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Never able to sit still, I'm always on the go. With a camera at my side, I'm always seeking out a new adventure, experiencing a new place, living in a different culture, or meeting someone new.  My wanderlust has brought me to the far corners of the earth and I still have a lot of ground to cover.  

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North Korea: Unspoken Paranoia

North Korea: The World's Largest Cult

In 2007 Kim Jong Il and the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea invited the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to perform a series of concerts in North Korea's capital city of Pyongyang.  It was, at the time, a gesture and acknowledgement by the regime of its improving relationship with the West.  I joined the Philharmonic on their trip to the isolated country and experienced what is too surreal to put to words.  

The Pyongyang Internation Airport

Our reception at the airport.

The airplane didn't stick around long.  

Brainwashed

While most communist regimes failed to keep their people loyal to their cause, the leaders of North Korea have managed to successfully brainwash their people into complete obedience and loyalty.  Every North Korean would speak of their country with excitement and a sense of deep rooted pride.  With a proud smile they would boast of their industrious feats, accomplishments, and standard of living.  For instance, a new glass factory had just opened up and everyone I talked to was quick to mention of its grand opening weeks before we arrived.  The people truly believe their Dear Leader is looking after them and has provided what they consider to be a happy existence.  Everyone seemed to be under a spell - almost like zombies.  It was bizarre and mind blowing.  I've never encountered anything quite like it.  

A mural of Kim Ill Sung, the Dear Leader of North Korea. 

A mural of Kim Ill Sung, the Dear Leader of North Korea. 

A painting of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Ill.  

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Curiosity Isn't Tolerated

Don't get me wrong, North Koreans are very friendly, polite, and warm people.  They'd engage in conversation asking us questions about our homeland, showing proper social etiquette, but their questions would always stop short of genuinely wanting to know what it's like in the rest of the world.  They were never taught to be curious.  Curiosity isn't tolerated in North Korea.  

The photo below is a 'minder' placing a pin of the Dear Leader over the heart of a gentleman from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  Every North Korean wore a pin over their heart for their Dear Leader, Kim Il Sung.  

A Constant Reminder

Propaganda posters and billboards could be seen around every bend.  With no advertisement or flashy storefronts, the memorials to the Dear Leader was the only splash of color during the winter in Pyongyang.    

Friend or Foe

Although we were treated as welcomed guests, the regime left up eerie reminders of their true feelings of the West.  I managed to capture one of these 'reminders' on camera.  Close up, you can see a fist smashing an American soldier into the North American continent.  

The fist of North Korea. 

A close up.

Around Pyongyang

Pyongyang has a population of 2.5M people, but it feels like a ghost town.  Traffic officers, dressed in the most peculiar nutcracker-looking outfits, are the only ones in the streets directing what little traffic exists in the city.  

The World's Ugliest Building

One of the more bizarre structures in North Korea is the unfinished 110 story national hotel that was started in the early 1990s.  With a height close to the size of the World Trade Center, this building could be seen from everywhere in the city.  It reminded me of the tower of doom with Kim Jong Il's all-seeing eye at the top.  The architect really knocked it out the park with his creative design. 

The Concerts 

The 3 day event went smoothly with no issues.  It's incredible how music can set aside people's differences and bring them together.  Music truly is the universal language.   

Final Thoughts

The tour by the New York Philharmonic was a success.  The North Koreans even acknowledged the event in their state run newspaper.  Unfortunately, the North Korean's warming relations with the West broke down the following year and it hasn't improved since the Philharmonics visit.  

North Korea is a sad reminder of how easily humans can become a puppet of higher authority.  I have very little hope that this isolated nation of brainwashed people will change anytime soon.  Walking off the plane three days later in Seoul, South Korea was jarring.  It stands in stark contrast to their neighbors of the north. It's hard to imagine sixty years ago these two countries were one.