UThe fascination for secret societies has broken down since the Enlightenment. Even a flood of secret publications does not change that. The situation is similar today with the closed country of North Korea, which only a few visitors – hardly ever journalists – let in and are always guarded. Nevertheless, the North Korea photo books and experience reports are now piling up. All of them have obviously already been there, from the photographer Julia Leeb to the architecture critic Oliver Wainwright to the pop literary writer Christian Kracht. And it’s easy to see where the pop nimbus of Kim absolutism comes from. After all, there are hardly any other surfaces with such retrofuturistic design anywhere else. The gaudy, monumental poster choreography of the ruler cult is intended to cover everything that has not worked since the nineties.
Most North Korea explorations are therefore aimed at the visual and focus on the comparatively developed capital Pyongyang, which is trimmed for representation. Rudolf Bussmann’s travel essay, which has been expanded to include background research, stands out from this in an instructive way. The Swiss writer has traveled to the extremely poor north of North Korea with the South Korean Hoo Nam Seelmann, and he is careful not to fall for the regime’s staging or to look at the country with a sense of moral superiority. There are no photos in this powerful volume, but excursions into the darkest chapters of North Korean history: famines, corruption, prison camps, atomic bombs.
Shiver fascination for the terra incognita
At the same time Bussmann tries to understand this state from within itself. Small signs, which he knows how to decipher thanks to his culturally versed companion, point to an everyday consciousness that fluctuates between defiant pride and fatalism. And that, contrary to all propaganda, shows numerous cracks. It already starts with Kim Jong-un’s, if only hinted at, bowing to the citizens assigned to Pyongyang Airport in autumn 2018 after the South Korean President – Bussmann’s trip took place in the days of the most recent rapprochements – had shown this very thing: ” A president’s bow to the people is something unheard of for North Koreans. “
The author approaches the country via China, which is interesting because it shows that in the former brother country the fascination for terra incognita is just as great as in South Korea, where one can look over from observatories. In the Chinese city of Yanji, boats offer tourist trips to the middle of the “over there” well-guarded border river Tumen.
The feeling of a journey through time
Soon the readers rumble with the visitors and their three companions on bumpy roads through the province of North Hamgyong, where we learn that pedestrians and cyclists despite the sparse car traffic – only official persons, doctors and a few old trucks are motorized, but that with absolute priority – having to jostle on the narrow sidewalks. Bussmann often has the feeling of a journey back in time when, for example, the hot water is brought to him in buckets in the “Kurhotel” or in one of the few guest family guest houses. As hard as this life has to be, the guest can also gain something from slowing down.
Schools, temples, monuments or viewpoints are visited, always accompanied by information, for example on the situation of Christians in the country or the three-class system. When visiting a bookstore, it is noticeable that there is as little narrative literature to be found in it as in Chongjin’s university library.
You can tell from the well-chosen language that Bussmann is a great man of letters. However, he holds back with poetry. Here and there he only puts himself in the place of people in a literary way, in order to compensate for the fact that all people with whom the visitors come into contact have evidently been prepared for this situation. Passers-by and even market women turn away with a state-desired disinterest. The watchdogs, in turn, have their own peculiarities despite all the training.
Little by little, the readers gain a basic understanding of this state, which is led by two “ghosts” (state founder Kim Il-sung is officially the “Eternal President”, his son Kim Jong-il “Eternal Secretary General”), but from the Proximity doesn’t seem ghostly. Rather, he seems desperate to maintain the impression that the regime cares about its citizens, who in truth have been suppressing even more than before since the end of the Soviet empire – the economic collapse of North Korea followed.
The wild market economy, which has developed despite the sanctions, seems to Bussmann anything but a promise for the future. He does not wish to wish the country the path of Albania (to Enver Hodscha) or that of Vietnam. The most to be hoped for is the reunification of the two Koreas, in which China and the United States have no interest. And in fact, there is no longer any trace of the relaxation in autumn 2018. Kim Jong-us regime, which is up to its neck, the people are currently swearing by hard times.
Rudolf Bussmann: “Autumn in North Korea”. Approaching a closed country. Rotpunktverlag, Zurich 2021. 216 pp., Hardcover, 25 euros.