Dr. Lankov on Kaesong Tourism
Dr. Andrei Lankov, perhaps the world’s greatest North Korea watcher and certainly the most lucid, interesting writer on North Korea-related subjects, recounted his impressions of the recently opened Kaesong tour. I highly recommend reading the whole article, but here is Dr. Lankov talking about one thing that’s really been weighing on my mind: what the Northerners must think when they see their affluent Southern cousins driving along the streets, or what they must think when they’re working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex:
One of the guides could not hide his surprise when he learned that a fancy digital camera owned by one of the tourists cost US$1,500. Obviously, he assumed that the girl must be the daughter of a rich landlord or an evil pro-US capitalist, and was visually surprised to discover that she is a humble school teacher from a small countryside town.
The waitresses, girls in small stalls and even a handful of genuine guides (not the plaincloth intelligence operatives) who can see the visitors will also notice a lot. Even the willingness of the guests to spend a dollar on a cup of instant coffee or a few cookies is an important sign to them – after all, the average monthly salary in Kaesong is about $4. Those South Korean guests definitely do not look like impoverished victims of evil US imperialism. For a while it will be possible to explain away their extravagant behavior by insisting that those people come from the exploitive elite. But the longer the tours continue, the more difficult the task will become.
The author remembers growing up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. By then we knew that foreign tourists were rich and we also suspected that Western countries were living very well. An occasional Western movie, a chance encounter with well-dressed foreign tourists, a foreign short-wave broadcast, made this obvious. However, in the case of the Soviet Union, the growing realization of our own economic disadvantage did not immediately translate into political action. After all, Finland or France were foreign countries, with different histories and cultures, and so government indoctrinators could plausibly argue that the “uniquely tortured” history of 20th-century Russia was largely responsible for our relative poverty. Not all believed these statements, but some, including the present author in his teenage years, certainly did.
There are certainly major pros and cons to be weighed before taking the trip across the DMZ, namely, giving money to Kim Jong Il’s regime which is probably going to be spent on the “royal court” economy, maintaining prison camps, suppressing dissent, or any other number of heinous projects. At the same time, I’m a firm believer in the importance of cross-cultural contacts. Without getting all “we are the world” on you, I’ve shaken the hands of North Korean citizens on more than one occasion, and the usually reaction I get is a mixture of surprise and joy. One North Korean even commented: “I’m so happy you wanted to shake my hand. I’ve never shaken hands with an American before.” It sounds corny, but when you’re brought up to believe all Americans are baby-eating blood suckers and you meet one in real life and you see they are smiling and happy and made of flesh and blood, it definitely leaves a chink in the ideological armor.
(H/T DPRK Studies)