North KoreaThe World’s Most Secretive Nation, Its Last Stalinist Dictatorship & One Of The Planet’s More Niche Travel Destinations
IMAGE || Offerings to the Great & Dear Leaders at the Mansudae Hill Grand Monument, Pyongyang, North Korea.
“…this is probably the most revered location at which to pay one’s respects to the dead august leaders, not to mention where the bizarre personality cult of North Korea’s founding dynasty can be witnessed firsthand by nescient foreigners like me.”
Well. What an experience that was. At three days and two nights, my trip to the surreal & secretive Stalinist dictatorship that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a.k.a. North Korea, was brief.
Three days of being monitored.
Three days of being chaperoned, guided, led to see only what I was supposed to see, the very best of what the North Korean capital is prepared to divulge to doubting foreign eyes.
Three days of eating what, where & when I was told.
Three days of biting your tongue, checking what you say and when you say it.
Three days of commenting how ‘normal’ life feels here for seemingly normal people – people just like you and me and people who know no different – all the while knowing that life here is anything but normal in the Western sense of the word.
Three days of being surprised, being impressed, being awed & being curious about the pariah state, the ostracised, aloof & so-called ‘most secretive nation on earth’ where fact is routinely stranger than fiction.
Three days which seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.
Three days of a surreal buzz the likes of which I’ve never experienced before, or are likely to again.
– Boring. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland, August 2017
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) Overview
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
Region – East Asia (dMb tag: East Asia). Capital – Pyongyang. Population – 25 million. Official Language – Korean. Currency – North Korean Won (KPW). GDP (nominal) per capita – US$1,000. Political System – Unitary one-party republic/totalitarian communist dictatorship. UN Member? – Yes (admitted jointly with South Korea in September 1991). G20 Member? – No. Size – 120,000 km² (one-fifth larger than South Korea, one-eightieth the size of China, its northern neighbour & only ally, and slightly smaller than the US state of New Mexico). Topography – Mountainous. 80% of the country is covered in mountains, the majority of workable land, most of it situated on a wide western coastal plain, turned over to crops. Climate – Hot & sticky summers, bitterly cold winters. Formation/Independence & Brief History – Independence from Japan – who annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910 ending centuries of dynastic rule – on August 15, 1945, thereafter the peninsula was officially divided by the U.S. & the Soviet Union at the 38th parallel. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), following the Soviet model, was declared on September 9, 1948, 3-plus weeks after the August 15 formation of the Republic of Korea, a.k.a. South Korea. The failure of talks to unify the peninsula sparked the 1950-1953 Korean War, the communist-led North invading the South (the North claims it the other way around). The war ended in a military stalemate, the country in ruins, the formation of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and the signing of an armistice (but no peace treaty). Ruled since its inception by the Kim dynasty, Kim Il-sung (ruled 1948-1994), a.k.a. The Great Leader, introduced the personal philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance. Distinct from Soviet or Chinese philosophies, Juche Socialism became a guiding light for North Korea’s development. The state, aided by the Soviet Union & in possession of most of the peninsula’s heavy industry, initially prospered and enjoyed a higher standard of living through the 60s & 70s than the politically & economically unstable and largely agricultural South (until the early 1970s, North and South Korea were pretty evenly matched in terms of wealth). Stagnation in the 1980s, as the country stuck rigidly to its state-run system, coupled with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 saw the county slide into isolation and poverty; the North’s agricultural system collapsed in the mid-1990s leading to widespread famine and death for countless North Koreans. A recent & contentious nuclear and ballistic missile programme, part of an aggressive military modernisation campaign the seeds of which were first sown in the 1980s, not to mention a hard-line stance against what it perceives as external interference (especially from the USA, public enemy number 1 since the end of the Korean War), has exacerbated North Korea’s rigidly maintained isolation from the rest of the world ensuring that today one of the world’s most secretive societies, and its very last Stalinist dictatorship, remains one of the planet’s more niche travel destinations. UNESCO World Heritage sites – 2. Tourism Catchphrase/Slogans – None (that I could find). Percentage chance of seeing any of North Korea unaccompanied – 0 Famous For – Being closed & isolated; having an unsettling desire to develop nuclear weapons & lob missiles around the region; for being a case study in effective societal brainwashing & one-half of an unparalleled socio-political contrast (with neighbouring South Korea); the absolute and unwavering slavish devotion of the subjected masses to the regime and its highly revered leaders. Highlights – Just being here; the surreal spectacle of clean, ordered and sparsely-populated Pyongyang, an Asian city like no other. North Korea Titbits – The country has its own time zone, Pyongyang Time, which is 30 minutes ahead of China & 30 minutes behind South Korea; it has a standing army of over 1.2 million, one of the world’s largest and the largest as a proportion of population; due to its closed nature, North Korea is probably the most ethnically homogeneous nation on earth (the few foreigners found in the country are mostly tourists); although divided by the DMZ, Korean culture is truly one of a kind with its own language, script (hangul) and food.
Visits – August 2017.
Selected North Korea Highlights
Selected North Korea Highlights Gallery
– Pico Iyer, travel writer
The adventure started in earnest just after 10 a.m. Chinese time, 10:30 a.m North Korean time. It was a short and somewhat laboured trundle over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge spanning the Yalu River from Dandong, China, the once-daily number 95 train, the lone rail service connecting the Chinese border town with the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, signalling its slow progress with frequent and shrill blows of its whistle. I wasn’t missing a trick, taking it all in and with camera at the ready. Once over the bridge and that was that. North Korea. Not from across the DMZ, not from the other side of a river and definitely not from the end of a mangled Korean War-era bridge, all places from which I’ve previously peered into North Korea. Nope. This was actual North Korea. In. The. Flesh. And that became starkly obvious rather quickly.
When the above, my first glimpse of the ever-present portraits of a smiling Kim Il-sung (left) & Kim Jong-il (right), rolled into view as we were coming to a stop on the platform of the train station in Sinuiju, the North Korean town across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge from Dandong, the realisation that I was in North Korea hit home. It was neat moment, one of those will-live-long-in-the-memory travel experiences. The station itself was boxy & spartan but polished, much like everything else I was to be shown over the proceeding days. Seemingly I shouldn’t have photographed the dead but very much still revered leaders. Respect and rules, rules and respect… yada yada yada. It might have been before or after this moment – or both, I can’t quite remember – when we were briefed on the dos & don’ts of brandishing a camera in North Korea (oh, & we also practiced how to bow properly… in the departures hall of Dandong Train Station some hours earlier… honest). In hindsight it seemed unnecessary as by and large photography restrictions were few, completely unenforceable, or sidestepable where they did exist, much to my pleasant surprise. I always do, but I especially loved the latest photography challenge the North Korea provided.
Border Formalities Best Behaviour
Everyone was on their best behaviour, at least initially, when the officials, a lot of dapper officials, boarded the train carriage we were confined to in order to check documents and bags – the mood slowly lightened and the atmosphere became more jovial, more laid-back once it became apparent that the North Korean officials were actually human beings capable of a smile just like the rest of us. And they were obviously used to dealing with diffident foreigners; they knew what they were doing, we didn’t. Some laughs were shared and pictures, although officially not allowed, were conspicuously captured, something that really didn’t seem to bother the officials who noticed (those who bothered to react at all did so in such a way as to halfheartedly wave the cameras away). Will our bags be searched? Most were, mine included, although it really felt more like the need to make an expected fuss rather that a bona fide search for prohibited items (Korea-related literature, pornography, communications equipment etc.). Will they confiscate my zoom lens? Of course not (but they did give it a quick once over… it doesn’t look that ‘professional’). Will they review the contents of camera memory cards? No, although this is more likely to happen upon departure, if it happens at all (it didn’t). Will they find something not to their liking? Not on me, no (paper maps of the peninsula were initially confiscated from Matt, our tour company representative/guide, but eventually returned once common sense prevailed). They noted those carrying mobile/cell phones, at least those who owned up to carrying one via some kind of unspoken honour system; they checked the passenger manifest against anticipated arrivals (they were expecting us); they did their searches; and they took off with our Tourist Cards (a.k.a. visas, which we’d only received/seen for the first time some two hours earlier during the initial group rendezvous in Dandong Train Station) and passports, dozens of them piled high. After that we didn’t really know what to do. We waited, espying real North Koreans, pretty & healthy-looking North Koreans, on the platform outside the carriage. I don’t know why but that sight surprised me and I remember commenting to myself how North Koreans looked just like South Koreans, until I reminded myself that that are, of course, the same people. There’s an unwanted 4-kilometre-wide, heavily fortified Demilitirized Zone separating them, not a continent.
With the train going nowhere, no one seemed to know if we could get off or not. No one dared, not until we were told we could. We were – told we could – so we did get off eventually. Again, and just like on the train, we were initially on our best behaviour off the train, sheepishly taking our first steps on North Korean terra firma – it felt like pushing boundaries by taking those first steps away from the familiar confines of the carriage, where we knew we were unlikely to ruffle any feathers. We eventually returned to the carriage to get our luggage to facilitate yet another bag check, this one on the roomier platform. Leaving our bags behind, we got back on train again, this time to collect our passports. We got off one more time to continue the wait before eventually transferring to a different carriage for the 5-hour journey to Pyongyang, a carriage added to the train while we waited and a carriage that was earmarked to transport only us foreigners (there were at least three tour groups on this day en route to Pyongyang). Pictures were not allowed on the platform of the station, but I captured a few regardless including this one of passengers happy to wait out the formalities by staying on the train; the majority of the train’s passengers were returning North Koreans and visiting Chinese, but it seems only foreigners are required to disembark. And embark. And disembark. And embark.
All in all, the border & customs procedure took about 3 hours, 3 hours of waiting and 3 hours of not really being sure what was going on, a situation everyone was more than happy to roll with (what choice did we have?). Everything felt relaxed and beers were had on the platform to pass the time, the chilled ones selling out from the trolley lady in double-quick time; fresh stocks were needed and arrived promptly, but none were chilled. And once the seal was broken on the platform the beers invariably kept flowing when on the train, too. I didn’t know it at the time but North Korea was to turn into quite the party.
“… the western coastal plain landscape from the border with China all the way to Pyongyang, a distance of some 230 kilometres and a vital region for farming and crop production in the largely mountainous country, appears as one continuous landscape of tidy crops and immaculate farmland.”
Real North Korea?
Sinuiju is connected to Pyongyang by the 225-kilometre-long Pyongui Line, the main corridor for overland traffic between North Korea and China and the country’s most important rail line. I spent a large portion of the 5 hours it took to cover that distance standing between carriages and peering out the (closed) windows, camera always in hand and viewing what I knew I’d never get any closer to, that being real North Korea, the North Korea foreigners would never get to see in person. While obviously rural, it all looked very normal. Simple, but normal. From my brief & restricted view of the North Koreans and their way of life, I didn’t pity them. Not one bit. They know of no other and yes, it appears to be a hard life, one with few comforts and a life void of material luxuries. But I’d imagine the North Koreans also live a simple life with few, if any, of the modern-day worries that beset people like me, people fortunate enough to be able to come here from various corners of the globe to gawk at the North Koreans in an attempt to develop an appreciation for their secretive way of life.
Some more captures as seen from the train en route to Pyongyang.
Songun - Military First
North Korea adopted Kim Jong-il’s Songun (military first) policy, meaning expenditure (a whopping 25% of the impoverished nation’s GDP), allocation of resources and all matters of national affairs are wholly prioritised towards the interests of Korean People’s Army. A policy of f’d up priorities, it means tanks before teachers, nukes before nurses. North Koreans are rather proud of having one of the largest active military forces on earth (the 4th largest after neighbouring China, the US & India, but easily the world’s largest as a percentage of population). It has an estimated active duty military force of up to 1.2 million personnel (about one in five of all men aged 17-54 are in the regular armed forces where standards of training, discipline and equipment are reported to be low) with a total of 9.5 million active, reserve and paramilitary personnel (that’s a lot of cannon fodder). Needless to say, chest-beating militarism pervades everyday life, both men and women indoctrinated early into accepting a strong military influence as a normal part of their everyday existence. For men, military conscription is a testing 11 years, the longest of any country on earth.
Pyongyang. It’s a visually unique Soviet-era project in urban regeneration. It’s boxy. It’s ordered. It’s clean. It’s colourful. It’s broad boulevards, empty & bumpy roads, wide expanses, surreal monumental monuments and some of the biggest & boldest structures/white elephants of their kind on planet earth. It’s compact and home to, and depending on your sources, anywhere between 2.5 to 3.5 million privileged North Koreans, but still feels sparsely populated. There’s activity, but it’s never bustling during the day and downright dead, eerie & dark at night. It’s North Korea’s showpiece, only the very best of which, and no mistake, is seen by visiting eyes. It’s an Asian city like none I’ve ever experienced before. You really need to see it to believe it.
Ha & Yang – Our North Korean Guides
We were met off the train by our primary guide, Ha (her name is a tad more convoluted but for simplicity we were requested to address her as Ha). Of course we were; as a sine qua non of any visit to the secretive Hermit Kingdom, we weren’t going anywhere without her and her male colleague, Yang, whose name escaped me upon initial greeting. Yang, the more approachable of the two in my eyes, rarely divulged Pyongyang titbits, Ha doing the majority of the talking, her English impeccable but delivered in a somewhat annoying accent (gosh, the things that grate me). Two guides. Two sets of government eyes. Always.
It’s a short drive from Pyongyang Station to the Grand Theatre, although for us it was longer than it should have been. A distance of a little over a kilometre at its most direct (via Yonggwang Street), the bus decided to go the scenic route via the banks of the city’s Taedong River instead. Maybe this was to allow Ha more time on the introductory mic, but it – taking the roundabout way between points A & B – was to happen more than not during our time in Pyongyang, something I’d imagine only those cognisant of their surrounds would pick up on. Questioning Matt, our tour company representative/guide, about this on Day 2, I was told I wasn’t imagining it and that it was probably because some roads, and/or the views they provide, are not suitable for foreign eyes, but I suspect it was also done in a bid to give the impression of compact Pyongyang being larger than it actually is – in North Korea bigger is always better, the biggest always the best, as you soon come to appreciate on a visit here.
Liberation Day Eve
The 1-kilometer saunter down an almost deserted Sungri Street from the Grand Theatre to Kim Il-sung Square didn’t take long. I didn’t know that to expect, but I wasn’t expecting to be walking the streets of Pyongyang this evening and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when in the moment; it was like, and even allowing for all the pre-trip anticipation, that Pyongyang snuck up on me. But again it all felt very normal, the dearth of people on the streets at this time of the day an obvious observation. I spoke a few words with Ha, questioning the city’s plans for tomorrow’s festivities (August 15 is Korean Independence Day, or Liberation Day as it’s known in North Korea). She didn’t divulge much or genuinely didn’t know details I assumed would be common knowledge, especially to a government tour guide. I got the impression Independence Day isn’t as big a deal here as it is south of the border (and as it turned out it wasn’t any kind of deal at all).
Coffee, The Chinese, Dinner & Good Impressions
The bus was waiting for us just off the square and just opposite the Ryongwang Coffee Shop, a joint venture project set up by Austrian investors in partnership with North Koreans & seemingly the best place in Pyongyang for a coffee (it was closed when we were in the vicinity). Dinner followed, hotpot in a foreigners-only restaurant that was already busy with a large Chinese contingent (as I know all too well, the f**kin’ Chinese are everywhere, even where you least expect them and especially here in North Korea, making up about 90% of the estimated 100,000 foreigners a year that visit the country). The food and service was as expected – good and attentive (they were prompt dealing with my request for extra onions) notwithstanding the restaurant’s penchant for so-called watery kimchi, a new one on me. The first beer was free, subsequent tipples priced at CNY10 (€1.30). I forget how much the soju was. It was a good time and I remember thinking that if the North Koreans are trying to make a good impression – and of course they are, that’s the whole point – then they are going the right way about it.
“It was a good time and I remember thinking that if the North Koreans are trying to make a good impression – and of course they are, that’s the whole point – then they are going the right way about it.”
We were late – 21:30 – getting to our hotel; North Korean tours, especially one as packed and brief as this one, start early and end late in the day. The Chongnyon Hotel, a.k.a. The Youth Hotel, is located in the city’s Mangyongdae District, one of Pyongyang’s 19 districts. It’s a bit out of the way, purposely I assume, the roads noticeably bumpier on the city’s fringes than in its showpiece centre. Boasting hundreds of rooms spread over 30 floors, we were assigned, again purposely I assume, ear-popping rooms on the 28th & 29th floors, those furthest from the door. I was amazed to discover the room provided foreign news channels; watching an English language RT (Russia Today) report on the present tensions between Washington & Pyongyang over the latter’s on-going nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions while actually in North Korea was a moment I’ll not be forgetting in a hurry and just the latest in a string of unforgettable moments on this particular day.
We were told to heed the ‘No Access’ or ‘Staff Only’ signs dotted around the hotel, told not to pilfer anything (Otto who?) and were requested not to leave the hotel, ‘where would we go?’ the obvious retort to that restriction placed upon us. So we had beers in the ground floor bar instead (on night one, karaoke and beers on night two). We drank, discussed the day, played pool and smiled reading the propaganda being spurted by the English language Pyongyang Times. I finished off the night with beers at the bar with Jerry, a fellow Irishman, & Yang (my shout). I liked him. We liked him. He’s just like me. He likes beer, likes a laugh and wants nothing more than to live a happy existence (he’s all for unification as I was to discover during this and subsequent chats). We’re no different at all and under normal circumstances we could be good friends. But North Korea doesn’t do normal circumstances, that much blatantly obvious even after only a few utterly fascinating hours here.
Day 2 in Pyongyang. August 15. And while it was Liberation Day, it was a day like any other on the streets of Pyongyang, knowing all too well that I’ve no yardstick, no idea what signifies ‘a day like any other’ in this city.
Lots of Pyongyang must-sees were visited on a day when the packed itinerary was as changeable as they come. A day of surreal moments and mammoth monuments, some of the tallest of their kind, the deepest of their kind, and the biggest of their kind to be found anywhere on earth. I dodged the rain while offering up flowers and bowing, sufficiently I hope, to the Great & Dear Leaders at the Mansudae Hill Grand Monument; I walked the Pyongyang streets again; I went shopping, the for-foreigners Foreign Language Book Store cool but the 3-level for-locals department store, where we got to shop among real North Koreans using real North Korean money, infinitely cooler; I rode on and was sufficiently awed by the Pyongyang Metro, as deep as they come; I got sweeping views of the city, first from atop its Parisian-esque Arch of Triumph before going even higher thanks to the pointy & lofty Juche Tower, the physical manifestation of North Korea’s very own not-for-export brand of Confucianist-tinged Communism; I naughtily took photos of photos – photos of leaders, celebrities & controversial missiles – in a Cultural Exhibition Centre (cum museum cum gallery) were taking photos was prohibited; I drank more beer, this time North Korean craft beer in a North Korean ‘bar’; I visited a nighttime amusement park to witness a lot of North Koreans having fun and being nothing but normal; I had dumpling soup (for lunch) and Korean BBQ – lamb, no less – for dinner after which I was treated to an impromptu cultural performance by the restaurant waitstaff; and the day, and night, was rounded off a singing to the each other in the hotel’s noraebang (karoke room). Lots done, lots captured.
Mansudae Fountain Park is a short distance from the surrealistic overdose that is Mansudae Hill Grand Monument, our (unforgettable) next stop. We got the fountain park statues out of the way before returning to the bus via a stop at a small roadside florist where we were encouraged to buy flowers to be offered up to the Great & Dear Leaders who we’d memorably get acquainted with in a few minutes’ time. Oh the anticipation.
Suffice it to say, and my best hyperbole aside, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this before. Our Pyongyang main event came early on Day 2 and was over as quick as it began, but it left one hell of a lasting impression. I guess it’s designed to.
“… this is probably the most revered location at which to pay one’s respects to the dead august leaders, not to mention where the bizarre personality cult of North Korea’s founding dynasty can be witnessed firsthand by nescient foreigners like me.”
Surreal as it may seem/is, locals expect visitors to this place to take it all very seriously and show respect to the monument. One must dress respectfully (tank tops, flip-flops, jeans and shorts are a big no-no, my shorts waiting for me back on the bus for when we got this experience out of the way). We were reminded how to bow, as deep as you can go (but there’s no need to overdo it) and in unison (“1-2-3… bow”), but only after the flowers had been deposited by those offering them up (doing so gets you that bit closer to greatness, if only for a few seconds). We were also told to avoid framing the Great & Dear Leaders in any way that would crop their colossal form – it’s full frame or no frame at all, if you don’t mind (a wide-angle lens wouldn’t go amiss here). A semblance of respectful silence was observed by all, amplifying the sound of the ever-present and somber elevator-esque music. Needless to say, it was all a bit phantasmagorical, a bit ‘is this real?”, but kind of expected at the same time. The highlight of the day? Probably. The highlight of the trip to North Korea? Possibly. It’s certainly a 10-minute moment that will live long in the memory.
The Kim Dynasty & The Personality Cult
North Korea officially describes itself as a self-reliant socialist or workers’ state. In reality, it’s a regressive totalitarian dictatorship, the world’s last, ruled by the Workers’ Party and presided over by the Kim family since the country’s inception in 1948 amid the chaos following the end of the Second World War.
Kim Il-sung, a.k.a. The Great Leader (1912-1994, in power from 1945 until 1994)
Kim Il-sung came to power after the overthrow of Japanese rule in 1945. Wielding almost unlimited power over his subjects for almost half a century, he surpassed all others of his time in longevity as a national leader, outliving Stalin by four decades and Mao Zedong by almost two decades, and he remained in power throughout the terms of office of six South Korean presidents, nine US presidents and no less than twenty-one Japanese prime ministers. Referring to himself as Suryong, or Great Leader, as early as 1949, it was he who authorised the invasion of South Korea in 1950 igniting the Korean War (not that any North Korean would believe/admit this). Shaping political affairs for almost half a century, he introduced the personal philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance, which became a guiding light for North Korea’s development, its very own brand Confucianist-tinged Communism and an ideology distinct from neighbouring Chinese & Soviet ideologies. Kim Il-sung died of a heart attack in July 1994, an event that rocked the country. A 10-day mourning period followed after which the post of President was assigned to him, and for no less than eternity.
– The Two Koreas, A Contemporary History, Third Edition (p16)
Kim Jong-il, a.k.a. The Dear Leader (1941/42-2011, in power from 1994 until 2011)
Pint-sized (he was a rather squat 5ft 2in (157cm) tall) & with a well published fear of flying and a penchant for bouffant hair, jumpsuits and platform shoes designed to make him look taller, Kim Jong-il’s leadership is thought to have been even more authoritarian than his father’s. He presided over a period in the country’s history in which it suffered from famine, partially due to economic mismanagement, had a woeful human rights record and ratcheted up a thorny nuclear armament programme the country is said to have acquired from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. A near-obsessive film buff with a reported collection of 20,000-plus video tapes (Rambo was said to be one of his all-time favourite movies), he was also fond of the finer things in life, reportedly consuming over half a million euros worth of cognac a year, while his private train journeys were as luxurious as befitted a leader of North Korea, despite the millions left behind starving due to famine; one Russian emissary who travelled across Russia by train with Kim described how live lobsters were airlifted daily to his train. Hailed as a demigod, his biography claims, among other superhuman feats, that he shot a 38-under par round of golf that included 11 holes in one, wrote no fewer than 1,500 books in three years while at university and apparently composed six operas. Notoriously reserved, he is said to have broadcast to his people only once, in April 1992 during a parade in Pyongyang to mark the army’s sixtieth anniversary, when he uttered into a microphone at the grandstand: “Glory to the people’s heroic military!” Not surprisingly, a personality evaluation report on him compiled by psychiatrists suggested that the “big six” group of personality disorders – sadistic, paranoid, antisocial, schizoid, schizotypal and narcissistic – which were shared by dictators Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein were also dominant in the late North Korean leader. His narcissism reached an all-time high in April 2009, 2-plus years before his death in December 2011 of a suspected heart attack, when North Korea’s constitution was amended to officially refer to him (and his later successors) as the “Supreme Leader of the DPRK” (but because his father was named ‘Eternal President’ upon his death, Kim Jong-il never officially became president of North Korea).
The Juche Calendar
Notice how the dates on the above picture captions are listed ‘Juche 94′ & ‘Juche 98′, North Korea shunning the traditional Gregorian calendar in favour of its very own ‘Juche’ calendar, one pivoted from the date of President Kim Il-sung’s birth in 1912, Juche 1.
Kim Jong-un (1983/84- , in power from 2011 to the present)
Scion supreme, hailed as the ‘Great Successor” and elected unopposed to the Supreme People’s Assembly in March 2014, little is known for certain about the young, plump & baby-faced Kim Jong-un, the first North Korean leader born after the country’s founding. Nothing, that is, aside from his fondness of basketball and his desire to piss off his neighbours by further destabilising the region all the while giving two fingers to the big, bad US of A. He had barely been seen in public before assuming power and many of the activities of both Kim and his government remain shrouded in secrecy – even details such as what year he was born and whether he did indeed attend a Western school under a pseudonym (it’s almost certain he did, in Switzerland) are difficult to confirm with certainty – but he seems to be someone not to cross, especially if you’re family; official North Korean news outlets reported that in December 2013 he ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek for alleged “treachery” while in February of this year he is said to have ordered the assassination of his brother, Kim Jong-nam, in a Malaysian airport.
– The Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un referencing his grandfather, ‘the President’, & his father, ‘the General’, as reproduced from a display in the Cultural Exhibition Centre, Pyongyang.
The Kim Cult
While other countries have had cults of personality to various degrees (Joseph Stalin’s in the Soviet Union & Mao Zedong’s in China two obvious examples), the pervasiveness and extreme nature of North Korea’s elaborate personality cult is unmatched. The personality cult began soon after Kim Il-sung took power of the new country. And while it had its beginnings as early as 1949 with the appearance of the first statues of Kim Il-sung, the veneration of him came into full effect following a mass purge in 1953, was aided by the 1967 appointment of Kim Jong-il to the state propaganda and information department (where he began to focus his energy on developing the veneration of his father) and was greatly expanded after his death in 1994. To this day the personality cult surrounding The Great Leader is by far the most widespread among the people and while there does seem genuine affection for dead leaders, it’s fair to say that it has largely been manipulated, fabricated by the government for political purposes. Marked by an intensity of the people’s feelings for and devotion to their leaders, many defectors claim there are often stiff penalties for those who criticise or do not show “proper” respect for the regime, fear seemingly playing a big and unspoken part in maintaining the cult and thereby in sustaining the regime itself.
Propaganda & People
We didn’t have much time to process what we just experienced at Grand Monument on Mansu Hill as we were pretty swiftly back on the streets of Pyongyang engaging in a spot of shopping and a spot of enjoyable people watching. But first I had to deal with the printed propaganda in Pyongyang’s Foreign Language Bookstore.
– The Pyongyang Times, July 15 2017
Activity on the streets outside the Foreign Language Bookstore was a little less contrived than the text on display inside it.
Some more captures from this day on the streets of Pyongyang.
Going as low as we could go proved to be one of the definitive highs of our time in Pyongyang. The metro system in most cities, and especially former Soviet cities (think Moscow, Almaty & Tashkent), is typically built as a showpiece, the Pyongyang Metro, at least the potion of it as presented to foreigners, seemingly no different. Showpiece or no, this Pyongyang must-see awes on many subterranean levels, not the least of which is depth. Welcome to the deepest mass transit system on earth.
“Until restrictions were relaxed in 2010 tourists were only allowed to travel the 1 spot between Puhung & Yonggwang stations, this sparking something of a conspiracy theory that the two stations comprised the entire system, that the system was purely for show, and that the passengers encountered were actors.”
Restrictions, Progress & Conspiracy
While it’s definitely the deepest, the restricted Pyongyang Metro must surely also be the most mysterious of its kind, although it is opening up and seemingly every station is now accessible to escorted foreigners; progress of this kind, all in the name of advancing the country’s fledgling tourism offering, is nothing to be barracked at in the bureaucratic behemoth that is North Korea. Until restrictions were relaxed in 2010 tourists were only allowed to travel the 1 spot between Puhung & Yonggwang stations, this sparking something of a conspiracy theory that the two stations comprised the entire system, that the system was purely for show, and that the passengers encountered were actors. For tourists today, the seemingly staged jaunt on the metro system is a little more transparent, a little more panoptic; we rode 5 stops in total via three different stations/platforms and aboard two different trains (one old & almost empty, one new & jam packed). And while I’ve ridden metro systems in many cities around the world, the sampling I got of the Pyongyang Metro was fascinating. Utterly, utterly fascinating.
Emerging from subterranean Pyongyang gave us our first intimate glimpse of Pyongyang’s mammoth monuments, first up its Arch of Triumph. An undoubted triumph in construction, it was built in 1982 and seemingly modeled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was erected to commemorate Korean resistance, specifically Kim Il-sung’s resistance to Japanese rule (from 1925) and the country’s subsequent liberation (1945). It was inaugurated on the occasion of The Great Leader’s 70th birthday, each of the structures 25,500 blocks of finely-dressed white granite representing a day of his life up to that point (365 x 70 = 25,500, the decision to ignore leap years somewhat marring punctilious perfection). While gawking at the Arch from ground level, from where we were initially planning on staying, a majority decision was made to visit its lofty reaches, the changeable itinerary changing on the fly. An absence of cars on the broad road circling the arch meant due care & attention when accessing its lower reaches wasn’t needed, a conversation with a rather proud Yang en route informing me that the arch was not only 10 metres taller than its Parisian rival, but also, at 60 metres high, the tallest of its kind in the world. True if you don’t count the 67-metre-high Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico City as a triumphal arch (most do), a titbit of information that I didn’t know at the time (and I wouldn’t have corrected him even if I did, happy to cede him that one).
“It was here atop Pyongyang’s most famous replica where I first fully appreciated how much of a one-off this city really is; I’d never experienced an urban sprawl like it.”
– The Two Koreas, A Contemporary History, Third Edition (p181-182)
Oh yes, the Communism stalwarts, the unmistakable hammer & sickle. Needless to say here in Pyongyang they are a tad bigger than you’d find elsewhere. Not only that, they have company. A brush, a calligraphy brush no less. This particular circular clinched towering trio are awash with symbolism, just another Pyongyang monument trait beyond being stupidly large, and form the centrepiece of the city’s 50-metre-high granite Monument to Party Founding, itself the centrepiece of a green & vast (25,000 m²) city space overlooking the Taedong River, one typically used for mass dances during national holidays.
– The Two Koreas, A Contemporary History, Third Edition (p15)
– The Two Koreas, A Contemporary History, Third Edition (p194)
– Headline in Rodong Sinmun, the official press of the Workers’ Party of Korea
I’ll happily confess to not knowing a whole lot about Juche prior to visiting North Korea. Once here it’s unavoidable – it’s Juche this, Juche that, Juche the other. The closest thing officially atheist North Korea has to a religion, Juche, roughly translating to ‘self-reliance’, is the national ideology, North Korea’s very own brand of unique and not-for-export Confucianist-tinged communism. Developed by Kim Il-sung as the Marxist-Leninist socialism model he wanted for his nation, one inspired by but distinguishable from both Soviet & Chinese philosophies, Juche is the cornerstone of the state’s ultra-nationalism, not to mention its isolation, and an ideology that was routinely added to and/or altered in order to justify governing decisions (Dictator’s prerogative, I guess). Ignoring the fact that Juche is a myth (North Korea has never been self-reliant, surviving entirely on Moscow for economic support from its formation in 1948 right up until the USSR collapse in 1991, after which the North Korea’s state-run economy fell apart and its people starved in huge numbers), the ideology still controls every aspect of everyday life for everyday North Koreans. It therefore comes as no surprise that the state capital also has a physical manifestation of their ideology, the city’s pointy 170-metre-high Juche Tower. Just the latest mammoth and heavy-on-symbolism Pyongyang landmark we were to visit on this day, it was to be the highest of all our Pyongyang highs.
While most essentials – food, accommodation, transport, guides etc. – on a North Korea tour are taken care of, we’d still been afforded ample opportunity up to the midway point of Day 2 in which to part with some of our hard-earned. Train, hotel bar & lunch/dinner beers; flowers for presentation to the Great & Dear Leader statues at Mansudae Hill’s Grand Monument; propaganda prints & revolutionary souvenirs in the restaurants & the Foreign Language Bookstore; and monument entry fees (the Arch of Triumph & Juche Tower highs cost €3 & €5 respectively). They all took their toll and did their best to relieve us of the hard-currency much valued by the regime, the preference seeming to be Chinese Yuan, Euros and US dollars in that order. The last activities on the Day 2 itinerary also provided ample opportunity to dispose of money. The surprisingly good craft beers in the so-called North Korean ‘bar’ we frequented were well worth the outlay, although everyone balked at the quoted foreigner price of €5 a ride at the nighttime Kaseon Youth Park (we were short on time). Both were memorable aspects of the trip, but the experience of shopping unsupervised among real North Koreans while spending real North Korean money in a real department store (it certainly all looked and felt real to me anyway) stole the shopping show. If this is indeed all a charade then 1) the North Koreans are masters at it, and 2) it’s a game I’m happy to be part of.
Kwangbok Department Store
With an average wage in North Korea of less than €10 a month, dependence on the State is an accepted part of life for the majority of everyday North Koreans. Needless to say, shopping options are limited. Several government-run markets & department stores, where prices are extremely low by Western standards, do exist, selling a wide range of foods & consumer goods such as shoes and DIY materials to the middle & upper classes. We visited the Kwangbok Department Store where cameras were not allowed (we were told to leave our cameras on the bus). Thus, I have no pictures of its 3-level interior, somewhere you can stock up on mostly imported goods and local produce. All manner of goods really; the Kwangbok curiously reminded me of Walmart, a one-stop shopping local selling everything you might need, although none of it carried a capitalist brand (I searched high & low for a familiar logo among the clothes of the 2nd floor, a pair of Made-in-God-Only-Knows-Where Aiddias runners/sneakers making me do a double take). A hangout for the Pyongyang middle & upper classes, I’m not sure if the locals being consumers in the Kwangbok Department Store (& there were plenty of them) were actually spending money or cashing in their government-supplied tokens, or both – North Koreans are issued State provisions which vary according to their job/status, all men, for example, receiving a certain weekly allocation of beer from the regime. The thrill for me of the Kwangbok Department Store, famous throughout North Korea as the venue for Kim Jong-il’s final public appearance in 2011, was being able to roam freely (we were given 45 minutes) while shopping with North Korean currency, obtained through changing Euros at a little booth on the ground floor. My only outlay, my only purchase in North Korea with North Korean currency was a KPW1,500 (€0.16) slice of sponge cake from the third floor food court, it eating into the KPW48,000 I received for handing over €5 downstairs (there is, and as of August 2017, approximately KPW9,000+ to the €). Although it’s legally not permitted to take North Korean currency out of the country, I held onto the rest of my KPW as a souvenir, before heading outside for some fascinating people watching in view of the massive screen on the facade of the department store blaring revolutionary images and anthems. Sitting there waiting for the rendezvous time to roll around while simultaneously lamenting the lack of pictures I’d have to show from this particular experience, it (& the time spent in the department store itself) was one of only two moments when in North Korea that I was free of the group and the guides, only the second time I felt even a modicum of independence when of course in reality I was anything but independent. In a way I could understand how the North Koreans fall for this.
We lingered at the ‘bar’ longer than planned (as I said, the beer was good), most of us assuming we’d drank into and beyond our allocated funfair fun time. But no, not quite. Our last outing of Day 2 proved to be one of its most memorable and, along with the earlier visit to the Kwangbok Department Store, the one which had us questioning most the seemingly fabricated aspect of Pyongyang life as presented to foreigners. Can hundreds, many thousands, of seemingly normal and fun-loving North Koreans enjoying the thrill of an amusement park really be fabricated? Would they go to those lengths just for our benefit, to peddle a perception? Of course not, but that’s the frame of mind one adopts when experiencing and simultaneously trying to make sense of North Korea, and especially when one visits somewhere as everyday normal as Pyongyang’s Kaeson Youth Park.
Day 3. Departure day already. There wasn’t a whole lot on the Pyongyang itinerary for Day 3, a 10 a.m. train departure from Pyongyang Station meaning we had limited time for highlights on this particular day, but one more highlight we were to have. And I’m rather disgusted with myself that I didn’t even catch her name.
“We didn’t have time to read any of the (I assume propaganda-heavy) displays as we were hastily moved, clock ticking, with military precision from one area of the museum to another, the spectacle of the place coupled with the anti-US rhetoric & economical truths being happily spouted by our guide more that sufficient entertainment.”
There’s rarely much to say about a departure. Everyone knows the outcome. The departure from North Korea came about as expected and maybe sooner than most might have wanted. That said, the consensus, at least in my carriage compartment, seemed to be that more time in the country would simply serve to prolong the deception as opposed to giving a greater understanding of North Korea, something I doubt any visiting foreigner will ever truly attain.
“Easily the most transparent aspect of the Hermit Kingdom is its closed nature. Its secrecy. North Korea divulges very little, even to those who make the effort to go there, and anything it does divulge is carefully presented, meticulously staged. Or is it?”
I knew before even getting to North Korea that I’d probably leave it none the wiser. And so it proved. Easily the most transparent aspect of the Hermit Kingdom is its closed nature. Its secrecy. North Korea divulges very little, even to those who make the effort to go there, and anything it does divulge is carefully presented, meticulously staged. Or is it? Can a packed metro system in the middle of the day be staged? Swarms of shoppers in a busy 3-level department store? How about hundreds, maybe thousands, of smiling faces in busy a nighttime fun fair? That shit is real, and it’s as normal as gets in most countries around the world not called North Korea.
– The Two Koreas, A Contemporary History, Third Edition (p459)
In North Korea the everyday normal sights my foreign eyes witnessed invariably come with an asterisk, with doubt as to their authenticity, for no other reason than this being North Korea. Maybe the DPRK is more ‘normal’ than we’re led to believe, more ‘normal’ than is widely portrayed. Maybe, maybe not. My problem having now been there is that I still don’t know, and knowingly never will.