Last time I was in North Korea I watched a television program. I didn’t understand a word of what was being said but I understood the tone. It was one filled with aggression and anger. A military general, with lots of medals pinned on his chest was ranting on about something. As he continued talking, the picture changed to one of tanks and marching soldiers and rockets being launched. I asked my guide what was being said –Note to reader – I had not ordered nor requested a guide, but rather was “provided” one by the authorities. He didn’t so much provide narration of interesting tidbits of information or help book side tours; rather he monitored my every move. He told me where I could go, who I could talk to and what I could take photos of. You get the picture. He wasn’t your typical guide in the touristy sense.
Anyway, I asked my guide what was going on, what was the general talking about? He listened briefly and then told me that the general was telling the good citizens of North Korea to prepare for war. “The imperialist dogs (read USA) and their puppet regime (read South Korea) are on our border with hideous weapons are intent on attacking us; killing men, women, families and children. Good citizens, we will soon be calling in everyone to begin military exercises in preparation for the coming battle.” Hmm, I thought to myself, I just arrived in North Korea with my American passport. Will I be allowed to leave again?
Why am I telling you all this? To give you a picture of the paranoia that abounds in North Korea. The USA and South Korea were not preparing to attck the North.Rather it was the time of the yearly joint military exercises that had taken place for the last 50 plus years.
I’ve been to North Korea two times. I’ve read countless articles, reports and books about this Paradise on Earth. Nothing I’ve seen or read has convinced me that North Korea is anywhere near a paradise; on Earth or anywhere else. What it is is a totalitarian regime where its leaders try to control all aspects of their citizen’s lives. When I travel around the world it is not uncommon for locals on the street attempt to make eye contact with foreigners like me. Many smile, and some even try to communicate. Not in North Korea. There people avoid making eye contact. And they would never consider trying to talk with me. Even if they wanted to, my ever present guide would make sure that they were called into the local police station for interrogation should they attempt to do so. And, it’s not only with foreigners they avoid talking to in public. They talk very little with each other. Afraid of someone reporting them to the authorities for behavior or attitudes not in keeping with the statutes of the Great Leader (Kim Il Sung who is still officially president, eternal president, even though he died in 1994) and his Juche philosophy, people refrain from talking much in public.
In Norway, where I live, and other free countries, one of the reasons for our freedom is that a strong civil society has held governments accountable and been part of establishing robust and useful institutions. This happens because citizens are able to exchange ideas publically; criticizing leaders when needed and providing valuable insight and ideas to address common challenges. In the absence of that it is no wonder North Korea is in such a desperate state.
This is where the buses come in. One of the projects the organization I worked for helped establish was a bus company. The area where we had our project was in the North where the authorities were trying an experiment by allowing some sort of free market enterprises. People were allowed to cultivate a few parcels of soil for their own need and for trading with others. Unfortunately in order to trade with anyone outside of one’s own village one needed permission from the village authorities to leave one’s own village and also permission to enter a neighboring village. In addition, the main means of transporting goods is by foot or, if you’re lucky you have an ox and a cart. Having a bus to transport one’s goods and to villages beyond just the next one is a great boon.
When we helped establish the bus company we were only thinking about economic development. But, what happened was even more important than that. People suddenly had a place where they could meet legally and share information that was of use for them. We might think it isn’t much, but here it is, a small pinprick of light, barely visible yet extremely powerful; civil society in its most basic and nascent form. And hopefully this light will grow and contribute to brighter and better future for the people of North Korea.
Even a bus can bring light to the darkness :-).