I had a long standing and disturbing fascination with communism, which arose during childhood thanks to John Lennon’s Imagine (I actually could imagine it). For several years I considered myself an (academic) socialist and undercover militant atheist. Although I was aware of the dark history of ideology, it did not deter me from my desire to see all humanity live in peace and harmony together, once we did away with the religion that was dividing us. I think a huge part of being young is being idealistic and perhaps unrealistic, and I was on an extreme end of that spectrum as with almost everything I found interesting.
Suffice to say when the opportunity arose to go to the DPRK in 2008 and 09 (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), I jumped on it. I wanted to be able to experience the plight of the North Koreans and write about the experience. I had to sincerely weigh this with the moral dilemma of giving the Kim Jung Il regime my money and allowing them to further enslave their people. In the end I thought I could do more good by educating myself and in turn others. I even had a sadistic and demented self- righteous idea of purposely getting detained there to experience imprisonment. Ironically, some genius from my hometown of Bakersfield, California did that exact thing in 2014.
There are far too many details to go into in this story. I will have to curtail the account of myself nearly getting arrested, making illegal videos, the superhuman power North Korean acrobats (I saw a guy riding a unicycle and jump roping with a man on his shoulders). There were truly too many intriguing/ seemingly unreal stories that occurred. They are interesting by far, but it would simply take up far too much space. I am going to focus on a few experiences and how they impacted me on a personal level till this very day.
The power and utility of propaganda was something that burned its way into mind long after seeing it. I have often contemplated how the average German person could kill so many innocent people in such a horrific manner, yet I have no way of truly understanding the brainwashing that went into that. I got a taste of that, however, in North Korea. The terror, imagery and emotion has never left me and I highly doubt it ever will. There are some things that just cannot be unseen or unlearned, no matter how much effort is exerted. But I now can easily imagine how entire populations can be under a spell after the temporary stay.
Everywhere I looked there was propaganda of epic proportion. There were statues, murals, inscriptions and of course song. Everything was designed to portray the Kim’s as God-like beings. I could very well understand how the worldview of the average Joe (or average Kim) would be shaped by being exposed to this at every turn of eye. Everything that they were supposed to believe was shoved down their throat without time or chance for chewing or much less digestion. There was no room for dissent or questioning the authority. Doing so could lead to your death or the imprisonment of not just you, but your entire family for multiple generations. This was and is 1984 in 2020 which was far worse than what even Orwell envisioned.
Two pieces of “art” really stood out to me there. One was of a young Korean school girl yelling in the distance,“Grandmother, let's go destroy our top enemy the USA”. The brilliant nature and not too subtle satire of the piece really made an impression on me as it was overtly implying even the weakest of the country could destroy the brittle USA. The other was of a Korean man pointing and yelling at the audience and probably imploring them to do… something. I don’t know what he said, but till this day I can never forget the look on his face. His face was contorted in the most evil, vile and sadistic manner imaginable. Every time I picture that man, chills run down my spine and this is a full decade later. I know even if I wanted to I could not make myself forget. I tried.
As vicious as it is, propaganda is incredibly powerful in its purpose. This came forever well known to me when I befriended 2 refugees from up north and told their stories on Youtube. Even though I had helped them out financially and unfortunately failed to reunite them with their daughter, they still couldn't quite get over the brain washing. I was shocked beyond belief when the father told me how he was 100 percent sure that everything his government told him was a lie, but yet the Anti-Americanism was so inbred in him, he had a hard time fully letting go and trusting me. This revelation broke my heart, but it also helped me to realize the misappropriated and metaphorically transferred baggage is not so easily lost, no matter how hard we may try.
Crossroads of Humanity
The next consequently notable incident I experienced happened so briefly, most people didn’t notice its significance. However, my ears and eyes were soaking up everything in a 360 degree, 4-D panoramic shot that irreversibly etched its way on my self-denying soul. I was about to cross a red line (no pun intended) and a point of no return that would forever change the trajectory of my life, and it completely and utterly caught me off guard without anything resembling a warning. Unfortunately, I purposely let it slip my mind for as long as I could drown it out.
At the mock village they had created for us, we were given certain paths in which we could freely walk and explore. The nature was pristine and mostly untouched, as is one of the few undeniable merits of communism is the lack of development and thus preservation of nature. And while all the other stops we saw were closely monitored (the tour guides and military created a human perimeter), we were given relative “freedom” here. However, we could only go certain places, such as the adjoining wealthy North Korean village, and we were not permitted to talk to North Koreans, as there was a 50 dollar fine- for all their anti-capitalist rhetoric, they amusingly tried to squeeze every last penny out of you (there was no irony lost on the fact that the US dollar was the only currency which could be used). The prices of the hotel’s mini bar were ironically the most expensive I have ever seen- which says a lot.
The North Koreans had a similar situation as the wide eye tourists they were forced to see on a bi-weekly basis. The gates in which they could walk in to go about their business were designed to keep them from talking to the corrupt capitalists vermin, though their punishments were much worse- such as beating, reeducation camps or worse. As chance happened, we met at a crossroads in the village. Both of us looked like deer caught in headlights of an avalanche riding a tsunami. We didn’t know what to do. Should they go? Should we go? Who had the right of way? We just stared blankly into the whites of each other.’s eyes. A few awkward moments went by and a military man came yelling and wielding a whistle. We quickly went along in complete shock and terror. It was intense.
As we walked away I had a brutal epiphany loomed over me. These people were being herded, like swine and cattle. They were being told where to go, what to do and henceforth, what to think. They had no freedom whatsoever. This coupled with the propaganda everywhere, virtually ensured they were going to believe and behave in one way and one way only. I never have before or since been so traumatized. In fact, for weeks after I had nightmares that I was back there, stuck and unable to leave. Even when I awoke, I was in a sweaty state of utter fear and panic, with a feeling of being trapped. How relieved I was to figure out it was just a nightmare, which is far more than I can say for them.
When I left that country I started to examine my own beliefs. In my atheistic worldview, this actually made sense. The Kim’s were higher evolved, more intelligent creatures. They were simply using their citizens as they would any other animal, such as a sheep or cows. As much as I tried to reconcile my atheism, with my knowledge that this was wrong, I could not. Although I did not become a theist overnight, this was one of the first and biggest cracks in that mental ceiling. I knew this was wrong. I knew it. I may not have had a logical, rational foundation for it, but inherently I knew these people had value. To who, the how, the why, the what would take many years to discover.
After sometime, I decided to try to educate my friends and family about the situation here. I wrote a few blogs, posted videos and pictures (some taken illegally and some were deleted by guards after I tried to pose like Kim Jung Il) and tried to talk to people about it. Eventually, I got involved with a North Korean refugee organization. I made some appearances, spoke, donated time, goods and money, and did what I could to help them. My church donated school supplies and we tried to teach the children English. The organization helped incorporate the refugees into society, as the transition was next to impossible to smoothly make, even with lots of help.
Later the opportunity arose for me to interview survivors and tell their unbelievable stories of escape and will to survive. From the comforts of my house, and in the cover of darkness, (I had to keep them anonymous) I heard the most gruesome stories of cannibalism, torture, rape, executions, escape, survival, and the rest. I posted these videos online and continued to learn more about the topic. It was my goal to make a huge, monumental impact. I strongly believed at the time I could do something drastic. That sometimes misplaced enthusiasm has a way of being subdued by reality all too frequently.
However, I soon came to realize most people simply did not care. If there was one country I could depend on to care for the blood of ethnic Korean, surely it would be South Korea. Nope. More people were more interested in K-Pop music, Samsung phones, foreign import luxury cars and plastic surgery to give a good god damn about their own flesh and blood. It was a sad realization that I had no real way to help those that were still oppressed. If I couldn’t get fellow Koreans interested, I didn’t think I stood a chance in hell at getting others to care. In a last ditch attempt, I tried to write a book, but it didn’t materialize like virtually all the other grand ideas in my head.
The disgusting feelings I felt there was something truly hard to explain with mere keystrokes alone. As I tried to write about it before I came to understand that some things are truly, hard to describe solely with words. That level of ugliness and brutality is hard to convey with mere language as it literally deals with the very souls we possess. There was a time I was happy that I couldn’t do this properly, because I didn’t want to be a burden to any reader. Now, a few years down the road, I have a different opinion. Perhaps if I could make people see, they would get involved and there would be a difference for those poor beings. Then again, maybe not.
One thing I learned for sure is that no one was born with any particular set of beliefs. Whatever North Koreans might believe was thoroughly inbred into them. Kim Jung Un himself, was bred from the same stock as the rest of his fellow country men. His traits were learned from his dad, and his dad’s from Jung Un’s Grandfather, Kim Il Sung. How much more careful I am to every thought or action, knowing that even the smallest dysfunctions could not only trickle to my daughter and down to my grandchildren and in turn theirs. How much easier it is to look to another country or family to divert the reality of my own shortcomings, but today I choose to own up to it all.
And even in this realization, I must philosophically digress if only for a paragraph. The same roadblocks and pathways which governed the life of those people are about us all, if only in our head. How much of our lives and limits are pre-programmed, instilled by parents, institutions and society as a whole? How much of it are we responsible for? How easily can this be tossed off the vessels of our lives? I know it is possible and I have seen it in others, and partook myself. But in this recognition, the same empathy I share with the Koreans and my fellow comrades around the world becomes ever binding and self realizing. The slavery and prison which engulfs us all is so easily escaped in that moment of recognition. Even the worst prisons and concentration camps could never limit a truly free mind who is aware. And we all too often make the worst and most unforgiving guards of that often self-imposed cell which binds and keeps so many captive.
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Isaiah Perez- father, husband, world citizen, servant of the most high.