Tomorrow is the day. Our flight is booked and our visas are in hand for our trip to North Korea. We’ll be there for seven days total, and during that time, we’re going to be really “off the grid.” In a place where the only people with internet access are high government officials, and the only way to make an international phone call is through a monitored government call center for 2 Euros a minute. However the trip goes, it’s going to be interesting.
Today we had a pre-trip briefing on the DPRK at our tour agency and we picked up our visas and flight information. They provided a lot of the “dos and don’ts” ahead of time via e-mail, but they went over everything today in person in a lot more detail. It was all very interesting and it really got both of us excited that this previously very indefinite part of our trip seems to actually be coming together.
I’ll briefly go over some of the main issues of concern that were addressed today. A big issue is photography and videotaping. Officially, videocameras are not allowed in the country, although still cameras with video function are allowed. There is officially a 150mm lens limit on cameras, but apparently this isn’t enforced. My tele lens is only 140mm though, so I should be good either way. They talked about photography for a while, but the main take home point is that you need to ask permission before taking any photographs. We should be able to take loads of photographs, but we always need to ask.
Another point regarding photography was a really thought-provoking one for me. They talked about the cultural differences in the taking of pictures between western and asian people. Well, specifically with Korean people, but from what I’ve seen recently, it definitely applies to China as well. Basically, the concept of taking aesthetically pleasing, well composed photographs of random objects is very bizarre to them. Taking isolated pictures of a monument or a building is also apparently a strange concept to them. Rather, they would tend to always take photos of themselves at a particular place. Not that we don’t do that too, but that’s the extent of photography to them, as they explained. Why a foreigner would be snapping seemingly random pictures of city street scenes or a storefront or whatever is confusing and arouses suspicion. “Why are they taking pictures of that? Are they trying to show that something isn’t clean, or that a store isn’t well stocked?” As explained, photography to them is simply “capturing a moment.”
That got me thinking a bit about my approach to photography in China versus what I’ve seen locals doing. The locals don’t seem to care about strangers in their pictures, not at all. Is that simply “capturing the moment” too? I mean, if you’re at a crowded monument, I guess it would make sense to have a crowd in your photograph. From that perspective, maybe the lengths we go to eliminate strangers in our photos are a bit disingenuous. In fact, maybe from any perspective they are. I guess that’s what I like about photography though, with the right timing and trickiness, you can really manipulate a moment to your liking. Maybe the photographs I see people taking are more honest than mine. Well, or maybe they’re just terrible random snapshots. Yeah, I’m gonna go with that.
Ok, so back to the briefing…. Don’t ever take any photographs depicting Kim Il Sung or Kim Jung Il that cut off part of their figure. Cutting off their feet or an arm in a photograph is like cutting it off in real life. Photos can be cropped later. On the same note, don’t ever fold a newspaper in a way that folds the Kims. Definitely don’t deface or throw away a newspaper with them on it. Never talk bad about them. Never talk about the rumors that are common in the west, such as Kim Jung Il loving American movies and whiskey and pornography. Don’t ask about a successor to Kim Jung Il, it’s suggesting that he’ll eventually die, which you shouldn’t do. Don’t talk about religion or politics. Don’t argue with their version of history. Apparently everything we’ve been taught is western propaganda (just like we say everything they’ve been taught is communist propaganda). The South Koreans started the war, so get that straight. Don’t refer to them as “North Korea.” It’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Let’s see, what have I left out? Don’t go anywhere without my personal government guide, and only go exactly where they tell me to go. If I misbehave, they will be punished, not me. That’s not too cool, so I’ll definitely behave. And yep, I think that about covers it.
We did a little pre-DPRK shopping earlier today. We’ve planned on having gifts for our guides and we finished getting everything to be proper polite guests that will represent our evil country well. Back in Vietnam, I picked up a carton of Marlboros (per an online suggestion). It was $17 U.S. in Vietnam, which sounded like a good price, but I don’t smoke so I’m not sure how good at the present time. I do know that I haven’t seen Marlboros (or any western brand) for sale at any price during our entire time in China though. I’m sure they’re here, I just haven’t seen them at airports or convenience stores or anywhere, just Chinese cigarettes. So, Marlboro red flip-top boxes, that’ll go to the male guide. For the female guide we’ve got some nice Imported cookies and face cream. Then, we made up small gift bags with imported chocolates and candies for the guides at the individual sites we’ll be visiting. Kind of a pain to put that together, but it had to be done here in Beijing. It’s not like we can bring that stuff around the world with us. We also got some fresh fruit and Oreos to bring. They can’t hate us with all those goodies right?
We’re both really excited about the trip though, I think it’s gonna be tons of fun and absolutely unforgettable. We’re hoping to see the “mass games” twice (once for photos and video, and once to just enjoy it). If you’re not familiar with “Mass Games” or “Arirang,” look it up on YouTube. It’s a spectacle like no other held in the largest stadium on earth. We’re also gonna get as many kitschy souvenirs as we can possibly find and buy. Hopefully that equals a lot of souvenirs.
Ok…. soooo…. wrapping up for today, we hopped over to the stadium from the 2008 Olympics and grabbed a few pics just after sunset. I’ll leave you guys with those pics. We’re gonna be in an internet black hole for the next seven days, so, definitely won’t be any updates during the DPRK visit. I’ll try to update ASAP, even a short one, as soon as we’re back in Beijing.