National Geographic : 2013 Oct
inside north korea 117 pledges to die for the motherland end, there are informal gatherings with surprising echoes of smalltown America, as gossiping old women and flirting young people fill the streets. Sometimes, though, the truth about ordinary North Korean life is hidden right inside the Potemkin displays. Like the dancing. I first saw it on a Sunday evening in Pyongyang, in a clearly orchestrated show of uniformity and loyalty, when nearly 500 couples danced in the shadow of three stone fists thrust into the sky. Each fist wielded a tool—a hammer, a sickle, and a pen—that together formed the symbol of the KWP. The men wore shortsleeve shirts and ties. Women wore the filmy polyester dresses that pass here for traditional clothing. They twirled in well practiced circles and between songs stood si lently in pairs. Few people smiled. Most had the blank expressions common at mass rallies, where boredom, resignation, and patriotism of ten mix together. Officials rushed around, bark ing at anyone who fell out of step. That night I couldn’t imagine anyone celebrating life with the stiff dances of that staged event. But a few nights later, at about 2 a.m., I opened my hotelroom window to look out over the city. The streets were empty. There were no security convoys, no movements of soldiers, nothing un usual. I heard music somewhere in the distance. Leaning out, I could see lights blazing at a small building a couple of blocks away. It was a party. Looking through binoculars, I could see dozens of people gathered in the building’s courtyard. Bottles were being passed around. I could see the orange glow of cigarettes. Many of the people were dancing. It was the same dance I’d seen a few days earlier, but with the swing and sway of people enjoying them selves. Listening hard, I heard snatches of the same music wafting through the night. Were they celebrating a birthday? A promo tion? A wedding? I’ll never know. But it was a reminder of what goes on when no one knows a journalist is watching. “We are normal,” a former North Korean black marketeer who now lives in Seoul once told me. “Please don’t forget this. People live, people compete to get jobs, people fight. There are the basic elements of life like there are in South Korea or the United States.” Or anywhere. j Today it’s hard to find an adult in Pyongyang who hasn’t read Gone With the Wind.