This weekend, I watched a National Geographic educational program that took a peek inside North Korea. As an American, I don’t even think I’m really allowed in that country, even if I wanted to go. They hate Americans there. The only place more mysterious to me, as an American citizen, is Cuba, which may be changing soon enough. It shocks me that a whole nation of people could hate Americans so much, though it shouldn’t, given the programming that goes into creating a North Korean citizen. I shouldn’t be so naïve – many countries dislike the U.S. and its citizens. While my country is not perfect, our people are entitled to human rights, as are people everywhere. So I have to think they don’t hate us, but it’s more that they fear being seen as disrespectful of the supreme leader, a crime punishable by death.
Everything written herein is what I took away from the documentary, and has not been formed from my own personal travels/experiences. As a lesbian American with a big mouth and few inhibitions, I doubt I’d get much further than the airport before running into trouble there. I don’t do well with authority in most situations, even in the U.S., and especially those in jurisdictions with very strict regulations around decorum and respect things.
I had practically no knowledge about what life might be like there, but for what Team America (the movie from the creators of South Park) taught me about Kim Jong-il’s loneliness. I learned just enough from that movie to be dangerous. Also, rumor has it that North Korea was behind public threats if Sony released its satirical film “The Interview” and imminent danger for people who went to see that movie. So clearly, I know nothing. I know there was a Korean War, sometime during the 1900’s, and I think before the Vietnam War. Oh, and that the Olympics were held in Seoul, South Korea, once.
I don’t even know where to begin with what I didn’t know. It struck me is how much programming the people have when it comes to the dictator in power. I’d say it was dedication, a strong blind passion, stronger than a child’s belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Like everyone has had a lobotomy, standard issue from the government. There are statues, billboards, and pictures of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un, and those that came before them. Instead of personalized family photos gracing the walls of any given home, instead there are only pictures of the supreme leader to be revered. In fact, the home that the documentary crew went to had no furniture. Everyone sat on the floor, and there were only fans to cool what must be incredibly hot and muggy rooms packed with families in poor health. God awful. Inhumane. Now I see first-hand why the reports from North Korea about its own “rich culture” and commitment to “diversity” are such a big joke.
Don’t get me wrong – I have a respect for these people. Just because I can’t understand the faith they have placed in a leader that, in my opinion is misplaced, doesn’t mean it’s not important to them and valid to them. If I had half that dedication even for things I enjoy doing, and for people I like, I’d be a much better person for it. But this leader in whom they place their faith goes unquestioned, unchallenged, and the people blindly follow him. He cannot do anything wrong. Even a leader should not be above the law – the law gives equal rights to all people, and no people are “more equal” than others, or entitled to more/different rights.
In this National Geographic program, former View hostess, Lisa Ling, went with a camera crew to North Korea to work on a documentary about a doctor who wanted to perform over 1,000 eye surgeries for the blind there. The team was only approved to be in the country for 10 days, which meant he needed to perform over 100 surgeries per day, on top of navigating the miles of red tape. Further, the North Korea government required supervision of the crew at all times by North Korean government officials. That equals no privacy or freedom of speech.
From a general health perspective, I didn’t realize the rampant blindness and damage caused by cataracts. I didn’t know what they were, but that older people usually got them. I imagined as a child, that cataracts was a complicated pulley system like being in traction, but was miniscule and hidden inside the eye. The lack of proper nutrition can make one genetically pre-disposed to cataracts at even higher risk. Difficult and potentially unsuitable working conditions worsen the clouding of the lens within the eye. Most people lose their eyesight entirely, if cataracts are left untreated. In North Korea, yes healthcare is free, but you do get what you pay for. The country simply doesn’t have the facilities, trained professionals, tools, or basic infrastructure to provide the most basic health care for its people. There are so few surgeries performed there each there, with no anesthetic or pain medication. Unreal. I don’t even know where to start. Suddenly Obamacare doesn’t sound so bad, though.
When the patients began taking off the bandages from their eyes, they thanked the supreme leader and promised their future generations would strive to be worthy of the grace allowed them to finally see the dictator. They didn’t thank the doctor or the team that sterilized the instruments, or the nurses who supplemented the care provided.
That blew my mind. But wait, there was more. When the crew talked about citizens of North Korea attempting to defect to South Korea, the struggles they had to go through far outweigh the risks taken by slaves travelling on the Underground Railroad. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is full of land mines, electric fences, snipers, and other deadly obstacles. Guards stand on the border for both North and South – the strongest, well-fed soldiers are placed in sight to induce fear in the other side. They stand in a posture that allows for flexed muscles. These guys are like body builders in a 12-hour posing show shift. Crazy.
As a writer whose job it is to connect the dots, I now meander to another program I watched over the weekend, on methamphetamine, commonly known as Ice, Tina, Crystal, and crank. I’d seen every episode of Breaking Bad and the blue moneymaker drug they crafted with test tubes in the middle of New Mexico. I’ve been to Oroville, a small town outside my college town of Chico, California, known as the meth-making capital of Northern California in its heyday. I can’t reiterate it enough having seen meth-heads first hand – Meth: NOT EVEN ONCE.
I also learned that North Korea was originally invaded and inhabited by the Japanese, so there is a strong Japanese influence in North Korean culture. This is deeply rooted in respect, and even a samurai culture. Also though, legal doses of an equivalent of meth were provided to Japanese kamikaze fighter pilots to help them stay on track and complete their mission when dropping napalm in World War II.
Methamphetamine highs can last between 6-12 hours, and usually are approximately 3.5x the high from cocaine. The drug appeared in the pacific northwest of the US in its early days, which is just in my backyard, apparently. In California, the drug was manufactured by motorcycle gangs and sold with a street name of crank, named after the part of the motorcycle where the drug was stored when transported for distribution. I didn’t know that, either. The injection of meth by drugg-o’s using dirty, shared needles fanned the fire, and the spread of the AIDS virus became faster than wildfire due to the popularity and timing of introduction of the drug.
There is even totally legal form of meth used by blue collar workers in Thailand. It fuels the workforce and gives manual laborers energy when they are tired, and makes them not hungry when in fact, they are starving. I swear, I just thought the workers in Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands were just smoking regular hand-rolled cigarettes on a break. Chances are, at least one of those workers was probably smoking a small amount of meth in front of me, and I didn’t even know it.
From the dry mouth and going long periods without hydrating, meth is known for deteriorating teeth and gums. Think about it – if you’re high on meth, sure the house gets clean, but you don’t go to the dentist. The gums begin receding and the teeth rot, so you end up with a mouth rotted brown half-teeth or empty sockets, like Penn-sa-tucky and Edward Pizzahands in Orange in the New Black.
As someone who has never tried cocaine, (though I’ve heard it’s a helluva drug, Dewey) nor meth, I can only draw a secondhand parallel between what meth heads feel when they are in the euphoric high of the drug, and the euphoria of the people of North Korea beginning to see again and thanking the supreme leader, not the doctor.
Supposedly, meth makes you feel like you can do anything, like you are invincible. You can completely lose yourself to meth, and you can only get yourself back once the high is gone. You’ll sell everything you own and yourself for more money to just get one more hit. You’ll spend everything chasing the high that only comes the first few times you do it. Meth completely screws up the dopamine release systems in your brain, and screws up the neurotransmitters once the dopamine is in your system. Some of those neurotransmitters permanently shut down. In laymen’s medical speak, that’s bad, m’kay.
The people of North Korea have no choice but to place their hope and faith in a leader and the life he chooses for them. I don’t even know that the people see anything wrong with that, and perhaps there is nothing wrong with that, for them. They do not question the absolute power their supreme leader has, nor do they think he would ever misuse that power. They, too, seem to not have control of their own thoughts, or being their own people, while under the influence of their ruler. Just like meth-heads aren’t in control of themselves either when under the influence of the drug.
I cannot see letting myself be edged out of my body to make way for a destructive drug, or a destructive state of mind. I don’t want to be ruled by a drug, by a political viewpoint, a religion, or anything, to such an extreme. I believe in moderation, and while the existence of a Republican party makes me shudder (including all the things that come out of its members mouths and FOXnews reports), I’d rather it existed, than live in a brainwashed state of mind that tells me what I believe and punishes me for not conforming to a regime. I’d rather form my own beliefs. Even if I’m wrong, and even if I misplace my faith, at least I can make my own choice about what I believe.
I’m not against drugs; everyone has their choice to indulge in self-medication and personal pain management and for many that could involve any number of over-the-counter or illegal drugs. For me, that drug of choice never has been and never will be cocaine or meth. Or politics, for that matter.
I’ve never had the opportunity to travel to North Korea, and if offered, I don’t think I’d turn it down, sheerly out of a morbid curiosity for a culture so different from my own. I’m intrigued by the blind hatred these people have of me without even knowing me, just because of my nationality. The people seem happier with a myth, not reality.
Some people think religion is the opiate of the masses. I would argue, after watching the people of North Korea mourn the death of Kim Jong-il, that the real opiate of the masses is wanting to be better and stronger at any cost. The North Korean people appear to have an altered view of reality, as does someone high on meth who feels their skin crawling with bugs. Sometimes, no matter how bad reality is, I’d rather have that, than a lie. A friend introduced me to Timothy Leary’s “Any Reality is an Opinion.” Riveting and mind-blowing, indeed. I have to echo his message and challenge you to place it in the context of North Korea and listen to it again.
So if you were Morpheus, and you offered me a blue pill or a red pill, I’d refill my champagne stein and chug down the painful truth of reality with my red pill. Keep the blissful ignorance of illusion (blue pill) for the next North Korean or meth-head.