Less than 1,200 Americans have been allowed entry into North Korea since the Korean War. The accounts of their experiences in the bizarre other-world that is North Korea are fascinating - and terrifying. They are enduring testaments to facts normally forgotten: North Korea is not an other-world. It is our world. These snippets are a necessary reminder of the horrors that are and still may be.
Of those I have read, the most powerful account of this type was penned by Patrick Chovanec, professor at Tsinghua University and author of a blog on Chinese economics. He writes of his (mandatory) visit to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace:
Patrick Chovanec. An American Perspective From China. 29 August 2009.
We were instructed to form up, platoon-style, in front of a massive door. The North Koreans are well practiced lining up for everything, but among the Americans I was probably the only one who had ever done this before in the army, so we shuffled back and forth in disarray for a while as our hosts shook their heads, unimpressed. Then the doors swung open and we marched into a large hall where, at the far end, a great statue of Kim Il-Sung, about 30 feet tall in the purest white marble, stood facing us. On a screen behind it, the warm pink glow of a sunrise was just beginning to emerge below a clear blue sky.
There are moments in life when you are reduced to silence. It could be the moment your bride walks down the aisle, or when you hold your firstborn child in your arms, or when you witness death up close. Time stops, and you cross an invisible boundary where you confront something so fundamental that it escapes either word or thought. And that moment stays with you forever, coloring all that you are.
For me, walking across that hall, seeing that statue loom larger and larger, with that sunrise behind it, was one of those moments. It sounds trite to say that it reminded me of Big Brother in 1984, that I felt I had walked into the pages of that novel, except this was real. It sounds clichéd to say it made me appreciate being born in a free country or made me realize, for a moment, what it might have been like not to be. But that statue and that hallway conveyed something very simple, a feeling I will never forget: I am big and you are small. I am powerful and you are nothing. And the worst part was knowing that, at that moment, it was true.
There was a popular and very influential TV ad by Apple Computer, a take-off of 1984, where a lone renegade enters a great assembly hall presided over by an image of Big Brother, and heaves a giant hammer that destroys it. Obama supporters even parodied the ad last year, in a dig at Hillary Clinton. It’s a romantic notion, one that could only be entertained in a free society. In that room, beneath that smiling statue, it became painfully obvious how inconceivable and futile such an act of defiance would be, in real life. What if this were the only reality I knew? What if the consequences of even thinking, even imagining something different would be devastating, for me and my whole family? This place was no book. It was no ad. It was no joke. What if this were my life and I couldn’t just walk out of here and fly back home?
I recommend reading the full thing.