Angry Birds in Pyongyang: Dutch Reportage from North Korea

By | May 01, 2012 | No Comments

The relationship between the DPRK and the Netherlands, most recently buttressed by a nice message from Kim Yong Nam on the occasion of Queen’s Day (April 30),  is one of the more interesting of North Korea’s diplomatic ties in Europe.  But what about Dutch writing about North Korea?  What gains might be made from a foray into Pyongyangology through what might be called (as it is that season) the orange lens? One might follow the writings of the Koreanist scholar/public intellectual in Leiden, Remco Breuker (aka @koryoinleiden)  Or, one might sit down at a long table in The Hague for a cup of coffee and be confronted with an extended article in this weekend’s Volksrant by Toine Hijmans recounting his April visit to the DPRK. — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Toine Heijmans, “Maar het volk is gelukkig [But the People are Happy],” De Volkskrant, Amsterdam, 28 April 2012, 3-4.

Lest the reader believe that all North Korean reportage flows through Pyongyang alone, Heijmans begins this long essay in the east coast city of Wonsan.  Any reportage able to get outside of the main and pointedly selective thoroughfares of  Pyongyang is usually worth reading, even if the subject is markets in Rason for the 100th time.

In Lux Kimitas |  The subject in Wonsan, however, is a familiar one: light, or the lack thereof.  No reporter, not even Barbara Demick in Nothing to Envy, can seem to resist the allure of the juxtaposition of North Korea’s darkness — to be read as backwardness, in the shadow of our enlightenment, a massive canvas upon which damn near anything can be projected — with the bright lights of the developed economies outside. From the standpoint of a pure prose stylist, no less than an invitation to the Mass Games, the darkness is a great gift to journalists from the regime.

The author thus starts with the unexpected — Wonsan — but puts it on a predictable twist – no electricity, except to light the Kim statues.  No apologies are forthcoming from the reporter’s guide for this resource imbalance; in fact, the North Koreans boast that the city spares on electricity specifically in order to show their respect to the statues.

Hints of Westernization |  The notion of theater, as in most sessions of real reportage, occasionally breaks down when the North Koreans act momentarily out of character.   On their way out of Wonsan, the minder Mr. Kim — who has done foreign studies and 3 years military service — grabs a Western reporter’s iPad and, totally unprompted, opens up into a ferocious game of “Angry Birds.”  Heijmans asks: “Where did you learn to do that, Mr. Kim?” The North Korean minder responds with only a Cheshire grin.

The notion of Westernization, and of the growth of an elite that essentially has access to the main pillars of the West, moves further in discussion of the city’s automobile market.  Heijmans asks his guides: Why is it that in this communist country, some people drive BMW X6s, and others don’t?

The North Korean response to the obvious wealth inequality is revealing:  “It’s because some people work harder than others….Like my hand, not all the fingers are equally long [Sommige Koreanen weaken harder dan andere….Het is net als met mien hand: niet alle vingers zijn even lang].”  A far cry from 2007 when, as Bradley Martin wrote in Pyongyang for Bloomberg, cars were “scarce symbols of wealth and power.”

A Meaningless Picture for Cadre with Wheels: Prime Minister Chae Yong Rim Discusses Pyongyang Subway Construction | Rodong Sinmun, March 2, 2012

See also: Remco Breuker, “Spionnen,” Frontal Naakt, December 28, 2011.  [English version here.]

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