By Andrei Lankov
If you asked me what surprised me the most when I arrived in North Korea for the very first time. I’d say the fact that the place looked normal ― surprisingly so.
It was September 1984 when I disembarked from the Soviet Il-62 plane and was soon driven through the streets of Pyongyang, but I did not see what I sort of expected to encounter.
Contrary to what is often assumed by Westerners, in the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet public ― including those who were by no means dissenters ― looked at North Korea with a mixture of disdain and amusement. The Soviet Union of the early 1980s was not at all a democratic state, but it was much more permissive than Kim Il-sung’s North Korea.
I expected therefore to see a dictatorship and I, sort of subconsciously, thought that North Korea would look like the kind of totalitarian state one sees in dystopian novels or Hollywood movies. It should have impeccably dressed soldiers standing on street corners, equipped with loaded machine guns at the ready. It should be populated by a citizenry that never smiles, that go about their lives, grimly, under the iron heel of an omniscient state. And the sun should never shine there.
I was instantly disappointed. It was a beautiful day in early autumn, and on the streets of Pyongyang there were a great number of smiling people, without a hint of oppression or fear. Children were playing with their grandparents, and the young women were as stunningly beautiful as Korean women in the South are. There were soldiers of course, plenty in fact, but in their baggy uniforms they did not look like battle-ready killing machines.
In other words, everything was so perfectly normal. As a result, I spent the next few days thinking that the horror stories I had heard about the country must either have been hopelessly exaggerated or out-of-date. Of course, I have heard many horror stories before I went (one of my university teachers had even come across a public execution on the distant outskirts of Pyongyang, purely by chance, in the late 1950s).
It took a few weeks for hints to begin to appear. Once I developed more trusting relations with some of our North Korean roommates, they began to talk about things which matched what I had heard before my arrival in Pyongyang. Stories of foreigners, including many of the Soviet embassy staff, gave similar impressions, the story of a North Korean engineer in the 1970s who was sent to prison for reading Soviet books is just one example.
After a month or so in the country, it became evident that North Korea was a dictatorship of a particularly nasty variety. Nonetheless, the first impressions, such as they were, were not completely false. We tend to overestimate the importance of politics in the everyday lives of North Koreans. Put another way, how often does the average American think of the tall, handsome, black man, with slightly unusual ears, who inhabits the White House?
It is often assumed that the same is not the case in a dictatorship. We tend to assume that people who live under a radical or fundamentalist regime must spend most of their time memorizing the speeches of the leader and perfecting their goose step.
This is true only to some extent. I would probably surmise that the average North Korean has to pay more attention to politics than his or her American peers. Nonetheless, ideologically charged activities still constitute a relatively small part of the average North Korea’s lives. What outsiders presume to be the essence of life in North Korea is actually quite marginal to the lives of those walking along Changgwang or Kwangbok streets.
Even in the 1980s, when it would be no exaggeration to describe North Korea as the world’s most oppressive dictatorship, the average North Korean worried more about their health and the health of their loved ones. They were concerned if their children brought home a bad report card from school. They fancied attractive members of the opposite sex. They loved delicious food, and of course they enjoyed a beautiful sunset.
And of course, they had less lofty thoughts, too ― they worried about their careers, were engaged in money making schemes or rather, taking into consideration the peculiarities of North Korea’s economic system, designed schemes to get sought-after items. In other words, they lived normal human lives.
Of course, politics occasionally reared its ugly head and fear was very much present in North Korea ― after all, this country had one of the highest numbers of political prisoners for a country of its size. But humans are surprisingly similar; their lives remarkably resembled in many regards to those of a Parisian, residents of San Francisco or Novosibirsk.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.