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Paul Koontz shares his pix of North Korea

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[In October 2005] my family and I lived in Beijing while I was doing some teaching at Peking University. And in the course of our wanderings through Beijing, we ran into two guys of questionable credential who said they could get us into North Korea. It's not a conversation you find yourself having every day, and we figured that would be a fun adventure with our two kids. (Laughter) And what did you do over your fall vacation? We figured nobody else would be offering up stories from North Korea to compete with them, so we figured we would do it, and we did.

And this is a few quick minutes, a look at Asia's next resort paradise. It's not a very warm place -- it's a place stuck in time. We boarded a Russian built jet that was made in 1964, and then we unloaded on this beauty. I don't know how you get spare parts for something like this if something goes wrong, but this is typical of what you see of the infrastructure there. And forgive me on one dimension of this. These pictures were chosen for anecdotal value, not for photo quality. And we were limited to one very small digital camera, and often were taking pictures either out of our palm or from our belt buckle because we were being fairly closely watched. This was actually taken -- I wouldn't have had the nerve to do this on our arrival, this was actually taken as we were leaving.

It's not a very welcoming place for Americans, in particular. These are some cropped images of propaganda photos, propaganda art that you see on the streets around town, in Pyongyang. These are our two kids, Griffin on the left, and Sophie on the right. And there's nothing like a well dressed woman with a semi-automatic handgun, to -- (Laughter) inspire patriotic sentiment, I suppose. This must be a North Korean marketer's version of using sex to sell an idea. It's the best representation of a woman you'll see on these graphs. We had a woman who was taking us around, and a guy in sunglasses with the secret service-style cords coming out of his ear, following us everywhere. She referred to us, interacting with this family of four, as "My American imperialists."

(Laughter)

And she told us to call her "Honey," which seemed like a poorly chosen name. But we went around calling this woman "Honey" for our four days there, and she called us her "American imperialists."

(Laughter)

This was a general in the North Korean army, who gave us a very stern talking-to about all of the transgressions that the U.S. was guilty of in the Korean war. Our kids are lovers, not fighters, so -- and we'd been living in Beijing for a while and they were used to having their pictures taken. So their first reaction after getting a talking to from somebody like this, is to go stand and have their picture taken with him.

(Laughter)

And that was as close as we got to a smile from him, and I think he realized this wouldn't help his reputation any, so he disappeared pretty quickly after that picture was taken. One of the great ironies there is, they present the U.S., and the U.S. allies, as being guilty of the separation of the country. So there are these large monuments and posters to reunification throughout the country, and the story that the local population is given is that it's the foreigners fault for carving the country up and keeping the North Korean and South Korean populations apart. So you see these kinds of things fairly often throughout the country. Forgive the quality of this picture: this was taken in our hotel. This hotel, it's very modest front desk had a world map, aspiring to be a global citizen. It gave you two time zones: Pyongyang on the left and Havana, Cuba on the right.

(Laughter)

Which I thought was great. There were only two other cities that were shown anywhere on the map: Beijing, which is just off to the left, and Vancouver. And I'm not sure what the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce thinks about showing up on that list. This is a woman that was directing traffic with great resolve and military precision outside the front door of our hotel. We watched her for at least ten minutes as she moved and rotated, with complete control of her little domain, and we didn't see a single car go by.

(Laughter)

I mean, you do have to wonder what they think sometimes. I have no doubt if a car had come up, and if it was out of sync with her routine, it was going to have to wait until she got around to it. There was no question about that. So, the main event of our time was what was called the mass games. This was in a stadium that seats over 200,000 people, and it looked eerily like the iconic Apple ad -- everybody dressed in black, polite applause only at very clearly specified times. Guns figured prominently -- military people on the field. And if you really think about it, this big display which sat opposite most of the people, is just a huge communist video monitor. One person per pixel -- the resolution of this screen was about 70 by 400. The frame rate was one to two hertz. You could get up to two frames a second until muscle fatigue set in.

(Laughter)

I definitely don't want to be the guy whose pixel is responsible for the piece of broccoli in Kim Il-Sung's mouth. I don't think is a career-enhancing move for life as a pixel in North Korea.

(Laughter)

I have a very short video, which I'll wrap up with. It literally is just 15 seconds. It shows you the warm-up routine that this wall of these cards went through before the actual show started.

(Video: Cheering)

So there are plenty more stories, no more time. Thanks.

(Applause)

Video Details

Duration: 6 minutes and 6 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
License: Dotsub - Standard License
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Director: TED.com
Views: 349
Posted by: tedtalks on Nov 24, 2008

While on vacation in Asia in 2007, Paul Koontz got the rare chance to spend a few days in North Korea as a tourist. He brought along his kids and his camera. In this talk, he shares his experiences, from quotidian details to grand spectacle.

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