From Pyongyang with love

Citrus Heights’ own Chris Springer goes inside North Korea, the most isolated country in the world

Wang dang sweet Pyongyang: Chris Springer turns his back on the Great Leader.

Wang dang sweet Pyongyang: Chris Springer turns his back on the Great Leader.

Courtesy Of Chris Springer

North Korea has been described as an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the North Korean government has taken great strides to isolate the country from the rest of the world, first by cutting off ties to Western countries and eventually even to Soviet Bloc countries, under North Korea’s doctrine of juche, or national self-reliance. It is an Orwellian dictatorship in vision and in practice. Any attempts by a North Korean to contact outsiders or to leave the country without permission likely will end with a stint in a prison camp. There is no student resistance movement and no dissent to be found anywhere. And according to Chris Springer, the author of the first guide to North Korea to be published abroad in English, “you don’t see or hear anything remotely anti-government there. I’ve spoken to foreign diplomats and others who lived in Pyongyang for years. They all said they had never heard anyone criticizing the regime or the leader. Amazingly, in the last 50 years there have been no known uprisings—or even protests or strikes. Of course, there are people who oppose this regime—but the state is very effective at keeping them quiet.”

Springer is one of a small handful of Americans who have been allowed to visit North Korea. He visited both in 1995 and 2002, when major international festivals were held in Pyongyang, the capital. His book, Pyongyang: The Hidden History of the North Korean Capital ( offers a rare glimpse into this country of contradictions. Flipping through the pages, there are photos of a beautiful, modern city with smiling, well-dressed inhabitants. Enormous statues and buildings dedicated to the memory of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s dictator for five decades, and his son Kim Jong Il, the current leader since 1992, pepper the cityscape. One is constantly reminded who is in charge.

Springer, who was raised in Citrus Heights and moved to Hungary after completing studies in Russian and Soviet history at Brown University, was intrigued by both North Korea’s isolation and its steadfastness in a political ideology that was crumbling elsewhere in the world.

“I felt it was impossible to understand 20th-century history without learning about the socialist bloc,” Springer wrote via e-mail from Estonia. “And more than that, I wanted to know whether a political system could really change human nature. Can you breed the liberty out of people? How far can the state intrude into the private sphere? Totalitarianism was something I was able to learn about in Eastern Europe, but only when I got to North Korea could I experience it firsthand.”

In order to visit North Korea, you must find an agency to book a group tour; you cannot visit independently. You are then put on a preset itinerary through which you’ll always be accompanied by government minders (your “tour guides"). The largest agency, Koryo Tours, reports it has 200 Westerners a year who visit. Springer estimates the total number of annual visitors to be in the low thousands.

“First of all, taking the North Korea tour is not quite the same as experiencing the country itself,” Springer explained. “Most of what you see is monuments and museums. It’s a bit like arriving in Washington, D.C., then being bused to the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian, and then heading back to a five-star hotel. The tour was strictly controlled. We had no say in what we saw or which hotel we stayed at.”

With Westerners being a rare occurrence, you might imagine that they would be approached by throngs of curious locals. But Springer says that isn’t the case: “Some smiled and even waved; others appeared worried. But what was most striking was what happened when I got away from the group and walked around alone. Passersby became tense and tried to ignore me. Meanwhile, the plainclothes security police went into action. Walking alone one evening, I noticed them peering at me from behind trees and posts. On a couple occasions, they followed me. When I abruptly turned around and started walking the other way, they froze in their tracks.”

Springer did manage to have a brief, surreal conversation with a guide who asked if Hungarian women were “easy,” because pre-marital sex is discouraged by the North Korean government. He also queried whether current reforms in Hungary were working—oblivious to the fact that Communism had fallen five years earlier.

Springer said nearly all contact is with government tour guides and that they answer questions with the straight party line. “The few ordinary people you meet are extremely careful about what they say to foreigners,” Springer said. “If they say the wrong thing, they could end up in a prison camp.”

Because North Korea is a totalitarian country, all media is run by the state. And the media earns its keep by presenting a monolithic image: godlike leader, loyal masses, a paradise on Earth. The “news” there is designed to rally people, not to inform them. As proof of this stranglehold of information, Springer said that while he was visiting, a naval conflict between North Korea and South Korea flared up, and it was only after he’d left the country that he heard about it.

According to Western news sources, North Korea has been undergoing a devastating economic crisis that has been worsening since the 1970s, when then-leader Kim Il Sung’s national self-reliance policy faltered, ironically because of Soviet aid being cut back. Lack of foreign trade, as well as an emphasis on political ideology over technological advancement, hampered any chance of recovery. Then, to make matters worse, in 1995, North Korea was hit by a famine that lasted more than three years. Depending on whom you believe, anywhere from 220,000 people (according to regime sources) to more than a million (according to Western sources) perished.

“As a tourist, you’d never know it, but the economy really has collapsed. North Korea depends on international aid in order to feed its people. Last year, South Korea threw away more food than North Korea produced. The famine is well-documented by aid workers. It’s happening mainly in the far north, not in any of the areas where they take tourists.”

Still, the regime in North Korea insulates itself from the outside world, rarely heard from in the media until current leader Kim Jong Il made headlines recently with his politically charged saber-waving in the form of a nuclear threat, calling for a re-unification of Korea. Kim Jong Il is one of the most unusual world leaders. He was known as a womanizing party boy, who used and abused his nepotism. The Western press circulated rumors that he was plagued with a variety of mental problems and painted him as an Asian Idi Amin. On his first day in power, he gave a public speech, and the reaction to his voice, said to be strange and disturbing, was so severe that it was his final public statement. And the notion that he bears an odd resemblance to 1970s comedian Marty Allen only adds to his weirdness. But Springer disputes how Western media portray him.

“We know a little more about Kim Jong Il than we used to,” Springer said. “There were rumors for many years that he was erratic or even mentally unstable. But foreign diplomats who’ve met him recently all described him as lucid, well-informed and able to hold his own.”

Is unification possible at this point, especially when there’s a loose cannon like Kim Jong Il in power?

“I don’t believe unification can happen through some sort of negotiated agreement. Unification will happen once the North collapses and the South absorbs it—something like what happened in Germany. I don’t think North Korea’s collapse is imminent. Most experts don’t think so, either. But I do think its collapse is inevitable—and almost certainly within our lifetime.”

But for this to happen, the North Korean people have to admit there is an inherent flaw in their system. And they don’t necessarily see it that way.

“That’s the great tragedy for North Korea. We look at it and think ‘failed state,'” Springer said. But in many ways, the state is a terrifying success. The state wants to keep its people isolated and to keep them busy worshipping the leader and building huge monuments. And that’s what they’re doing. People there are living and dying without ever knowing any other way of life.

“What keeps North Korea in a Cold War mentality is this: Unlike most communist regimes, North Korea has been able to exploit its people’s nationalism,” Springer said. “It portrays itself as the only ‘independent’ Korea, as opposed to South Korea, where U.S. soldiers are stationed. The regime has been warning of an American invasion for decades, and it’s easy to keep people united when the ‘enemy’ is indeed standing right across the [demilitarized zone]. Ordinary people have no outside information that would let them form any another view of the world.”

Springer said going to North Korea was the most fascinating experience of his life. He’s currently working on an expanded edition of the book, speaking with former residents of Pyongyang and experts on Korea. He said he’d love to go back—if he were allowed back.

For those wanting to visit North Korea, Springer said the best thing they can do is to read up on the place before they go. He suggests Kim Il-song’s North Korea by Helen-Louise Hunter. Modestly, he didn’t mention his own tome: a very informative, well-written and heavily illustrated book that’s a welcome addition to the slender shelf of writings on this most mysterious of countries. Any other advice from him?

“Prepare to have your preconceptions shattered."