Students get the inside scoop on North Korea

10 January 2014

College of Arts & Social Sciences students Brody Warren and Trudy McIntosh ventured into the mysterious North Korea last year to discover the people behind the nuclear weapons and the anti-Western rhetoric. Below is their fascinating account of their travels and insights gleaned from their visit.

In early September, lamenting the inspiring choice between Mr Abbott and Mr Rudd, we decided to forgo the sheer excitement that is the Australian election and head to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). While North Korea may not be on everyone's bucket list, it was opportunity we just couldn't pass up.

From the moment we touched down in Pyongyang, the first day nerves started to show. We were excruciatingly conscious of toeing the line, and tried to steer clear of (what we thought might be) taboo topics, not even sure if we could call it 'North' Korea without causing offence.

Visiting the de-militarised zone (DMZ) the next morning, we were still very much on edge. The take-home message was just how much the 'US imperialists' are hated, with every mention accompanied by a litany of critical adjectives.

Travelling on a strictly monitored tour, we surrendered to the uncontrollable nature of our 'party-approved' schedule. We were taken to cooperative farms, a factory, universities and schools, all of which contained 'museums', which depicted how many times the Great Leader visited - what he looked at, what he touched, how he "solved all the problems" and "praised the model exploits of the workers". We left feeling like we had just visited a more elaborate, real-life version of the kimjongillookingatthings tumblr.

For a country which outwardly shuns the rest of the world, the DPRK has derived considerable inspiration from Western architecture. Forget the Arc de Triomphe - Pyongyang has the Arch of Triumph, which just happens to be 10 metres taller than its French counterpart. In a similar vein, the Tower of Juche Idea bears remarkable resemblance to the Washington Monument and is conveniently one metre taller.

Not to be outdone are the striking bronze statutes of the eternal President Kim Il-Sung and General Kim Jong-Il, which featured in almost every city we visited.

Pyongyang's skyscrapers, imposing monuments and wide boulevards give a deceiving impression of the DPRK. Peel back the façade, and it becomes clear that these edifices are dilapidated and in disrepair, with most construction occurring largely in the prosperous 1950s and 1960s.

The highlight of the trip was incontrovertibly the Arirang Mass Games. Held in the world's largest capacity stadium (think Quidditch World Cup), the games are an artistic and gymnastic performance of epic proportions. With over 100,000 people participating in the performance (20,000 of which are the children with flipbooks forming the pixelated backdrop), it is an awe-inspiring experience that puts any Olympic opening or closing ceremony to shame.

Some may question the ethics of our tourist dollars propping up a state with such a poor human rights record, yet to an extent this was countered by the mutual respect and understanding gained. With our guides we discussed everything from food to politics to career aspirations - their familiarity with the West was surprising, stretching even to Westlife and the Sound of Music. Although our interactions were limited largely to our three guides, we hope that increased tourism may one day help facilitate the opening-up of the North Korean regime.

Both of us ventured to the DPRK with a curiosity and a desire to gain a greater appreciation of their perspective, and discovered there is so much more to North Korea than nuclear weapons. In future, we hope see policy decisions informed by a more accurate depiction of the DPRK, rather than fuelled by a caricature of a nuclear weapon-wielding, cult-of-personality dictatorship.

This is an excerpt of an article originally published in Woroni.