North Korea: A Mirror unto Myself


I went to North Korea.


I travel to self-reflect, to challenge my own conditioning, and to question my irrational beliefs and patterns. The more extreme my new surroundings, the more challenges my psyche gets. Laughing at others and considering them backward might be a self-satisfying reason to go abroad, but mostly futile.

Do I accept paying half of what I earn in taxes, making myself a slave for half my life and a bit more, filling up forms and chasing bureaucrats, and then make fun of others who slave under a different pretext?

Do I find women wearing veils in Islamic cultures deplorable but not girls who wear virtually nothing while lining up outside discos in the frigid night of Canada?

At the death of Princess Diana, whom I had always considered rather stupid, hundreds of thousands of people in England, a relatively sophisticated society, went into hysteria. These were exactly the same people who until a day before had lived for the next issue of the tabloids so they could practice voyeurism on the intimate details of Diana’s life. Of course there was another subgroup — of do-gooders — that was more interested in watching Diana photographed with starving African kids, while she was flying around in the most luxurious jets. Unable to see the contradictions, that subgroup firmly believed she was doing a service to society.

When Prince William and Kate Middleton visited Canada, thousands of girls wanted to touch them. When Kim Jong Il died, virtually everyone in North Korea mourned.

My question is why North Koreans should be made fun of if they grieve over the death of someone they consider their savior? The shallow thoughts of starving people are perhaps more understandable than those of people who live in comfort.

Apart from always trying to provide myself tools for understanding my own thinking as rationally as possible, I went to North Korea assuming that this last pure Communist country was not going to last for long, so I should see it while I could. And I was in for a treat, an educational one.

By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not difficult to visit North Korea. Also, I had enough to eat and felt very safe. There were spies all around, but I never felt threatened. They were normal human beings playing out their indoctrinations. Despite my initial, strong worries, the fact is that in virtually any dictatorship, you are safer than you would be elsewhere.

North Korea is developing missile and nuclear technology. I am not sure why this should merit moral condemnation, at least by the United States. I recall that not too long back, the US promised Gaddafi that he would not be attacked if he gave up biological and nuclear weapons. The promise was forgotten the moment the risk of those weapons went away.

I find it remarkable that North Koreans have partly developed such high technologies. North Korea has a population of only 24 million people; it occupies a hilly part of its peninsula, making agriculture difficult. Under sanctions it has very limited trade with outsiders, something that seriously harms and constricts its economy. And it is forced to spend an absolute fortune to defend its border. The military expenditures of its enemies at that border may be higher than the GDP of North Korea (so far as it is possible to estimate that).

I was told that I would meet very heavy-handed soldiers in North Korea. In contrast, I found it easy to have a laugh with them. And even at the DMZ, they allowed quite a bit freedom of movement. I had my arms on the soldiers when photographing with them. At the least they are just normal human beings.

It was a week later, when I went to exactly the same part of the DMZ, from the South Korean side, that I faced heavy-handedness. American soldiers dictated our moves in minute detail; we were asked not to smile at the North Korean security, because that might be taken as a hostile signal. The drama Americans create at the DMZ is their way of instilling fear in people and perhaps their way of legitimizing their presence in South Korea. By keeping its troops south of border, America has given rationalizations for the Kims’ regime.

Ironically, the room you visit at the DMZ when coming from the north is exactly the same one you visit when coming from the south; it is just that the control of that room keeps changing between the two countries. Of course despite their denials, both sides talk with each other to orchestrate events at the DMZ. The televised posturing that they do at DMZ — with alert army men — is only a show, for there is only one side present at any point of time, all based on negotiations. In the end, I could not shake off the feeling that it is not the North and the South that are enemies; it is as if the two governments and their allies ganged up together to keep fear and hostility between the two forcibly separated societies.

North Korea is a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

People keep talking about the huge size of the North Korean army. In truth, a lot of work that would be classified as civilian jobs is done by the army; for example, all construction and infrastructure work is army work. You could easily halve the size of the North Korean army to compare like to like.

So do I think North Korea is a great place? Actually, it is by far the worst country I have ever visited. Its personality cult is water-tight. Its government has perfected tyranny. North Koreans have virtually no access to outside information. Even the North Korean air hostesses on their planes bound for Beijing are not allowed to leave their planes when they land there.

For a tourist, it is not possible to travel in North Korea independently. You must be escorted by two “guides” provided by the state-run travel agency. I joined a tour group from Beijing. This was almost a year ago, in April 2012, when Kim Il Sung’s centenary celebrations were being held. Wherever we went, spies followed us. We had no freedom of movement.We could not even leave our hotel unaccompanied. In fact, whatever we did was closely monitored.

Not allowed into local shops, we had to use euros or US dollars at foreigners-only tourist shops at highly elevated prices, making it impossible for any local to convert his currency into dollars and to put it to any good use. Locals not only cannot go to another city without a permit but they usually cannot even move within their cities freely. The army is everywhere and it keeps checking ID cards.

Army units are not allowed to travel much — they don't have much means of transportation anyway, making any coup almost impossible. You often see army men walking from one city to another. The nice looking vehicles that you see on TV seem mostly for propaganda purposes. The army trucks I usually saw were the broken-down old vehicles on the side of the roads.

There is virtually no concept of private property. Everyone works for the government, in a position decided by the government. Every hospital is owned by the government. Every house is owned by the government. People can own cars, but you don't see vehicles. Sometimes you can go a kilometer within the capital and not see a car.

Most North Koreans have no money left to save at the end of the month. They have no incentive to save anyway, as they can keep their savings only at the bank — remember there is no other means of investment possible — where it can be devalued at any whim of the government. Some people might save in gold, illegally, but imagine the repercussions in a country where 50% of the people have at one point or another denounced their family or friends. You can imagine what moral effect the lack of possibility to save would have on you.

Many houses have pots of beautiful flowers, particularly of the two kinds named after the Kims. They look very bright and nice. On closer inspection I realized that a lot of them are plastic.

We were taken to a laboratory filled with colorful chemicals, but all evidence showed that they were never used. It was the same with the big computer room. The keyboards had never been used.

A year or so back, all the universities were closed. Students were asked to report for road work. You can see families — parents and kids — mending roads and electricity poles outside their houses. They are asked to do this, under threat. But really they just accept it as normal life. They don’t seem to know of any other way.

All fun activities have a strong dose of patriotism and Kim-ism in them. There are statues of Kim Il Sung all over the country, statues that must be kept sparkling clean at all times. Early in the freezing morning, I could see tens of thousands of people everywhere descending, on foot or on their bikes, to the statues of Kim Il Sung to pay their respects. You might encounter a group of women singing praises of Kim Il Sung in front of a spellbound audience of locals, while I stood shivering. If one is a local, one must either sing or join the audience or go to the gulag. The system offers none of these people the option of distinguishing between enjoying what they are doing or doing it as a compulsive action. Their thinking and emotions are certainly very numbed, making North Korea a giant theater, where the actors have no recollection of the fact that they are acting.

A North Korean citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state.

Locals are mostly kept out of the way of tourists. But sometimes actors and actresses appear to create a fake environment for outsiders. You might see a group of locals playing “tourist” at the DMZ, when you know you did not see any tourist bus apart from yours. At the store, you might see a couple of women in traditional clothes browsing the books — all of them “written” by the Kims — and when you turned back after leaving you would see them switching off the lights. At the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, everything is new and fake. The furniture, the cutlery, the walls and the thatched roof cannot be more than a few years old. But perhaps everything touched by Kim Il Sung defies aging.

North Korea is a true 1984, and may even have exceeded it. Piped revolutionary music from loudspeakers installed all over the city is virtually compulsory for everyone. You wake up with it. The same music runs on the TV and, it seems, the locals must switch it on as soon as they wake up. The only vehicles that look in decent shape are propaganda vehicles, with loudspeakers on top of them. A citizen can exist only by complete subversion of his humanity in the interest of the state. He must from his birth learn thought control, or life would be unbearable and a continuous reminder of humiliation.

I have been to Myanmar (in 1996 at the height of its military dictatorship), Laos (where I traveled with early-teen insurgents), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Belarus, and so on. But none has the kind of perfect tyranny and lack of personal freedom that North Korea has established.

I feel sorry for North Koreans. I don't travel to feel better than other people. I do it to understand human nature, mostly mine. And it is sad that in North Korea virtually everyone has been made a puppet and a parrot. It is a totalitarian state on top of cultural Confucianism. The elites have structured it so well that I can see no way for any revolution to happen. And people's minds have been so indoctrinated and their development so constrained that they would feel hugely insecure about not having a firm leader. But that is exactly the path the West is increasingly on now, isn't it? The irony is that Western people laugh at North Korea but cannot see themselves in the mirror.

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The author names tyranny to a country, but, What is a tyranny? What is totalitarianism? We can find same things here, in the west, if we look from another focus. I mean we have different cultures, different behaviors, but at the same time we love and follow people like norks. In fact we love products not people, we love things not people. We'd better look at ourselves.


its difficult to take seriously the observations of someone

- who parallels enforced berkas with voluntary miniskirts

- who finds vital parallels between the cult of Princess Diana - and the cult of the Kims

- who sees symmetry between his own "slavery" in Singapore - i presume - to the slavery of North Koreans

- who subscribes to the weirdest history of Libya i've heard

- who notes anecdotal differences in laughter that he found on opposite sides of the DMZ - as if somehow they spoke volumes about societies behind each

that he sees a western drift towards N Koreahood - might resonate with the paranoid libertarians - but for grown up libertarians - it's just too simple minded a prognosis - in line with his other observations mentioned above

Kennth Kraska

Except maybe what not to do. Don't be a sap. The Norks showed you want they wanted you to see. Outside of the capitol they eat the bark off trees.

Jayant Bhandari

Yes, as I mentioned, our movements were very closely controlled. But my view is that tyrants, propagandists and bureaucrats get terribly wound up in their own rhetoric and lies. They are extremely stupid as a result. The lower in hierarchy you go, the more stupid everything becomes. Their basic instinct is survival within the regime.

It is not too difficult to connect the dots and extrapolate what might be happening (if one trusts what one sees), at least to get a feel for the nature of the culture. Their lies and rhetoric helps one RECONSTRUCT a truer reality. Consider this…

There is a massive, ultra-modern museum inside a mountain to showcase the very large number of gifts and “praises” Kim's have received from other countries. One of the highlights as soon as you enter the museum is a framed copy of the front-sheet of a newspaper in Pakistan. The whole page is devoted to highlighting the exploits of the world's topmost leader, Kim Il-Sung. The article sings praises of Kim for maintaining world peace and for being the pillar of international peace and stability. Now one only has to look at the “” email address of the newspaper to realize that this is a completely obscure and unknown newspaper even in Pakistan. One can start to imagine what is in the museum and where that stuff came from.

Once, our bus driver lost his way. We ended up having to drive and then walk in areas we were not supposed to. Old women and children were scavenging for crumbs of coal from among the dust in the road that had fallen from coal-trucks. People—old women and children—carry heavy loads on their backs. Yes, as I mention there is a lot of drudgery and poverty. They just cannot hide this even in sanitized areas of big cities.

I would not be surprised if they do eat tree-barks in remote areas, as you mention. But I do ask you to reconsider how you know about this (unless you have personally witnessed this), for it addresses something very fundamental…

I met a couple of North Koreans in South Korea, to help me get a perspective. I failed. They were a pack of lies. One can survive and exist in a tyranny like North Korea only if one learns to fool one’s own mind and learn to lie profusely. And then one just lies as a habit. I cannot trust a random North Korean, even one who lives outside the country, particularly if he benefits from blowing things out of proportion.

Also, I don’t know about any special Gulags (except that the country itself is a Gulag) and cannot trust what the US government tells me. The thoroughly incompetent governments of the US and the UK had completely wrong information about Iraq’s WMDs despite their very long-term presence and connection there. Extrapolating this, I cannot trust what the US government tells me about North Korea.

North Korea is much, much, much more of a closed country than Iraq was. If the US really has spies in North Korea, they are very likely complete liars who say what the US wants to hear. And on top of it, the US military wants every possible reason to stay in South Korea for geo-political reason and because US military needs a very important reason to exist and increase in size. In short, I cannot trust anything coming from the US/UK government.

Luther Jett

Mr. Bhandari --- You've presented a very compelling account of your experiences in a country of lies, a journey in which --by your own testimony-- nearly everything you were shown was entirely ersatz.

Although I do think it conceivable that refugees from a country managed by deceit, who have spent years being deceitful out of sheer will to self-preservation, would find it relatively easy to lie, even when it is no longer necessary, I am troubled by your assertion that nothing these refugees say can be believed.

Moreover, you say you cannot trust anything coming from the US/UK governments. You seem to be going to great lengths to discredit all testimony about what is happening in North korea ...except your own.

Your own account is quite credible because there are multiple sources which report very similar experiences. If you were the only person reporting this, it would not be at all believable.

Can you cite corroborating sources which, in your opinion are trustworthy?

Jayant Bhandari

Mr Jett:

I completely failed to trust the two refugees I met in South Korea, for they kept on contradicting themselves, sometimes in the same sentence. Now if they spoke some truth, I have no way of filtering that out. While my statement was ONLY about those two refugees who I met, consider this: North Korea creates seriously infantile and mal-nourished people. They have a very warped understanding of the world and of reality (at least in a relative sense). Life in such a difficult and wretched environment must very seriously numb one’s feelings and destroy one’s thinking process. Those rare people I talked to had no clue about “judicial process” and “philosophy” (except for the utterly simplistic one created by Kim). North Koreans are not taught much apart from their very narrow fields. They are trained to be completely non-thinking cogs. They have likely never travelled, probably not even within their own cities. They seriously lack any frame of reference to understand and process information.

It is important to understand that North Koreans are not even allowed to travel within North Korea. The highways are mostly empty. You see military inspecting passes of those very rare North Koreans who travel. Moreover, it seems, you cannot even move around your own city at random. You should be able to explain why you are going to a certain part of the city. Given this, I doubt that North Koreans know much about their own country.

So really even if a North Korea is telling you exactly what he knows, he might still be giving you very erroneous information.

Hopefully the above provides more color on why I think it is difficult to “trust” a random North Korean, which was written in my response to the earlier comment from a reader who had asserted that North Koreans eat barks of trees. I was questioning how he had got that information. Was that from a random person or was that based on information from several refugees?

To respond to your second question: TV and radio is all government owned. There are virtually no cellular phones in the country. Given what I say above, even if the US has agents in North Korea, one must ask how they get their information, how they pass it on to the US and how the US then verifies that information to be true. In short, there are just a very large number of weak, unreliable links. I guess most of what the US government says is based only on what they find using satellites.

You asked how I know if I know the truth… I know very, very little about North Korea. I just wrote what very little I saw and tried to make some rational inferences.

Fred Mora

Very nice article. A lot has been written on NK, but your take is quite unique.

There has never been a successful popular insurrection, much less a revolution, in a Communist country (palace coups and Moscow-ordered regime changes excepted). The 1956 Hungarian insurrection was probably the most successful one, largely due to the large number of small-caliber weapons that the insurgents secured. But even so, it was crushed by tanks after a few weeks.

In NK, the people are disarmed, and worse, they are in a mental corset. Our future indeed.


Thank you for your story. I'm quite curious on what made you think North Korea as the last pure communist country was not going to last for long before your trip?

Jayant Bhandari

After the death of Kim Jong-il, I thought the US would be able to exploit political divisions within North Korea. I always thought—quite erroneously—that the US presence was of immense value in stabilizing the region and it would be able to use any chaos within North Korea to merge the two Koreas. I was naïve in my thinking.

China wants North Korea to continue the way it is, for it does not want the US forces to come to its borders. At the same time, the US does not want to lose its rationalizations to stay in the peninsula. And I am sure South Korea does not want North Korea to really join them, for if a merger were to happen, it would bring totally uneducated, unusable, and completely indoctrinated people into South Korea. Moreover, were the two countries to merge, “North Koreans” would be extra-ordinarily nostalgic about their days with the Kim’s—they have grown up to do and think what they are told to and would find the possibility of being the bosses of their own lives hellishly horrifying. What West Germany faced after its merger with East Germany was nothing in comparison. In short, despite what everyone says, none of these governments likely wants the status quo to change.

On top of all this, I had failed to consider that tyranny exists not because of a single person but because the ingredients for it are spread within the culture, in the minds of the individuals—it is always institutionalized.


Thank you for your observations. I've often thought that the bravest thing anyone ever does is to take full responsibility for his own life. You've gone beyond that to also examine your ability to function calmly in uncomfortable environments.

Perhaps someday you'll come to Montana. I'll buy you a beer and give you a comfortable bed in which to sleep, and you can choose your own music.

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