I happen to be in Washington at a time when North Korea is belligerently pursuing its nuclear plans. Newspaper reports on North Korea remind me of my visit to that country in 1980, as a member of a high-profile delegation of journalists. Though we loved the scenic beauty and the people, we had an uneasy feeling that something serious was going on behind the scenes. Men were not to be seen anywhere, as women dominated in factories, offices, metros, buses, restaurants, et al. Later, we were told that men only donned the military uniform.
We were impressed with the manner in which students were taught their country’s history. They were taken on excursions to spots of historical importance, where they relived their nation’s moments of pride. How I had thought of transplanting the same method of teaching to India. I lapped up their explanation that it is easy for students to remember the pages from history books when they relive those moments. Today I disagree, not with the method, but with the intent, which was to inject the kids with the germ of idolising the regime.
Brought up in a democratic set-up where people do not pay homage to their political leaders each morning, I was irritated by the North Korean political system and the flourishing personality cult. It annoyed me to see people clapping and crying in ecstasy at the Great Leader’s name. Today, the Dear Leader has filled the vacuum left by the Great Leader’s death — and the younger leadership has turned out to be more ruthless, and even more egocentric.
We tried to make them look beyond their boundaries — at us, and at how we could condemn our leaders if we wanted to. But it fell on deaf ears. Not only was the language barrier a major handicap, they were also too indoctrinated to fathom what we were telling them. For them, nothing existed beyond the boundaries of North Korea. Their media, their movies, their music, all eulogised their leaders and their leadership. Yet, there was an element of innocence in their madness that touched our hearts.
Our curiosity grew. But, we had little freedom. We were shadowed 24 hours a day by intelligence sleuths disguised as interpreters. One day we managed to dodge them. The experience was amazing. As we hopped onto a bus, people welcomed us warmly, offering flowers and sweets. Their comfort level increased once they realised there were no North Koreans accompanying us. And they had questions about the country we were from, our political system, our lifestyle, movies, music, state of technology, and so on. We answered as best as we could, at times even taking the help of a dictionary. They listened with interest. But when it came to answering questions about their own country, their own leadership, they were silent.
Sadly, they believed they were living in heaven, while the rest of the world lived in hell. And look what a hell they are in today, still unaware of what lies beyond their boundaries.