Patrick Chovanec is an American professor of business, and one of only about 1000 Americans to have visited North Korea in the last sixty years. And he’s done it on two occasions, which makes him a genuine rara avis. Last week, he was interviewed by Christina Larson, and the piece can be found at Foreign Policy‘s website.
As he observes, because so few Westerners have been to the Hermit Kingdom, “it occupies the same imaginary plane of existence as Mordor.” As it turns out, there’s some justification for that, as what he describes is both fascinating and horrifying. First of all, he mentions the conditions of travel:
You cannot bring your cell phone into the country. When you enter, they mark down any books you bring in, and you’re expected to take same number out again. Bibles or anything related to [South] Korea is prohibited. Each group has two “minders” to keep an eye on everyone. You cannot leave the hotel without a minder, and when outside, you must stay with the group at all times (and that’s no joke — in 2008, a 53 year-old South Korean tourist who wandered off on her own to watch the sunrise was shot in the head and killed by a soldier). You must ask the minders’ permission before taking any photo, although most visitors end up taking hundreds of photos anyway. When you exit the country, however, the border guards may review the photos in your camera and make you delete any they find objectionable.
Chovanec visited two cities: Pyongyang and Rason, a northeastern city that is the center of a special economic zone, where people can sell agricultural products and small goods imported from China. Life in the capital is reserved for the most loyal members of society, but that’s not much of a prize:
[T]he buildings are all grey, concrete cinderblock structures. Few are taller than eight stories, because they have no elevators. If you look into the windows, every single room — office or apartment — has dual portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging on the wall. Along the street, there are no ads or commercial signage, just propaganda posters and billboards.
[…]The most memorable thing about Pyongyang, though, is the total darkness that descends at night. Because electricity is in short supply, there are hardly any lights at all […]Back at the hotel, you look out the window and there’s just nothing. It’s like the whole city was just swallowed up.
But Rason is worse.
There was only one time when a teenage boy came up to us to beg for food. He was very quickly hustled aside by the minders, and given a stern talking to. I hope that’s all that happened. It was a very distressing situation. Even if people aren’t starving, it’s pretty clear that life is hard.
It’s worth noting that the only people who seem concerned with improving the lives of the North Korean people are missionaries, who are forbidden to preach, but tolerated because as Chavonec says, “they’re the only people willing to extend a lifeline.”
And the people of North Korea need that lifeline — they’re the victims of evil, and Chavonec leaves us with a statement of gratitude, and a reminder of how close we can come to evil:
It really wasn’t all that long ago that a big chunk of mankind lived under systems like this. We look back now and it seems inevitable — the fall of the Berlin Wall, China opening up — but it wasn’t inevitable. I’m grateful to be able to go home at the end of my trip, and I’m grateful for the people whose convictions and sacrifices made it so this kind of place is an anomaly in today’s world, and not the rule.