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Imma Vitelli at LPD: Ten Days in North Korea
Katia Taylor, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
October 3, 2017

On Wednesday, September 20, Vanity Fair Italia journalist Imma Vitelli gave a lecture on her ten-day journey into North Korea for the La Pietra Dialogues. She discussed her experience within the country’s capital, Pyongyang, as well as her interactions with the political leaders, soldiers, and citizens who make up the world’s most totalitarian state.

Before embarking on her journey last May, Vitelli had a few key questions she wished to answer: How much do people in North Korea know? What do they know about their leaders, and the world outside? How much access do they have to the internet?

Vitelli researched as much as she could about her destination before she left.

“As a reporter, I try to go to a place with virgin eyes,” said Vitelli. “I try to prepare to death before I travel, and get a sense of where I’m going.” However, Vitelli was also ready to be surprised: “If you go in with your set of ideas, then you’re not going to see what’s there.”

On the first leg of her journey, Vitelli took a train from the airport in China to Pyongyang. She was reminded of the fact that she was not allowed to bring any books, because if a guard at the border deemed the literature suspicious, Vitelli could easily be barred from entering the country. Despite the rule, Vitelli carried a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 in her bag. When the guard came by to look through her luggage, he took 1984 in his hand, looked at Vitelli once, and set it back down. Vitelli was allowed passage into North Korea.

“Travelling into the country was like travelling in not only space, but time,” she remarked. With its dirt roads, rice fields, and oxen-pulled ploughs, it occurred to Vitelli that North Korea was set in the past.

Though Pyongyang has undergone several renovations over the past six years, (including the color of buildings transitioning from gray to soft pinks, greens, and blues) North Korea’s capital felt different than any other capital Vitelli had visited. “There were three million people living in the city, but it was the quietest capital I’ve ever been in,” commented Vitelli.

When she got to her hotel, Vitelli began to understand how isolated she was from the world. When she turned on the TV, there were no news channels to watch, only Singaporean movies. In order to make an international call, she had to go downstairs, pay two euros a minute, and know that someone on a different floor of the hotel was going to listen in on whatever conversation she was having. Even going on the internet was not an option. There, the internet was called the “intranet,” because all of its content is controlled by the national government.

On the first day, Vitelli was introduced to her 25-year-old tour guide, Kim. She learned that he only read Rodong, which is the only news source available in North Korea. In its pages, one would often find images of missile launches, the supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un, and soldiers standing, ready for battle. Looking through the paper that day, Kim was excited that North Korea launched another missile successfully. “It’s a sign of progress and peace,” Kim told Vitelli.

There were soldiers all over Pyongyang, where it was common to see numerous troops making their way down the roads. It was forbidden to photograph them, as it was forbidden to stop on the street. One time, Vitelli saw something she wasn’t supposed to: soldiers working on the rice fields. She asked Kim about it, and his answer was frank: “The soldiers do not just defend this country, but build it too. It is our revolutionary socialism.”

Kim showed Vitelli the subway system of Pyongyang, which seemed much deeper than any other subway system in the world. The reason was simple: if North Korea experienced a nuclear attack, citizens could use the tunnels as underground bunkers.

“It’s this feeling that the Cold War never ended,” explained Vitelli. Four million people in North Korea died during the war with South Korea and the United States that spanned from 1950 to 1953. That statistic is still emphasized in every way in the country, from the protective subway design, to the mantra of Kim Jong Un: “We need to defend ourselves.” Vitelli later visited a museum, where there were wax statues of U.S. soldiers with guns from the 1950s. “This was seventy years ago, but it all felt like yesterday,” Vitelli said, describing the mood that the museum propaganda created. “The war produced paranoia of a place set in time.”

Vitelli was shown around Mirae Street, a quarter that was gifted to scientists, engineers and physicists by the North Korean government. There, she found herself in the living room of a polytechnic engineering professor. She was told that it was against the law for her to interview the professor, so she spoke to his wife.

She told Vitelli how wonderful it was that Kim Jong Un gave their family so many gifts. She was excited by her new gas oven and water heater. “Once a year, the Supreme Leader gives us a huge pack of drinks, canned meat, honey, fish, jelly, and many good things,” she revealed to Vitelli. They also enjoyed a three-week vacation at a lake through the government, which Vitelli later discovered was located near a missile launch site.“Kim Jung Un makes his scientists happy because he needs them,” stated Vitelli. “They allow him to stay in power.”

While touring, a high-level leader of the Worker’s Party, the ruling political party of North Korea, sought out Vitelli to speak with her. His name was Hwang Jong Hun. He took Vitelli to his office, where he began hitting on her. “It was clear that he thought western women were always available,” stated Vitelli. After she rejected him, he told her how China no longer supplies North Korea with as much fuel as in the past, which is why the country is struggling, and why Pyongyang is pitch black at night.

Vitelli asked him what human rights mean to him. He answered that in a country like North Korea, they have the ideology that human rights are for the masses, and that what’s important for the masses are not personal rights, but the rights of a society.

A few days later, Vitelli encountered a colonel near the wall that separates North Korea and South Korea. The man opened up to her, revealing that he wants North Korea to have steady, trade relationships with its “cousins,” meaning Japan and South Korea. In the meantime, however, he told Vitelli that the countries will “not be talking about trade when there’s this nuclear threat.”

Wanting to figure out how much North Koreans knew about their leader, Vitelli once brought up the day February 13 with her tour guide, Kim. February 13, 2017 is the date when Kim Jong Un’s older brother was murdered in a nerve gas attack at an airport. Kim had no idea why February 13 was significant. In fact, he had no idea that Kim Jong Un even had an older brother. “I knew that I was crossing the line,” said Vitelli. Suddenly, Kim told her that he didn’t want to know more about his leader. “Being an orthodox native, he has not only conformed opinions, but also the right instincts, the kind of emotion he needs.”

At the end of her journey, Vitelli answered her question. North Koreans know very little of what was happening in the outside world. They are afraid of the United States, who they view as a great enemy. “And you don’t imagine this,” remarked Vitelli, “but Kim Jong Un does make his own people happy.” Through improvements in the neighborhoods, and the gifts he gives to the elites, nobody is inclined to leave or fight.

Curious, Vitelli asked her tour guide Kim what he thought about showing her around his home. She knew he had ideas “about Russia and the Middle East, for example, which were completely reflecting the point of view of the Russians.” However, he was curious whenever she brought up these topics, knowing that he’d never find her perspective in any North Korean publication. Before she left, he told her: “well, you have no idea how many new things I’ve learned.”


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