The Hermit Kingdom

Soo-Bin Hur
6 min read
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I am a foreign exchange student from S. Korea. It's sad that I always have to put an ’S' in front of my country. I wish I could just write “Korea” without an initial indicating we are a divided nation. Whenever I introduce myself to people here, they usually ask whether I am from South or North Korea. I guess many Americans don't know that North Koreans can't even leave their own country. So, yes, I am from South Korea. To tell you the truth, I don't often dwell on how we are divided. I wish we were united, but in South Korea, at least, we are doing just fine and everything seems pretty good for now.

Unfortunately, there is one person who doesn't want a free and united Korea. Even if most Americans don't know whether I am from North or South Korea, they usually know this person: the North Korean dictator, Kim Jung Il. I always wonder how he can be so chubby when most people in North Korea are skin and bone. What is going on there? Actually, nobody really knows what's going on in North Korea because Kim Jung Il doesn't want anybody to know about the problems that exist within his borders. However, we do know some sad facts about this poor communist country.

The Last Paradise: North Korea offers a visual guided tour of North Korea. For nine years, Swiss photographer Nicolas Righetti waited for permission to document the self-proclaimed paradise of Kim Jung Il, who inherited the regime from his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994.

In an essay included in the book, Righetti talks about the many ways in which North Korea looks different from other countries. When he arrived in the country, he felt as if the world had been turned upside down. There were no animals, little noise and no traffic—no Asia as we know it. Righetti was fascinated by this artificial authoritarian world. He saw bizarre contradictory slogans on the streets of Pyongyang: “We are in Paradise,” “We are happy,” “Think, speak and act like Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, our leader, beloved leaders.” These signs made him realize that nobody in North Korea can escape from the absolute authority of their leader, Kim Jung Il. Kim is their Big Brother.

Righetti put all of these unbelievable facts into this extraordinary book. The book also includes a timeline of North Korean history juxtaposed against creepy quotes from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il such as “The people are my God” and “Art is the party.”

Primarily, though, the book consists of Righetti's very revealing images from inside this Hermit Kingdom, such as a stadium decorated with a huge picture of a soldier with a gun, empty shelves at a food shop and elevators with nobody on them. To me, most of these photos suggest hidden stories. Even though we are from one nation, North and South Korea are incredibly different. Propaganda on North Korean billboards like “We are happy” and “We have nothing to envy the rest of the world” remind me of lessons I was taught in elementary school. When we are young, teachers teach us lessons which we need to know for our basic knowledge. The billboard propaganda serves as a reminder that North Koreans are constantly educated by Kim Jung Il's communist government as if they were children.

It's really sad that North Koreans live under such conditions. Most of these photos seem a little bit weird to me. The North Koreans all look stiff. They don't smile, and they look just like the drab pieces of Pyongyang architecture surrounding them.

How can this communist country ever change? We should think seriously about this question. By what power, with what method and how fast can North Korea change?

From Jan. 15 to 20, 2001, Kim visited China. This was an exceptional event, because Kim almost never leaves North Korea. His purpose in visiting China was to examine strategies for opening up North Korea to the benefits of Western capital without, of course, giving up his control over the country. In this regard, Kim wanted to study China's economic reforms because North Korea's economy has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades and is in ruins. This event offered some slight hope that Kim Jung Il might be willing to liberalize his regime and improve relations between North Korea and the rest of the world.

Then, in 2002, President Bush delivered a speech that drew fire from North Koreans and others for saying that North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, is part of an Axis of Evil. Bush followed up his speech with a visit to South Korea that touched off outrage among Koreans everywhere—in the north, the south and the diaspora. These actions have heightened tensions that already existed between the U.S. and North Korea.

Ever since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, and Bush's infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, much has been written about the possibility of war on the Korean peninsula. In October, 2002, North Korea admitted to having nuclear weapons. Kim Jung Il said he was ready and willing to launch a nuclear attack against the U.S. by involving South Korea and Japan if the U.S. continued to behave in an aggressive manner toward North Korea.

However, North Korea is not another Iraq, even if there are a number of superficial similarities. North Korea is involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but it does not have oil and cannot be implicated, even indirectly, in the events of September 11. The U.S. needs, therefore, to carefully analyze scenarios that could lead to war. Given that North Korea says it has the bomb and is willing to use it, the U.S. and the rest of the free world must avoid such scenarios at all cost.

I do not expect North and South Korea to be reunited any time soon, because I doubt it's going to happen as long as Kim Jung Il is alive, but I still dream of living in one united country. Like I said, I don't often dwell on the fact that I live in a divided country, but my heart always looks for the half that is not with me but always near.

No matter what impression Righetti's photos give, I still see North Koreans as the same as South Koreans. All Koreans, myself included, want to reunite with their other half. We all dream of the day when we can refer to our entire peninsula as simply Korea.

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