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Kingdon of Recluses

May 3rd 2018

When I mention my plan to visit all countries in the world, people are typically enthusiastic, and then proceed to ask me whether I’ve visited North-Korea. When I say that I have, I am met with disbelief. Apparently, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has a reputation to uphold: out of all 198 countries, it’s supposedly the most difficult to visit.

Since we were travelling in a group, things weren’t quite so bad, but historically, it’s obvious how this image came about. In as early as the 19th century, Korea was vehemently opposed to any kind of modern influence and closed its borders, only maintaining relations with China. Korea has been known as a kingdom of recluses ever since.

There are now two Koreas. With 51 million inhabitants, the southern part is the world’s eleventh economy. The north isn’t doing as well: with 25 million inhabitants, it’s listed in the 125th position. The contrasts are striking: Seoul is a city of light, Pyongyang barely has any street lights.

I set foot in North-Korea eight years ago. My hotel was located on an island, and my freedom of movement was confined to the hotel halls. Our visit followed a strictly arranged minute-to-minute schedule, supervised by travel guides who seemed to be robots. Almost scarily impressive was a performance by the Arirang Festival. In a stadium with a seating capacity of 150.000, the largest in the world, we witnessed a gymnastic and artistic performance unlike any other. The tens of thousands of participants created mosaic pictures by holding up coloured cards at the right moment. This is how they portrayed the macabre beauty of the individual merging with the masses. After an hour and a half a globe featuring a united Korea was carried onto the field.

The Koreas are back on speaking terms again, and starting the day after tomorrow, they will even be in the same time zone, since North Korea will be putting its clock back half an hour.

Is there any hope for the world? You would almost think so, now that (closer to home) Saudi-Arabia is also undergoing some serious change. For the time being, it’s still an impregnable fortress, since the authorities don’t provide tourist visa. New crown prince Mohammad bin Salman finally seems to be preparing his kingdom for the 21st century, however. Women get to drive, starting this summer, which is a big step for a country that has consistently violated human rights, and those of women in particular. What’s more, the Saudis got to go the cinema again last month, for the first time since 1983. What film was on? Disney’s Black Panther, in which a (black) prince transforms his country. What a coincidence.

To crown it all, it was announced that Saudi-Arabia will soon be dispensing its first tourist visa. While other countries are increasingly attempting to close their doors to the big, bad world outside, two kingdoms of recluses are opening theirs. I’m not complaining, mind you.

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