Doubt sets in

It’s been a fun couple of days in Beijing, and I’m almost about to pack my bags for a big leap into the Unknown when unexpectedly, the DPRK makes the news. The seemingly vaguely-heard-of-kinda-faraway country where I’m headed suddenly enters the world stage.

The DPRK makes the news – bad time for a trip?

The DPRK is preparing for a grandiose celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Great Leader, and to mark the occasion, will be launching a satellite. For peaceful purposes, of course—it is a meteorological satellite intended to help improve agriculture.

Or is it? The West disagrees—surely the launch is a ballistic missile test in disguise. The DPRK is committed to showing its good faith and, in an unprecedented move, invites journalists to witness the event. Reporters from all around the world board a train to the launch site and are given a tour. Officials dodge questions on budget allocations and whether money could have been better spent—on food, for example. Press conferences don’t do much tamper to things down anyway, and the West responds to the news in frenzy: scientists speculate about the veracity of the DPRK’s claims, Japan and South Korea announce that they will shoot the rocket down if it flies over their territory, airlines adjust their flight paths.

I must confess: I deliberately picked the 4/15 date to experience history, and yet somehow it had never occurred to me that history may turn out to be bleak. I will be in the DPRK when the launch takes place and when the world threatens to respond.

Doubt sets in.

I call my family and friends to make sure they’re aware of the situation—and to let them know that everything is going to be okay.

As I keep browsing the web to quench my thirst for details on the upcoming celebrations, I come across this article on The two following quotes probably best illustrate the point:

The North Korean authorities have issued orders demanding the collection of 10kg of scrap iron per person in advance of this April’s major national events.

A source from North Hamkyung Province today Daily NK yesterday, “The authorities are shouting about how we must collect more than 10kg of scrap iron per person from factories, schools and homes in every area of North Korea, including Pyongyang.”

Like every bit of information about the DPRK, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Facts and data may not be completely accurate, or even completely distorted. However, there has been ample evidence over the years of the DPRK’s “recycling” policies—from scrap metal to “night soil” used as fertilizer. Barbara Demick’s excellent book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea provides insights into these practices, which, in truth, have been historically fairly typical of communist countries where resources are scarce, and most likely in effect in the DPRK too.

This article came as an aftershock after the unexpected news of the rocket launch. I realized that many had been toiling in preparation for what was supposed to be a vacation on my end. Obviously, it is not a surprise… Deep down, it is something I knew, and that I’ve struggled with. But the context, days away from the event and a mere couple of hundred miles away from the action, makes facts more striking and disturbing. This is probably the reality of the DPRK—an ominous system and hardly a vacation destination.

And yet, I have to see with my own eyes. Beauty lies in unexpected places.

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