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Much of the world has only seen North Korea through a tightly monitored and propaganda-fitted sort of lens that only seems to conjure up more questions than answers. Last week, Pyongyang marked the 60th anniversary of the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War between the North and South, but from North Korean perspectives, it commemorates a glorious victory against Western Imperialism. North Korean citizens, common folk and war veterans alike clutched the special day deep in their hearts, as they hail the once “Great Leader” Kim II-Sung, rising above and halting the infiltrating plague of the West, which would enshrine his legacy in the constitution as a the “Eternal President” of the nation. However cutting through pervasive propaganda, the anniversary gave the outside world an opportunity to glance at this rather troubled country – a small one with a largely disproportionate military not afraid to parade its military might to the international audience.
After observing the celebrated events in the Democratic People’s Republic, whether through a rummage of news reports, articles or videos, my conclusive observational point reasserts that a transparent, general picture of North Korean society is still largely unknown. Admittedly, light leaking through opaque North Korean curtains has recently illuminated our knowledge of the most disturbing happenings within North Korea. Widespread resource shortages, systematic human rights violations, and the pursuit for more nuclear weapons – it’s fair to say most countries would like to dissociate themselves with Kim Jong-Un and his cohorts. None of us can really explain what is happening inside North Korea but oddly, in the midst of such flamboyant North Korean celebrations, I came to reflect largely on my recent brush with North Koreans. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t really inside North Korea but rather the encounter was perhaps logically staged in China – North Korea’s one and only friend.
So at the start of the year I embarked on a 5 month language study expedition towards the People’s Republic of China. My journey from the quaint, nonchalant surroundings of Perth (Western Australia) and then heading towards the loud and bustling nature Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province, China) was one full of optimism and expectation. Although these feelings were all inextricably linked to my language ambitions, I gained a North Korean experience which was both unique and hard to efface from my memory. Before arriving in my dormitory, I have heard rumours of a North Korean presence in the vicinity and within the first few seconds of arrival, the uniformly plastered stickers of tiny North Korean flags on doors proved these rumours correct.
One may correctly assume that these North Koreans studying in China are the most privileged to leave Pyongyang. Contrary to thousands of North Koreans reportedly being sent to north-eastern China to study Chinese rural village reforms earlier this year, the North Koreans studying in Hangzhou, a rich and developed Chinese city, undoubtedly indicates a different motive. It’s very hard to say what the exact purpose of this exercise entails, but presumably these privileged North Koreans are mostly from the military, sent to China for the diplomatic front in the form of language, business or political education.
As I discovered later, North Korean presence in Hangzhou is not an entirely new phenomenon. As recent as last year, North Koreans were studying mandarin at Zhejiang University, though perhaps unsurprisingly these North Korean students were prohibited from interacting with other international students in any way. However the surprising exception to this prohibition came about when my Swiss friend, often found on the 2nd floor corridor window puffing a cigarette, engaged in a conversation with an unidentified North Korean. The conversation as I heard was conversed entirely in English, as the North Korean indicated he himself did not have many opportunities to speak English, hence the approach towards my Swiss friend. Apart from being a predictably mundane conversation about life in China, it was still a remarkable revelation.
My first encounter of a mature, strongly-built but stocky North Korean male picking up his rice cooker from the communal kitchen could only be described as awkward. Already in the kitchen washing up, footsteps from the corridor eventually entered the kitchen. I motioned non-verbally to greet the new face but I was on the receiving end of a sharp, blank stare which created an awkward atmosphere. Moments after he walked away, it was then obvious to me that I’d come across a North Korean. His darkly tanned skin, combined with his robot-like body movements and a refusal to communicate with foreigners such as myself was a giveaway. However his blank stare towards me was far from malicious or hateful; it was just simply a confused look which perhaps cloaked something more. Nevertheless, first impressions were indeed not a lasting one, rapidly eroding throughout my few months in China.
The fact is that North Koreans, at least the ones who lived on my dormitory floor, lived a rich and lavish lifestyle. Relatively speaking of course, we are comparing this standard of living to the rest of the non-North Koreans living in that building. Walking up the stairs, I peered inside a North Korean dormitory (door slightly ajar) and noticed a shiny, large TV monitor half opened from a box. I estimate the TV monitor to be at least 46 inches, which isn’t small. The rest of us non-North Koreans could not fathom to purchase such a large plasma screen television for a temporary stay, but I guess if you can afford it, why not?
A group of 3 or 4 other North Korean males were also hovering in and outside the dormitory, each with a relaxed demeanour about them and helping with the unpacking. Another point worth making is that these North Koreans were all fit, strong and most importantly: healthy. Often wearing singlets in the sticky Hangzhou summer, even the skinnier North Koreans looked well-fed. Again most likely military, it’s a sharp contrast from the local population suffering from ongoing malnutrition.
Almost every Friday night all the North Koreans would take control of the lounge area downstairs. Dressed in their favourite football team’s shirts, they gleefully gather together for energetic North Korean socializing. They play some pool or ping-pong then at times, they would march into the night with beers in their hands without a care in the world. It is hard to believe these North Koreans are able to maintain a glorious, carefree lifestyle when it is highly probable that the rest of the country is living without the basic human needs.
The last impression that I got from these North Koreans is that they do seem like normal people, despite the robotic, indoctrinated stereotype. In a show of playful and normal adolescent behaviour, I saw a younger North Korean male running down the stairs, taking off his shirt and slapping a fellow North Korean comrade on the arse. It was a humanising sort of revelation for me, which I couldn’t help but smile at. But they really show their true colours when given a microphone and a TV monitor. Out of the many public holidays in North Korea, including Kim II Sung’s birthday, the North Koreans in my dormitory celebrate these public holidays with much cheer by occupying the lounge area they claimed to own and proceed to conduct their own North Korean version of KTV (Karoke television). With unrestricted access and an allowance to make as much noise as possible, the North Koreans sing their hearts out – seemingly, to old revolutionary North Korean war anthems or other such propaganda material; no Justin Bieber I’m afraid to say.
My North Korean experience in China, despite many surprising revelations, is still not the North Korea we really know. The future remains unknown for this isolated country courtesy of a totalitarian regime. With China becoming increasingly agitated with unnecessary North Korean aggression, hurting dependent bi-lateral relations with the U.S and trade partners worldwide, China is perhaps rethinking its geo-political strategy on Pyongyang. The collapse of the then Soviet Union directly caused a unheralded wave of suffering in North Korea, and similarly, losing China as its only friend could again mean great disaster for the North Korean people. The scary thing about Kim Jong-Un’s regime is that his grip on the country seems unyielding. Brainwashing and eliminating freedom throughout North Korea has been a success, as no signs of unrest within the country have arisen throughout North Korea’s short history. Whatever the future holds for North Korea, one thing for certain is that it will definitely not go unnoticed.
By Dennis Chay