November 4, 2005
North Korea propaganda fails to crush humanity
By Lindsay Beck
PYONGYANG (Reuters) - Yon Ok-ju likes pizza, spends
weekends hanging out with her friends and worries about her
Except Yon is a citizen of North Korea, one of the world's
most reclusive and least understood countries and best known
for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Though her life and those of other minders escorting
foreign journalists on a rare visit are not representative of
the vast majority of the North's 23 million people, they do
provide a glimpse of daily life -- however privileged -- in the
country dubbed the Hermit Kingdom for its isolation.
Pyongyang is a city of wide boulevards and plenty of green,
where everything seems normal, but with a twist.
There are few shopfronts, few cars and the lack of commerce
lends an eerie quiet to the city of more than 2 million.
Yon's dark skirt and jacket would not look out of place on
most Western city streets but on her lapel -- and that of every
other citizen -- is a pin of Kim Il-sung, the state's founder
and "eternal president."
When asked who owns the Pyongyang restaurant Yon says
serves pizza and hamburgers, she answers: "The government, of
The communist nation is one of the world's poorest and most
Residents are raised from childhood on a diet of propaganda
asserting the country's strength, decrying the United States
and affirming the wisdom of Kim Il-sung and his son and current
leader, Kim Jong-il.
Despite the slogans and goose-stepping, there is humor and
humanity beyond the propaganda.
Choe Jong-hun, manager of the Committee for Cultural
Relations with Foreign Countries, says he would blow himself up
for his country's leaders.
But as he says it, he happily accepts a Marlboro, the
cigarette of what he calls the American imperialists, and puts
away his own pack of Mild Sevens, not bothered that they are
made in Japan, demonized by Pyongyang for its past colonial
A driver delights in listening to someone's iPod and
children, far from being frightened of foreigners they have
been taught committed terrible crimes against their nation,
giggle and crowd around tourists' digital cameras to see their
Yon's concerns seem much like those of students anywhere.
Over lunch, she jokes with fellow English student and
interpreter Paek Su-ryun, teasing her for being known among
their classmates as the fattest.
"All the girls want to be very light and very thin," Paek
says, echoing a sentiment common across body-image obsessed
It also indicates Paek and her friends' enormous privilege
in a country where state rations supply only a couple of bowls
of rice a day and the World Food Program targets a third of the
population for handouts.
News in North Korea is tightly controlled, with television
state-run and most foreign programming Russian and Chinese.
There is no Internet, only an intranet of content that has
been politically vetted and downloaded centrally.
Paek is aware of the recent earthquake in Pakistan and the
floods in New Orleans, but asked about six-party talks aimed at
dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs, she says she's not
very interested in politics.
During the last round of negotiations in September, Paek
was with schoolmates on a farm as part of an annual
mobilization to help with the harvest, and didn't get much news
of the talks.
As English students at a top college, the friends have seen
some American movies and if not exactly up on the latest
Hollywood gossip, they have some knowledge of Western pop
culture and an appetite for more.
Yon has seen "Gladiator" but prefers "Titanic," the love
story that was also wildly popular in neighboring China.
On weekends, she likes singing karaoke with friends and is
a fan of Canadian pop star Celine Dion.
"What's his nationality?" Paek says after being asked if
she likes Harry Potter, then dissolves into giggles on
recognizing the name of the boy wizard.
A flower exhibition packed with families on vacation is
similar to a garden show anywhere, except that the flowers on
display are the "kimilsungia" and the "kimjongilia," bred in
honor of the revered leaders.
But Yon's favorite flower is neither the kimilsungia or the
kimjongilia. She prefers the rose.