On Running the Marathon in North Korea

Jeré Longman recently ran a marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea. He was one of several hundred foreign tourists allowed to participate in the spectacle. Writing for The New York Times, he reflects on the experience:

We could not leave the loop course, but we could leave our minders for an hour or two or four. Maybe we could make a personal connection that seemed less scripted than the opening ceremony: a brief smile, a wave, a hello, a thank you, a small encouragement.

Or would it all be staged, a Potemkin race in an authoritarian capital for the elite and loyal, our perceptions influenced by stories in the West, true or not, that Kim Jong-il scored a perfect 300 in his first bowling match and five holes in one on his maiden round of golf?

An early uphill stretch carried us past modest but encouraging crowds along a wide street of apricot blossoms. A soldier high-fived a few runners. A woman waved from the window of her apartment building. Other women in red jackets poured water into cups at small hydration tables.

The 6.2-mile loop brought us back and forth across the Taedong River via bridge and tunnel, the roads decorated with clusters of North Korean flags, their red star and red field meant to symbolize the spilled blood of liberation in a military-first nation.

For the natives, the marathon may have been a chance to act rebelliously:

During his half-marathon, Hank Mannen, 36, of the Netherlands, was startled to see a young woman blow him a kiss. He said he reciprocated, then thought for a moment, “She’s in big trouble now.

Great read.

Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi

I am beginning my morning by absorbing Adam Davidson’s fascinating piece in GQ on Kim Jong Il’s sushi chef. The intro should get you fired up:

North Korea is a mythically strange land, an Absurdistan, where almost nothing is known about the people or, more important, their missile-launching leaders. There is, however, one man—a humble sushi chef from Japan—who infiltrated the inner sanctum, becoming the Dear Leader’s cook, confidant, and court jester. What is life like serving Kim Jong-il and his heir? A strange and dangerous gig where the food and drink never stop, the girls are all virgins, and you’re never really safe. We sent Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson to meet the man who survived all the craziness.

The chef, who goes by the alias Kenji Fujimoto, is Japanese–a conflict:

Though the Japanese are considered an enemy in North Korea—for their brutal invasion, occupation, and subjugation of Korea from 1910 to 1945—Fujimoto’s outsider status had advantages: He didn’t speak Korean and therefore couldn’t betray Kim’s confidences. Fujimoto was also a stranger to the complex allegiances and shifting tides of Pyongyang politics. And because he knew so little about North Korea, he tended to accept Shogun-sama’s version of reality—that the Kims were benevolent leaders beset by jealous enemies.

These were good times for Fujimoto. During the day he trained his students, and at night the shouts of “Toro, one more!” kept coming. Beautiful women were always nearby, and interesting executives kept coming and going. When he spent leisure time with Kim Jong-il, they drank Bordeaux wines and discussed Shogun-sama’s favorite Schwarzenegger movies.

The title of the piece is a riff on a superb documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, available to stream for free on Netflix Instant (which I recommend seeing!).

 

Eric Schmidt’s Daughter on North Korea

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s daughter Sophie has posted a lengthy account with photos of their recent trip to North Korea. Some highlights from a post titled “It might not get weirder than this”:

  • The English-language customs form for North Korea requires declaration of “killing device” and “publishings of all kinds.”
  • None of the buildings visited by the delegation was heated, despite the cold. Sophie writes: “They’re proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.”
  • The delegation had two official minders always present with them (“2, so one can mind the other”) and no interaction with North Koreans not vetted by officials.
  • Eric Schmidt’s “reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.”
  • The group could make international calls on rented cell phones but had no data service.

This was my favorite highlight from her trip:

The Kim Il Sung University e-Library, or as I like to call it, the e-Potemkin Village…

Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in–a noisy bunch, with media in tow–not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.

Sophia’s takeaways:

  1. Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
  2.  If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
  3.  Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.

Worth reading in entirety, especially for the photos. The only thing that sucks is the formatting of the post (google sites, what the heck?).

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Also worth seeing: these photos from North Korea.

The Histrionics of Grief in North Korea

Following the death of Kim Jong-Il, North Koreans took to the streets to mark their grief of their beloved Leader. I watched, mouth aghast, not believing if these scenes were real:

Amy Davidson has a brief post in The New Yorker about the hysterics of the North Koreans:

How does a whole crowd fake tears? Barbara Demick, in “Nothing to Envy,” her book on the ravaged social landscape of North Korea, collected accounts of how ordinary North Koreans set themselves to just that task after the death of Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, back in 1994: “It was like a staring contest. Stare. Cry. Stare. Cry,” a student told her. “Eventually, it became mechanical. The body took over where the mind left off and suddenly he was really crying. He felt himself falling to his knees, rocking back and forth, sobbing just like everyone else.”

Cue Barbara Demick’s explanation of how the North Koreans grieve:

Those waiting in line would jump up and down, pound their heads, collapse into theatrical swoons, rip their clothes and pound their fists at the air in futile rage. The men wept as copiously as the women.

The histrionics of grief took on a competitive quality. Who could weep the loudest? The mourners were egged on by the TV news, which broadcast hours and hours of people wailing, grown men with tears rolling down their cheeks, banging their heads on trees, sailors banging their heads agains the masts of their ships, pilots weeping in the cockpit, and so on. These scenes were interspersed with footage of lightning and pouring rain. It looked like Armageddon.

Seems like history repeats itself.