Getting a grip on North Korea and it citizens is hard for the outside world. Paul French, author of North Korea: State of Paranoia: A Modern History tries to debunk some common misunderstandings in an interview with VOA.
FRENCH: Well, I think the biggest myth, or at least the most dangerous myth that I wanted to deal with in my book, as someone who has sort of visited North Korea on a number of occasions – which is not necessarily an easy thing to do, particularly for Americans of course – is to try and show the ordinary North Korean people and the daily life that they have as difficult and highly politicized and highly regimented and with a lot of surveillance, but that they are essentially normal people. I think that a lot of the North Korean government, we almost see like this robotic nation, the few images we get are always of military parades or something like that, but these are people who get up in the morning and kiss their kids goodbye and go off to work, and the kids go off to school, and so on.
STEVENSON: North Korea is opening up a little bit in terms of tourism, in terms of hard currency. What do tourists see as normal when they visit Pyongyang and other locations within North Korea?
FRENCH: It is a little bit like going to Disneyland in a sense, in that, you see exactly what the corporation that runs North Korea wants you to see and nothing else. And anyone that tries to sort of look behind the stage set, or actually talk to the ordinary people if you like, someone will try and stop you from doing that. So they very much want to handle you, they want to guide you around; they don’t want you to have ordinary conversations with people. So in that sense, there is an odd sort of feeling that you’re in one big sort of theme park when you’re there.
STEVENSON: What prevents the regime in North Korea from reforming while retaining power when it can clearly look over next door at China and see a 35 year blueprint for progress?
FRENCH: Well, this is becoming more and more of an issue, I think, now as more and more North Koreans, not just the elite, start to see just how wide the disparity has become between North and South Korea. This is way beyond anything we ever saw in – the example that’s always used, East and West Germany – the disparity of course being between Seoul and Pyongyang is almost unimaginable, they’re essentially now two completely different nations.
But again, their response to it has not been to emulate what has gone on in the South, or even to emulate what has gone on in China, which is a good example for them – a lot of market reforms, a lot of more money moving around the system, but [with] the authoritarian party staying in place, [or] regime survival, that they don’t seem to be able to do that. Their response has been to try and lock down and stop people knowing what’s going on outside.
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