My friend and high school classmate, Laszlo Varro, teaches mathematics these days at the Chinese International School in Hong Kong. He is also an avid traveler, occasionally sending missives from far off places like a small village in Vietnam, a spot off the beaten track in the Arizona desert, or a mountainside in the Andes.
Perhaps this is how it came to be that recently, Laszlo led a group of his students to, of all places, North Korea. They came back with many memories to share, and plenty of pictures and videos. Laszlo put some of those on YouTube.
Of the four clips, perhaps my favorite is the one he titled “Fun in North Korea”, because this is the one clip that offers the most background glimpses at daily lives in the Hermit Kingdom. The daily lives of the privileged, I hasten to add; Pyongyang is a privileged city, and we must not forget that even as we watch these clips, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands who suffer in North Korean labor camps (many born there) and many others may be near starvation.
One thing I found particularly interesting… the North Koreans are elegant. For instance, when schoolgirls sing to honored guests at a school concert, they do so with an almost Japanese grace. Perhaps this, more than anything, indicates to me that North Korean communism is not simply a copy of Eastern European communism, with oafish workers representing the best of the proletariat.
But my friend’s most important message is that Kim Jong-un’s boastful rhetoric notwithstanding, North Korea did not appear to him as a country preparing for war.