So bad boy basketball star Dennis Rodman left Pyongyang Friday after stunning the diplomatic world with his basketball diplomacy. Rodman upstages the US State Dept, a US Governor and a top Google executive by being granted exclusive downtime with Kim Jong-un! After watching an exhibition game with a laughing Kim, dining and drinking with him, even hugging the regime strongman, Rodman offered his home-boy homily and praise for Kim and his father and grandfather.
No other American as far as anyone can tell has met with Kim since he assumed command of North Korea following his father’s death in 2011. (And despite his access to Kim, apparently Rodman will not be debriefed by American diplomats?)
Complicated North Korean politics aside, this encounter does makes one wonder what the North Koreans are really like as people. Simply people. Here’s an interesting perspective by Illya Szilak, written after a visit to the country:
“I joined hundreds of intrepid tourists heading to Pyongyang for Kim Il-sung’s centenary birthday celebration. Most were seeking adventure. I was doing research for my next novel, which uses the ideological conflict between the U.S. and North Korea to explore the construction of national identity.
“Every nation has its mythology – a reason why it is uniquely destined for greatness. For many in the United States, that reason is our Constitution and the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
“The North Koreans also believe in their country’s greatness. Central to their myth is the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung and Juche, his philosophy of militant self-reliance. In North Korea, leader-worship is not a cult of personality – it’s a full-fledged religion. Images of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il are everywhere. Going to the annual art show is like following the Stations of the Cross: Kim Il-sung as a child, Kim Il-sung fighting the Japanese, Kim Jong-il at the factory with the workers. Around the country, their words – common-sense platitudes like “Plant more crops, harvest more rice” – are inscribed like the Ten Commandments on two-ton slabs of rock.
“Judging from her offhand remarks, our local guide, Miss Song, is a true believer. When I question her in private about the repressiveness of the government, she flatly disagrees. Intelligent, educated, friendly, she is not a robot, and she certainly doesn’t act like she is afraid. Trying to put myself in her place, I imagine what it must be like to have your country occupied for 40 years, to be forced to speak another language, even to take a different name. Then the oppressor (Japan) leaves, and two other countries (the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.) come in, and literally divide your country in two.
“Touring the demilitarized zone, with its acres of barbed wire and machine-gun-armed soldiers, I remember that the U.S and North Korea are still at war. No peace agreement was signed, only an armistice. Millions of Koreans died compared with some 36,000 Americans, and every form of industry in North Korea was completely destroyed. The U.S. also contemplated the use of nuclear weapons at the time.
“Why did the U.S. [military troops remain stationed in South Korea] after World War Two? Did we suddenly realize that Korea was a sovereign nation and decide to help the fledgling democracy in the South (which was not actually a democracy)? Did we feel guilty that in 1918 we rebuffed Korean nationalists, who, inspired by our own President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, asked for help against Japan? Or did we think that Korea, situated between China and the Soviet Union, was too strategically and economically important to govern itself?
“Miss Song’s desire to believe in a certain version of history is no different from my own.
“The difference is that I have access to information and experiences that might contradict it, and most North Koreans do not. Without Internet or alternative news sources, unable to travel freely, and with little or no interaction with foreigners, the average person simply has no grounds to question the system, or hope for anything else.”