The Sun Tyrant: A Nightmare Called North Korea

JP Floru spent nine days in the DPRK in early 2016 and The Sun Tyrant: A Nightmare Called North Korea is his travel diary. It was irresistible to compare travel experiences since I spent nineteen days travelling throughout the country in 2011 yet saw far more than Floru. His book seemed sorrowfully lacking and rather dull since tour companies do offer more extensive packages which unfortunately he didn’t take. I did recognize many of the sights and could anticipate what would happen next, as the museums and war memorials are mandatory stops on any tour. To compensate for his lacklustre experiences I found that he dramatized the mundane, overcompensating for what he didn’t find elsewhere. Thus every landscape he saw was treeless and grey, all pottery was mud-coloured and all the locals unsmiling automatons.

Tourists to the DPRK are informed beforehand what will happen when they visit the statues of the Great Leader Marshal Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il. The protocols can become pretty tedious but one does not go to the DPRK without doing any homework in advance. You go there knowing what is going to take place, and if you object to bowing before the statues of the leaders and laying flowers at their feet, then you had better stay home. The same goes for visits to any buildings or so-called tourist attractions. You can’t really act surprised when your group is herded through museum rooms while being fed propaganda about the Korean War. That said, Floru never seems to get his head around it, and bemoans again and again having to endure the Northern spin on things. His description of his minders and hosts was eye-rolling unfunny, as he introduced each one the same way every time:

“Our minder, in a long, black velvet robe with diamanté sequins and regulation socialist perm, welcomes us.”

I get why he did this: to emphasize the lack of individuality in the country and their painstaking verbose way of referring to people (as when I made a facetious reference to the two Kims in the second paragraph). But to introduce each host the same long-winded way? Definitely not funny.

Floru was in an obligatory group tour, and he learned the secret to taking verboten photos:

“Then again, however, it’s a pretty good idea to travel to North Korea in a group as you meet far more people than on an individualised tour; your fellow travellers are a support network in case of trouble, and they can distract the minders while you take illegal photos.”

In my case, however, I didn’t have to rely on distracting the minders. My group had its share of delinquent photographers who were always being followed by the minders. That left the rest of us free to photograph whatever we wanted when we realized no one was watching us.

I travelled to the DPRK in 2011–before the death of the Dear Leader Comrade General–when all visitors had to surrender their cellphones before departure. Floru and his group had the luxury of bringing their phones with them, and, while visiting the DMZ:

“What I didn’t observe at the time and heard only later is that virtually everybody else in my group uses this moment to send text messages to their loved ones across the world using the South Korean mobile phone network.”

Policy at the time of his visit precluded a visit to the Joint Security Area blue huts that straddle the actual border. I was able to go inside one of them.

I can understand that with so many Koreans sharing the surname Kim, keeping track of people might get confusing. He mixed up the birthplace of Kim Jong Il, incorrectly assigning him to Mangyongdae, and much to his embarrassment, identified Kim Jong Il’s mother as Kim Sŏng-ju, which is not the name of his mother (that’s Kim Jong Suk) but rather the birth name of Kim Il Sung. Floru made other Kim errors, and some of them weren’t even cases of mistaken identity. On two occasions he referred to King or Kin instead of Kim.

A nine-day trip to the DPRK that excluded some Pyongyang sights and other cities outside of the capital did not make a very interesting read. The author didn’t even include any photos. I found the footnote text too small to read without a magnifying glass and the asterisks indicating them within the page text were so small my eyes always passed over them. Thus when I got to the end of a page I always had to reread it in order to find the place where the footnote referred. For a longer DPRK country-wide tour, visit my blog.

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