Ironic tourism

by Rob Horning

7 November 2007


The Economist had a brief piece about tourism in North Korea that wanted to do the classic journalistic move of mocking the thing its reporting on and those who would care about it while validating at the same time the inherent interest of the thing being dismissed by bothering to publish a story about it at all.

Global capitalism has worked many wonders, but where in the free world can one see 10,000 children dancing in synchronisation, dressed as eggs? Such weirdness makes North Korea, a basket-case state, a must for a certain sort of backpacker.

This image helps give a sense of what they’re talking about:

Now, I’ll admit to being that sort of backpacker in my imagination, and I know I shouldn’t be; it doesn’t do to be snickering at totalitarian regimes as if these egg dances are the worst indignities the people who suffer under them have to endure. It’s easy to laugh and forget about the starvation, surveillance, deprivation, fear of random imprisonment and ceaseless propaganda that makes life a cynical grind. It’s easy to want to commodify that experience and consume it from a far:

It seems that the tourist board realises the ironic appeal of such things: painted replicas of some of the most over-the-top bits of propaganda are for sale, and a post office does a roaring trade in stamps depicting mighty fists crushing Western imperialist aggressors.

Those are some grim souvenirs when you think about it; what makes them kitschy for their target market is the fact that they are imposed on the miserable people who are not free to laugh at them. Owning such propaganda items as an American is a way of consuming our own freedom as a gloating entitlement, a way of celebrating it to the degree that it comes at the expense of others. Look at us, we’re free to laugh at the emblems you must fear. Ha-ha.

Still, I enjoy reading this kind of article, imaging myself as the correspondent staring out the window of the “Alcatraz of fun” where Western tourists are consigned during the Mass Games and idly contemplating with great detachment the economic misery of others. I imagine this would make me feel more alive, like I was less living in a bubble of prosperity, preoccupied by small-scale personal issues. Maybe the sight of such misery would blot out awareness of any such personal problems; this might be the appeal of this kind of magazine article, for that matter.


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