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Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

H. Bradford

7-13-17

I was excited to travel to Turkmenistan.  I had read that there are only 9,000 tourists who visit the country each year.  By comparison, over 100,000 tourists travel to North Korea annually.   Of course, comparisons to North Korea are abundant on travel websites.  The idea of traveling to such a mysterious place filled me with fear and excitement.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Some travel websites warned that tourists had been denied visas upon arrival or faced harassment from the police.  Documentaries about Turkmenistan (from Niyazev’s rule) made it seem like a bizarre country where in women could not wear makeup on television, video games, opera, and the circus were banned, everyone had to get off the streets by 11 pm, and government officials were made to go on grueling marches once a week to ensure their health.  These kinds of stories made me worried that something might go wrong.  I began to feel real anxiety as my trip approached, as I would be spending a few days in Ashgabat alone before joining the group I would be traveling with.   If Ashgabat was truly like Pyongyang, as some websites suggested, it was a worrisome thought.  I was afraid that I might accidentally break a law.  The fear was unfounded.  The visit to Turkmenistan went beautifully.  Still, during my time there, I reflected on my privilege and my desire to see strange places.  Thus, this post is about both my experience in Turkmenistan but also the dark urges and privileges of a tourist.


The unusual nature of Turkmenistan began with my flight.  The flight from Frankfurt to Ashgabat made a stop in Baku.  I had never been on a flight that stopped to let off passengers before.  The plane landed and to my surprise, let off almost all of the passengers on the plane.  When we continued from Baku to Ashgabat, there were probably less than six people on the flight.  All of these six people were foreign tourists.  It was bizarre to be among the few remaining passengers and that all of us were foreign.   Foreign travel is somewhat restricted in Turkmenistan, as in order to travel the country a tourist must have a local guide and a letter of invitation.   However, tourists are able to travel to Ashgabat on their own without a guide.  As for locals, the economy of Turkmenistan is built upon oil and gas.  There is a wide gap between the very few rich and poor, with an unemployment rate of about 60%.   Poverty is almost certainly one of the reasons there was no one from Turkmenistan on my flight.  As for myself, I had a letter of invitation and a local guide accompanied our tour through Turkmenistan.  Thus, I breezed through customs without incident.  However, I arrived late (at midnight) and was one of very few people at the airport.  This meant that my bag was inspected for a long time.  After it was put through the x-ray machine, several workers sifted through my belongings.  They studied each medication, opened them, looked at the contents of each bottle.  They also took special interest in my snacks, making commentary to each other about my belongings.   I suppose they might have been bored.  I think my snacks were probably disappointing.  As for the thorough inspection of my medicine, opiate drugs are banned in the country, even with a prescription so I can only assume they were looking for banned medication.


Once I passed through customs and the baggage inspection, I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay and that I’d worked myself up watching too many documentaries or reading travel horror stories.  I was met by the local tour guide and driven back to the Ak Altyn Hotel.  By then, I was sleepy from my 20+ hours of airports and flights.  So, I barely paid attention to the city.  I dreamily looked back at the airport, a giant white structure shaped like a bird.  I also took note that there were other cars on the road, despite the 11 pm curfew.  I was informed that shops close by 11pm and also warned not to smoke outdoors (as it was illegal…though I don’t smoke anyway), but there were no other immediate signs of dictatorship.


The following day, I decided I would set out by myself and explore the city.  A few other tourists from the group arrived, but I gave them a cold welcome.  I was more interested in my own agenda of seeing the city than getting to know my future travel companions.  So, with a guidebook, map, and to do list, I set out walking.  I decided to walk because the buses seemed confusing (as there was no central map of routes).  It was hot.  I was disoriented at first and spent some time walking the wrong direction.  When I found my bearings, I turned around and set off for the statue of Lenin.  It was located about an hour or so walk from my hotel, provided one does not get turned around.  My walking brought me to a random amusement park with rides, a Japanese garden, and dinosaur statues.  People seemed to be having fun, though each few blocks seemed punctuated by a police officer.   Some meandered through the parks as well.  It seemed that despite the 60% unemployment rate, there was no shortage of police jobs or jobs sweeping or cleaning the many monuments.   Still, the city did not really feel like Pyongyang at all.  The fact that I could travel freely and solo, made it seem very different.  And, after wandering the streets alone for two days, I was only approached once by a police officer.  When it happened, my heart began to race, but…it was only to check the time.


Once I found Lenin, I spent several hours exploring other monuments and parks.  Lenin was only important because of my politics…but also because Turkmenistan has sought to distance itself from its Communist past.  Although Niyazov was a communist leader during the Soviet Union and his party was the reincarnation of the communist party after the Soviet Union collapsed, the iconography of communism as well as remnants of Russian colonization have been dismantled.   The Turkmen script was changed from Cyrillic and statues and images of Marx and Lenin were replaced with the images of Niyazov.  The guiding ideology of the nation was set forth in the Ruknama, a book by Niyazov on the history of the Turkmen people and himself.   Gas revenues were invested into creating a showpiece capital.  Thus, almost all of the buildings in Ashgabat are new and made of Russian and Italian marble.  The city is full of well kept parks and monuments.  It really is unique.  Still, despite the changes, a statue of Lenin remains…not far from the American embassy, in a less visited park.

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I spent the day visiting parks and viewing buildings.  Towards the end of the day, I visited the National Museum of Fine Art.  I was the only tourist in the three story building.  The staff seemed surprised to see me.  This was a common occurrence in Ashgabat.  The museum was filled with interesting Turkmen and Soviet art, such as giant carpets.  There were images of rivers, workers, giant melons, tractors, and happy people with musical instruments.  On the way back to my hotel, I wandered through Inspiration Alley, a park of various statues of Muslim scholars.  They were unfamiliar men, owing to my lack of knowledge of Muslim history.  The history is so foreign to me, it is hard to imagine that Al-Zamakhshari or Abu-Biruni might be household names and that not knowing them would be the same as ignorance of Einstein, Shakespeare, or Newton. Image may contain: sky and outdoor


The following day, I set off to visit the Botanical Garden, as I thought it would provide a nice opportunity to watch birds.  The Botanical Garden was closed.  This is a theme of my life.  When I went to Minsk the garden was closed.  When I went to Bishkek, I also found that the botanical garden was closed.  I feel that I somehow have very bad luck with botanical gardens.  Anyway, I instead visited the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral.  It was a very hidden and modest orthodox cathedral.  I didn’t stay long as it was hosting a service.  Later I visited a bazaar and did some more walking, revisiting some sites I had seen the other day.   I was approached by two Russian speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I was actually curious to talk to them (for the first time ever), but our conversation was cut short by two police officers and I was quick to walk away.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are illegal in Turkmenistan.  In all, the city is quite large and spread out, so I found it impossible to see some of the major sites by foot.  These had to wait until my tour actually began, as we were promised a sight seeing tour by bus and a night time tour to see the city lights.


The bus tours offered a wide array of strange sights.  We saw the largest indoor Ferris wheel in the world, the Arch of Neutrality, and the largest fountain in the world.  Once again, it is unsettling that the largest fountain in the world is in a country that is 80% desert!  The Ashgabat fountain is guarded by stern statues of the ancestors of the Turks: Orguz Khan and his sons.  We even passed by the Walk of Health, where government workers were expected to trek the 23 mile path through the Kopet Dag mountains once a year.  Perhaps the grand finale of the eccentric was a visit to the Turkmenbashi Mosque.  The mosque holds the remains of Niyazev and his family (his mother and brothers died in the 1948 earthquake that struck the city).  It also features quotes from the Ruhnama on the walls of the mosque and the eight pointed star.  The eight points represent the eight pillars of Islam.  Niyazev added three more pillars to Islam, including reading his book and visiting local holy sites in Turkmenistan.  These revisions were not welcomed by Saudi Arabia and consequently, Wahhabism is also banned in Turkmenistan.  We revisited the city later in the evening, when every building was lit up and the city looked like Las Vegas. Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor


All of this probably sounds pretty astonishing.  I thought it was astonishing.   Although Niyazev is dead and some of his monuments have been shuffled around, the country is still considered one of the most repressive countries in the world (by Human Rights Watch for instance).   Yet, as a tourist, it was…well, fascinating.  My detached position from it all and speaks to my privilege.   I believe that when we travel, we consume the exotic.   In Turkmenistan, it was the experience of dictatorship and the legacy of Niyazev.  If we consume the odd food or threat of danger, we can take on the qualities of the fearless or the bizarre.  Just as the flamingo becomes pink from eating crustaceans and algae, the traveler consumes experiences to become something more colorful.  As travelers, our privilege allows us to migrant from experiences.  We are not mired in the same realities of oppression.  When a tourist goes to jail or becomes very ill, the reality of the world returns.  This painful reality is framed as shocking.  It is framed as a bad travel experience.  Anything that is too real or too inescapable is not travel…it is a crisis or tragedy!  Hence, the case of Otto Warmbier in North Korea or Bakari Henderson, who was recently killed in Greece after taking a selfie…are not viewed as part of the travel spectrum.  Travel should be cushioned from the world’s harshest realities.

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Perhaps the exotic should be made normal.  In Turkmenistan, it may seem exotic that drivers are fined for having dirty cars.  But, are our own laws any more rational?  The fundamental assumption behind both is that laws exist and breaking them results in state administered punishment.  An alien might find little difference between the marbled fantasy land of Ashgabat and the red carpet of Hollywood or neon glow of Las Vegas.  One was built as a dictator’s legacy, the others built upon a similar fantasy of wealth and beauty.   The weird mosque of Turkmenbashi is only unusual because “legitimate” religion must be at least a few hundred years old.  But, these too were created by individuals and interpreted by other individuals until they were made normal by legitimizing power structures.  The excess seen in Ashgabat…with giant fountains and white marble statue are no more heinous than the same excess that is commonplace in advanced capitalist countries.  What about our giant malls, thousands of Walmarts and McDonald’s, and mountains of garbage?  Turkmenistan is a country smaller than Spain with a GDP that is smaller than Croatia’s, Lithuania’s, Kenya’s, and well….87 other countries and a population of less than five million.  Surely, even with its excess…the country has an ecological foot print far less than much of the world. Image may contain: sky


At the same time, differences do exist.  We are not all perfectly the same.  To glaze over difference by normalizing the strange, fails to recognize the social conditions which brought about a particular set of traits.  It is terrible that so much gas wealth was put into building the show case capital than building schools, hospitals, or housing.  It is also unfortunate that wealth and power in the country is concentrated into the hands of so few.  As for the social conditions that brought about Niyazev’s dictatorship, that is a long complicated story that I don’t have the time or knowledge to answer.   The political/economic development of the country…and the very existence of the country itself as a unique entity with a unified identity is a Soviet construction.  But, even this construction is a dialectical process as it was constructed in a world at odds with the Soviet Union.  Prior to this, its development was shaped by Russian imperialism- and that itself was shaped in reaction to British imperialism.  There are always bigger forces at play.  No dictatorship exists in a vacuum.

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Returning to privilege, to some degree, all travelers must exist in the fantasy land of their own ego.  My ego is hungry for experiences.  This is in part so I can patch together an identity that is not a disappointment to myself.  An identity that siphons as much living out of the world as possible.  The truth is, I am not wealthy and free.  I am oppressed.  I am a worker.  I will live and die like a billion humans whose stories will fade into the blurry memories of a few close friends or family members- before disappearing entirely.  In the grand scheme of things, I am not even here.  I never existed.  My importance is so minuscule, that for all practical purposes I am already dead.  Isn’t this the epitome of privilege?  Exerting what little power and freedom I have for the purpose of living selfishly?  The rest of the world be damned.  This is something all travelers do.  Many loath to return to work.  The most privileged don’t have to.  So, while we are privileged enough to enjoy some ego driven escapism, what are we escaping from?  For me, the gravity of wage slavery will always draw me back home.  Thus, I think my travels are fueled by escapism, ego, and existential crisis.  It is a combination that makes it hard for me to be perfectly mindful of my impact on the world and in this case, the wanton consumption of dictatorship.


So here I am.  Chronos eats its children.  Every human eats its reality when it becomes aware of its existential crisis.  Yet, we don’t all have the power and privilege to be titans.  Every titanic consumer is a blight on the environment, the lives of others, and the world around them.  There are moments when I am a titan.  But, usually I am just a proletarian.  I don’t know how to remedy this contradiction.  I love to travel.  I love a chance to get away.  When I am at home, I work very hard as an activist, worker, and human being.  I try to be engaged and mindful.  Then, when opportunity permits, I escape for a bit and consume piece of the world in the form of leisure and a particular form of selfish living.  I am hungry for the darkest, strangest bits.  Dictatorships, nuclear accidents, and spectacular tragedies.  Maybe there is a little cult of personality in each of us.

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The Politics of Travel to North Korea

The Politics of Travel to North Korea

H. Bradford

6/29/17

I was recently on a vacation.  During this time, I avoided social media and the internet in general.  I wanted a break from my life.  So, I didn’t get much news while I was away.  The only piece of news that I heard about while I was gone was that Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in a vegetative state.  I didn’t even know that he had died until after I returned.  This news haunted me.  It was horrific and mysterious.  What happened to him?  Why hadn’t he been released sooner?  Would he recover?  In a way, I became haunted by the fragments of the news story.  At the same time, now that I have returned, I have been able to read the news regarding his release and death as well as how it has been politicized.


I traveled to North Korea in 2010 without incident.  I was impressed with how clean the country was and how the sky was blue and free of air pollution (at least in places that I visited).  The roads were empty.  The country seemed empty.  I was there for over a week and saw many monuments, the mass games, Kaesong, the USS Pueblo, the DMZ, etc.  It was a memorable, amazing time in a very unusual and misunderstood country.  I felt extremely safe the entire time.  Of course, it was an enormous privilege to travel there, just as all of my travels are an astonishing exercise of privilege.  2010 was the first year that Americans were allowed to travel to North Korea year round.  I felt privileged to go there just as the doors to tourism were expanding for Americans.  I also felt that as an American, I could break some stereotypes about us.  After all, I am anti-war and anti-capitalist….anti-American.  When North Koreans learned that I was American, they seemed shocked, curious, and confused.  I sang The International on the bus with the guides.  The other tourists treated me like I was one of “them” (a communist), even though there is a enormous political difference between North Koreans and myself, a Trotskyist.   Nevertheless, I wanted to see what North Korea was like.   After studying in South Korea, I wanted to see the other side of the story.   I am eager to visit any country that has experimented with/experienced socialism in one form or another. No automatic alt text available.


Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as well, but with a much different outcome.  We were both similar in that he probably also went there out of curiosity, a sense of adventure, and bragging rights.  Though, unlike me, he was not anti-capitalist or anti-American.   He wanted to be an investment banker, was a Zionist, and was athletic and popular.  I am a tee-totaling, socially awkward, socialist.  He and his tour group went drinking and celebrating the New Year.  One member of his group even went missing for several hours.  I would have spent the New Year quietly reading or journaling.  He took a sign and was detained on his way out of the country.  I left without any incident or perception of danger.  Although I was very careful to follow the rules, it might have happened to anyone.  And, even if he did make a mistake by taking the poster, the punishment of 15 years of hard labor and his ultimate death is grotesquely unjust and deeply disturbing.  I feel terrible for him and his family!  I feel horrified by the mysterious circumstances of his death.


His death has resulted in some controversy and debate.  On one hand, the Left has been accused of hating Otto Warmbier for questioning his privilege and treating him like an ignorant, white, frat boy.   Interestingly, his career goals in investment banking and Zionism has not been as central to criticisms about him.   It is frustrating that so much discourse is focused on privilege, but does not connect this to the larger mechanisms of capitalist exploitation.  At the extreme of the privilege discourse, he is believed to have gotten what he deserved.  Those words cost Katherine Dettwyler, a professor at the University of Delaware, future employment with the college.  While it is not a kind thing to say, it is disappointing that the college did not honor academic freedom.  Personally, I don’t think that anyone deserves to come home in a vegetative state or get sentenced to hard labor for any offense.  Surely, there are more compassionate ways to express frustration with racial and class privilege.  But, at the same time, oppression is real and does not express itself with kind words.  We live in a brutal, violent, frightening, world wherein the majority of humanity has been immiserated by systems that grant power to a few.  For most humans today and throughout history, life is not a hedonistic quest of self-actualization but a struggle to meet basic needs.   Unfortunately, travelers such as myself,  are looking for a distraction, indulgence, or adventure.  The cost and context of this is often ignored.  Even to those who might be a bit more socially minded, must compartmentalize any modicum of pleasure derived from travel as it most surely has negative impacts either on the planet or other humans.   In any event, there should be the social space to speak freely about privilege, even if it is expressed in unpretty ways.


On the other hand, the right has called for banning American travel to North Korea and some kind of action against the country.  In this narrative, the Trump administration is viewed heroically for securing his release and taking more initiative on the matter than the Obama administration.   Americans should avoid North Korea because we are hated there.  This narrative portrays North Korea as a brutal, horrific pariah state which deserves a dose of American retribution (a.k.a regime change, liberation, etc.).   While certainly North Korea is a frightening dictatorship, this narrative does not uncover why we are disliked and feared by North Koreans.  It ignores the fact that during the Korean War, the United States killed 20% of the population.  The United States targeted refugee populations during the war and General McArthur ordered the destruction of every village, means of communication, factory, and city in the north.   Long before the famous famines that North Korea faced in the 1990s, the United States starved the country by flooding farmlands through destroyed dams.   The United States dropped more bombs on North Korea during the Korean war than it dropped in the entire Asian theater of World War II.  The country was punished with bombs and napalm in a destruction more complete than Germany and Japan faced as a result of WWII.  So, North Korea does have rational reasons to dislike the United States.  Our foreign policy since the Korean War has not done much to dispel the notion that we are not a peace loving nation.

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This raises the question of if Americans should travel there at all?  Assuming that one believes in travel, I don’t think that Americans should impose a ban on travel to North Korea.  Each year, around 6,000 Western tourists travel to North Korea, but around 100,000 in total (mostly from China).  For the most part, these tourists, like myself, travel there without incident.  While Americans have been detained in the past, this has typically been for religious activity or illegal entry into the country.   Of course, our own foreign policy plays a role in the safety of travelers there (just as it plays a role in the safety of travelers to many countries).  Our foreign policy regarding North Korea seems particularly aggressive at the moment.   I have no illusions that somehow travel opens minds or spreads peace.  Travel can be colonizing and damaging to the planet.  So, I don’t believe that travel will somehow liberate North Korea by introducing new ideas or new people, nor should it.  Yet, at the same time, I think it can be useful in seeing The Other and learning something new, even if it is skewed by minders and propaganda.  In a way, it also normalizes North Korea.  Normalizing North Korea is useful in creating an anti-war movement that can stand against U.S. foreign policy.  This isn’t to argue that human rights abuses should be normalized, but rather that U.S. aggression against sovereign countries should not be normalized.  Recognizing the right of other countries to exist is important to thinking against the norms of U.S. imperialism.  Of course, a person does not have to travel to North Korea to come to that conclusion.  A travel ban distracts from the “why” of U.S. and North Korean relations.  All travel involves some risks.  A traveler should consider these risks, of course.  A dark skinned traveler to the United States could be shot by the police.  An American traveler to North Korea could be detained for political reasons.  While there are plenty of compelling reasons not to travel at all, travel is a part of normal relations between countries.  If the government is concerned about the safety of Americans, our safety is best ensured by scaling back our military power around the world. No automatic alt text available.


The death of Otto Warmbier is terrifying.  I hope that someday there are more answers regarding what happened to him.   I don’t think that he deserved to die any more than a woman who drinks too much deserves to be raped.  The world is made unsafe by many things.  Crimes such as theft, sexual assault, gun violence, etc.  Preventable disease.  Terrorism.  And, in Otto’s case, detainment by a repressive regime.  Yet, all of these things…sexual assault, terrorism, preventable disease, etc. have causes and solutions.  While the solution for North Korea is complicated and not something that the United States can or should solve, admitting our own role in history as well as the political landscape of the present is important to understanding why Otto Warmbier died.

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Me and North Korea

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In sociology, at least according to Goffman, someone who is a criminal, overweight, disabled, unemployed, addicted, etc might be considered to have a spoiled identity.  That is, there is something about them that isn’t “normal” and which may prevent them from easily passing as normal.  They are stigmatized for being deviant.  People may even avoid that individual for fear that even by association, somehow the stigmatized identity will reflect upon them.  For instance, “good people” don’t befriend drug addicts, so clearly the person who is friends with that individual must also be deviant.

North Korea is a country with a spoiled identity (even though I have not seen this applied to countries).  No one wants to be friends with North Korea or associate too closely.  This is especially true for socialists.  Socialists are already looked upon as deviant…so there is a lot of distancing between “us” and North Korea.  After all, we don’t want to appear crazy, brutal, warped, etc.  Now, people are intelligent enough to differentiate say….the Inquisition and…a Lutheran pot luck.  Both may fall under the umbrella of Christian activities over history, but there is generally a nuanced understanding of Christianity which does not equate the two as equal.  Yet, when it comes to North Korea or communism in general, a lot of very diverse events and ideas get lumped together into the big bad that is Marxism.  This lumping together feels something like the logic of  “So, perhaps the Lutheran Ladies Aid Society serves tater tot hotdish…but Christians are inherently terrorists…as the Lord’s Resistance Army has shown us….therefore they are also evil.”   Logic fail, right? Nevertheless, it seems challenging to elevate public awareness regarding the hundreds of varieties and expressions of socialism. (Which, by the way, North Korea does not consider itself Marxist as this is a western idea and they prefer the homegrown ideology of self-sufficiency, nationalism, and a leader/human based theory of history known as the Juche ideology).

In my observation, there is a fear of too closely associating with North Korea due to the fear of being lumped together with them.  So, how do we talk about North Korea?  How can be move beyond letting fear shape the discourse?

I don’t like when people make jokes about N. Korea.   For one, there is a racist undertone usually.  Like…Team America where Kim Jong Il is a funny looking Asian guy who can’t pronounce “r” and “l.”   Instead of lonely, he sounds horney, which seems to poke fun at Asian masculinity. In real life, it seems to me that the Kim family is depicted as weird and villainous if not occasionally a Fu Manchu enemy from the East.   North Koreans themselves are humorless, robotic, uniformed, brain washed drones.  North Korea is always “the other.”

Speaking of the “other,” I recall a documentary or news program wherein North Koreans were interviewed and didn’t know who Nelson Mandela was. This was used as evidence of how closed off from the world the populace was. Before picking on North Korea, I would like to interview some average Americas. I imagine that there are probably quite a few who would also fail to identify Nelson Mandela…this in a country with the luxury of too much information! I only use this as an example of how North Korea is presented as so dissimilar from us. Which, certainly it is, but it is also politically useful to point out similarities or at the very least…humanize the populace.

Outside of humor and “othering” is some real compassion.  No one wants to see people suffer famine, dictatorship, repression, and prison camps.  But, compassion ends with the idea that something must be done.  The U.S. must do something.  This cry for justice does not consider the fact that TEAM AMERICA world police….tends to make things worse.  It also ignores the fact that the United States has supported dictatorships and undermined democracy when it is of interest to do so. Don’t forget that South Korea was ruled by U.S. supported dictatorships until the late 1980s!

Nevertheless, there seems to be a somewhat popular sentiment that we should just go to war with them and either get rid of the problem or liberate them. Would the lives of North Koreas be improved by a war? Our lives certainly wouldn’t be. Is it the job of the U.S. to liberate North Korea? I think we need to liberate ourselves first. As I have mentioned before, we have the largest prison population in the world. We are our own police state in a way, certainly with domestic spying and the militarization of the police. Certainly, compared to North Korea, we have many things such as the illusion of democracy through two paid off nearly identical parties, consumer goods, a higher standard of living, greater power, legitimacy, and wealth in the world, and (despite well-founded criticisms of attacks on them) a much greater degree of civil liberty. Yet, we still have a lot of work to do and many areas to improve.

But, what do you say to those who want some immediate action to improve the lives of North Koreans? My only answer is if we push for fewer prisons and prisoners here, more equality and justice here, less war-mongering…the world will be better. North Korea can look at us and point out our own hypocrisy. It can look at our human rights and our militarism and use these things to justify their own fears. See, like our government, which built power upon our fear of criminals, terrorists, and communists over history…and harnessed this fear to sell expensive domestic and foreign policies…North Korea is also founded upon fear. Fear makes dictatorship legitimate. If I was a North Korean I would fear the U.S.! Why wouldn’t I? What reason would I have not to? What have we done to appear as a nation of justice, peace, and equality? And, that fear makes their regime all the more legitimate. It is a lame answer. It is one that is perhaps overly simple. But, I will stand by the notion that if we truly want to help them, we must stand for justice, equality, and peace here.

A socialist answer would be to try to build ties of solidarity with North Korean workers or somehow, as workers, aid them in their own liberation. The country is so closed off and the stakes so high, this is tremendously difficult. This is why the locus is organizing within the United States against the various social ills within our own country. However, at some basic reformist level, I am not opposed to cultural exchanges or anything that normalizes relations or gives some immediate relief to the people. While these reformist answers through feel good charities and NGOs may promote a softer form of imperialism, I think that this could play a very small, immediate, and supplementary role in building ties between people or good will.

In 2010, I traveled to North Korea- without telling my family. I studied in South Korea, then went to Beijing to visit my friend Rose. Rose’s friend was a tour guide for trips to North Korea…so I went on a trip that year to North Korea. It was the first year that North Korea allowed American tourists into the country year round.   North Korea…obviously…is really unlike any country in the world. It is a place where you turn your cellphone in at the airport in Pyongyang as it is not allowed in the country. The airport had a blackout when I arrived and was no larger than the Duluth airport, with probably fewer flights each day. Despite hacking controversies, it is a country that almost entirely lacks internet (though Intranet is available at some libraries/universities). The roads are empty of cars and there are no advertisements and few foreign products (except Chinese products). The air is completely clear- quite a change from Beijing-owing to lack of automobile ownership and dire economic times. There is little litter, which is quite striking. In contrast to hyper-modern, technology and image obsessed South Korea, North Korea is folksy and frozen in the 1950s/60s. The differences are sometimes astonishing, but really….in some ways not so different. Rather than propaganda for Coke and plastic surgery, road signs are always propaganda for the leadership of the country. In many industrialized countries, women starve themselves for beauty. There, people have simply starved. All of our grotesque excess is a dictatorship as much as theirs, in a way anyway.   I was told that women there learn how to shoot a gun by the age of 14. Gender is unusual, as women wear drab military clothes or out of date styles. The expression of self through clothes and technology is missing. I was told that everyone can fight and is willing to fight the U.S. (though Japan is sometimes mentioned as well.) A mistrust of Japan is something that both Koreas share. The pervasive militarism is supported by a culture of fear. The U.S. is truly feared there. So, it was interesting to be an American there. I wanted to show that not all Americans are war mongers who would like to intervene in North Korea. I sang the International on the bus with my guides! I hope that maybe they could see Americans differently.

I had a great time and it was a fascinating peek into dictatorship.   This sounds very voyeuristic and hedonistic. Of course, it is. I am the outsider who gets to gaze upon it. I get to leave and have another notch on my belt for interesting adventures. I am sure that there is something unethical about it. Yet, I don’t claim to be an example of ethics or morals. I just wanted to go there and see it.   Three tour guides, a hotel on an island, a bus of Chinese, Australians, Kiwis…and me. We drove across the country to Kaesong. I did see people in parks and at the Mass Games. I saw farmers along the side of the road or soldiers at the demilitarized zone. I saw elderly men fishing. Some were smiling and laughing. At the Mass Games, there appeared to genuine emotion and engagement in the story of their history as told through synchronized gymnastics.   Despite everything, some people do seem to have times of joy. How widespread is it? How enduring? I don’t know, but it was nice to see that it isn’t a monolithic gray misery for everyone at all times.

I don’t wish to come across that I support North Korea’s regime, but I think that the trip was educational and I am certainly sympathetic to North Koreans. I don’t villainize them nor feel they deserve to be “liberated” by force of a foreign intervention.   I don’t idealize their lack of cell phones or lack of advertisement, even though I generally am critical of various aspects of capitalism. Therefore, it is a difficult balancing act to be a critic of capitalism, a supporter of North Korean independence, and a critic of North Korean dictatorship/human rights. I feel that I can never quite convey my feelings or thoughts on this issue properly- as I certainly don’t want to be seen as pro-North Korea.   After all, theirs is a spoiled identity. I can’t besmirch my “good” reputation as a socialist by appearing too close. And I’m not. I was just a visitor.

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