10/25/2012 07:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Freedom Makes Us Feral: Bustin' Loose In North Korea

This is the sixth post in the series on my trip to the DPRK.


The bus pulls into the parking lot at the Unity monument--a huge white stone arch composed of statues of two Korean women, one from the North and one from the South, holding hands. Beneath this runs the main road out of Pyongyang, a deserted four-lane highway. We take pictures standing in the middle of it. One of us lies down on the yellow divider. But, it is not enough. Isolated from the locals by our keepers, ferried from one sight to the next, we long for a moment of freedom. Perhaps our handlers, veterans of other tours, are aware of our growing restlessness. After lunch, they take us to a city park. We are meant to keep together, but liberation makes us feral. We ignore the calls of our handlers who, being immediately distracted by some other errant charge, are helpless to control us. I hand out chocolate bars to children and drunken young people who sit on the grass eating and singing. In exchange, they offer orange soda, and gesture for me to sit down. They want to take pictures with us. Some of us even pose in wedding photos. No one speaks English and it doesn't matter. The sun is shining, the birds are singing. I feel deliriously happy.

The author as picnic crasher

A dapper elderly Korean man plays the flute while three beautiful older women in traditional dress dance nearby

Miss Choi left her cell phone on the bus, and now she and half our group are missing. Mr. Kim is trying to remain calm. He manages to get us back to the vehicle where, he assures us, Ms. Choi is certainly waiting. Disgruntled, we wait for a few minutes, until S., T.'s hipster Chinese wife and fellow tour-guide, tells Mr. Kim that we want to go back. Faced with the possibility of overt rebellion, he reluctantly agrees. Someone is playing tinny North Korean pop on a boom box. Without being asked, we join in their dancing. Young men and old women take us as their partners. "You like to dance," Mr. Kim observes. Though he doesn't participate, even he seems pleased.

High-fives in the park


Shoot the American Imperialist arcade game
photo courtesy of Roc LaMontagne

In a clearing at the end of the park, we find men, women, and children lined up for an arcade game. Kill the American imperialist. We have seen it before. It is too impersonal to be intimidating. The quotidian and the epic coexist. It is no different here than anywhere. To avoid the reality of mortality and the slightness of our lives, we humans sacrifice ourselves (and others) for big ideas with exclamation points: GOD! LOVE! COUNTRY!

"The North Koreans have outlawed semi-colons," my seatmate T., a software developer from Chicago says. "Too subtle, too transitional. It gives you too much time to think."

The Juche tower, a supremely phallic torch, is the ultimate exclamation point. Opposite Kim il-Sung square, it thrusts itself 500 feet into the air. Ms. Choi explains that Juche is a philosophy developed by Kim il Sung that posits that man is the master of the universe. Many on our bus have purchased the pocket-sized Juche Philosophy: 100 Questions and Answers at the gift shop. For fun, I ask P., the Australian doctor, to quiz me.

"I know it word for word," I boast.

"What are the starting points of the Juche idea?" P. asks.

"Umm. Self-reliance?"

P. shakes his head. I am a poor pupil.

He reads aloud. " should carry out the revolution according to one's faith and one's own responsibility, not with someone's approval or directive, and solve all the problems arising in the revolution in an independent and creative way."

We wonder if something is lost in translation. How to reconcile this mandate for individualism with the repressiveness of the regime? We dare not ask Miss Choi.

The last night of the tour, four of us create a tabletop replica of the Juche tower out of empty soda cans, wet napkins, glasses, an ashtray and a lit cigarette.

2012-10-17-juchesmall.jpg 2012-10-17-Pyongyang_Juche_tower.jpeg
One of these is not the Juche Tower

"Look, Miss Choi, the Juche Tower!" G. from Australia exclaims, pointing at the little flame.

Miss Choi is not amused. "It's a tower," she corrects, "it's not the Juche tower."

That, I think, is the answer to our question.