Cuba, North Korea, and Freedom

THOUGH SOME HAVE accepted “axis of evil” characterizations of Cuba and North Korea, my experiences of the two countries—nine visits to Cuba and one week in North Korea—have led me to far different conclusions: There are very few similarities between the two nations, and neither is inherently “evil.”

Music infuses the air in Cuba as in no other of the 60 countries to which I’ve traveled. The streets are alive. Children play baseball and soccer in the streets. Cafes, parks, and other public places are crowded and noisy. Nearly everyone I’ve met has treated me like a long-lost friend, even more so when they learn I’m American. There is a natural affinity between Cubans and Americans. More than 100 flights a week ferry people between Havana and Miami.

In North Korea, the streets are eerily quiet. There is virtually no visible human interaction. North Koreans are forbidden to make eye contact with Westerners. There appear to be no public gathering places except the massive government plazas where military parades and government rallies are staged. I was never allowed to go anywhere without a “minder.” I traveled with a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) official who was born in North Korea and returns there frequently. His counsel: “Assume that everywhere you go you are followed and that every conversation you have, no matter where, is bugged.” His relatives received permission to travel from their home village to Pyongyang to visit him. In our hotel room, he turned the television volume up to full blast before they began talking quietly. On one early morning walk near our hotel (the only time I was unescorted), I took a few photographs. By the time I returned to the hotel, government representatives were waiting in the lobby, demanding to see all my photos and instructing me on which ones to delete.

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