In North Korea - a Journey Behind the Fiction
Text by Rory MacLean, photographs by Nick Danziger

A writer and photographer enter the strange parallel universe known as North Korea together and try to get into the heads of the people living there.

travel in North Korea

Kim Yun-gyong is a dolphin trainer. Twice every day she and her colleagues present the aquatic show at Pyongyang's 1500-seat dolphinarium. Synchronized swimmers stage underwater acrobatics as the animals jump through hoops, swim on their backs and leap high into the air. Other swimmers, dressed as mermaids, spiral down to create an underwater ballet that is projected onto a screen above the audience. The careful choreography of man and animal is designed to emphasize the necessity of cooperation

"Our people—the Korean people—are the happiest and best in the world because of our love and admiration for our Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un," she assured me.

Kim Yun-gyong, who studied Life Sciences at university, recalled how she became one of the center's eight trainers.

"We were sent to Hainan Island in China to meet our dolphins. They had just been caught so were still wild. On the first day I just watched mine from the edge of the pool. On the second day I slipped into the water and swam with him, trying to feed him. But he would take no food from me. He was unhappy in his captivity."

She and the other trainers had been instructed not to speak to the animals but to communicate only with whistles.

"To reach him I decided to use my eyes. I worked hard to make eye contact with him. I devoted all my thoughts to him, so as to make him understand that I really loved him."

Soon her Pacific spotted dolphin, Pyongyang No. 1—whom she nicknamed Gwang Byol (Bright Star) —began to respond, either because of her persistence or his hunger. He started to accept food and the artificial environment, allowing Kim Yun-gyong to train him.

"That was a special moment for me, when he began to perform well, even when he was feeling sad," she said.

Kim Yun-gyong's bright dark eyes were set in a gentle, oval-shaped face. Her long black hair was folded back from her forehead. Only her lips, slightly lopsided due to a few uneven teeth, marred her youthful beauty.

"For me the only difference between dolphins and humans is that dolphins cannot speak," she said, looking out across the tank in which both species performed for the pleasure of the people. "And even though the dolphins are kept in a tank, I no longer think they're sad. They are well fed. The water is the same as in the sea. If they were sad how could they perform, as they do, 365 days a year?"

Inside the Heads of North Koreans

Who are the North Koreans? Who are the individuals whose active support—or cowed obedience—enables the regime to thrive? What do they think and feel? And to what ends will they go to ensure that they are respected by the world?

To answer these question, the award-winning photographer Nick Danziger and I traveled across the country, meeting a farmer, a fisherman, and the captain of the national football team. We spent a morning one hundred meters underground with a 22-year-old subway train dispatcher and afternoons at the Museum of the Victorious Fatherland War with a much-decorated national hero.

On our trip our intention was not to uncover state secrets, demonize leaders or to sensationalize national tragedies. Instead we wanted to look beyond the theatricality of mass parades and posture politics to catch a glimpse of life as it is lived. To that end we met a dozen ordinary and extraordinary North Koreans and invited them to tell us their story, in an effort to catch a glimpse of real life in the world’s most secretive nation, at a turning point in its—and our—history.

North Korean May Day performer

At Pyongyang's awesome May Day Stadium, said to be the largest in Asia, we met 27-year-old Rhee Hyang-yon. Two dozen times a year Rhee Hyang-yon performs alongside 80,000 (yes, 80,000) other dancers, actors and gymnasts at the Arirang Mass Games. She marches straight and tall onto the pitch at the head of a troop of khaki-clad, black-booted dancers. In a dynamic routine she and the other performers salute, stretch and lunge forward to parry their silver swords. Their spangle-trimmed red cuffs and white gloves describe circles in the air as they fence with imaginary foes. With high kicks and orchestrated fervor, they form themselves into a protective shield around the red star of the Fatherland, in front of the stadium’s far flank where 20,000 (yes again, 20,000) students flip coloured cards like so many pixels in a huge man-powered screen, telling a tale about Korea.

That tale is a fiction. It is the narrative upon which both the nation's identity and cohesion depends, which dissenting voices criticize at their peril: America started and perpetrates the 1950-53 Korean War, Seoul is the capital of a U.S. colony where people dress like beggars and eat the leftovers of the "two-legged wolf occupiers" Ebola was created by the U.S. military as a biological weapon, and all the world is envious of the North Korea's success.

In fact North Korea—officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea—began its existence in 1948 as a bold experiment in social engineering. Its leaders wanted people to subvert their individual will to that of the collective, so as to reshape human nature. From the earliest days, public forums where individuals could debate and share personal thoughts, and learn to trust their own experience, were eliminated. Foreign newspapers, radio, and then the internet were, and still are, banned. Today it is only through collectivism—and the suppression of self—that individual men and women can survive.

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Read this article online at: In North Korea - a Journey Behind the Fiction

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

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