The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), known more familiarly as North Korea, is arguably the most mysterious country on Earth. This distinction is quite remarkable, considering the extent to which the small communist nation has been covered by international media.
For many, the name ‘North Korea’ conjures up vivid images of madness, hostility and totalitarian rule. But until very recently, the international community knew little to nothing about the land, or the 25 million citizens who inhabited it.
“North Korea is a very paradoxical place,” said writer Gabriel Mizrahi. “Beautiful and chilling, funny and heartbreaking.”
Mr. Mizrahi knows firsthand. Last August, he traveled to North Korea with another American, Jordan Harbinger. The two men spent a week in the notoriously hard-to-visit nation, which receives a paltry 1,5 Western tourists every year.
“Our blog invites people to learn more about a country we know so little about, and to encourage them to visit,” Mr. Mizrahi said. “We’re insatiable travelers and want others to have the experience of seeing places as moving as the DPRK.” Upon their return to the U.S., Mr. Mizrahi and Mr. Harbinger established The North Korea Blog. The site uses humorous anecdotes, political commentary, cultural insight and a range of multimedia to showcase this mysterious nation to the rest of the world.
A self-described ‘adventure junkie’, Mr. Mizrahi initially chose to visit North Korea because “there is no other country” like it in the world.
“It’s a dictatorship unlike any other—in a world, thankfully, with fewer and fewer pockets of totalitarianism,” he explained. “Experts argue that in 5-1 years, North Korea as we know it won’t exist. I had to see it for myself.”
For a long time, Americans simply could not travel to North Korea. Though many had no desire to visit the communist nation, those who attempted to obtain a visa were almost always denied.
In 21, the ban was lifted for U.S. passport-holders. Today, many Americans cross the border as members of the Korean Friendship Association and Choson Exchange. Others choose to travel with private tour companies; Mr. Mizrahi and Mr. Harbinger visited North Korea with Koryo Tours.
For Mr. Mizrahi and Mr. Harbinger (and a handful of other tourists), the trip to North Korea began on a flight from Beijing aboard a Cold War-era Soviet jet. Throughout the flight, passengers were given propaganda as reading material. When the plane touched down at Sunan Airport in Pyongyang, the new arrivals were “greeted by [North Korean founding father] Kim il-Sung’s massive face,” emblazoned on a large billboard affixed to the airport’s roof.
Inside the airport, travelers were subjected to a thorough inspection. Security personnel confiscated cell phones and examined electronic devices before directing the group onto a bus bound for Pyongyang. As it turned out, this was merely the first of many ‘pat-downs’ the two men endured throughout their trip.
Though Mr. Mizrahi noted in the blog’s first entry that Pyongyang was a “cold, hard metropolis in the tradition of Communist capitals,” he was quick to point out that its residents fare better than most other North Koreans.
“To be one of the 2 million people who live among Pyongyang’s massive memorials and quiet streets is a privilege,” he wrote. “Food shortages are less acute here than in the countryside, and citizens enjoy the luxuries of pre-fabricated mass housing, which, though decayed and often crawling with mold, is preferable to the privation outside of Pyongyang.”
The North Korean public’s notorious exaltation of past and present leaders was a prevalent theme throughout the trip. At the time of their visit, Kim Jong-il, the nation’s second leader, was still in power—at least, in a sense.
For North Korean citizens, he noted, the political influence borders on omniscience.
“To live in the DPRK is to be subjected to an interminable propaganda lecture. Speakers installed in people’s homes deliver an indefatigable stream of subterfuge about the outside world — ‘news,’ one guide explained — sprinkled with items of local interest,” he wrote.
In addition to Pyongyang, Mr. Mizrahi and Mr. Harbinger visited the city of Kaesong and the heavily guarded de-militarized zone that demarcates the border with South Korea. They also visited Mt. Myohyang, a major destination for North Korean tourists. It was here that they made social media history (as far as we know) with the first podcast recorded inside North Korea.
Throughout the country, Mr. Mizrahi encountered an impoverished population subject to the whim of ubiquitous authority. In a post titled, ‘Spies, Entrepreneurs and the Internet in North Korea’, he characterized the country’s collective deference to ‘Dear Leader’ as, “a pillar of the country’s Confucianism.”
“The predisposition to obedience helps explain the country’s Stockholm Syndrome on a mass scale. The cult of personality in North Korea is unparalleled, and its grip over the country, reinforced by propaganda and time, has made most citizens automatonlike devotees,” he wrote.
Yet, Mr. Mizrahi stresses that there is much more to North Korea than its gloomy, rank-and-file reputation. “It’s an eerie, perverse, brutal country — this we know well — but it’s also tender, funny and entertaining in a way I have never encountered,” he wrote in ‘Pyongyang: The Real Sin City’.
He says popular activities among North Koreans include hikes, spelunking expeditions and trips to the local firing range (where, he noted, alcohol is served) or comedy club (where alcohol is not served). As for the seldom seen North Korean people, who are often depicted in the media as either stone-faced or stark-raving mad, he says they were warm and friendly.
“In short—most people were incredibly kind, welcoming and interested in the U.S. and my experience. I was surprised by how funny and engaging North Koreans can be. The greatest [hurdles are] doctrine and fear, which tend to govern most conversation with locals,” he said.
Another obstacle for the North Koreans, he says, is a fundamental lack of information exchange, both domestically and abroad.
Though computers are fairly commonplace, the Internet is outlawed throughout the country, exclusively available to a select handful of privileged government employees. Even in the digital age of global outreach, North Korea remains stubbornly enigmatic.
Instead, he explained, some citizens access information via the intranet, “a loose network that links various North Korean terminals”. Some use the intranet to play role-playing games with their friends, but activity is relatively sparse.
He says mobile phones are the primary means of communication among North Koreans. “Mobile phone subscribers have more than tripled to about 1 million users in the last 18 months, and mobile phones are more and more a part of everyday life,” he said.
He added that mobile users can call and transmit text messages within North Korea, but phones cannot dial internationally.
This technological deficit is in sharp contrast to the other Korean nation. According to a December 211 report by Internet World Stats, South Korea boasts an Internet penetration rate of nearly 83 percent—the highest in Asia. This figures to 4 million web users in a country that is roughly the size of Indiana.
North Korea may take some time to catch up with the rest of the world — let alone South Korea. Mr. Mizrahi believes the introduction of social media could be a critical first step, though he says this is highly unlikely, given the country’s policies.
“Practically speaking, it would facilitate the exchange of ideas and information, which is essential for progress. Social media is a key tool for any kind of national debate and coordinated resistance,” he said.
But more importantly, he says, web-based interaction would help form a social fabric among North Koreans that is currently missing.
“It’s not just a matter of knowing where citizens are and what they believe—it’s about knowing that they are there and why they believe it. Ultimately, social media allows us to know we’re not alone. It cuts through the paranoia and the isolation that metastasize in an informational black hole. And for that reason it would have a remarkable impact on the mental life of the average North Korean,” he said.
Still, in order for North Koreans to establish a domestic social network, they must first convince their head-of-state to revise his policies. Historically, this is not an easy task (to put it lightly).
Mr. Mizrahi notes that the international community does not yet have a clear understanding of Kim Jong-un, who ascended to power in December, following the death of his father. But so far, the youngest son of ‘Dear Leader’ has shown little inclination to deviate from his father’s style.
“Recent events (the rocket launch, etc.) confirm that he will reinforce the importance of the military as the backbone of the DPRK and embrace opportunities to display the country’s military might. That is central to the DPRK identity,” he said.
How much or little Kim Jong-un emulates his predecessor remains to be seen. Regardless of politics, Mr. Mizrahi emphasizes the importance of seeing North Korea for its humanity — and potential.
“Conversations with North Koreans are often like this. The aperture opens—a promising tear in the official fabric that lets a bit of light in—and then it shuts, and the textbook answers resume,” he wrote in a blog titled, ‘How Propaganda Works’. “There are moments of honesty, brief admissions, but no truth. It’s progress, to be sure. But it’s fleeting.”
Mr. Mizrahi doubts social media will appear in North Korea anytime soon. But when it does, he says, we may finally begin to understand this enigmatic culture.
“These tools allow us to communicate not just as ideas, or messages, or agendas, but as humans. Social media closes a very big gap between the voices in the world. Imagine what we would know about the average North Korean on Twitter, and what he might know about us,” he said.
Note: Readers may wonder why Mr. Harbinger was not quoted in this article, and the reason is simple: he is currently traveling within North Korea, and (obviously) could not be reached for comment. Look for details of his trip on The North Korea Blog in the coming weeks.