Who are these people?” asked my ever-inquisitive North Korean guide Mrs. Yiu. She was pointing at my t-shirt. My chosen item of clothing on that day depicted a famous photo taken in the 60’s of Muhammad Ali with Elvis Presley. I told Mrs. Yiu who these men were, and explained that they were arguably two of the greatest cultural icons in modern history. She has impeccable English and told me that although unfamiliar with the names, she reckoned Ali starred in a Bollywood film she heard about once. “Ya maybe”, I said. This was one of many encounters in the Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea that encapsulate why the place has always intrigued me. Call it what you will – untouched, uninfluenced, isolated, oblivious? There is something extremely fascinating about a society that is for the most part virtually unaware of the world around it. North Korea has been its own sovereign nation since only 1948. To be symbolic about it, picture a ship that upon ‘leaving the dock’ per se, veered just a couple of degrees in a different direction to its’ Western world counterpart. And now many years later as that ship continues to traverse, that one degree has inevitably grown into quite a vast distance.
The streets of the capital Pyongyang are lazily peaceful. Contrary to the Western media rhetoric, it is well developed in parts and the architecture can be stunning. Our bus from the airport travels leisurely along the motorway, occasionally passing cars and cyclists. This was a refreshing contrast to the bedlam of smoggy Beijing where we had flown from. It makes me ponder the many shortcomings of the Western world that North Korean culture appears to have eluded. Traffic, high crime-rates, overpopulation, the rat-race; these are terms that you won’t hear applied to a place like Pyongyang very often. Instead, these things are somehow bypassed – some would say as a result of a repressive Communist regime, but others argue it is a much deeper philosophical attitude that is endemic to the North Korean way of life. This is called “Juche”. Its primary doctrine is a mindset that preaches about the importance of love, family, loyalty, respect to elders and most of all a refrain from envy and greed – shunning any irrational attachments to material objects.
Im not about to abscond to North Korea and throw my iPhone down the toilet or anything, but it did make me stop for a moment and re-consider where our priorities often lie in the modern day world.