North Korea: an inside look

April 09, 2013 | Daniel Smith, Contributing Writer

North Korea’s recent provocations have put the world on edge.

The situation, spurred by nation’s 30-year-old dictator, seems to worsen daily as Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have positioned both military and missiles to defend and retaliate against a potential strike.

Less than a year ago, Becky Duckett, Furman’s Program Coordinator in Asian Studies, participated in an independent educator’s tour of North Korea. On Tuesday afternoon, her reflections on this trip gave a packed McEachern Lecture Hall the opportunity to put the current turmoil surrounding the embattled country in a unique perspective.

In a nation that collects your visa when you arrive and holds it until you leave, Duckett found her efforts to read between the lines constantly challenged by North Korea’s affinity for secrecy.

“Basically, they hold your life in their hands,” she said.

Duckett quickly discovered that this privacy extended beyond the withholding of her passport.

“I wasn’t supposed to speak to anyone without authorization.” Even the photographic evidence of her travels had to be acquired surreptitiously.

As Duckett admitted during her presentation, “most of these pictures are illegal.”

In what she perceives as an effort to create a revisionist history in the minds of Americans who have the rare privilege to visit North Korea, her watchful tour guides gave her a “tourist re-education” over the course of her visit.

Duckett said she and her colleagues were consistently reminded that “America is the evil enemy,” and the sole source of any discord between North and South Korea.

Throughout her travels, she was also struck by the ubiquity of physically represented honor and loyalty to the authoritarian government.  From statues that seemed to sprout up everywhere, to mandatory loyalty pins (the absence of which can result in citizens being sent to unacknowledged prison camps), to slogans and billboards, the prevalence of which made it seem as if “they built the buildings to put the slogans on top of them”, self-fulfilling propaganda reigned throughout the isolated country.

Duckett believes the propaganda  creates a culture of fear and sense of duty among North Korea’s citizens. She suggests that they feel compelled to live within the restrictions of a government that bugs hotel rooms and phones, requires floral offerings to statues in popular city squares, and only allows its most loyal citizens to live in its capital, Pyongyang, a sparsely populated city that “seemed deserted” to Duckett and her cohorts.

With this forced acquiescence in mind,  Duckett was quick to defend the people of North Korea in her condemnation of its oppressive government.

“It’s not the people’s faults,” she said. “Most North Koreans don’t really have any knowledge of the outside world. To them, for five or six decades, the Kim’s have lived as gods.”

(photos by Yangbo Hua)

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