A New Zealander who worked for the tour company that arranged my tour told me that he was meeting with an employee of the North Korean government’s tourism agency outside North Korea (one of the rare times you’ll ever see a North Korean outside the country), when the news of Kim Jong Il’s death came in. He said the man, at the time, was trying to sign something with a pen, and that his hand was shaking so violently that he couldn’t do it. The man then tore away to the other room, and emerged a couple hours later, face swollen and eyes red. This was a man outside of North Korea with no reason to fake emotion.
A brutal, heartless totalitarian dictator has to play quite the mind tricks on his people to be truly beloved—the Kims are good at what they do.
First, the people are insanely polite. I was apologized to for no reason, smiled at constantly, my jokes were laughed at even when I didn’t make a joke and the laugher didn’t speak English, and best of all, the bows. So many bows. Bows to say hello, goodbye, thank you, I’m sorry—anything really. (I began to thoroughly enjoy bowing back, and now I’m crushed this isn’t part of my normal life. New Yorkers bow rarely.) An extreme politeness example would occur when someone would take my credit card—they wouldn’t take it with their fingers like I’m accustomed to, they’d hold their palms out like a platter for me to put it on, returning the card to me with another hand platter. All of this I’m going to miss.
It wasn’t just politeness that struck me, it was the lack of rudeness. Public altercations or even mildly unpleasant interactions don’t happen. At one point, I was in a taxi at a construction-hindered intersection being traffic-directed by an officer. The driver mistakenly went into the intersection at the wrong time, against the officer’s signal. In New York, the officer is not friendly about this and the driver responds by either ignoring him or yelling back. In Tokyo, the officer ran over to explain the mistake, acting like it was his own fault, the driver acted like, “No no it’s my fault you’re the best” and they both bowed to each other.
There are also some dark things going on within the population… The government reported that 1 in 5 Greenlanders attempts to kill themselves at some point in their lives, and some I talked to there said almost every Greenlander knows someone who has taken their own life. The logical conclusion would be that suicides spike in the winter when it’s dark almost all the time, but it’s the opposite—the brighter months bring a rise in insomnia, and suicides are more frequent then.
The people are not fond of the US. No bipolar situation in this case. About 28 of 30 people I talked to about this were strongly anti-America. When I asked them about something like the Ukraine situation, the universal response was that the US spent a ton of money to turn the Ukrainians against Russia for their own selfish reasons. This never translated to anyone being nasty to me, they’d just calmly explain that unfortunately, my country is a piece of shit, and that would be that.