July 24, 2004

Inside Kimland


The other day James Taranto linked to the fascinating photoessays of one Scott Fisher, an American living in South Korea, who gives us a rare look at the North from a "tourist" perspective. In a series of eleven articles, starting with this introduction to the trip north, Fisher photographs and vividly describes all that he is permitted to see. Fisher tries to ditch the Guides and engage regular people in his fluent Korean at every opportunity. On a trip to see The Monuments of Kimland, Fisher encounters a rare curiosity in a conversation with the Tour Guide:

At first she was reluctant, saying her English wasn't very good. I persisted and she finally relented, once the idea of a white person speaking Korean worked its way past her preconceptions.

We started by talking about her job and whether a lot of people were coming for the Arirang Festival. As we talked she was walking me around the corner of the building, out of earshot of the others.

Once we were away from the others the questions came pouring out. "What's life like in the South? Why do you live there? What's it like living there? What about your students (I'd told her I teach at a university) - what are they like? What do people in the South say about the North?" The woman was full of curiosity about life across the border, barely two hours south of where we were standing. Our conversation lasted about 10 minutes. Mostly with her asking questions about the outside world, especially the South. I found it odd that she was asking an American so many questions about South Korea but she just seemed curious about what life was 'really' like on the other half of the Korean peninsula. As a guide she'd had much more interaction with outsiders than the average DPRK citizen. I guess this inkling of forbidden knowledge is what drove her to take a chance and try to find out a bit more about the outside world.

Later, as I met and tried to talk with other people in a similar way, I realized how unique this woman was. First, she allowed herself to wander away from the group with me, knowing full well others would see, if not hear. Second, she was brimming with questions and curiosity. Something I never got from anyone else the whole trip. Finally, once we were out of earshot, she totally dropped the endless Kim is great droning in favor of just having a 'normal' conversation. Every other time I was able to pull someone aside it just ended up in a fit of ideological proselytizing. Perhaps the independence of the Juche Tower had worn off on her.

Fisher gets a lesson on the evils of the United States during his trip to the DMZ, and the photos of the Arirang Festival are well worth the click. (See the index at the bottom of each page for links to the other articles.)

Posted by dan at July 24, 2004 5:31 PM