Hakan Sokmensuer never planned on going back to North Korea — until an unexpected, irresistible opportunity knocked the week before Christmas.
A tourism company emailed the 55-year-old Sarasota resident an invitation to parallel a trip by Dennis Rodman and a team of NBA veterans to the capital city of Pyongyang for an exhibition basketball game.
It was a historic opportunity that Sokmensuer, a world traveler, could not pass up. So, the retired airline services business owner, along with his 18-year-old daughter, Sophia (a Pine View graduate), journeyed to North Korea from Jan. 6 through Jan. 9, along with a group of foreign tourists, including six Americans, for a unique glimpse at one of the world’s most buttoned-up societies.
“We were the first American tourists to be in the same room as Kim Jong Un,” Sokmensuer said. “It was an incredible opportunity, and it came to fruition.”
Sokmensuer’s first visit to North Korea — which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom” — was in 2009. He was curious to see how much the country had changed since 31-year-old Kim Jong Un assumed the title of “Dear Leader” following the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
Sokmensuer encountered a country that appeared to have dramatically evolved in four years.
But, like all aspects of North Korean life, Sokmensuer soberly explained, the changes were a facade. The North Korean people, he said, still live in a “cult-like” state where one misspeak could potentially provoke the ire of the country’s new leader, who demonstrated a capacity to ruthlessly retaliate against those who challenge his rule by executing his own uncle for subversion last December.
Sokmensuer discussed his trip with the Sarasota Observer. The following are edited excerpts of the conversation.
What changes did you notice in North Korea in the interval between the rule of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un?
It wasn’t a bustling city, but it wasn’t like it was four years ago; it wasn’t as terribly bizarre as it was back then. There was color in the way people dressed. It was the middle of winter, and people were dressed like in any big city in a third-world country. When I went years ago, they all dressed similarly, blandly. There was actually an expression of color this time.
There were also many, many new buildings. This time there were 25- or 30-story condos lining the highways that looked like they could have been in Sarasota. Everything on the prior trip was all the same kind of bland communist architecture.
And, this time, there were actually cars on the road.
Have the peoples’ attitudes toward the “Dear Leader” changed?
Here’s a good barometer for how things have changed: What I noticed last time was that every topic they discussed somehow was punctuated with an attribution to the “Dear Leader” and his benevolence. “The horizon is a gift from the great leader,” they would say. This time there was none of that.
The new leader wasn’t worshipped as a deity like his dad was.
What’s the food like?
The food is awful. What they give us is the best they have to offer, but it was wretched stuff, dog and rice and stuff like that. Even the beer is made with rice.
We hear a lot of bizarre stories coming out of North Korea, how much should we believe?
Everything you read in the press is true.
What sticks out as a good example of the bizarreness of North Korean life?
In the morning, in the capital, which is one giant Happy Kingdom facade, there are these old cars with giant speakers on them. They park on the street corners, playing extremely loud (communist) party songs, to tell people to work for the fatherland. That goes on between 6:30 and 8 a.m.
That’s in the capital city. Could you imagine that in downtown Sarasota?
Describe your impression of the North Korean people.
These people are trained to believe certain things from birth, but they’re not robots. They’re hungry; they want to raise income from any possible source. They’re normal human beings like we are, but they’ve been trained to behave a certain way.
Do they seem oppressed, scared?
Yes. If you say something they can’t comment on, their face just goes blank. You can never ask them a typical gotcha question.
But they’re not robots; they know they’re under a yoke. And it’s very peculiar because they know they’re living under difficulty, but it wasn’t like they were looking at you under the bill of a hat like they’re trying to telegraph something to you. It was not like Russia during the communist years.
You’ve been around the world and have experienced many foreign cultures— in what way is North Korea unique from every other place you’ve visited?
It really was unique. It really felt like a mind-control cult. I’ve been to other communist countries, and the people might be poor or sad-looking, but they were never like that cult-like.
It was just a weird feeling — but not as much as it was four years ago.
Do you plan to go back?
Not anytime soon.
Are there any misperceptions that Americans have about life in North Korea?
We seem to think that China is very influential in North Korea, but China is totally stymied over there.
Also, we also seem to think that whole population is uniform and they are all monstrous people, but these are just regular folks. The kids smile and wave at us, just like the kids at Booker Elementary might wave at us.
How do North Koreans perceive Americans?
They paint us like monsters. The propaganda posters on the sides of the roads draw us with fangs and we look like dragons.
But the way they treated us foreigners — they were the friendliest people in the world.
If you could boil down life in North Korea to one word, what would it be?
I use the word "facade" to describe every topic related to North Korea.
Did you notice if you under surveillance by security forces or intelligence agencies while you were there?
Yes, we were always being watched. I guarantee if we had done something wrong, the people in charge of watching us would have been fired.
They were all in suit and tie, they looked like people from the 1960s and 1970s in the way they dressed — kind of like Asian Mad Men.
But there was never anyone with guns, that was different than last time.
What's in store for the futre of North Korea?
I'm very nervous as to whether this guy (Kim Jong Un) has full control. The execution (of Kim Jong Un's uncle) was an aberration. The prior leaders, when they had a problem with someone, they banished them.
Maybe Kim Jong Un recongized the regime is at a tipping point and he's trying to build a psychological moat around himself.
Technology is doing amazing things, and the ability to communicate is something you can't control.
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