Communist Mystery: The Secret Appeal of the DPRK

Many are the reasons as to why one would want to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For some it is way off the ‘beaten track’. The fact that many people think you cannot travel to the place at all reinforces this sense. For some it provides a window into what the communist countries of Eastern Europe might have been like before 1989. Indeed, the tourist companies trade on this desire, offering Soviet architecture tours or plane tours in which you fly with Air Koryo’s fleet of Tupolevs. For some it is an effort at reinforcing their own ‘world’, to remind themselves of how ‘bad’ socialism really is and why capitalism is far ‘better’. For some it is a genuine desire to see what this form of socialism looks like, even to the point of sympathising with the sheer effort of maintaining the system. For these people, it is extraordinary that the DPRK has survived for almost seventy years.

For some, however, it is the appeal of what I would like to call ‘communist mystery’. By this I mean the profound sense that the DPRK is keeping much hidden from public scrutiny. More than once has the ancient foreigner’s title of Korea as the ‘hermit kingdom’ been used for the north. Indeed, whole projects exist – sponsored by the limited ‘intelligence’ services of countries such the United States – to try and find out what is happening in the DPRK. Most of that is pure speculation, since they really cannot find out all that much. Foreign journalists are forbidden to enter the country and one is not permitted to take in any GPS device. Add to this the fact that the telephone networks do not connect internationally, and that there is a separate phone network for foreigners who visit the country. The two networks do not connect with one another. And the DPRK’s computer systems also remain internal, without connection (mostly) to the wider internet. A visitor is therefore ‘off the grid’ when visiting the place.

This mystery, of course, generates a desire by some visitors to act as pseudo-journalists, attempting to find out about what is being kept hidden. It may take the form of trying to photograph items they think they are not supposed to photograph, or of ducking off from a tour group for a few minutes to see what might be seen. But let me give two examples.

When travelling the metro system, one is told not to photograph the metro tunnels. You may photograph anything else – people, metro cars, the glorious artwork in the stations, one another – but not the tunnels. So of course one or two try to photograph the tunnels. Who knows, they may hold some secret weapon stash, or some underground laboratories, or whatever. But as soon as the photographs are taken, a platform attendant immediately walks up, calls to a guide and demands that the photograph be deleted. This only exacerbates the mystery. I happened to be standing next to one such culprit when the deletion took place. The photograph merely contained a black space, with nothing to see. But the fact that you could not take a photograph of black space meant that it much conceal something.

The other example is the fabled ‘fifth floor’ of the Yonggakdo Hotel, one of the hotels where many visitors stay. The lifts skip by the fifth floor, jumping from four to six. And if one has bothered to check the internet, then stories abound of the mysteries of the fifth floor (check google or youtube). Many are speculations: here the guides are kept under guard so as not to be corrupted by foreigners; here is equipment to spy on visitors; here is a crack military squad ready to deal with any problem. To add to the mystery, occasionally a guard may appear and sternly demand that you depart. In our group, a few tried to get to the fifth floor by the stairs. One or two even managed a photograph. What did they reveal? Some pipes, perhaps a door or a wall or a corridor. And of course rooms with doors. Nothing else.

That is the point: nothing is there. The Koreans are very good at creating the impression that something is there, hidden from prying eyes. I suspect that they have created such zones precisely to maintain the mystery, for it appeals immensely to some foreigners, especially of the bleeding heart liberal type. Nothing actually exists in the metro tunnels except tracks for the trains. And nothing is to be found on the fifth floor of the hotel, except rooms and a possible guard to tell you not to enter. After all, if there really was something to hide, why have stairs with a door that opens on the fifth floor, or why have a ‘secret lift’ that visitors can actually use to get close to the fifth floor?

Let the mystery continue, for it keeps some visitors coming.

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11 thoughts on “Communist Mystery: The Secret Appeal of the DPRK

  1. Having been to the Korea south of the zone I think this is a great read. The Koreans find the barrier ridiculous and insulting, with South Korean govt generating fear for US reasons and family long divided because of that. They didn’t seem to blame the North Korean govt just the US. Very clearsighted. I like Bruce Cumings books on Korea

    1. That’s good to hear. My next post will be in the unification drives, mostly advocated by the north in a federal system – socialism in the north, capitalism in the south, and without the US present.

    1. I’ve been inquiring. I can say that I am now the possessor of two big volumes called ‘On the CPC: Interpretation of the Success of the World’s Largest Ruling Party’. They were given to me by Beijing City’s Propaganda Bureau, or what would elsewhere be called the ‘Information Office’ or perhaps ‘Media Unit’. I was also interviewed by a panel with seriously important people regarding a grant application – the first by a foreigner – on ‘The Sinification of Marxism in Chinese Academia’. I can say the interview went very well, so now have the grant. But I will try and use my connections to see where these two series may be found.

  2. Roland,

    Yes that would be wonderful if you could pick up some copies for me! How very nice of you to offer to do that. That’s quite a favor.

    It seems like there were quite an assortment of books they were putting out. I suppose I would like to have the two volume set that you were given. I’d like to learn as much as possible about the CPC, their history and their strategy for building socialism while fending off the U.S. Empire.

    How much are the books? You’ll have to tell me where to send the money. I could pay you through Paypal or some other means. I guess you have my personal email address that is connected to my blog profile if you want to contact me that way. Let me know what I need to do. Thanks again!

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