Watch the Books you Bring into North Korea
Patrik Wallner is known for creating edits that take skateboarding to areas of the world not familiar to most skaters, offering a uniquely optimistic view of places that are usually portrayed in a negative light. Daryl Mersom caught up with Patrik to discuss skating in North Korea, the beauty of reading about a place before you visit it, and why you should go careful when bringing books into the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, AKA North Korea).
I actually discovered Barabara Demick's talent for reporting on Bosnia and the DPRK after I went for the first time to Pyongyang. It would have been nice to have read her work before, but I returned a couple more times after that and it has opened my eyes on a couple more topics one wouldn't notice at first glance.
On the other hand I did read Logavina Street before going to Bosnia, so it was quite a trip walking down the street that has embedded in it so many stories involving the men, women, and children going through everyday life with Serbian snipers aiming at them.
I thought there were actually quite a lot of parallels between the two books. One thing I remember in particular is how in both the DPRK and Bosnia women still wore makeup and took great pride in their appearance despite being impoverished and under siege.
I do agree that humans like to treat themselves right in terms of appearance during war or social conflict. I think it's just something that keeps one’s morale up in times of crisis.
Both nations now have very beautifully dressed people, but I have to say that the Koreans do look way more traditional with their elegant hanboks. In times of celebration one needs to dress up appropriately.
Do you have any travel companions who are big readers? Has their knowledge ever helped you out in sticky situations?
Walker Ryan, Tommy Zhao and many others would definitely be a part of that! My friend Ryan Nimmo had a thing where he tries to read 50 books in a year. I am actually a slow reader so I don't really read that much, but when I do have a nice editing break it feels comforting going into a book store and strolling through some new book options. I tend to like biographies with historical context a lot, they’re educational and also provide you with a good story.
I can’t recall that a book has helped me to get out of a sticky situation. But of course by reading one opens up a channel for information that will help in any given situation.
But there was a time when reading almost bit me in the ass. Exiting by train from the DPRK back in 2010 I wasn’t aware that one can only bring in fiction to the hermit kingdom. I brought in a book about a defector from Romania’s Ceausescu-era called The Great Escape. On exit they go through all your photos and also check your suitcase, and so they saw the book and started flipping through it. The eyes widened of the agent and he gave us a suspicious tone when pronouncing the book is his broken Korean-English (korenglish) saying, “The… Great…. Escape”. Everyone froze, since of course he could have thought it a defector’s story from out of Korea, but someone from our group said, “Its fiction, just a story”.
He paused and gave it another look and flipped through a couple more pages but then gave it back and left the train car. It was a really intense ten seconds or maybe more, but luckily it was not a big enough deal to make a bigger fuss about. Watch out what books you bring into the DPRK if you happen to go!
What other precautions did you have to take before going to the DPRK?
Usually one goes through a meeting with an agency before embarking on the flight or land crossing to Pyongyang. The typical “no insults, making fun, and being on your best behavior” is advised in the effort to keep oneself out of trouble during one’s stay within the hermit kingdom.
All of my entries in to the DPRK have been to skateboard and get away with some kind of documentation of the skateboarding of one of my friends. I have entered four times, every time with different friends and we have always had small windows to skate in various spots within the country.
There are not many spots but I am happy with a flat ground trick with a backdrop that speaks for itself. I do think that North Koreans see skateboarding as a newly established sport from the West, but it seems that they are open for this board with four wheels, since it was never spat upon with disgrace as being a capitalistic toy. Rather, I’ve seen a joyous reaction, which in my eyes works a little like the ping pong philosophy, minus ping pong and with boards!
Other precautions one would have to take before entering the hermit kingdom include anything from not insulting the Kim Dynasty to not sneaking in any bibles. The tour organizer has a couple stories of people still in jail because they thought it would be a good idea to try to leave a piece of Christianity within the least religious country in the world. Most of them were missionaries with South Korean roots. So overall there are a couple guidelines one has to follow to not breach or break any local laws. Leaving the hotel is also strictly prohibited, as well as talking to any North Koreans not related to your tour group, as well as entering any buildings without permission (like local grocery shops). So many rules and not much thinking, just absorbing propaganda.
Do you think there are further opportunities for cultural exchange through skateboarding?
Western activities are partly banned, besides sports, since physical games are encouraged. In that sense skateboarding somehow went under the radar, considering it is not really a recognized sport by the Olympics (at least when I was visiting the DPRK).
North Koreans love roller-skating, so right around the 2012 bend I noticed a huge skatepark emerging in Pyongyang online. The following year, I entered to check it out with a Chinese and a Swedish friend and it turned out to be just a quick, thrown together park without copings, made by the government. We left a couple boards behind for them to progress on and planned to come back in the future to see what happens with them. I haven’t returned to Pyongyang to this day and so I have no idea if anyone has mastered the kickflip yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best!