be called; as the third down the line, with the communist party struggling more than ever to retain its face of legitimacy – especially in the light of its supporting such a clearly anti-communist principle as a family lineage of succession to power – our suggestion is that he be known as the “Kinda Cool Leader”, or the “Decent Guy Leader”, or maybe even the “Not-so-bad Leader”.

Your votes for alternate titles are welcome.

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