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[Opinion] A Stalinist Theme Park

Posted April. 17, 2007 08:05,   


“A comical and weird Stalinist theme park where clean and large parks and labor camps co-exist,” wrote Chairman Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet, a world-famous publisher specializing in tourism, who traveled in North Korea for two weeks in May 2002 through a tourism company operated by an Englishman in China, describing North Korea. The new book, “Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil’” by Tony Wheeler, who is called the father of backpack travelers around the world, tells the story of his visits to nine countries where travel is hard for ordinary people, including North Korea, Iraq and Iran.

Chairman Wheeler toured Pyongyang, Gaesong, Sinuiju, and Baekdu Mountain, among other places, and found North Korea to be like a huge film set. He pointed to the country’s essence by saying, “It was a surrealistic place that looks real on appearance but isn’t so when observed closely.” In North Korea, foreign tourists are only allowed to visit permitted places under the supervision of security guards disguised as interpreters or tour guides. Chairman Wheeler was one such foreign traveler. But having spent half of his years traveling to more than 100 countries around the world, his professional eyes were unlike those of others.

‘Inside North Korea’, aired by the documentary channel National Geographic on March 5, vividly depicted the reality of human rights and leader-worship in North Korea. Reporters were disguised as members of a medical team from Nepal visiting North Korea giving out eyesight recovery operations to local people. The program divulged how the national leader is idolized in North Korea through a scene where North Korean men after going through cataract surgery cry, saying, “The biggest pain was that we couldn’t see the photo of our leader Kim Jong Il.”

North Korea is a country where more than 35,000 statues of Kim Il Sung are erected, and political and labor camps are hidden everywhere. A total of 1.69 million South Koreans, including 1.41 million tourists to Mt. Geumgang, have visited North Korea since 1989. Some have seen the pain and anger in the eyes of child performers singing and dancing sweetly in front of the visitors. What Chairman Wheeler also caught was the hypocrisy of the “democratic people’s republic.” Were he to visit South Korea, would he also catch the hypocrisy of the pro-North left wing groups who look up to the Kims?

Editorial Writer Gwon Sun-taek, maypole@donga.com