A local activist visits North Korea and finds the unexpected — strong women leading meaningful lives

By Joe Piasecki

Her shirt depicting a unified Korea, a  North Korean band leader waits to march in a women-led  May 23 state celebration heralding the cause. Photo by Niana Liu.

Her shirt depicting a unified Korea, a
North Korean band leader waits to march in a women-led
May 23 state celebration heralding the cause. Photo by Niana Liu.

From behind the windows of the bus, a state-sanctioned interpreter beside her, the cityscape of Pyongyang — a destination out of reach for most American travelers the past 60 years — loomed larger than life while at the same time eerily devoid of it.

“I was shocked by all the tall apartment buildings and wide boulevards, but more shocked by how empty it was. It felt like a ghost town. There were people, but not enough to match all the buildings. And they walked with a purpose, mostly lone walkers and others on their bikes. So few cars for the two million I was told live in this city,” Venice-based activist Jodie Evans, who visited North Korea in May as part of an international women’s peace delegation, writes of her initial impression of the city.

“Sometimes all that was on a boulevard was our bus. A huge street for as far as you could see — the width every city planner longs for — and few cars. There were more buses, and they seemed to always be packed, standing room only. The people on the buses were serious, focused, and I didn’t see a lot of talking or laughing,” she continues in a travelogue essay for alternet.org.

“My translator pointed out a street that had been built in one year with beautiful high-rises with a more modern, Soviet-style flair. … She pointed at another building and said it is the highest building in the world. It didn’t look like it to me, but I didn’t argue.”

Evans was one of 30 women — feminist icon Gloria Steinem, filmmaker Abigail Disney (grandniece of Walt Disney) and Nobel Peace Prize winners Mairead Maguire and Leymah Gbowee among them — to spend a week inside North Korea as guests of its Communist Women’s Union before crossing into South Korea on May 25 through the no man’s land of the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Typically forbidden at the risk of imprisonment or death, crossing the DMZ symbolized the delegation’s call to end a travel ban between the two countries that has separated Korean families since an American-brokered July 1953 armistice suspended combat in the still technically unresolved Korean War.

“What would it be like if one day, all of a sudden, your sibling or child or parent was in Bakersfield and you never got to see them again because somebody drew a line on a map?” Evans asked rhetorically during a recounting of the trip last week at her Venice home.

The travelers, who also participated in a North Korean political rally in support of the reunification of Korea, also sought to promote a peace treaty that would replace the cease-fire armistice.

During a press conference in Seoul that was met with protest by hundreds of South Koreans decrying North Korean human rights abuses, Steinem said that the prior peacemaking accomplishments of the delegation’s Nobel laureates “prove to the world that women can make peace, on their own without governments, when sometimes governments cannot,” according to a report by the Christian Science Monitor.

Provocateur in Pink

Evans, who in her mid-20s served as director of administration during California Gov. Jerry Brown’s first term in office and later ran his 1992 presidential campaign, is no stranger to political confrontations or risky international travel.

She thrives on it.

As co-founder of the outspoken women’s social justice and anti-war activist group Code Pink, Evans has disrupted congressional hearings, twice attempted to place Karl Rove in handcuffs under citizen’s arrest for international war crimes and interrupted Sarah Palin’s speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

A mother of three who was married to late computer industry pioneer and venture capitalist Max Palevsky, she’s also led activist delegations to Iraq (before and after the U.S. invasion), Afghanistan, Iran, Burma and Cuba, and met with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Evans, who always wears something bright pink, has sprinkled her home with art collected during her travels, but two paintings dominate her living room: a vibrant red and pink Leonard Koscianski oil painting of a butterfly and flowers, and a Warhol yellow-gold depiction of Marilyn Monroe with bright red lips. The pieces seem to communicate a lust for life, thirst for human interaction and fiery irreverence that underlies her particular brand of activism.

To hear Evans discuss it, the North Korea trip was all about overcoming the obstacle of international conflict to form personal bonds. An itinerary of pre-arranged visits to cultural events and monuments culminated in open conversations with their North Korean handlers about routine domestic life, personal aspirations and even battles with depression.

Despite living under a repressive authoritarian regime and internalizing many of its values, Evans found the women to have a strong inner life.

“They were smart and interesting and curious and beautiful and thoughtful. … They had such an amazing sense of themselves. Everybody had a job and a passion or two. They had their culture piece and their work piece, and something they really cared about,” Evans said.

Light and Darkness

The carefully orchestrated travel itinerary established by the Communist Women’s Union both shed light on the lives of North Koreans and raised questions for Evans about what remained hidden from view.

Following their arrival at the simple, two-story Pyongyang airport after a short flight from Beijing, the delegates checked into their rooms at a 45-story cement-gray hotel with small windows and a massive marble lobby with dim lighting and no other visible travelers. On the elevator ride to their rooms on the 31st and 38th floors, Evans noticed that most of the floors in between remained pitch black, their hosts needing flashlights to find their rooms.

Throughout the week the 30 visitors and their 30 translator-handlers traveled by bus to watch children’s performances at a school for the arts, visit various monuments touting the legacy of original Dear Leader Kim Il-sung and heirs Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, attend various banquets, roundtable with octogenarian survivors of the Korean War and participate in the public women’s rally and march for the reunification of Korea.

Other than quick glimpses of rural life on the way to their destinations, the delegates interacted primarily with residents of Pyongyang, which Evans described as an authentic but incomplete glimpse into North Korean life.

“What I saw was real, but it was the elite. If you behave, you live in the capitol city. You’re a loyalist. The apartments where [state university] professors live are amazing — very modern; they’ve got gymnasiums and swimming pools. I mean I’ve never seen so many amusement parks. They like keeping people happy. They like them playing, that’s clear,” Evans said.

“I asked everybody who was with us. They behaved so they could have this life. They felt it was out of respect. They felt it was the right thing to do,” Evans said. “I asked one of the gals, ‘What do you want [out of life]? It’s not like they don’t have. She said, ‘I just want to live happily ever after.’ She said, ‘I want to do my job well. I want to do well what I do.’”

Encounters with children at Kyongsang Kindergarten, an arts and music school for gifted children, also revealed a very different way of life.

“The children all performed at everything: Playing, drawing, dancing. … They had little curiosity about us, which seemed strange for kids — no outreach to question us in any way, or even to make eye contact. They were repetitive in their behaviors; performing and not really ‘playing’ in the sense of freedom and exploration. The musical performances were pitch-perfect, adorable and awe-inspiring,” Evans writes in the account of her trip.

“We left a bit disturbed, as it was hard to see these young kids so rigidly formalized and performing at such a young age. I felt myself longing for them to have a childhood, yet they seemed perfectly happy.”

Happily Ever After

The delegation’s hosts also displayed regimented behavior in their reverence to the state during a visit to Manyongdae, the rural birthplace of Kim Il-sung — the founding dictator of North Korea revered for his military leadership against the World War II-era occupation of Korea by Japan.

The featured attraction: an idealized full-scale wax figure of the Dear Leader standing in a pastoral setting, to which visitors are expected to bow.

Evans said she declined to bow.

“My interpreter had to keep telling me to pay attention, to quit taking photos and be quiet. I was not behaving as she felt I should. Didn’t I understand this was the most sacred place in the country and I was to be in reverence? I told her I didn’t share her reverence. The next day I had a new, older interpreter and I saw that the younger interpreter had been reassigned to someone better behaved,” Evans recalled.

“I misbehaved on purpose. I wanted them to know they could like someone who wasn’t disciplined and who misbehaved,” she said.

Public reaction to the delegation’s press conference in Seoul was met with hostility by South Korean demonstrators after North Korean media reports surfaced that two women in the delegation had made statements praising Kim Il-sung — reports that they strenuously denied.

Steinem, according to the Christian Science Monitor’s coverage, addressed repression by the totalitarian regime during the press conference.

“I feel as if I have just come from visiting a kind, hard-working and loving family who are doing their best to survive under a controlling, totalitarian head of household,” Steinem said.

In a letter to The New York Times criticizing a columnist’s depiction of peace delegates as naïve, Disney writes that “none of our number ever believed that this simple gesture was anything more than a beginning, and a small one at that. No one had any illusions of changing North Korea’s human rights behavior overnight, or of toppling a dictatorship.”

Evans said the group’s emotional encounters with Korean War survivors — a woman missing both arms, another who spoke of her infant child being killed during a bombing of her village — helped her better understand their devotion to the state.

“Imagine the PTSD from that violence and why an isolated country would love someone who said they’d protect you from those people again,” Evans said.

Disney writes that “Change will come when [North Koreans] are sufficiently dissatisfied with their own regime and profoundly less frightened that the rest of the world is looking to destroy them.”

Evans’ sense of personal connection with her North Korean hosts gives her reason to hope for peace despite international isolation and the omnipresent influence
of an oppressive regime.

“There’s a sense of joy and wonder in them. They’re very human,” she said. “They’re just people who want to live happily ever after, like everyone else.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Niana Liu, a San Francisco-based artist who took the photographs appearing with this story, traveled with the delegation as an observer working with a documentary film crew.