Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Seven days in the DPRK - Day 2

Note: These posts provide a summary of one tourist’s experience in North Korea in summer 2012. This trip was conducted without external financial support, and nothing herein should be construed as condoning or supporting the actions or policies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

Recently a pop culture magazine called Punch! produced a goofy video that mocks the DPRK’s efforts to lure American tourists.

Indeed plenty of folks have wondered just what the hell I was thinking when I shared my plans to see North Korea for myself. One pal asked, “Aren’t we technically still at war with those guys?” Well, yes and no. Starting in 1950, the United States led a United Nations “police action” against the North and nearly pushed its army to the Chinese border before PRC forces swept south and forced a stalemate. Even so, the U.S. never technically declared “war” on North Korea, and we never signed an armistice to end hostilities [an armistice was signed, yes, but not on behalf of the United States]. There is no peace treaty, no formal American recognition of the DPRK. So, yeah, there’s still some tension there, which partially explains why only about 2,500 U.S. tourists visited North Korea from 1953 to 2010 [that number might have crossed 3,000 by now].

Was I really here? Sometimes it's hard to know for sure...
Still, the United States does not ban its citizens from visiting North Korea. The State Department Travel Advisory describes the threat of arbitrary arrest and potentially inhuman treatment faced by outsiders who cross the border, especially those entering illegally - but you can go. Just don’t count on easy access to the internet, don’t waste time searching for an ATM, and, by all means, don’t get arrested. Cross the authorities over there and you’ll receive no help from our Pyongyang embassy. We don’t have one.

The DPRK, after all, zealously guards against the threat of social contagion. Journalists and missionaries are especially worrisome to that government. Heck, Western tourists couldn’t enter North Korea until 1987. However recent years have seen some relaxation in restrictions. And necessarily so. 

Pyongyang underground (and under the gaze of Great and Dear Leaders)
North Korea is nearly broke. The flow of money that once supported the DPRK regime nearly dried up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Add a cascade of natural disasters (and, according to the DPRK, the impact of U.S. sanctions) and you see a country in crisis, particularly from 1994-1998 when famine killed between 800,000 and 2,000,000 people. North Koreans refer to that terrible time as the Arduous March. Slowly rebuilding, but not quite ready to shirk off the constraints of a command economy, the DPRK has recently been forced to enter the tourism business, both to soften foreign attitudes and gain hard currency.

Despite this tiny crack, North Korea works to insulate outsiders from the harsh realities its people must endure. Travel to North Korea and you’ll see this, especially when you meet your guides: people who escort outsiders beyond the perimeters of that nation’s foreigners-only hotels. Guides are unfailingly friendly and earnest; they are also expected to be ideologically unimpeachable and always alert for any signs that a foreigner might be causing trouble.

Windows on Pyongyang
Like Mormon missionaries, DPRK Guides travel in pairs (sometimes in trios with larger groups), answering questions, organizing outings, and smoothing over the country’s rough patches. They assure visitors that, yes, the farms are producing food, and lots of it; yes, factories are churning out goods, and plenty of them; yes, the people love their leader, fervently, ardently, passionately. They always seem to have good news about their country, mostly because they enjoy benefits that are unimaginable to most other North Koreans, including access to Dollars, Euros, and Yuan.

Guides draw attention away from awkward interruptions, such as when the power goes off unexpectedly or when the locals appear to be picking grass for food, and they shoot down rumors about the luxuries enjoyed by high officials. They also keep visitors out of trouble. Guides say when it’s OK to snap pictures and when cameras must be put away, and they guard against any displays of disrespect for DPRK leaders. Oh, and they never let tourists wander out of sight.

They also make sure that you never have much time to think. At least that’s what we experienced. Coordinating with Koryo Tours representatives traveling with us, our guides were determined to fill every minute of our tour with activity. That meant an early departure from Nampho this morning and an hour-long drive to the West Sea Barrage, a North Korean showcase of dams, locks, and water channels that demonstrate its people’s ability to complete projects on a grand scale.

West Sea Barrage
The visit was pretty quick for something so big. We arrived, watched a video, heard a talk, took some pictures, and returned to our bus, giddy with statistics and giggling over bromides. We were invited to accept DPRK’s depiction of the dam, an indisputably massive device to separate fresh water from salt water, as a monument to national character, working-class innovation, and personal sacrifice for the greater good (“heroic feats,” we are assured, which won the “war between the outrageous sea and man”).

Mostly we were taught to see the dam as proof of the infallibility of North Korean leadership. Throughout our tour we’d see paintings and other illustrations of waves that crash and roil with wild rage, their furious energies stayed by the steady hands of the Kim Trinity. The dam was a manifestation of that power. We learned nothing, though, about the environmental impact of the dam’s construction, or whether its design inadvertently contributed to the North Korean famine. Neither did anyone dare raise such questions during our visit.

That’s pretty much how the tour ran in those first few days: showcase after showcase after showcase of North Korean ingenuity and steadfast resistance to foreign aggression, signs and wonders that are always attributed to the wise and benevolent leadership of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung [The elder Kim remains the DPRK President, despite his death in 1994]. Our tour was, in many ways, a vast assemblage of staged exhibits dedicated to two men.

All Eyes to the Great Leader!
At every stop, guides and docents would extol the accomplishments of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, telling, sometimes with breathless adoration, how they personally roused each DPRK achievement, liberating the people from the yoke of Japanese occupation and American-led aggression. Everywhere we learned how the Kims marshaled the people’s wisdom to summon up critical pieces of learning and insight, directing an endless story of success that marches forward, ever forward.

We didn’t hear much about Kim Jong Un, though. The DPRK’s new leader assumed power last year after Kim Jong Il’s death. Sure, locals buzzed about Kim Jong Un’s recent appearance at the newly opened Rungna People's Pleasure Ground; our guides nearly gasped when we showed them a picture in the English-language Pyongyang Times that featured the new leader enjoying an amusement park ride (with a Westerner, no less!) but North Koreans know relatively little about Kim Jong Un. They only know that they love him.

Kim Jong Un is on middle-right [Image from EPA/KCNA]
This affection stems mostly from his family lineage. Indeed, Kim Jong Un so closely resembles his grandfather that some Westerners trade rumors about plastic surgery. Yet we saw no portraits of the young Kim. Instead, always, we saw pictures of his father and grandfather, radiating calm and confidence from monuments and sculptures and posters. 

Mural at the Children's Palace
The senior Kims also smile from pins, pins, pins everywhere. All citizens, you see, wear a pin that signifies fealty to the Kim clan. The typical version showcases Kim Il Sung beaming his beatific smile. There are variations, of course, such as those denoting affiliation with the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, or those depicting Kim Jong Il. A more recent design, though, which is actually sort of a throwback to an earlier version, places the Great Leader and Dear Leader side by side.

Diligent Korea-watchers first spotted the new Double-Kim Pin earlier this year, worn by television news announcers. These new pins are rolling out slowly. Some folks say that only the leaders’ most fervent followers can wear them. I imagine some sort of ranking system that divides Single-Kims from Double-Kims, but our guides squashed that rumor, explaining that delays in production, not distinctions in merit, explain the rarity of these items. When asked where we might purchase either kind of pin as a souvenir, our guide could only blink and pause before composing the correct answer. Kim Pins may not be sold to foreigners.

Water Factory bears
Such was our first full day in the North Korea, wandering among spectacles, trying to learn about this place, and struggling not to embarrass our hosts. After departing the West Sea Barrage, we toured the Kangso Mineral Water Factory and were allowed to take a few photographs, even though the assembly line wasn’t switched on. Our guides explained that images of idling machinery, incomplete construction, and urban decay would be used as anti-DPRK propaganda, but they were willing to trust us.

Then we returned to the bus and those rutted roads, heading for Pyongyang at last. My stomach felt like it was sloshing with Soju, but I was excited to visit a place I’d always envisioned as a retro-Stalinist dystopia of cinderblock tombstones and patriotic posters. Mostly I wanted to see the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, the so-called “Hotel of Doom” shaped like George Orwell’s Ministry of Love, a monstrosity that Esquire dubbed “the worst building in the history of Mankind.”

Ryugyong Hotel
As expected, Pyongyang boasts block after block of depressing concrete apartment boxes, the kinds where Winston Smith would sip Victory Gin while hoping for that long-awaited bullet to the back of his head. Everywhere, the city’s posters and banners portray marching people, smiling children, and benevolent leaders, always bolstered by some relentlessly cheery aphorism:

“Let's become a youth hero in the worthwhile struggle to glorify the Kim Jong Il era!”
“Go forward for the final victory under the guidance of the great party!”
“Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung will always be with us!”
Pyongyang apartment
Yet there are also signs of life too, even of whimsy. Many buildings sport jaunty angles, undulating curves, and South Beach Miami pastels. A “New Street” boasts enough neon racing stripes to make a Vegas blackjack dealer blanch. Even the infamous Ryugyong, once airbrushed from official photos due to its concrete ugliness, is now slathered in glass and steel and scheduled to open sometime soon [Update: Perhaps in summer 2013].

Pyongyang Metro
With all of its recent evolution, of course, Pyongyang still projects a pure vision of the Party’s influence on everyday life in North Korea. Young Pioneers throng the Kim Il Sung birthplace to catch glimpses of the Eternal President’s humble roots. Metro stations, with names like “Comrade,” “Reunification,” and “Victory,” burst with heroic mosaics and portraits of the Great Leader and Dear Leader in every car. And brash, brutal monuments dominate the skyline. 

Juche Tower figures
There’s the Arch of triumph, which stands taller than its Paris doppelgänger and commemorates Kim Il Sung’s leadership against the Japanese occupation. There’s the Tower of the Juche Idea, its red flame glowing at night, designed to symbolize Kim Il Sung’s philosophy of self-reliance. And there is the Monument to Party Foundation, built to convey the Workers' Party of Korea troika of worker, intellectual, and farmer with a stylized hammer, brush, and sickle. 

Monument to Party Foundation
All afternoon we stopped and started, taking hurried pictures and asking polite questions, before finally taking a break at the Paradise Department Store. The store sells all sorts of proof that the people are prosperous. We couldn’t take pictures there, maybe because so few people actually buy things in Paradise. So we wandered the first and second floor and gathered at the bar upstairs to await nightfall and the day’s most impressive spectacle: the Arirang Mass Games.

Mass Games vision of world peace
Actually I hadn’t thought much of this itinerary item when I first imagined a trip to this country. I only knew that the Mass Games is an extravaganza of music, marching, gymnastics, Taekwondo, and Party worship. David, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine visiting the DPRK without seeing this phantasmagoria of People's Prosperity. Now I see what he meant. The numbers are impressive, naturally: 100,000 people, all performing feats of impossibly complex precision. But mere numbers cannot replicate the experience of being there.

Here's a brief video I produced from the show...

The show conveys many elements of the North Korean vision for itself, describing its suffering at the hands of foreigners, its redemption through the strivings of the Great Leader, its depth of despair at being cleaved from its southern brothers and sisters, and its promise of better days through shared adherence to Juche and Songun (“Army First”) policies. One sees no sign of Marx or Lenin here; the virtues of Communism has been largely rooted out of DPRK propaganda. The Mass Games convey a strictly North Korean promise of paradise.

Mosaic of Great Leader and Dear Leader
Child's Play
The show is equal parts history lesson, pop concert, and totalitarian rally. Sure, there’s much to rebuke about its grandiosity. At the same time, the sight of all those children flipping books to form one huge animated mosaic, showcasing everything from new farming equipment to new amusement parks to candy-colored crossed handguns, can be undeniably amazing and strangely sweet. 90 minutes later, as our bus threaded its way to the exit, none of us could quite get our heads around what we’d just seen.

Mass games finale
For the next few days, we’ll stay at the Yanggakdo, a luxury tourist hotel on an island in the Taedong River [Check out its promotional video!]. Bridges connect the thin sliver of land to the surrounding city, but we’re reminded that we cannot leave without our guides. Fortunately the Yanggakdo offers a few restaurants, some gift shops, a swimming pool, and a Chinese-run casino and massage parlor (that is off-limits to locals).

Yanggakdo Hotel lobby
From our 33rd floor window, David and I gaze upon the city. The air conditioning doesn’t work, but the windows open wide. The elevators move at glacial speeds, but their doors close fast enough to cause injury. We are lodging in the middle of Pyongyang, but we aren’t allowed to leave the island. The nickname for our hotel? The “Alcatraz of Fun.”
Day 1 | Day 3

Video and photographs - other than Kim Jong Un - © Andrew Wood

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