Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sophie Schmidt in North Korea

Earlier this month, Bill Richardson ("former Governor, US Ambassador to the UN and backchannel freelance diplomat extraordinaire") took his eighth trip to North Korea and invited Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt to come along.

Schmidt invited his daughter, 19-year-old Sophie, who has, as Betabeat put it, "become our new favorite North Korean delegate" by posting an account of her trip, with pictures, here.

It's been getting a lot of attention, for good reason. It's very impressive, not to mention quite entertaining, so if you haven't seen it, check out "It might not get weirder than this." I'll post just a couple of excerpts, such as:
I can't express how cold it was. Maybe 10-15 degrees F in the sunshine, not including wind chill. The cold was compounded by the fact that none of the buildings we visited were heated, which meant hour-long tours in cavernous, 30-degree indoor environments. It is quite extraordinary to have the Honored Guest Experience in such conditions: they're proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath. A clue to how much is really in their control.

Ordinary North Koreans live in a near-total information bubble, without any true frame of reference. I can't think of any reaction to that except absolute sympathy. My understanding is that North Koreans are taught to believe they are lucky to be in North Korea, so why would they ever want to leave? They're hostages in their own country, without any real consciousness of it. And the opacity of the country's inner workings--down to the basics of its economy--further serves to reinforce the state's control.

The best description we could come up with: it's like The Truman Show, at country scale.

It does look cold, in that photo above, doesn't it? Actually, it looks almost sterile. That's the capital city, Pyongyang. (Nice road for one vehicle, huh?) But a nationwide Truman Show? Now that's chilling!

Here's another excerpt, with accompanying photo:
Looks great, right? All this activity, all those monitors. Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in--a noisy bunch, with media in tow--not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village [her term for the Kim Il Sung University e-Library] was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home.

When one of our group went to peek back into the room, a man abruptly closed the door ahead of him and told him to move along.

Her whole post is like that - great pictures of a very secretive country, combined with snarky, but spot-on, commentary. Some media conglomerate really missed a bet by not snapping this up. It's that good.

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