[The following is a brief interview with Tom De Luca, Ph.D., professor of political science and director of the International-Intercultural Studies Program at Fordham University, and excerpts from De Luca and Jim Nathan’s account of their recent trip to North Korea. De Luca holds the 2006 Fulbright Distinguished Thomas Jefferson Chair in American Social Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and Jim Nathan is the Khalid bin Sultan Eminent Scholar at Auburn University. The two met while teaching and visiting China as Fulbright scholars in 1999.]
Question: Why did you go to North Korea?
De Luca: It has become such a focal point of international relations over the issue of nuclear weapons production that I thought it would be important for me to get some kind of on-the-ground feel for the place.
Question: Did your experience in China influence you to go?
De Luca: Yes, absolutely. After living in China from 1999 to 2000 and going back there regularly since, I have become very interested in East Asia. I regret not having seen China back in the days of Mao. I’ve seen so much change even since 1999. Imagine how much deeper my perspective would be had I visited there in the ’70s and ’80s when it was a different world.
Hopefully North Korea will change for the better. Going there now I think not only will deepen my perspective, but also, hopefully, help me understand the best ways to promote that change.
Question: How did the people treat you in North Korea?
De Luca: We were allowed very few interactions with people outside of our guides. They treated us very well and were very pleasant. One of them spoke English quite well, and we tried to communicate a little with the other guide through the little Chinese that we know, which she spoke very well. My colleague Jim gave her a little book on learning Korean for English speakers, which she very much appreciated.
Question: Would you go back again?
De Luca: Certainly, but only if we are allowed to see more than we did on this trip. I’ve now seen their mandatory tourist stops, heard their anti-American rhetoric, and witnessed the much celebrated Arirang or mass performances [see excerpts below for more information on the performances]. The performances are truly stunning. My real interest, however, is to see and learn about the [real]life of the North Korean people. That’s what I’d go back to see if they’ll let us.
Excerpts From Two Americans in Pyongyang
The Colonel looked us in the eye and said: “Aren’t you afraid to be here? We are enemies!” When someone is your sworn “enemy” meeting them means something. We shook that colonel’s hand and told him “we’re not afraid.” He smiled at that.
So began our tour of the demilitarized zone-from the North Korean side, and of Korea from the North Korean perspective. For a brief three-day period this October, Americans were allowed for the first time since 2002 to enter North Korea. Visitor diplomacy, the North Koreans called it.
Our visit was timed to coincide with the Arirang-or mass performances. Thousands of performers all dance, march, tumble, soar, chant and sing around the stadium, while in the background thousands more in perfect unison flip large placards to form a seamless-almost digital-background, all to a cadence of loud snaps. Idyllic background images include depictions of heroic military battles, beautiful scenery, the Great Leader, and Eternal President, Kim Il Sung, and his son, the “ Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, who today carries on his father’s work. Different scenes follow one another forming a living, human, backdrop of revolutionary and national symbols, one part Nuremberg Rally, reminiscent of Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, one part George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and a final part industrial strength Busby Bekeley1930 Hollywood spectacle. Having said that, the performance was truly spectacular.
Everything about the trip was very tightly controlled. We were not allowed to leave the hotel on our own, or to talk to any North Koreans, or to change our itinerary in even the smallest way. We had to ask permission to take each photo, and we were forbidden from taking photos from the windows of our mini-van. Once, while our van was stopped not far from an outside ice-cream vendor, we engaged in a 20-minute negotiation with our guide/minders, trying to convince them to let us go buy an ice cream cone. The result: they would go buy us one, but we had to stay put.
They couldn’t forbid us from looking, however, or sneaking the occasional photo (and getting the occasional tap on the back as rebuke). Cars were sparse. The roads were eerily deserted. Lighting was poor and usually non-existent and one of us tumbled down some considerable steps near a popular restaurant just outside the city. They snapped out the rest of the lights as we left. The restaurants were only open and closed for us.
Everyone we saw in North Korea-everyone-wore a Kim Il Sung pin with his portrait on his or her lapel.
Trips like this one are completely orchestrated by the Korean official tour company with official tour guides and minders, and minders of the minders. Strain though we did, we were not to be shown anything not on an approved master itinerary. Spontaneity was virtually impossible. We even tried to contact a “fellow academic” in Pyongyang, whose name we had gotten from our travel agent in Beijing. Our guides said they tried to contact him for us (and they may well have). But alas, they regretted to inform us, he was out in the countryside, out of Pyongyang.
It may have been controlled and surreal, but getting your feet in North Korean soil we believe is worth something. You get a feel for things. You sense possibilities, or you smell despair. North Koreans’ ignorance of the outside world and of history is not complete, but nearly so. Still, we sensed possibilities, but stuck within a near hopeless morass of obfuscation, incompetence, poverty, all tied together with this very peculiar kind of enervating oppression.
What happens if and when they do open up? More tourists, businesspeople, academics, and officials come. More questions are raised. Tourism, increased East-West interaction, and finally reform changed everything in the former Soviet bloc. It is changing the face of China.
Maybe it will do the same in North Korea.
We sat back in our seats in the old Ilyushin Russian jet (with the bus-style open overhead compartments) for the one-and-a-half hour flight from Pyongyangto Beijing, where we would be free. The stewardess’ voice came over the intercom. We fumbled our effort to record her words, but they went something like this: “We are pleased to serve you tea, or coffee, or soft drinks, or very special mineral water, guaranteed to help your body and improve your health, discovered for our benefit by the great leader Kim II Sung, when he found the wellspring of this healthful water after he bravely crossed the great river.”
Change can come, but it isn’t going to be easy.