11/01/2012 08:26 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

War Of The Roses: Can Flowers Save The DPRK?

This is the last post in a series about my trip to North Korea

Guns and roses at the annual flower show in Pyongyang

According to Juche philosophy, man holds dominion over all of nature. Nothing illustrates this better than the annual Kim il Sung flower exhibition where natural beauty competes with an extravaganza of dry ice fog, epic music, and Christmas lights. Even kimilsungia, the eponymous purple orchid, and kimjungilia, a scarlet begonia, are prized not for their color or scent, but for what they represent. The installations consist of hundreds of living flowers arranged around miniature architectural models of North Korean landmarks: the main square, the arrow hotel, Kim il Sung's childhood home. A few of them even feature replicas of the ill-fated rocket, which, we are as yet unaware, blew up upon launch a few days ago. We all take turns having our pictures taken in front of it.

The author in front of the rocket

Outside the hall, we find a makeshift concession stand. J. wants a treat, but the proprietors cannot take foreign currency (which is all tourists can use) so Mr. Kim buys everyone stale strawberry and chocolate ice cream bars. His generosity seems too spontaneous to be contrived. Later on though, when he manages to conjure up with the word "biological" to help out Ms. Choi's translation, I can't help but doubt his faltering English. One night, hanging out with fellow travelers in the rococo "VIP suite" in Wonson, drinking soju, we start to joke. There's a microphone in the chandelier and the eyes of statues are following us. It's for laughs, of course, but it's not entirely funny.
The VIP suite

The North Korean government has been accused of developing nuclear weapons, trying to assassinate the President of South Korea, kidnapping foreign nationals, and selling arms to terrorists. For the casual visitor, none of this is in evidence. In fact, the only truly disquieting thing I see during my tour is a model bedroom at a children's camp. Claustrophobically small, it offers no privacy and no escape from propaganda. Above the twin beds (six altogether) hang pictures of the Great Leaders. In the middle, a T.V. plays military parade footage again and again. Near the door, a speaker is mounted to the wall. Like the radio in 1984, the volume can be turned down but not off. Most of the children here have never seen a foreigner before. To get a better glimpse of us, a girl about nine runs up the down escalator. Already causing trouble, she will not do well.

Big Brothers

Our entire tour was orchestrated. We know this. Other than the park, and scenes glimpsed from a moving bus window, we've seen only what the government wanted us to see. We'd all end up in prison if we stayed. Curious, educated, liberal-minded thinkers, we have no love of dictatorships. Still, each of us harbors the secret hope that when North Korea finally opens up, it will stay the weird, wonderful place it is. It is inevitable that the government will fall. Then, as one of my fellow travelers observes: "they will have new masters." Starbucks and B.M.W's and flat screen T.V.'s. None of us knows how to stop it. Going back through the Beijing airport, I find the familiarity of home already there. The syrupy pop music, the cafés and gift shops deflate me. IHere, as in many places, consumerism has become a proxy for freedom.

If I could retain one image of North Korea, it would not be the tacky décor (marble veneer and Christmas lights being the most popular) or the outrageously enjoyable circus (a woman ice-skating with a flock of trained white doves) or the million and one monuments or the flashing neon everywhere. It would be the shabby apartment buildings with the little flowerpots on each balcony.

Flowers on balconies in Pyongyang

One apartment dweller would not make a difference. So, they all do it. One by one, drop by drop, they defy the ugliness of existence. Such acts are powerful, not because they serve some heroic idea or blue-sky future, but precisely because they do not. Ideology (theirs and ours) loses its grip in the slight, irregular spaces between humans. My interaction with individual North Koreans has been both delightful and genuine. It's in this that I find hope for the future.

Flowers brighten a lab at a maternity hospital

Ice-skater with trained doves