Happy Birthday, North Korea
By Simon Bone, September 1998
I suppose if you had to pick a time to travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it might as well be during a standoff with Japan. On 30 August, in anticipation of the country’s forthcoming 50th anniversary on 9 September, the DPRK launched a Taepo-Dong 1 multistage rocket, without warning, in the direction of the Land of the Rising Sun. Its second stage passed over Hokkaido and landed in the Pacific. The Japanese government mused openly about how to respond to this potential act of war.
A few days later the Koreans claimed that their rocket was not an ICBM at all, but had instead launched a satellite that had made nearly one hundred orbits of the earth. And — here was the main point — another launch would take place within days. The Japanese reply, although couched in diplomatic terms, was unequivocal: Do that and we’ll bomb you.
Two days after the anniversary, I was aboard a near-empty McDonnell-Douglas MD-82 headed for Pyongyang, one of a privileged few who were allowed to see what remained of the celebrations. There were perhaps twenty people on the plane, consisting of the dozen in our tour group and five or six others who may have been diplomats or businessmen. Everyone else had got off in Liaoyang.
Whether or not there had been a satellite — the Russian space agency was alone in claiming to have tracked it — the point had been made: North Korea was now capable of firing a bomb at Japan. What kind of bomb remained a mystery. Recent US satellite pictures had shown a facility being built at Yongbyon that looked like an underground reprocessing plant. Welcome to the world of North Korean diplomacy.
Once we had entered North Korean airspace our flight attendant almost apologetically handed everyone a vinyl China Northern Airlines wallet. Removed from its delicate paper wrapping, each wallet had an aroma like fly spray. I think only those intrepid enough to fly to North Korea got one.
Even from the air, North Korea looked different. Mostly it looked empty. There were no cars, no people in the fields. Pyongyang airport is also in a rural setting far from the city center, but here we caught our first glimpse of Koreans as the plane was landing. It looked like they had temporarily ceased wandering across the runway, as if stopped at a pedestrian crossing for aircraft. The landing strip lay in the middle of a much-used dirt road.
I was a bit worried. It’s not everyday you travel to a country without diplomatic relations to most of the civilized world. Only one member of our group, a Lithuanian, was from a nation that recognized the DPRK. If something happened, there wasn’t much we could do. Aside from a Dutch UN worker and a Canadian programmer, the rest of the group was British, and the guide spoke to us as if we all were.
Two Mercedes-Benz sedans rolled up to the jet and collected the other passengers. After they drove away our group was permitted to disembark and we boarded a bus for the 30-meter ride to the airport door. Customs took about twenty minutes, which involved cross-referencing each name with a photocopied list; ominously the Koreans retained everyone’s passport “for safety.” While I waited I looked at an unappealing wall display for “Pyongyang Airport Duty Free” consisting largely of western cigarettes. I was expecting my bag to be searched for South Korean products and literature, but the officials simply passed it through their x-ray machine and gave it back to me. The only piece of hand luggage that didn’t get x-rayed was our bouquet of flowers — which we would be expected to lay before the giant statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang.
We met our two guides and were ushered into a tour van belonging to the Korea International Travel Company. It was a right-hand-drive model that had obviously been in service in Japan.
The guide began his introduction. “The name of our country is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
I was here!
“The northern part of our republic has twenty-two million people; the southern part has forty-five. There are ten million Koreans outside the country.”
I wasn’t listening. I had spotted my first Great Leader billboard: “Let Us Build Socialism By Following Resolutely The Great Leader Kim Il Sung!”
The guide continued. “As you may know, Korea was occupied by Japan between 1905 and 1945.”
We hissed appropriately. He continued with this history lesson for a few minutes before moving on to more practical matters: it turned out we weren’t going to Pyongyang yet, since Kim Jong Il had decreed today to be an unplanned additional holiday. Under these circumstances there wouldn’t be anything to see in the capital. Instead, we were off to the mountains in the north of the “northern part of the republic.” Until recently this would have meant a long train journey, but after the death of Kim Il Sung, work had begun on a four-lane highway to the area.
Vidaehan Suryongnim, the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung died of a heart attack at his mansion in the Myohyang range on the early hours of 8 July 1994. It had been a hot day, which the Suryong spent visiting a collective farm; but by the evening the weather had turned bad. When he collapsed, helicopters were unable to fly to his rescue, and the ambulances arrived too late. His son and heir Kim Jong Il, then known as the Dear Leader, wasted no time having the road from Pyongyang built: its bridge abutments all bore dates in late 1994.
We learned the rules. Outside cities, you can generally take landscape photographs. Inside them, you need the guide’s permission. No photos of individual people were allowed without the guide’s approval (although these were not a good idea anyway, because the subject would have to report the photo to the, ahem, authorities). Forget about pictures that might cause embarrassment to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: overcrowded buses, people riding on the back of trucks, collapsed bridges, and the like. And pictures of statues must be taken from in front and include the entire person in the frame.
The two-hour trip was a chance to get to know our guides. It is North Korean policy to have two of them accompany each group, lest they become too friendly with the tourists. One guy did the talking, and the other presumably did the listening. But they were genuinely nice people. Even when they lied to you.
Are people required to do military service in Korea?
“No, it’s all voluntary.”
Is it true that Korea put a satellite into space?
“Yes, it is called Kwangmyongsong No. 1 and is broadcasting ‘The Song of Kim Il Sung,’ ‘The Song of Kim Jong Il,’ and the Morse Code message ‘Juche Korea’ to earth. We have a peaceful space program.”
Could you tell us about the famine in North Korea?
Here the guide launched into a speech. “We appreciate the help the rest of the world has been giving us. As you may have heard, the harvests in this country have been very bad for several years because of bad weather and flooding. The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung declared this to be our Time of Difficulty. We had no help from our major trading partners in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, because of the collapse of socialism. It is very difficult for a developing country. Obviously we’re not as wealthy as the United Kingdom. You have been independent for many centuries, but we had to start rebuilding our entire economy after the Fatherland Liberation War in 1953. We are very thankful for the help we’ve received from the international community, including the United Kingdom, but we want to solve this problem ourselves.”
To the untrained eye it looked like we were passing through some fertile valleys. But one member of the group claimed to know a thing or two about horticulture, which he shared with us in hushed tones: “It may be bright green, but rice like this can be fairly worthless, with tiny grains. It’s no wonder they’re starving.”
Eventually our van left the new road to drive on an even newer one, opened only the day before, that led to our hotel. This seemed to excite guides and visitors alike. I think we applauded. Toward the end of the road, we passed a sign that said “Welcome Ardently.”
We had only a few minutes to put our belongings in our rooms before the mountaineering adventure would begin. Nestled between two mountains, the Hyangsan Hotel was a squat concrete pyramid built by a Japanese company. On top of the hotel was a revolving restaurant; I wasn’t sure what this was for, since there was obviously no view here at night.
Mount Myohyang (“mysterious fragrance”) is one of Korea’s most sacred, and beautiful, places. At 1909 meters, it’s not exactly tall, but it is a steep climb through some stunning scenery. Even though there is a concrete pathway leading most of the way up, it’s still a challenge, especially if your shoes have been worn smooth, as mine had.
At the beginning of the trail was a car park where three beige Nissan Bluebird sedans were parked. Men in suits stood around them doing nothing obvious. Many other people were descending from the mountain carrying large bags on their backs.
“Acorns,” said the guide. “Because of the food shortage people have found they can collect acorns to eat.”
“But that must weigh fifteen, twenty kilograms,” the Lithuanian guy said.
“Let’s find out,” the guide replied, and asked a tiny woman with a huge sackful of acorns to let us grab it for a short while. The Lithuanian held it up. “She must be pretty strong,” he said.
Everyone except for our Dutch colleague began the ascent. She lay down on a rock. “See you in a few hours!” she said.
Myohyang’s beauty is mitigated somewhat by the inscriptions of Kim Il Sung’s wisdom, or of slogans exhorting climbers to follow him, into what seemed to be every rock face. The guide helpfully translated the first three or four of these. At the peak, visible from the ground, was a giant carving that read “Juche.”
I quickly fell behind. About an hour later — halfway up — was a stream, where I imbibed as much spring water as I could. My arrival at this rest point was taken by the rest of the group as a signal to continue with the climb immediately — they had been waiting there several minutes. There would be no rest for me.
Not far from there was a boulder surrounded by four metal posts. “Our Dear Leader Kim Jong Il climbed this mountain,” the guide said, “and he sat down on this stone to rest,” something which from that point on everyone else was forbidden to do.
“Did both Great Leaders climb Mount Myohyang?” I asked.
“Yes, in fact most Koreans have,” he replied. “I have climbed this mountain many times myself.”
Forty minutes later the guide stopped at the foot of a waterfall whose source was near the peak, a geological phenomenon I didn’t fully understand. “I will stay here,” he said. “You may continue.” I huffed and puffed my way to the top.
The scenery was fantastic. Here we were on the top of a famous mountain in North Korea at a late-summer sunset. In practical terms, though, this meant we’d have to hurry back down if we wanted to avoid being stuck in darkness. The descent went much faster than the ascent, of course, but somewhere after the holy rock things became difficult to see. The guide helped me, the perpetual laggard, down the last few hundred meters.
We piled into the van, and the driver speeded us back to the hotel, honking the whole way at the clusters of people standing on the road, who seemed surprised by the presence of a motor vehicle. I was drenched in sweat, meaning my choice of wardrobe for the next few days had been reduced substantially.
The hotel lobby was decorated in true North Korean style, with a nature scene — in this case, a waterfall surrounded by models of deer and game birds. It also contained a bookshop that featured nothing but the classic works of the two Great Leaders, and a philatelic kiosk.
If the lobby had made me wonder whether this was a Japanese hotel, my doubts dissipated when I had a chance to look at our bathroom, which was one of those plastic-lined contraptions with a low ceiling. But, importantly, it had a shower. My roommate, an airline pilot, beat me to it.
While I waited I turned on the television. It was nearly time for the news, so the intervening minutes were filled with excerpts from the 50th-anniversary celebrations interspersed with a performance by the Korean People’s Army Choral Ensemble of “The Song of Dear Comrade Kim Jong Il,” complete with uniformed cellists. The screen turned blue between these segments; there was no announcer.
The footage of the anniversary parade was particularly strange. Kim Jong Il stood on the bier, saluting those who marched before him: two million people had taken part in the parade through Pyongyang. A breathless female announcer half-shouted, half-moaned Kim’s praises throughout. There were close-up crowd shots of the people streaming by, a group of veterans, bursting with joy at the Great Leader’s presence. Back to pictures of the waving Kim and the parade. Fake “crowd noise” had been spliced in, which was clearly just one person speaking through an echo and a flanger, saying “Glory to the eternal Juche Idea.” Then the crowds again, displaying the same few people marching by the Great Leader. The editing was poor — they had obviously been standing still until told to display enthusiasm. These veterans appeared several more times, and the crowd voice was repeated every few seconds.
A blue screen again. Nature scenes followed, with a clock displaying the time. At the stroke of the hour, the news came on, read by a woman in traditional Korean dress. If you don’t know any Korean, it’s still not difficult to figure out what she’s talking about, since every sentence contains the word “Chosun” (Korea) and the name of one or both of the Great Leaders. You can forget about outside footage, a picture backdrop (plain blue again) or, actually, any news.
My roommate came out of the bathroom, but I was now too absorbed in watching television. He had to order me to bathe.
I had been showering for a very long time when the telephone rang. I hopped out and answered it. It was our guide, who was letting me know that everyone else was in the restaurant. I hurried down to join them.
It came as a bit of a surprise to me that my first beer in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would be a Schlitz, brewed by American imperialist aggressors in Milwaukee.
“Would it be possible to have some Korean beer?” I asked the guide.
“I don’t think so, because the wheat is being used for the food shortage,” he said. “But I will ask.”
There wasn’t much of a food shortage as far as we were concerned. I love Korean food, but there was more kim chi in front of me than I thought I’d be able to finish.
I wasn’t the only one who felt vaguely guilty at this abundance. At least we were bringing in hard currency that could be used to buy rice from other countries to ease the famine. Of course, hard currency can also be used to buy — for example — a fleet of 200 brand-new Mercedes S-Class limousines; or several new Tupolev-204 airliners to be flown empty to Beijing and back; or indeed a rocket-launch facility; or an underground nuclear-weapons-development plant.
After a while the guide emerged with a couple of bottles of Ryongsong Beer and several more bottles of Chinese Five Star. I thought the Korean beer was reasonably good, although this proved to be a minority opinion. It couldn’t have been too much worse than Schlitz. After our meal, I took a bottle back to my room, to remove the label (which I wanted for my collection), but it wouldn’t come off.
Our evening was spent in the pub. The North Koreans proved to be above-average pool players. There weren’t many other tourists in the hotel — one small group from Pyongyang had identified themselves as we arrived, and there were a few Taiwanese (it is hard to see what that nation has in common with North Korea apart from international isolation) but most of the other guests were overseas Koreans — people of Korean ancestry from Japan who, thanks to that country’s unenlightened citizenship laws and strict social hierarchy, are actually considered citizens of either North or South Korea. The majority of Japanese Koreans are of northern descent, and many belong to a pro-DPRK outfit called the Chongryon, or General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. Apart from North Korea’s arms sales to the third world, the Chongryon’s illegal shipments of yen are what prop up the regime. (However, membership has halved in recent years to about 200 000, and the cash hasn’t been flowing as it used to, which might explain Pyongyang’s stepped-up interest in missile technology.)
But almost all of the overseas Koreans we saw were under the age of 24, and they didn’t look like they had much to do with the North Koreans. They spoke Japanese to each other (many Japanese Koreans don’t speak Korean at all) and were wearing mini-skirts or Nikes or baseball caps or Manchester United track suits. I suspect they had more fervent parents who’d sent them to the DPRK to find out what kind of a paradise their homeland was.
They certainly didn’t have to wear the Kim Il Sung badges that all the North Koreans are required to. There are at least 20 different types of badge (some designs now feature Kim Jong Il alongside his father), and they signify the wearer’s status within the DPRK hierarchy. Not only is social standing traditionally very important within Korean culture, but beginning in 1967-1970 the North Korean authorities are said to have classified the country’s citizens into three major groups: core (28 percent), unstable (45 percent), and hostile (27 percent); these parse into more than 50 sub-groups.
Presumably all the people we were likely to come into contact with were within the upper ranks of the “loyals”; our guides could speak foreign languages and had been allowed to travel abroad, after all. But practically no two badges I saw were alike. We had no obvious clues as to who was the most loyal or the best-connected.
Anyway, it’s not like anyone would be stupid enough to express discontent to us, even if it was what they thought. But after our guide showed up to whomp us in pool, several of us started talking politics with him.
He was well informed in the way that a Christian fundamentalist can be well informed about the Bible but little else. The South Koreans were held captive by their evil government; they had massacred a lot of people in Kwangju in 1980; theirs was a US-controlled puppet state; there had been bad times in North Korea but the economic woes of the south showed that the tables were turned; the National Security Law proves that South Korea isn’t a free society; the South Korean authorities had imprisoned a woman just for attending the World Festival.
I was able to interject something friendly at this point. “Yeah, they sent her to prison for four years for that,” I said disdainfully.
A little background here: In July 1989, Pyongyang staged an event that was meant to mark the country’s emergence as one of the most important socialist countries: the lavish 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, held “for anti-imperialist solidarity, peace, and friendship,” which drew communist students and youths, some of them quite old, from around the planet.
Not that the Koreans ended up earning much solidarity. Within six months, half of the regimes in attendance had collapsed, and the Soviet Union and China soon withdrew their financial support from the Kims. (A resolution was passed by the assembled delegates that the next Festival should be held “on the African continent.” In the event, it was held in Havana in 1997.)
There was a single South Korean delegate to the Festival, a student named Lim Sugyong. She was a member of the south’s dippy pro-Pyongyang Chondaehop, or National Alliance of Student Representatives, and she returned home from the festival through Panmunjom and was immediately arrested for violating the National Security Law. This prevents people from having any contact with the North, owning books printed there, saying nice things about Kim Il Sung, and so on. Lim was sent to prison for four years; other radical students who did the same thing a few years later suddenly ceased their pro-DPRK homilies after they’d actually had a chance to see what the place was like.
The guide was able to out-drink us as well, but even after several beers his political views never mellowed. He wasn’t reciting a speech; he believed this stuff.
I moseyed over to the server and tried to order another Ryongsong beer: Zhongguo (shake head, point to beer bottle), Chosun (nod, smile). It didn’t work. I settled for a Five Star. After about three of these, it was bedtime.
The next morning I was, as usual, a bit late. I had misunderstood our instructions and carried my duffel bag downstairs with me.
But we weren’t checking out yet. “Just put your bag down somewhere,” someone suggested. I left it on a table in the corridor next to the restaurant.
Long ago a book came into my possession entitled For Friendship and Solidarity. Commissioned for Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday in 1982, it was my first brush with the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Pyongyang, and was intended to show that world leaders — Soviet-bloc and banana-republic heads of state, and low-level officials and communist-party chiefs from the free world — came to North Korea and, well, took it seriously. The book consisted of photos of the Great Leader meeting with these dignitaries; the most important seemed to be Nicolae Ceauşescu, with whom he signed a friendship treaty in Pyongyang in 1977.
It was also the first time I had ever heard of the International Friendship Exhibition, pictured in an appendix. And all of a sudden it was right in front of me. At least I knew a few facts about it.
The International Friendship Exhibition was built in 1978 to house all the gifts sent by ostensibly important people from around the world to the Great Leader. It’s a spare-no-expense marble-clad building in traditional Korean style, built into a mountainside. You enter it through a pair of giant gilt doors that weigh several tonnes each, guarded on each side by a soldier in full dress uniform, staring into space.
You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, and taking notes is probably a bad idea, lest the Koreans think you’re some sort of journalist or spy. There’s one other rule: You can’t touch the solid gold door handles.
A woman in traditional Korean costume greeted us outside in Korean (most site guides speak only Korean, leaving it to your group’s guide to translate). She was wearing white gloves and opened the door for us. We were to put on felt overshoes to protect the floors, although with these on my feet I felt like we were about to take part in some sort of curling bonspiel.
There are 120 rooms in the exhibition, far more than you could visit in one day. The first things you see within, framing the main inside door, are a pair of stunningly ugly clocks, each hewn from a giant oak tree, the sort of thing you would have seen in miniature on a British mantelpiece in the 1960s. But the real beginning of the tour is in the room with the giant marble statue of Kim Il Sung in it.
There was a large group of Koreans in the room ahead of us, and we had to wait as they bowed en masse to the marble Kim. The side walls were lined with display cases that contained presents to the Unparalleled Great Man, although I couldn’t tell why these ones in particular were featured in this place of honor.
It was our turn, and our guide drew an imaginary line on the ground with his hand, behind which we had to stand. “Please be silent,” he said. At his signal everyone bowed to the Father of the Nation.
With that bit of nonsense behind us, the exhibition guide started to explain things to our guide, who told us everything in English. There was a large plastic world map on the wall with little LEDs at the approximate location of the capital city of each country represented in the exhibition. The number and color of the diodes depended on who had given gifts, whether head of state or mere citizen. The felt covering the shelves under each of the 70 000 presents was also color-coded: red meant head of state, blue was head of government, and so on. You and I would be a dark yellow.
No time was wasted in taking us to the exhibition rooms, which we perused in geographical order starting with Africa. Some of the most impressive presents were from this section, as tyrants from Kwame Nkrumah to Moammar Gadhafi tried to outdo each other in their lavish offerings of carved elephant tusks and hand-painted portraits of the Suryong.
The lights in each room were controlled by a pressure panel under the carpet in the doorway, which was fine if other people were filtering in after you, but the lights went out quickly if the guide or someone else wasn’t there to stand on it from time to time. There were no windows in the whole building, so it could become very dark.
The Americas was a scant section, and unsurprisingly the display case from Nicaragua was larger than that of the United States (Daniel Ortega had sent a stuffed alligator holding a plate). Many of the exhibits were curiously anonymous, perhaps because the translators didn’t feel like transcribing too many names; a CNN-logo paperweight from Ted Turner was labeled “from the president of American television.”
The Europe section was entertaining, inasmuch as aesthetic sophistication was not a hallmark of the Soviet empire. But it was curious how some of the more functional gifts were presented. Surely a television set from Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov was meant to be watched, not stuck on a red velvet shelf in a display case. Likewise a set of stainless-steel chairs and a table from East Germany’s Erich Honecker were crammed into a glass box in the middle of a room rather than deployed in someone’s kitchen.
We caught up with a North Korean group in this room, and although we knew better than to talk to them, it was easy to see what exhibits impressed them the most; for example, a crowd was crushed against a glass case containing a cheap gold-plated imitation Rolex watch sent by nobody of importance from France. I know what I’m bringing to Pyongyang next time.
In an annex to this room are the bullet-proof limousines given by Stalin, parked in a row facing a portrait of the genocidal psychopath. Stalin also gave the Great Leader a semi-luxurious railway carriage, and not to be outdone Mao gave him an even nicer one. (This, in microcosm, is how Kim Il Sung ran North Korea.) The two rail cars are parked on a small track perpendicular to the automobiles.
After this we were led outside onto a balcony where we could buy refreshments. The shop was well stocked with Korean soft drinks, and I was beyond thirsty. I thought it was too early to start into the Ryongsong Beer, but there was an opportunity to pick up a few bottles of baem sul, Korean adder liquor. At 70 percent alcohol, the stuff is strong, but its salient feature is the dead snake head-up in the bottle. The snake isn’t dead when it is placed inside, but as the cap is screwed on it slithers its head to the air pocket in the bottleneck, where it slowly suffocates. The bigger the bottle, the bigger the snake. The high alcohol content keeps the creature from rotting, and there are the usual myths about sexual potency connected with eating it. You get to drink a lot of baem sul in the Korean People’s Army, although any serpentine aphrodisiac properties are wasted: the KPA requires its grunts to be celibate.
At some point during my enjoyment of blackcurrant soda a guest book plonked down in front of me. I began to write the sort of entry I thought the Koreans would like, all banner-of-Juche and wise-leadership-of-Kim-Jong-Il and singleminded-devotion-to-the-Suryong. I got a bit carried away by this. One of the other visitors brought me back to reality: “A true artist knows when to stop,” he advised, so I ended my sentence and signed it “Ronald McDonald.” After the Koreans had collected our sentiments they set about translating them into their native language, our contribution to international friendship.
We had seen all we needed to see of the International Friendship Exhibition, and were led back downstairs by our guide. But we weren’t going to leave without saying goodbye, and were taken to another large room on the ground floor whose main attraction was a wax model of Kim Il Sung in a beige business suit, in what seemed to be a lush tropical setting. “This likeness of the Great Leader was donated by a Japanese trading company,” the guide announced proudly. Once again he lined us up in front of the doll at which we prostrated ourselves before the faux-dictator.
As I was taking my felt shoes off I accidentally leaned on the solid gold door handle. I may be the only person alive, apart from the Great Leaders, to have touched it. Fortunately, no-one seemed to notice.
Not far from the original building stands a new edifice, as large as the first, likewise built into the hillside: this is Kim Jong Il’s exhibition. It was completed in 1996, and gifts sent to him that had previously been housed in the first building were moved to the new one. We were among the first westerners to set foot inside this kitsch sequel.
The architects of this building had added a touch that made it, to my mind, far more impressive than the first: visitors walked along a long corridor lined with icons from the Juche canon. Among them were Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia, flowers named by Indonesian and Japanese botanists for you-know-who; somewhat abstract images of Mount Myohyang and Mount Paekdu, the extinct volcano that is Korea’s highest point; a dawn image of the log cabin at the “secret guerilla camp” on Paekdu’s slopes where the younger Kim was said to have been born; the Slogan-Bearing Trees, found in these same forests, and inscribed with anti-Japanese rhetoric supposedly written by Kim Il Sung and his comrades during their fictional battles against the Eternal Japanese Enemy.
At the end of this corridor was The Room containing the statue of the Great Leader. Artistic license had been taken: the short, plump Kim was rendered a seated giant, his paunchiness a dignified bearing; his frizzy pompadour a mane of distinction. Like his official portrait, but unlike the real Dear Leader, the statue was not wearing glasses. At least it was sartorially accurate: Kim Jong Il, to his credit, is about the only male politician in the world who has never been seen in a western business suit, and the statue was wearing a Sun Yat-Sen high-collar jacket. (In less formal circumstances, Kim prefers a beige leisure suit made from the national fabric Vinalon.)
Somehow I enjoyed bowing to Kim Jong Il. I knew he was a playboy, an amoral lifelong party animal with an undersea mansion (and 35 others) and a fondness for Scandinavian women; at least in some ways, a guy after my own heart. Perhaps the horde of Koreans who followed us in knew a few things about him as well. The difference is, I can say it.
To be fair to Kim Jong Il, I can’t think what else he was supposed to do. His father created the vastest personality cult in history about himself and probably half-believed it. The state ideology, Juche, which began life as a meaningless catchword in the 1950’s (it translates as something between “self-reliance” and “we do what we want”), grew up in the following decade to a “man-centered philosophy rooted in Marxism-Leninism”; by the 1970s mention of the latter ideology had largely disappeared, and Juche had metamorphosed into an isolationalist nationalism based on veneration of the Great Leader. Kim Il Sung had evolved from interpreter of dialectical materialism to infallible prophet; in essence he had created a religion around himself. Armed with absolute truth, Kim held power of life and death over everyone. Thousands of Koreans disappeared after the Citizens’ Registration Project suggested they might not be fully loyal to the Great Leader; he ensured that one of every five households passed information to the security apparatus; that at any time one percent of the population was imprisoned in a string of concentration camps.
Without the personality cult, North Korea would probably have collapsed along with all the other Soviet satellites. Under the circumstances, Kim Jong Il’s rise to power was almost logical. Despite his official position since 1991 as Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, which many sources suggest he has organized well, his legitimacy derives from the fact that he was his father’s designated heir. In the four years it took him to consolidate power, he pushed the cult of his family to new heights. Kim Jong Il’s mother, an illiterate peasant named Kim Jong Suk who later died in childbirth, was promoted to “Anti-Japanese Woman Revolutionary.” A new calendar was introduced that designates 1912, the year of Kim Il Sung’s birth, as Juche Year 1; it runs parallel to the Gregorian calendar. Kim Jong Il’s own biography was altered to make him a year younger, his birth in the log cabin heralded by a double rainbow and auspicious birds. (Soviet birth records show he was born near Khabarovsk in 1941, after his father had fled from the Japanese.) A year after Kim Il Sung’s death he took on the title Great Leader; eventually he was proclaimed “the most godlike” candidate for the succession, his starring role in the cult perhaps having proved decisive.
Whereas the first IFE was frozen in time, the Kim Jong Il exhibition had taken into account the revised geopolitical situation. Kim Junior had apparently received as many tusks as his dad — perhaps those that were joint presents to both leaders had been assigned to the newer museum — but absent the country’s first paymaster there were but a few meager display cases containing presents from the post-Soviet republics. I noticed with pleasure the gift from Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka, although I have forgotten what it was, as well as something equally forgettable (inscribed plates?) from Gennady Zyuganov, Russia’s distended Communist Party leader.
It was several minutes later that the Lithuanian fellow mentioned that he hadn’t noticed anything from his homeland among the former-USSR arrays. We’d seen the trinkets handed to the Dear Leader by the likes of Michael Foot, Fidel Castro, and Gus Hall, but Vilnius’s contribution had eluded us. Having proclaimed that every country of the world was represented, the guide was a bit embarrassed and led us back.
After a short period of intensive searching, someone spotted a pewter plate bearing the Pahonia, the knight on horseback that is the symbol of both Lithuania and Belarus. It was sent to Kim by “a women’s basketball team of the Lithuanian sports federation” or something. Our friend was nonetheless impressed. The guide looked relieved.
This marked the effective end of our visit — no Japanese trading company has yet produced a wax Kim Jong Il — and so we walked back down the long corridor to the van.
Outside we said our thank-yous to the woman who had led us around the exhibition; but since it was a hot day no one had brought any chocolate with them. She got the next-best things, a Polaroid picture of herself and a China Northern Airlines wallet.
Our next stop lasted only a few minutes, at the Pohyon Buddhist temple, said to be centuries old; its wooden frame rests upon pre-stressed concrete blocks, the result of a 1979 restoration. There were no monks in attendance. Whether any actually exist is anybody’s guess — other visitors to the shrine have spotted doctrinal inaccuracies in the wooden statues and altars on the site, and the purported monks had long hair and claimed to be married. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were fake: I imagine that even sincere Buddhists living in North Korea would be fairly detached from the religious mainstream. A small wooden shrine near the temple houses the 13th-century Parmandaejanggyon scrolls, printed from wooden blocks that are now in South Korea.
We returned to the hotel, where I found my bag where I had left it on the table outside the restaurant. Others retrieved our bouquet from the vase in their room. We were going to need it.
We had another two hours in the van to kill, and most of the group, and our guides, spent this time asleep. But the ride was too bumpy for me — I don’t think passenger cars were what the designers of this road had had in mind — and so I got into a conversation with the Lithuanian.
It turned out we were both fans of Radio Pyongyang, North Korea’s shortwave radio station. Radio Pyongyang broadcasts in several languages, although the English service is probably the most entertaining. You need a decent receiver to pick up very much in Europe, and there’s often no signal at all, perhaps because of electricity rationing. (The power for the jamming transmitters that block South Korean broadcasts is never cut under any circumstances).
The daily English program always features the same two announcers, a man with a sort of 1950s Hollywood accent and a woman whose voice is always too distorted to be understandable. (After years of listening I still haven’t quite caught their names.) The news begins inevitably with the words “A telegram was received today by the Great Leader...” and goes on to berate the US imperialist aggressors, their South Korean puppets, and the Japanese warmongers; after which Radio Pyongyang turns to features, generally excerpts from the life of Kim Il Sung as a boy or his tender reminiscences about Kim Jong Suk. At the end of the show, there’s often North Korean pop music, the lyrics to which are easy to figure out if you happen to know the name of the current Great Leader.
The Lithuanian said he’d actually received some souvenirs from Radio Pyongyang after he had written to them, but those must have been headier days — and he had, after all, sent a box of chocolate to the Russian-language announcers. I once sent Radio Pyongyang a postcard in which I noted reception conditions in my area, in return for which radio tradition dictates they send you a QSL card, which they hadn’t. But compared to this, the Korean Central News Agency web site just isn’t as fun.
Kim Jong Il with Kim Yong Nam (background left)
Not that we’re ever likely to hear the Great Leader’s voice on the radio. Perhaps surprisingly for “a great master of witty remarks as well as the greatest man in all history,” Kim Jong Il has spoken publicly only once, in 1992, when he addressed a ceremony marking the Korean People’s Army’s 60th anniversary — and then all he said was “Glory to the heroic People’s Army.”
They don’t universally describe him as “reclusive” for nothing. The Great Leader has been able to cultivate an air of mystery about himself; very little is actually known about him. Perhaps he realizes he just doesn’t have his father’s charisma, or simply doesn’t enjoy meeting collective farmers or foreign dignitaries when he could be spending his time instead entertaining members of the Swedish-Korean Friendship Society.
It’s possible that the Korean people, used to thinking of their leaders in the abstract (and they wouldn’t be the first to do so; the godlike Hirohito’s voice was first heard in public only when he announced Japan’s surrender), might be disappointed to discover their deity has a high, squeaky voice.
In the event, Kim Jong Il goes around the country as his father did, dispensing “on the spot guidance” at factories and schools. Or at least he is said to: like Kim Il Sung, he employs a number of look-alikes to do his public appearances for him; one way to tell them apart is to look for the hairpiece that the real Kim supposedly wears.
A recent issue of the glossy magazine Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a case in point, depicting a purported visit of the Great Leader to the “heroic” Songjin Steel Complex. However, the only picture of Kim is out-of-doors, which could have been taken anywhere. Inside the factory, the reader sees only workers enthused by Kim’s guidance, after his alleged departure.
These were things to bear in mind as we entered Pyongyang at the beginning of the Kim Jong Il era. In the run-up to the DPRK’s 50th anniversary, he had pushed through changes to the constitution that formally ensconced his leadership over the country. This invested real power in his posts of army chief, which he had held for seven years, and General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, to which he was “elected” a year ago (and which was heralded by auspicious signs including mysterious white blossoms on Pyongyang cherry trees and warm weather on Mount Paekdu).
The constitution also named a president — none other than the deceased Kim Il Sung, perhaps the first head of state in history to be confirmed in office after assuming room temperature. The “eternal president” complemented an unusual new task for Kim Yong Nam, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. He is now Head of State for Foreign Relations, for which he is supposed to greet foreign dignitaries, to spare Kim Jong Il (or indeed Kim Il Sung) this task. I have no idea why Kim Jong Il’s doubles couldn’t have done this instead.
The same scenery rolled by, no less fascinating than the first time we had driven this way. Occasionally the Pyongyang-Dandong railway appeared in the distance, although we never saw any trains. The line was rumored to be out of action because of poor maintenance or mudslides (the state of the electric catenaries in places seems to bear witness to this), or because there was no electricity.
Occasionally I would see people: a crowd assembled outside a village; a police officer standing guard before a collapsed highway bridge; an unusual vessel that seemed to be a paddleboat, purpose unknown, upon a shallow lake. There were villages along the route, although there seemed to be only one kind of house in them, a two-story apartment block with sloping asphalt roof.
Our guides stopped snoozing shortly before we reached the capital. When you enter the city limits you pass through a checkpoint — all but the highest ranking Party officials need permission to travel within the country, and only the most fortunate are allowed to live in Pyongyang. We, of course, were admitted speedily.
I had seen plenty of pictures of Pyongyang before, but it didn’t fail to impress me. Sure enough, the architecture was generally prefabricated, as it was throughout the communist bloc, but in contrast to Russia’s former empire, where maintenance is nonexistent, Pyongyang was preternaturally tidy and orderly; otherwise it looks quite a bit like Minsk. I can certainly understand the Koreans’ pride in the city, since by the end of the Korean War it had ceased to exist. But I couldn’t imagine what it must have seemed like to the members of our expedition who had never been to a communist country before.
We were a bit behind schedule, arriving late to our first site in Pyongyang — the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace. Opened in May 1989, in time to impress delegates to the World Festival of Youth and Students, it stands at the end of Kwangbok Street, a 13-lane artery with no traffic (but like all North Korea’s giant empty roads, with clear military implications) lined with 42-story high-rise apartment blocks.
“Children are the kings of our country,” the guide said, by way of warning.
The group hurried inside the palace — like the Friendship Exhibition, every surface in the lobby was covered with marble — and dashed into the auditorium, where four kids were onstage playing accordions at brain-splitting volume. Most of the audience were children wearing their Pioneers uniforms. The accordionists were followed by a giant children’s choir that appeared suddenly on stage, singing a song I think I recognized as “We Are the Bodyguards and Shock Brigades.” Suddenly, on the vast screen behind them there appeared a movie of Kim Il Sung. At that moment everyone in the auditorium began applauding. After a few seconds, the camera angle changed to reveal Kim Jong Il in conversation with the Great Leader, and the applause from the crowd became yet more fervent. The clapping continued for as long as the Great and Dear Leaders remained onscreen.
The choir and the applause ended, and were replaced by a dance troupe acting out scenes from the revolutionary struggle, as projections of patriotic images continued behind them. There was Lake Cho in Mount Paekdu, the Slogan-Bearing Trees, and Kim Jong Il’s log cabin. No guesses what came next: to sad music, the smiling face of Kim Il Sung appeared, and the dancers surrounded it and kneeled down before Him as the crowd applauded. After about a minute, the image changed, to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Suk, the latter toting a pistol and wearing a military uniform with a long pleated skirt; the applause became more intense, then as the dance continued, this picture gave way to one of the couple holding the infant Kim Jong Il — the Three Generals of Paekdu. The clapping was deafening.
Further music acts followed. A boy who couldn’t have been older than seven began to sing, backed up by a row of women wearing pink maternity dresses but playing expensive rock instruments — a Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Rickenbacker bass, Yamaha drums, Roland keyboards — which they picked at limply, never having heard the kind of music these things were made for. The boy sang in a five-octave range about the technical achievements of Korean socialism. Behind him on the screen was a picture of a satellite in orbit, a drawing that looked more like a product of 1930s science fiction than anything likely to have left North Korea’s launchpad.
After the song was over, the musicians slowly were slowly tugged from the stage as they continued to play, by means of a sliding panel in the floor. The choir returned to sing the praises of the Great Leaders again.
At the end we applauded heartily — but it soon became obvious that the kids in the audience were cheering us, not the performance. The twelve of us who weren’t Korean kids with red scarves around our necks turned around, and the youngsters all stood up. Our guide ushered us out, and there was a roar of approval from the crowd. I didn’t even know children could roar. As we left, almost every one of us took flash pictures of the kids. It was a toss-up as to whose behavior was odder in that moment, ours or theirs.
As we walked through the lobby, the kids spilled out from all directions, waving at us. Yet they stopped about ten meters from our group. The upstairs balcony filled with cheering children looking down at us.
I hadn’t thought anything could top Czestochowa for weirdness, but this had. But it was no longer simply weird. I was scared.
“Wow, so much talent,” I said to the guide.
Someone else asked, “Are these the most talented kids, or is this palace for all children?”
As if you had to ask. “It is for all children,” he replied.
He ushered us downstairs to a vast gift shop with outrageous prices. Since we’d just arrived in Pyongyang, and most of the things on sale were handicrafts featuring the city, no one bought very much; I picked up a pair of metal Korean chopsticks to be polite.
Next door was a snack bar, although there was no time to eat anything; I think we were just supposed to wait there until the van pulled around. Its main decorative feature was a pair of realistic “trees” made of concrete.
With the guide’s permission I went down the outside steps to try to take pictures of the palace, although you’d have to walk a long way to squeeze it into the viewfinder. Like every major building in North Korea, it was crowned with a revolving restaurant. In front of the palace ran one of Pyongyang’s tram lines, opened in 1991, and employing Czech Tatra wagons. I wanted to take a picture of it as well until I realized the cars were too full of people.
North Korea is such a mystery that even the strangest myths begin to take on the air of plausibility. For one, that Kwangbok Street, or even Pyongyang itself, is a Potemkin village, the high-rises merely shells where no-one actually lives. A variation on this is that there is a warren of underground tunnels where the people actually go about their business unseen.
Perhaps this came about among delegates to the World Festival, who were housed there — the street was built for Pyongyang’s failed attempt to co-host the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and only later were Koreans allowed to move into apartments there; it must have seemed quite empty at the time. In addition curtains and balcony adornments seem to be forbidden (people do not haphazardly add windows to them to create another room as they always do in Russia) and many Korean apartment buildings have an entry corridor facing the street, rather than individual apartments, which gives the windows an empty look.
The van rolled up to take us to our next stop. There was no doubt where we would be going, and it wasn’t our hotel. In fact, if we hadn’t been late, protocol would have required us to make our first stop at the Grand Monument of the Great Leader in Mansudae.
On the way the van passed Chongchun Street, lined with sports arenas built with the Olympics in mind. Each stadium was constructed in an architectural style that reflected the sport it was built to house: the weightlifting arena, for example, looks like a dumbbell. Why the North Koreans couldn’t have built multi-purpose stadiums wasn’t explained; in the event, the South Koreans had proposed that a few events be held in the north, but after Pyongyang made it clear they wanted to share the Olympics evenly, and Seoul, having done lots of work to secure the games, refused, the North Koreans boycotted the Olympics.
It didn’t look like any of the stadiums was in use, although a small group of schoolkids outside the Taekwondo Stadium waved to us maniacally.
On the way, the guide pointed out that the city buses, half of which were Ikarus 280s and half Chinese models, had stars painted on their sides. Sure enough, there was a row of blue stars on each with “50” in the middle — one for every 50 000 km the bus had driven.
There are no traffic lights in Pyongyang. The city’s traffic, such as it is, is directed by women in a very fetching uniform of white high-collar jacket and electric-blue skirt. There were actually a few men in a similar outfit doing this as well, but it is said to be an especially prestigious job for women, who have to pass tests of beauty and poise to be selected. It’s not a simple matter of waving a baton, but like everything else here, a highly drilled, dance-like movement of facing forward, raising baton, looking left, raising hand, rotating body 90 degrees to the left, and repeating this. No matter that Pyongyang has so little traffic that a few yield signs would do; this continues even in a thunderstorm, as the wardens have plastic rain suits at the ready.
The monument’s head appeared above the skyline as we approached. It is said to be the largest one-piece statue in the world, 23 meters high, on a 3-meter plinth.
Our van pulled to a stop alongside a couple of other tour buses. Our guide spoke: “We will make a bow to the Great Leader, and afterwards you may take photographs.”
This was something I had joked about before, but it was actually a very solemn moment when it happened. We filed out of the van, leaving cameras behind, our not-yet-wilted bouquet at the fore. The flower-bearer laid our offering down on the ledge in front of Kim Il Sung’s giant brass feet as we lined up facing him. At the signal, with the two guides at the ends of our row, we bowed to the Great Leader.
We waited for the Chinese tour group ahead of us to spend their quality time with the Suryong before we grabbed our cameras and started taking pictures. The guide reminded us: “If you take a picture of the statue, the whole man must be in the frame. No feet only. And no pictures from behind.”
Unsurprisingly, the Grand Monument has a commanding view of the city. It was built in 1972, for Kim Il Sung’s 60th birthday, along with the enormous Korean Revolutionary Museum, located behind the statue and likewise designed to glorify him. The statue stands on a site where once the Japanese built a shrine to their emperors. The new emperor’s statue stared down upon a desolate city, an atoll of regimented towers, empty boulevards, and neurotically perfect lawns, its distinguishing features all monuments to one man. Looking around Mansudae, I tried and tried to imagine where McDonald’s and Bennetton will one day be located, when that time comes when Pyongyang’s streets swarm with traffic. But I couldn’t.
The guide pointed out the nearby sights, including the statue of Chollima, the mythical Korean horse too swift to be mounted, a symbol of North Korea’s economy (because it is swift, not because it is mythical); and the Mansudae Assembly Hall, built in 1984, and seat of the National People’s Assembly. I suppressed a chortle when he said of the latter “It is like the parliament in your country.” Actually, the strangest thing about the North Korean parliament, apart from the fact that the country feels the need for the pretense of having one, is the giant statue of Kim Il Sung within it, not unlike the one standing outside. Whenever Kim gave a speech to the assembly, he was dwarfed by the giant bronze likeness of himself, which made the real man look rather insignificant.
Our respects paid, it was time to go. Unusually, we were staying at the newish Yanggakdo International Hotel, rather than the twin towers of the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel, where westerners are usually housed. On reflection, it seemed possible that the Koreans wanted to keep us separated from the handful of UN aid workers who were staying there. The hotel stood on Yanggak Islet in the middle of the Taedong River. Rumor had it that the hotel was built as part of a shady, top-secret deal on the personal order of François Mitterand, presumably to continue France’s policy of hob-nobbing with dictators in order to annoy the US. It was a French hotel all right — you could tell by the double-glazing — and it was equipped with three restaurants, Korean, Japanese, and Western, as well as the obligatory karaoke bar and swimming pool. One thing it didn’t seem to have, which everyone noticed immediately, was a fourth floor.
Our exploration wasn’t allowed to last more than a few minutes before we had to be back in the van.
After driving for a short while, someone asked the guide “Why doesn’t our hotel have a fourth floor?” He paused for a couple of seconds and replied “In Korea the number four, sa, sounds like the word for death. The number nine is also considered unlucky.” Change of subject. “Delicacies of Pyongyang include cold noodles.”
Well, at least the topic was germane; we were going to a noodle restaurant. Not, I might add, just any noodle restaurant — it was the allegedly world famous Onryuguan, known for its Pyongyang Rengmyon, or cold buckwheat noodles in soup.
The van sidled up to a high-rise building where one of the guides got out. The group had to wait in the vehicle. There were several dozen people on the street around us, none of whom wanted to be caught looking in our direction, although I detected a couple of sideways glances.
After a few minutes we were led into a basement — this was the restaurant — lined with gray stone, the sort of thing Z-Brick was meant to emulate. You had to walk down a stone spiral circus and along a corridor to get to the banquet hall. It reminded me of the tortuous way to the wine cellar in the Budapest Hilton, if that means anything to you.
A party was in full swing, at least by North Korean standards: there were a few tables of inebriated Taiwanese and various higher-ranking Korean officials. Entertainment was provided by a musical group dressed in traditional clothes, playing numbers from the DPRK hit parade.
There was plenty of booze, and everyone got a glass or two of soju — but sadly, no adder liquor — and this time there was Pyongyang Beer, which wasn’t as good as Ryongsong but at least was in plentiful supply.
I thought I was about to eat Pyongyang Cold Noodles. But the four of us who’d mentioned we were vegetarians on the first night suddenly found we were instead being served shinsollo, layers of vegetables and tofu (and meat, in other iterations) arranged in layers in a round chafing dish, in which it is prepared at your table. Not that I was complaining, mind you — shinsollo is a national delicacy served only to honored guests, and the Koreans had gone out of their way to make everything meatless. The food was superb. (If somewhere there is a Polish-Korean vegetarian restaurant, I will truly have attained nirvana.) I asked the person next for me for a single, token noodle. The guide noticed this and asked why. I said, “There’s no way I can come all the way to Pyongyang and not try the noodles.”
I thought we were the only western visitors in town, but at the next table sat a row of unsmiling white people. Their fashion sense, or lack thereof, screamed German, but my intuition told me they weren’t.
Suddenly it was intermission time — perhaps there had been too many pop encomia to the Kims.
After the entertainers left the stage, it seemed like it was open-mike night. One of our group had brought a harmonica and, after some goading, proceeded to play it as if possessed. A good artist knows when to stop; in his case this was after about five minutes, which left the Koreans wanting more.
Into the breach stepped one of the mysterious Europeans, who picked up the microphone and started to sing cabaret songs, as tunelessly as possible.
L’amour, c’est la [unintelligible]
Et tous, tous [mumble] pour toi
And so on. After several excruciating minutes of half-forgotten chansons, he started moving (hopping? dancing?) from one side of the stage to another.
It was now obvious to me that this was a Swiss delegation, what with this francophone guy and his stern Aryan companion. Which in turn might also explain why they weren’t very friendly to us — half of the Taiwanese had come over to our table to get shit-faced with our gang, and yet these people hadn’t even introduced themselves.
The next number left no doubt about their identity.
Hm, huh, hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu,
Oo-ee, oo-ee, Kim Jong Il la-la.
It was the (approximate) melody to “Our Comrade Kim Jong Il.” These guys must be the Swiss Juche study group!
VIPs they may have been, but murdering songs about the Great Leader has to be considered a semi-significant breach of decorum. At this point one of the Swiss group’s guides joined him onstage, providing the correct words to this patriotic anthem while partially drowning out his drunken charge’s mumbling. (Note to Swiss Juche adherents: Koreans also smile when they are embarrassed.)
So what is a Juche study group? Apart from the obvious (and note that to “study” Juche does not mean to question or dispute it), Juche followers are often communists and the like who prefer Kim Il Sung’s version to Lenin’s for whatever reason. They sometimes also perform a sort of intelligence-gathering task by clipping relevant articles from newspapers and magazines to send to Pyongyang. And, for the red-carpet treatment in the DPRK, who wouldn’t? By these means, the North Koreans are able to keep tabs on what people are saying about them in areas of the world where they have no diplomatic presence.
I headed for the lavatory to relieve myself of what had been Pyongyang Beer an hour ago (and I noted that the sign for the toilet said WC, with no Korean characters) when I came across a couple of people from our group talking to a black man, the first I had seen in Korea.
Soon I was talking to him, too. He was from Uganda, a firm supporter of the Juche Idea. “Tony Blair is a Tory just pretending to be a socialist,” I half-recall him saying. “You want socialism, you come here. Kim Il Sung was right, it’s all about independence. Africa has a lot to learn from him.” Uh, right.
I awoke next morning to the sound of the English language: “...the US imperialists and their treacherous puppets will pay one hundredfold in blood for this thrice-cursed crime against the Korean people.”
The Lithuanian — who was now my roommate — had discovered the third house channel on the TV, consisting of propaganda films prepared for or about the International Festival of Youth and Students. I suppose they get more mileage from these movies by replaying them, and many were quite effective. One depicted a severed railway bridge in the demilitarized zone, complete with steam-train noises. Another showed Kim Jong Il mounted on a white steed, perhaps to dispel beliefs about his wimpiness (again though, he has stunt doubles). All this was interspersed with highlights from the Children’s Palace, as well as various parades held in Pyongyang for revolutionary causes.
“This is very strange,” he said. I scowled at him and pointed at the ceiling.
He corrected himself. “I mean it’s strange for me to comprehend just how the Koreans are able to coordinate such amazing displays of national unity and love for the respected leader Comrade Kim Il Sung.”
There were three radio channels as well, but to our dismay no Radio Pyongyang.
Everyone tried to eat some breakfast, but it was challenging. Fiery kim chi is not what you want when you’ve had too much soju and unfizzy beer in you.
After breakfast there were a few minutes to spend in the hotel bookshop. I picked up some copies of The Pyongyang Times, as well as a stack of books, all by or about the same three people. Best of all was a plastic wall hanging — it unfurls like a scroll — depicting Kim Il Sung writing a poem in Chinese at the International Friendship Exhibition on the occasion of Kim Jong Il’s 50th (ie, 51st) birthday.
We were off to the Grand People’s Study House, the biggest library in the country, built in old Korean style, with room for 20 million books. It was erected for Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday in 1982.
The library hovers over the western side of Kim Il Sung Square, the epicenter and main parade ground of the city, facing the Juche Tower across the river. Beneath its main entrance is the podium from which the Great Leaders and their lieutenants stood as their subjects marched by.
I walked onto the top of the podium to take a dramatic photograph of the Study House when a soldier whistled at me. The guide translated his ensuing order: “This is military property. You can’t walk there.”
Unusually, our guide for the library could speak English, and in fact we were her first tour group since she graduated from Pyongyang Foreign Languages University two weeks earlier. She was a bit nervous and spent half the tour needlessly apologizing for her “bad English.”
The tour started, logically enough, in the foyer with the large marble statue of Kim Il Sung, but we were not expected to bow; instead our guide led us up the escalator to the card catalog. She was proud that there were books in English here, and invited us to take a look. Most of the things I found had titles like Opto-Mechanical Engineering Digest, March 1972 edition. (What was I expecting, The Anarchist’s Cookbook?) Nonetheless, we cooed our approval to the guide, who apologized for her English again.
Next stop: the reading room. No surprises here: this was the Kim Il Sung Room, for those who just can’t get enough of his classic works. Portraits of Kims Senior and Junior hung alongside one another on the wall. You’ve got to give Kim Il Sung credit — he certainly was a hands-on guy. The desks in the reading rooms were invented by the Great Leader himself, or so we were told. Operating from the belief that “the book must conform to the reader,” Kim’s desks have a rotary controller on the front and side to adjust their pitch and height, thus enabling people to absorb his immortal teachings in comfort. Just add “ergonomics pioneer” to his many accolades.
There were several other rooms, like a computer lab containing mostly old IBM clones, although I glimpsed something that looked like a Pentium in one of the offices. It was not being used to play Tomb Raider.
In another classroom an English lesson was going on, and curiously I didn’t get the impression it was staged for our benefit. We were completely ignored. The teacher spoke very well, and most of the people learning the language seemed to be enjoying themselves.
In a further section, people who had thus mastered another language were supposed to translate foreign magazine articles into Korean using a tape recorder so that all citizens would have access to that knowledge. What interest most North Koreans would have in 30-year-old scientific journals wasn’t immediately obvious to us. No one was actually engaged in this activity, although there was a cassette recorder and an open book on one table, as I suspect there always is.
And finally, the music library, which our guide said contained all sorts of music from Korean and Chinese classical to western popular, although most of the records on display were North Korean marches. On each desk stood a Panasonic ghetto blaster. One of the Koreans fired up a cassette, and the whole room was soon in song:
Chim chim cher-ee!
A sweep is as lucky
As lucky can be (etc)
This didn’t sound like Disney’s Mary Poppins, but a Korean version, perhaps performed by that guy from Radio Pyongyang. After it ended, I asked if they had anything by the Beatles. The librarian had never heard of them.
The guides barely mentioned Kim Il Sung Square, and the nearest we got to a look round it was the balcony of the Grand People’s Study Palace. It’s a magnificent view, similar to the one enjoyed by the Great Leader as two million people paraded past him only three days ago, except that the closest thing to a parade was the long line of people queuing up for the bus a couple of hundred meters down the road.
Public transit was on our agenda, too, and after saying goodbye to our still-apologetic guide, we left the Grand People’s Study House to drive to the Pyongyang Metro.
As we drew near to the Metro station, we got a good look at the Ryugyong Hotel, another project of Kim Jong Il’s, a mammoth pyramidal 105-story hotel with seven revolving restaurants, which came into existence simply because a South Korean firm had started work on a hotel in Singapore with 103 floors. Skeptics said it couldn’t be built — and it wasn’t. Work on the hotel began in 1987, and it reached its present form about two years later. Construction ceased altogether in 1991, although the reason why has never been revealed. It’s not like the North Koreans decided they had enough hotels, otherwise they wouldn’t have built the Yanggakdo. The Ryugyong’s structure may be unsound (parts of it almost certainly are nowadays, after more than a decade’s exposure to the elements), but equipping this huge edifice with elevators, windows, and interior furnishings would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps proving the decisive factor in halting construction. Propaganda pictures nevertheless show the building lighted at night.
“When it is finished it will be the largest hotel in the world,” the guide announced without conviction.
We got out of the van at the Puhung Metro station. Opened in 1973, the two-line Metro was built with Soviet and Chinese help, which makes me wonder why the one in Beijing looks so awful by comparison. Not that the Koreans were about to admit this: “This was built with all-Korean technology,” our guide announced proudly.
Now, really. Half of this group could read Chinese, and if the “Made in Shanghai” characters on the escalators passed the rest by, there was a sign in English as well.
Those escalators descended to nuclear-shelter depth, so far down that my eardrums popped. Loudspeakers played martial music. I couldn’t help thinking of Moscow, where in the 1930s, Stalin’s show trials were carried live throughout the Metro.
Moscow’s ornate subway was clearly the architectural benchmark here, as Puhung (“Rehabilitation” — the station names have nothing to do with location) was lined with murals and bedecked with chandeliers. The two mosaics behind the platforms were entitled “A Morning of Innovation,” featuring happy workers, and “Song of a Bumper Crop,” with happy farmers. At the top of the staircase at the end of the platform was a third, “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung Among Workers.”
According to the book The Pyongyang Metro, “The Pyongyang Metro is not only the traffic means but also the place for ideological education. Its inside decoration is depicted artistically so as to convey to posterity the glorious revolutionary history and the leadership exploits of the great leader President Kim Il Sung.”
It wasn’t the murals that caught my attention. It was the train. “That’s a German train!” I blurted out. “Same kind as in Berlin!”
It was indeed a used East German GI model from the Berlin U-Bahn that had been sold to Pyongyang. But the guide gave me a very strange look. I had misspoken.
“On closer inspection, the design is very similar in appearance to the trains in Berlin,” I said. “But what would one of those be doing here? It’s obviously a Korean train.”
We had a few seconds to take pictures of the station and the dispatchers (this was the end station) before boarding the train. A familiar buzz signaled the doors closing. At the end of the coach hung framed portraits of Kim and Son.
After taking lots of pictures and being completely ignored by the Korean passengers, we got out of the train at the next station, Yonggwang (“Glory”), where the ceiling appeared to be held up by tall marble torches. Its chandelier was inspired by grapes on a vine.
Since most visitors are only shown these two Metro stations, some people have come to believe there are only two stations, and that the Metro exists only to impress tourists. But the Koreans would not be buying replacement rolling stock from Berlin if it were all a façade.
There was a schedule to keep to, and when we emerged from the station, the driver was waiting for us. We were going back to Mangyongdae to visit the birthplace of the Great Leader.
Whenever the van started going quickly, you knew there was something you weren’t supposed to see. As we crossed a railway bridge, the driver became lead-footed all of a sudden, and to the right I saw a haggard man holding a bag of apples. A capitalist.
The Great Leader’s birthplace is a shrine that no visitor is allowed to miss. Our group was greeted by another demure woman in national costume, who ran through some of the most important details of the Kim theology: born on 15 April 1912 (curiously, the day the Titanic sank), at 13 he became a revolutionary fighter following the death of his father. From that age he led the Anti-Japanese Struggle, participating in 100 000 battles, victory against the Americans, and so on.
Kim’s concrete-enhanced childhood home, if truly he was born there, was a humble thatched-roofed hovel, containing pictures of his parents, his executed brother, and his revolutionary cousins; there were also eating implements, and famously the Ugly Pot. The Great Leader’s parents were so poor they could only afford a misshapen cooking pot, which cost three jon rather than the standard 15. In real life Kim’s parents were Christian peasants, his father killed accidentally in a raid by Communists; here they were depicted as revolutionaries.
Before he left, our leader took a Polaroid picture of the guide. She was a bit confused when he handed her the white square of plastic, but as the picture began to appear she stepped out of her solemn persona and became visibly excited. Soon all her friends had had their picture taken as well.
The sightseeing continued with — where else? — Kim Il Sung Stadium, to watch North Korea’s athletic specialty, the Mass Games, in which huge numbers of people, in this case 50 000, perform together on a sports field, with (surprise) military precision.
Outside the stadium, kids were practicing their moves as their coaches waved flags and whistled at them. Several members of our group reacted with shock when they noticed that all the children, male and female, were wearing bright red lipstick, as if this were genetically preordained for girls only.
Someone asked the guide if it would be all right to hand candy out to the young performers. He shook his head. Our group leader stepped in to save face: “You see, the South Koreans used to put poison in it,” he explained unconvincingly.
In the background stood the 60-meter-high triumphal arch, three meters higher than the one in Paris, of course. It commemorates the twenty-year struggle against the Japanese imperialists led by the prepubescent Kim Il Sung (it is inscribed with the lyrics to the inescapable “Song of General Kim Il Sung”), and stands on the spot where the Great Leader entered the city upon its liberation. This is shown on a giant wall painting beside the stadium.
I had a few minutes to take pictures of the arch, and I managed to cross the road without being whistled at by the traffic warden for not using the underpass. Not that there were any cars, of course.
The games were about to begin, and we were ushered to the VIP lounge, where we were offered the chance to buy some expensive Mass Games badges (if any Korea International Travel Company officials are reading this, please note that sales will increase if you offer souvenirs afterwards, not beforehand), before being shown the way to the stadium. We sat in the dignitaries’ area, not far from the Swiss group. For the first time, as I was walking to my seat I noticed one Korean looking at me, and discussing me with his friend: they were shocked by my long hair.
The national anthem played and everyone stood; but the music segued immediately into the first number as the participants flooded the field.
It would be impossible to describe just how amazing a Mass Game is. It was, perhaps, the most incredible thing I have ever seen. Even the simplest effects are stunning in their scale. Watching a huge building filled with tens of thousands of people in white suddenly turn red simply because each one has simultaneously raised a pompom sounds underwhelming. It isn’t.
Behind the field, occupying all the seats on the other side of the stadium, were 30 000 card-turners. These were kids from Pyongyang high schools who hold up large boards, each of which is a small part of a large picture. People do a version of this in stadiums everywhere, but the Koreans have turned it into an art form, in which objects can flash, appear or disappear, fade in or out (by slowly lowering the card behind the head of the person in front), display animation (by presenting a series of boards in rapid succession), or glimmer (by coordinated board-waving). The pictures they composed illustrated the themes of the music.
The schedule of events gives a good idea of what it was all about. The translation is theirs:
Mass Gymnastic Display
The political messages were clear. As the board behind them read “Korea Is One!” the people on the field assembled themselves into a map of Korea, complete with mountains. Later, a rocket took off from the board as the gymnasts formed semicircular waves emanating from its exhaust. The next image was a satellite in orbit, completely different in appearance from the one at the Children’s Palace, and just as implausible. From time to time the Great Leaders would appear to the applause of the crowd. The finale showed a portrait of Kim Il Sung in a golden circle as a giant North Korean flag was brought onto the field, fluttering gently as the thousands holding it up crouched, then sprang up. (During the three-year mourning period, the Mass Games participants — and the audience — would all cry on cue when Kim Il Sung appeared.)
As the audience applauded, the 50 000 participants covering the field all turned to look at us. This was a very strange feeling indeed. Our group bowed to them. The stadium erupted in cheering.
There were still a few things left to do today, and after the Mass Games we went to the Tower of the Juche Idea. It was built at Kim Jong Il’s initiative for Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday in 1982, at the same time as the Arch of Triumph and the Grand People’s Study House; proof, perhaps, that flattery will get you somewhere. At 170 meters it is the tallest stone tower in the world, higher yet than the Washington Monument, with one slab for every day of Kim Il Sung’s life up till then, 25 550 in all; there are 70 granite blocks on its faces. It is topped with a giant flame that glows at night, illuminated by moving lights within that give it the illusion of fire.
The tower was closed, so we couldn’t climb it, but we were able to wander around the site. At the base of the tower is a nook lined with marble plaques sent by supporters from around the world; many of these referred to Juche as Kimilsungism. Some of these plaques seemed a little dubious to me; for example, the one from the “Juche Study Group of USA.”
In front of the tower, facing the river, is a 30-meter sculpture showing the three constituencies of the Workers’ Party of Korea: a peasant, a factory worker, and a “working intellectual,” as he is described. In the river itself before the tower is the world’s highest fountain, which thrusts water into the air to a height of 140 meters. Our guide knew all the statistics.
The sun was beginning to set, so we moved quickly to Pyongyang’s newest public sculpture, the Monument to the Party Founding. It was unveiled in October 1995, to commemorate the Workers’ Party’s 50th anniversary. A large stone band surrounds three hands, holding a hammer, a scythe, and a calligraphy brush; these stand 50 meters high. Inside the band are large bronze reliefs of scenes from North Korean history, including “Reunification”; the participants were armed with books by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. There are 216 slabs around the base; this is Kim Jong Il’s lucky number, derived from his 16 February birthday.
After some begging, the guide said we could walk part of the way back to the hotel, and the driver let us out at Kim Il Sung Square. The surface of the plaza was covered in evenly spaced paint dots, each with a number written next to it: markers from the anniversary festivities. Walking along the bank of the Taedong, I took a magnificent nighttime picture of the Juche Tower, which had lights pointed at it from every angle; the rest of the city was in darkness.
It was a pleasant evening. There were lots of people in the shadows along the riverside, who seemed only to be engaged in conversation. We could hear the river lapping against its banks; the loudest sound was the rumble of pedestrians as we passed under the Taedong Bridge, which was covered with people going home.
“This bridge was built by the Japanese during their occupation of Korea,” the guide said helpfully.
A few hundred meters later, the van was awaiting us, and spirited us back to the Yanggakdo. It would be an early night. We would be leaving for Panmunjom before dawn.
The following morning we left very early to avoid the rush-hour traffic. Soon we were on the Unity Highway, the six-lane road that leads from Pyongyang to Panmunjom. Even if there were private cars in Pyongyang, they wouldn’t be allowed to drive on it — it was built for tanks and tour buses, with emphasis on the former. There are military checkpoints every 20 kilometers. In a possible sign of who’s really calling the shots in North Korea, a new rule required each of us to pay $25 to the Korean People’s Army for permission to travel to Panmunjom.
The road segments were often seriously out of whack. Our driver managed to slow down for most of the bigger bumps, but drove flat out into one misalignment, and the van bottomed out, nearly leaving its differential behind. At least he was hurrying. Behind us on the horizon the Taiwanese tour bus was slowly catching up. We wanted the DMZ all to ourselves.
There’s not a lot to see along the road, apart from the occasional village. But the further south you go, the more anti-tank batteries start appearing atop the hills along the roadside.
“Those are just for show,” someone said confidently. “Nothing a few cruise missiles couldn’t take out in a jiffy.” If that were the case, the South Korean puppet army would be needing a few thousand Tomahawks because — obsolete Chinese design or not — these things were everywhere.
Eventually the van came to the Sohung Teahouse, a rest stop that, like a Little Chef in Britain, is built over the road, connecting one side of the highway with the other. It was constructed of heavy concrete, and if the supports were blown away it would block the road: it was one of those combination rest stop/tank traps. Here I encountered the first dirty toilet I had seen in the whole country. The tea room had a little shop with plenty of baem sul — this is not the most appetizing sight at seven in the morning — and all sorts of ginseng preparations. I sat down and began to pore over a dog-eared copy of La Republica Democratica Popular de Corea. To my delight there were also back issues of The Pyongyang Times in French.
Suddenly a flood of Taiwanese filled the room. They had caught up with us. I bundled all the newspapers together and made a quick exit.
At least we had gained a little time at the teahouse, since it seemed the Taiwanese had all lined up to buy ginseng; they would be there a while. Our driver continued with his Mario Andretti impersonation.
The guide was now awake enough to start filling in a few details. “We are driving to Kaesong City,” he said, “the world-famous city of ginseng.” As if a North Korean would know what was world-famous. “Here ginseng is grown and made into tea, medicine...”
I watched in horror as Les Nouvelles de Pyongyang blew onto the floor, face-down. I motioned to the Lithuanian, under whose seat it had landed, and he discreetly picked it up.
The guide continued to tell us the fascinating history of ginseng for a while, but the van didn’t actually stop in Kaesong. There was another kind of tank barrier along the route, which consisted of tall decorative slabs in rows of three on each side of the road. There were little flower baskets between them, but if intelligence is to be believed, there are also a few sticks of dynamite.
We continued on till we reached Panmunjom. About a hundred meters before the highway abruptly ends is a sign that reads “Seoul 70 km.” (Sure enough, on the South Korean side is a similar road sign pointing to Pyongyang.)
There are two buildings next to the stone main gate, which were originally occupied by Polish and Czechoslovak delegations monitoring the cease-fire. (The armistice had called for a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, with two observers for each side; the US chose Switzerland and Sweden, and the North Koreans chose these two “neutral” countries.) The Czechs and Slovaks left after their country disintegrated at the beginning of 1993, and the Poles were eased out two years later when the DPRK announced it would no longer observe the terms of the armistice agreement. (Its propaganda depicts the Poles as leaving in disgust at the US’s military buildup.) The Czechoslovak building is now a gift shop.
One expected feature of Panmunjom that was missing was audio propaganda, as the loudspeakers on both sides were quiet during our visit. The North and the South blast each other with insults; once the North Koreans used this system to announce that the Great Leader had been overthrown, in case there was anyone in Panmunjom ready to join the mutiny. Those who answered the call disappeared. Nowadays electricity is too precious to leave the North Korean sound system switched on for more than a few hours a day.
There wasn’t much time left if we wanted to be ahead of the Taiwanese, who had just rolled into the compound. The guide told us to stand in a single-file line while a KPA colonel inspected us.
He seemed satisfied with our group, and ushered us into the former Polish quarter. Here our guide explained a relief map of the area (accurate except for the missing South Korean flags) and a map of the Korean peninsula with the border (sorry, armistice line) drawn in red. Here he quickly ran through the North Korean version of the Korean War — the Americans invaded the north, but were quickly driven back to the south. The victorious Korean People’s Army, under the command of the Great Leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung, accepted a “strategic withdrawal” from the south in order to prevent further bloodshed. The Americans, using the guise of the United Nations to cover their shame, begged the DPRK forces for a ceasefire, which the magnanimous Great Leader granted.
Once the truth about the war was established, we got back into the van and drove into the compound along a road lined with tank traps (very heavy stones balanced on very small ones). After a couple of minutes we reached the electric fence that marks the beginning of the demilitarized zone.
The DMZ extends two kilometers north and south of the Demarcation Line, the de facto border between North and South Korea. Panmunjom is the only place along its length where it is possible to cross the line. Not that many people are allowed to do this. In 45 years, only one South Korean civilian was allowed to cross the border to the north, and that was Hyundai founder Chung Ju Yung, who took 500 cows with him on a goodwill mission in June 1998. During this trip he met, and had nice things to say about, Kim Jong Il. (In contrast, the North Koreans later complained about some of the cattle being “diseased.”) Here Lim Sugyong returned to face South Korean incarceration.
The road continued toward the Peace Village. There was indeed a village, Kijong-dong, near the road. Scurrilous South Korean propaganda has suggested that no-one actually lives there — it is a genuine Potemkin village, its “residents” bused in from Kaesong every day and told to put out washing and act like normal people. There is a hamlet, Taesong-dong, on the south side as well, the only inhabited area within the DMZ, but the residents live under a strict 22.00 curfew; they’re there for propaganda as well.
The van slowed down as it approached the entrance to the Joint Security Area, on the other side of the narrow river.
Shaped like a square with rounded corners, about 800 meters across, the JSA was originally open to inspections from both sides. This was how things were run until 1976, when war almost erupted on the Korean peninsula because of a poplar tree.
This was the Hatchet Incident of 18 August 1976, in which North Korean troops attacked an American-South Korean party that had gone to trim the offending tree next to the Bridge of No Return, on the edge of the JSA. Two US officers were beaten to death with the blunt end of axes after they ignored the North Koreans’ order to desist.
The Hatchet Incident occurred during a period of high tension between the US and North Korea — a fortnight earlier the North had sent a rare communiqué accusing the Americans of preparing an invasion. In the wake of defeat in Vietnam, the US imperialist aggressors and their South Korean puppets had been conducting their first Team Spirit joint exercises, regarded by Pyongyang as a dress rehearsal for attack. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was challenging Gerald Ford for the presidency, accusing the incumbent of being soft on communism.
Despite Henry Kissinger’s apparent desire to bomb the North, Ford ultimately decided the appropriate response would be ... wait for it ... to chop down the tree. So on the morning of 21 August a US-South Korean team, backed up by an armed platoon, 27 helicopters, a wing of B-52’s, and two militaries on full alert, trekked back to the poplar and sawed it down. The panicking North Koreans held their fire, and within an hour the operation was complete. A few days later, on Kim Il Sung’s initiative, the Joint Security Area was partitioned along the demarcation line. Since then the troops have stood face-to-face on their own sides of the border.
The division of the JSA was agreed so rapidly that the North Koreans were temporarily cut off from their side of it by road. The Bridge of No Return (so named because it leads from the United Nations side of the JSA across the river to North Korean territory; it was here that prisoner swaps took place) was now off-limits. The new bridge took exactly 72 hours to build.
We crossed the 72-Hour Bridge into the Joint Security Area, arriving at the North Korean pavilion. Panmungok is a three-story marble building, erected in 1969. Behind it is the demarcation line.
Before entering Panmungok, the colonel led us to the newest monument in the area, a large slab bearing the last signature of Kim Il Sung. In his last weeks alive, Kim was preparing for an unprecedented meeting with South Korean President Kim Young Sam. The signature was the last thing the Great Leader ever wrote, on a document pertaining to arrangements for his guest; this was described to us as “a proposal for national unification.” As he always did, Kim wrote the date beneath his name: 1994-7-7. He died in the early hours of the following day, thus the slab bearing his signature is 7.8 meters wide; the year was 1994, and the base is 9.4 meters across; he was 82 years old, the number of Kimilsungia flowers carved into the monument.
The colonel summoned us to follow him back to Panmungok, and we went in the door and up the stairs. Panmungok is a very thin building, much smaller than it must appear from the South Korean side. We emerged on the third-floor observation platform, looking down onto the border.
The top floor was added in 1994. Because of this, as the guide disdainfully pointed out, the South Koreans had been playing catch-up. Across the demarcation line stood the stunning new Freedom House, completed earlier in 1998, a shiny building in polished steel and mirrored glass with design elements drawn from historic Korean architecture. It was much cooler than the prior Freedom House, which had consisted of two unimpressive two-story buildings on each side of a pagoda. The pagoda was still there, but moved about 50 meters to the south to make way for this new structure.
Between Panmungok and Freedom House ran the last frontier of the Cold War, the most heavily fortified border in all of history. The line bisects a row of seven huts, “three blue houses built by the US imperialist army and four silver houses built by the Korean People’s Army,” as the guide put it. In the distance I could see the two giant flag masts, the first, 100 meters high, at Taesong in the south; and the newer 160-meter tower at Kijong in the north. There are observation posts scattered about the compound; Freedom House had at least a dozen cameras mounted on it and pointed at us.
Down by the demarcation line, North Korean soldiers stood stiffly in dress uniform on one side, stared at by slouching South Korean troops in mirrored sunglasses on the other. From afar they looked like Russians and Americans. The South Koreans all wore military-police armbands, although the North Koreans had dispensed with this technicality of the armistice agreement. At least they appeared to be carrying only the permitted sidearms.
Spot the GI’s
Next we left Panmungok and walked down toward the demarcation line itself. A pair of GI’s appeared behind the South Koreans. One of them had a camera and was taking our picture.
“Morning!” someone said to them.
“Morning!” a GI replied.
“These soldiers will protect you from the enemy,” our guide said, motioning to the six North Koreans standing between the blue huts.
We walked inside the middle building, used as a conference room during North-South negotiations. The demarcation line runs through the middle of the room, along the length of the conference table; microphone cables mark the border. Diplomats may sit facing each other without leaving their own territory. We were free to go anywhere within the building, on either side, although two KPA officers stood in front of the door on the South Korean side, thwarting my escape plans.
The Americans had disappeared, but a South Korean MP stood outside with a small camcorder in his hand. I’m not sure what the point is of documenting everyone who visits Panmunjom so extensively. (Dear South Korean intelligence: I’ll save you the trouble. It was me.)
So much for (technically speaking) our visit to South Korea. The sightseeing continued with the armistice building, one kilometer from the Joint Security Area.
After negotiations were moved from Kaesong to Panmunjom in 1951, the North Koreans decided that none of the existing sheds was a fitting venue for the peace negotiations, so working around the clock they built the conference building in five days. Here, after nearly two years of military and diplomatic squabbling, the details of the armistice were agreed. There’s not a lot to see, apart from conference tables and chairs under white furniture covers. Outside, a commemorative stone explains how the humbled US came on their knees to the victorious North Korean forces, begging for mercy; as a result the cease-fire was granted.
An adjacent building contains the actual documents, in English and Korean, that were signed to end the Korean War. Each side’s flag stands in a display case behind the agreements; the UN flag is tattered and faded, the DPRK’s looks brand-new. Contrary to expectation, the soldier did not claim this to be a providential sign.
Something else that we were not shown was the Panmunjom museum, also in this building. Here is a display case housing the axe used in the Hatchet Incident. I was able to take a peek at this while we were being led back outside.
Waiting outside for the van to arrive, the colonel asked us to make a short statement, and we wished Korea a swift, peaceful unification. Despite his stern uniform, he was wearing funky purple lace socks.
After Panmunjom, we were taken to see the Concrete Wall, built by the South Koreans. We stopped in Kaesong to pick up a military escort, and it took the better part of an hour to get there, along some winding, rutted roads through what might have been ginseng fields.
At the observation post, we were greeted by another soldier, on hand to explain the puppets’ treachery. There was a diagram on the wall of the structure, which he pointed at as our guide translated. They didn’t mention the Berlin Wall, built by their East German allies, although it was very much implied: the South Koreans thus “intended to make the division of their motherland permanent.” Having seen the Berlin Wall, and enough WWII defenses throughout Europe, it was hard to for me imagine the Concrete Wall as anything other than a very long tank trap. This was an opinion I kept to myself.
Outside is a row of high-powered telescopes that you can use to see the wall. (You don’t need a telescope to see the North Korean electric fence, only a few meters away.) Sure enough, there it was, a gray blur four kilometers away. There was a South Korean army building above the Concrete Wall with a big sign: “45 Days Vacation If You Can Make It Over Here!” There’s only the small matter of that electric fence.
We were to pay a cursory visit to Kaesong, the only North Korean city to have been under South Korean jurisdiction before the war; it is a city of one-story dwellings with Korean slate roofs bisected by a grand boulevard with tall buildings on each side, the purpose of which seemed to be to hide the one-story slate-roofed houses. This main street led to a hilltop statue of a certain well-known dead politician.
There was a bad side and a good side to hurrying through Kaesong. The bad side was there wouldn’t be time to see the tomb of King Kongmin, the 31st king of the Koryo dynasty, which had recently been excavated and, with certain liberties taken, rebuilt as a national shrine. The good side was, we wouldn’t have to climb all those steps to bow down before Kim Il Sung again. We merely took his picture from about a third of the way up the hill.
Lunch was at a restaurant in Korean style near the foot of the hill on Kaesong’s central avenue. We ate in a Korean dining room, seated shoeless and cross-legged around a low table, served by a woman in traditional costume. The food was delicious, and as it was presented in the Korean way, with each item on a small brass dish, there was a lot of trading during the meal as we swapped favorites with one another.
There was beer and mineral water, and the labels slid off the bottles effortlessly. I was able to add another two brands to my collection.
As I left the restaurant the server grabbed my wrist. “No,” she said. She clasped the labels. I tugged them away from her and went straight to our guide, who had just left the room. “Your colleague is giving me a bit of trouble with the bottle labels,” I told him. “No problem,” he said.
Upon arrival back in Pyongyang we were immediately hustled to the circus. It seemed like it might have been a regularly scheduled performance, judging by the crowd, which included a fair number of soldiers. The national anthem was not played. During the performance, which had more how-the-fuck-did-they-do-that acrobatics than I’ve ever seen, a brown-suited manager lurked in the background. As a juggler attempted an extremely difficult maneuver, throwing a large number of hoops into the air, and failed, the manager edged into the ring, looking sternly at his watch. When the third attempt proved successful, and the juggler basked in applause, he disappeared behind the curtain.
The circus was about the only hour I spent in North Korea that wasn’t politicized. There was no tumbling for the Great Leader or high-wire balancing to patriotic marches. It was also the only time I think I have ever seen a dancing bear.
After that break from propaganda, it was time to overdose: the next stop was the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. Again it seemed we were rushing through the exhibit, and spent only about five minutes reviewing what would usually be its highlight — the documentation of American war atrocities — followed by a cursory run-through of war history. The museum guide, a middle-aged woman in a military uniform, apparently did not have time to explain how a war that ended in stalemate could be considered “victorious.” This was followed by an animated display about North Korean supply lines during the war and the daring truck drivers who braved American attack to bring food and ammo to their side. In the incident depicted here, patriotic peasants held up a destroyed bridge on their backs to allow the trucks to pass over it.
The museum basement contained captured tanks, pieced-together shot-down US and South Korean aircraft, enemy guns, and the like. What caught my eye was a wall display about the latest US “atrocity” — the incursion into North Korean airspace in December 1994 of a small US helicopter that had lost its way in bad weather. It had been shot down, killing one of the two crew members; the other was released after negotiations that produced a US statement of “regret.” Here the chain of events was shown in a slightly different, and predictable, light, as a spy mission.
Note the dead guy in the wreckage
What I don’t understand is why the North Koreans feel the need to stretch the truth so often. US policy toward the country after the defeat of Japan was ... nonexistent, actually. It may be hard to believe that the Americans didn’t have a contingency plan for Korea during the second world war, but they didn’t. Most sources suggest that American policy toward Korea for the next half century was determined at a single late-night meeting of top military personnel headed by General (later Secretary of State) Dean Rusk on 10 August 1945, in which it was decided to send US forces to occupy Korea below the 38th parallel. Of course, this suggests that the Americans were anything but the evil imperialists of North Korean propaganda.
No Korea experts were on hand to make this fateful decision. If there had been, they would surely have pointed out that fifty years earlier, Russia and Japan had proposed dividing Korea along the exact same line. After defeating Russia, Japan in 1905 instead occupied the whole peninsula, with British and American acquiescence. Rather than oppose this blatant colonialism, President Teddy Roosevelt, trying very hard to be like Prince Metternich, negotiated the Treaty of Portsmouth (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize), which codified Japanese and Russian interests in the area, in exchange for which the two powers agreed to respect US ownership of the Philippines. The result for Korea was forty years as a Japanese colony. By picking the 38th Parallel in 1945 the United States appeared to have accepted Russian domination over the north; America had “won” the Japanese sphere of influence in the south.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, ever eager to grab more territory to impoverish, had been thinking a lot about Korea. So, after declaring war on Japan, in the days after Hiroshima, Stalin sent troops to occupy (“liberate”) the Korean peninsula above the 38th parallel. Thus the division of Korea began.
In an annex to the Victorious Fatherland War Museum is a rotunda housing a panorama painting of an anti-American victory in 1950. It shows the American imperialists in full retreat across 360 degrees, complete with blown-up tanks and someone stomping on the Stars and Stripes.
As we looked at the painting, a large group of children, led by an elderly soldier, entered the room. As with all North Koreans, they behaved as if we weren’t there at all, and like all North Korean children they wore a uniform of blue shorts, white shirt, and red scarf. Only outside, as we boarded our bus, did they wave en masse to us.
After the museum we were driven to the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. It was similar to the Soviet victory monument in Berlin’s Treptower Park — parallel rows of heroic statues leading to a large central figure. There was an excellent view of the Ryugyong Hotel. Here we were again warned not to take pictures from behind statues.
Shortly after receiving this warning, the Canadian sat down on the mantel in front of the main statue. From the other end of the memorial, 400 meters away, a police officer started whistling. He hurried over to our group and chastised the guide. The Canadian apologized, saying he thought it was a bench. It was a shelf for bouquets.
Next on the agenda was the Korean Art Museum on Kim Il Sung Square. I had been looking forward to this, but this was now the only time to ascend the Tower of the Juche Idea.
There was no question about the tower — it would be like skipping the Eiffel Tower while in Paris. About half the group felt the same way. We deposited the rest in the museum and drove across to the other side of the river.
This was not the best time to visit the Juche Tower — in contrast to the last few balmy days, it was raining, with high winds and temperatures around five degrees. As if we’d have another chance.
The guide went inside to negotiate. It would cost ten dollars each, he said upon his return. An attendant waited by the thick steel doors that led, by way of a long corridor, to the base of the tower.
Here was the elevator to the top, which was perhaps twice as capacious as a telephone booth. As far as I could tell the lift was also the only way down. Imagine being stuck here if the power went out.
The elevator wasn’t particularly swift, and the guide used the time to remind us of how impressively big the tower was. Towards the top the wind began to whistle quite loudly. The elevator doors opened automatically, but beyond them were a pair of curved gold-colored metal doors that the attendant had to roll apart by hand.
Sure enough, there was an excellent view, or there would have been if the capital had not been enshrouded in mist. Irrelevant: the most impressive thing was the flame atop the tower, a giant 17-ton bulb of gold-covered steel and colored glass. After the tower had been built, the flame was hauled in one piece to the top using ropes. Alas, it was too early to see it switched on from this vantage point.
I walked around the perimeter of the Juche Tower twice, trying to get my ten dollars’ worth. On the northwest side I was blasted with an arctic chill; on the other rain dribbled from the giant flame down the back of my neck.
“Wow, there’s May Day Stadium,” I said to the guide, pointing to the distant titanium-roofed colossus named for the day it opened in 1989. “And that’s Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.” Kim Jong Il had it built in 1980 to honor his dead mother.
He tried to show enthusiasm, but the point had been made: we’ve climbed the Juche Tower. Now let’s get the hell out of here.
We stepped back into the lift and the attendant rolled the outside doors shut. “And now we can see the Art Museum!” our guide exclaimed.
Not so fast. There was a gift shop in the base of the tower. Unfortunately, though, small plaster models of the tower were a ridiculous fifteen dollars. I settled for a small pennant with a green tassel, which unless you know what the Juche Tower is, looks like a ribbed condom.
The Museum of Korean Art was worth every minute. There was nothing besides the finest socialist realism. Without exception each section contained at least one giant painting of Kim Il Sung and several smaller ones.
Quite often the painters’ names weren’t given, especially in the case of the larger Kim Il Sung canvases. There were few pictures of Kim Jong Il, and to my regret the group wasn’t shown the room dedicated to him.
Two of the most striking paintings were The Execution of the Martyrs, which portrayed three defiant Koreans awaiting the Japanese gallows, and Homeland, in which an ethnic Korean in Japan (Tokyo is visible through the window) teaches her child to paint a North Korean flag.
Television that evening was even more dire than usual. The focus of the evening news — actually, the only story — was the unveiling of a new bronze statue of Kim Il Sung in front of Kim Il Sung Military University. After the announcer (this time a man in an acrylic-looking suit before the same blue background) intoned about Kim Il Sung for twenty minutes, the view changed to the assembled military chiefs on the scene that afternoon. For ten minutes high-ranking generals heaped flowers before the Great Leader. Then a sheet was pulled away, revealing the statue: it looked exactly like the other 70 throughout the country. A five-minute-long cheer followed. Even South Koreans cheer in an orderly manner (you put your arms in the air with elbows bent at right angles and then say Haaaaaaay for five seconds, pause in unison, and repeat), but the North Korean military didn’t seem particularly overjoyed about the statue. After the cheering, North Korean television viewers were treated to an hour of speeches by the top brass.
I checked back later when this was over. The next program was about Korean women who had been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese. Each was telling her horrific story, but you could only hear the voice of the announcer denouncing the Japanese imperialist enemy — individual citizens’ voices are almost never heard. Each of the comfort women was given what appeared to be a Japanese television set as compensation by the North Korean government.
There followed a Korean War drama that had obviously been recorded using home camcorders (not that the North Korean audience would know the difference), and in which the despicable American warmongers were played by Koreans whose eyes had been glued or clamped to make them look more Caucasian; the minor characters simply wore dark aviator glasses the whole time. These “Americans” generally had bushy mustaches and fat stogies, and walked with a swagger. One actor actually was an American, a reputed defector. After this there was a documentary about the childhood of Kim Il Sung, part 700 in a series.
Just then our group leader knocked on the door. He looked worried. “Can you stay another day, Simon? There’s a problem with the plane.”
My stomach immediately knotted up upon hearing this. All sorts of scenarios passed through my mind, about being left behind in North Korea, without my entourage, facing greater scrutiny about where I had lived, how many passports I might have, or what I had done for a living. I should have made a dash for it at Panmunjom when I had the chance. I was ready to confess it all. Anything. I’ll tell you what you want to hear. I’m a South Korean agent. They operated on my eyes, like those guys in your movies who play Americans. They brainwashed me into thinking I can’t speak Korean...
This intense fear must have gone on for a very long time, because the next thing I recall was being told there wasn’t a problem anymore: Air Koryo had laid on another plane for us. And it was time for dinner.
We went to the Korean restaurant downstairs for our farewell banquet. I had an appetite again, and it was just as well — they had prepared vegetarian Pyongyang Cold Noodles for us. I was deeply touched.
Before long our guide was tipsy again. He started telling us about how we shouldn’t believe the South Koreans. “When you go home,” he said, “please remember us in the north of Korea. If people say something about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — if they repeat South Korean propaganda — you can tell them the truth about our country.”
He was actually becoming a bit emotional about this. Change of topic. “You know, a friend of mine from Belarus is half Korean,” I said. “Tanya’s mother’s name is Pak, and her grandfather came from Pyongyang. He was an officer in the Korean People’s Army.”
“Aha! Pak, not Park! North Korea — Pak; South Korea — Park!” he said.
“Well, yes, didn’t I say her grandfather was from Pyongyang?” I said.
I wondered if he had ever met a South Korean.
We left the restaurant together, and after thanking the staff profusely, and foolishly mooting the possibility of a karaoke evening, moved to the bar one level below.
“Simon,” the guide said. “Do you have any labels from bottles?”
“Uh, yes, why?”
“You must show them to me before you leave.”
“If it’s any problem, you can have them all,” I said. “I don’t want any trouble — I just thought they were pretty and wanted them for my collection.”
“No problem. But you show me the labels.”
So that smiling woman in Kaesong had called the secret police to warn them about someone collecting mineral water bottle labels. And they’d called Pyongyang about mineral water bottle labels. And now my guide was scared that I might have collected mineral water bottle labels. Three million people dead of starvation, and these were the national priorities.
I played a game of pool against the other guide and was trounced. When I returned to the bar for another ill-advised serving of Five Star, the first guide had more to say to me.
“If you have any pictures of statues and the whole man isn’t in the picture, please tear them up. If the feet are cut off, tear them up. If the head or hands aren’t completely there, throw them away.”
No guesses for whose statue that would be. I humored him. “I’m sure I haven’t, but you know, I don’t want any photos like that. It wouldn’t be right to take a picture without the head and feet, and if I find mistakes like that, of course I will destroy them immediately.”
He seemed relieved. I may have dwelled on this a bit too long (“Geez, imagine wanting to have pictures of a statue without the feet. Unbelievable”) but didn’t remember taking any pictures like this (and indeed once I’d developed them there weren’t any — the closest thing was a Great Leader billboard taken from the van, with a poorly timed tree covering his face). This may have been a more general warning. Then again, I took a picture at Mansudae from the side, kind of, while North Koreans were watching. Did he mean this?
Note the low serial numbers
As I paid for my beer with tourist won, the barkeeper counted some larger-denomination banknotes, the non-tourist kind. I asked the guide if I could see the normal money, and he pointed to the blue tourist notes and said “This is normal money.”
“Oh, yes, of course it is,” I said.
North Koreans are supposedly not allowed to fold their banknotes, because to do so would crease the portrait of Kim Il Sung. Tourists are not to be trusted: the visitor money depicts only North Korea’s odd national emblem. It’s a knockoff of the Soviet sheaves-of-wheat crest, which according to the DPRK constitution,
(...) bears the design of a grand hydroelectric power station under Mt. Paektu, the sacred mountain of the revolution, and the beaming light of a five-pointed red star, with ears of rice forming an oval frame, bound with a red ribbon bearing the inscription The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Never mind that just about all the hydroelectric dams in Korea in 1948 had been built by the Japanese and blown up by the Americans.
The gang had to get up at six the following morning. The sky was perfectly clear, excellent for climbing the Juche Tower. There were only a few minutes to gorge on breakfast before we had to be in the van. I dashed up to the room to make one last check for the kinds of things that might get me hauled off the plane — ripped-up pictures of the Great Leader, spare shortwave radios, South Korean tourist brochures, night-vision equipment, porno mags — but finding none, I dropped off the key at reception. I was the last one in.
There was something odd about the morning: there were people everywhere, on foot, streaming into the city. As far as I could tell, they were not emerging from hidden tunnels.
The van passed Kim Il Sung Military University on the way to the airport, and I was able to spot the starving country’s latest cookie-cutter bronze representation of its megalomaniacal founder. After five days, Mangyongdae seemed like my home turf.
First things first. “Simon, you show me the beer labels now, OK?” the guide commanded. I was ready for this, and pulled out my still-unimpressive collection. “This is all?” he asked. I nodded. “That’s all right, then,” he said.
We had only a few minutes at the airport, which the others spent buying snake booze, but I suddenly realized I hadn’t written any postcards, which I now scrambled to do. I had finished eight, I think, when it was clear everyone else had already gone through customs.
I had a few presents for the guide, consisting of trinkets from Berlin and all the snack foods we’d bought in China, which we’d never had the chance to eat, and which I thought he probably needed more than I did. I was slightly worried about insulting him, because there was also a semi-melted Milka bar within, but food is food.
I gave him my postcards (none arrived) and dashed to the customs inspection. After I passed through this — the officer refused to stamp my passport, no matter how much I begged — I was greeted by a large display case containing thin paperback works of the Great Leaders in several languages for free.
No guessing what the in-flight magazine was on Air Koryo: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Our flight attendant wore white gloves and a badge that said only “Stewardess.” After handing out the magazines, she walked down the aisle with a large platter of Korean bonbons. The plane, needless to say, was spotless.
It was a Tupolev-134, and would be the last of three aircraft to leave Pyongyang, all headed for Beijing within minutes of each other.
I happen to believe that apart from the Boeing 757, the old Soviet narrow-body airliners are the most beautiful aircraft in existence. I watched attentively as an Ilyushin-62M loomed on the taxiway, before this lithe four-engined bird, somehow more elegant than the VC-10 upon whose stolen plans it was based, roared into the skies.
Immediately after it passed by, the Tu-154B parked to our right whirred into action, following its larger predecessor. And then we were off.
This was probably Air Koryo’s busiest day in years, and our plane was still three-quarters empty — the back third of the jet didn’t even have any seats. And yet the North Koreans wanted to buy a new fleet.
Thanks perhaps to Chinese condescension toward its former vassal, the plane is required to fly overland, so what should be an hour-long dash over the Yellow Sea (sorry, “West Korea Sea”) takes twice that along the coast.
One of us was a pilot, remember, and once the Tupolev had reached its cruising altitude he pulled out one of his business cards and went toward the cabin to offer collegial greetings. The flight attendant stopped him. “The pilot is flying the plane now,” she said.
It was hard to describe the sense of relief upon leaving North Korean airspace, but I wasn’t the only one feeling it. There was only one thing on my mind: “I always wanted to know,” I asked our pilot, “why does the BAe 146 have four engines? Couldn’t it make do with two?”
“Those aren’t engines, those are hair dryers,” he replied.
I went to the aft toilet and pocketed the small bottles of North Korean cologne that had been placed there. The soap was Chinese, so I left it alone.
Apart from a leaky bottle with a dead snake bobbing about in it, someone had acquired a Korean-English phrasebook. It was filled with useful expressions such as “I say the US imperialists are wolves in human form!” and “Korea has two other names: Juche and Chollima.” Face it, with two guides you don’t need to know how to ask the way to the station.
If you believe the headlines, North Korea is on its last legs; it is bankrupt and starving, the results of its isolationist folly, the fraud of a “self-reliance” bankrolled by the Chinese. I’m not so sure. At least where we were shown, the state apparatus shows no signs of cracking, even with what may be more than a tenth of the population dead of hunger. Stalin was able to murder ten million Ukrainians by similar methods without risking his hold on power.
There are plenty of signs that the military is now the dominant force within the DPRK; whether this is in collusion with, or as a counterbalance to Kim Jong Il is anyone’s guess, as is the purpose of the country’s drive for weapons of mass destruction. Many observers reckon that a military coup is the only likely scenario for a rapprochement with the South.
The unknown factor in North Korea is the Kim cult. If it is a religion, if the people really have been “brainwashed,” then all bets are off; you might as well try to convert the Taleban. But tears were shed for Stalin in the Gulag, yet his memory was soon expunged from public life. Whether personal loyalty can be passed on is a matter of question. Kim Il Sung isn’t the first dictator to anoint his oddball son as his heir, but from Richard Cromwell to Uday Hussein, history isn’t exactly brimming with successful examples of authoritarian dynasties.
The average lifespan in North Korea, according to the CIA, is about 50 years. That’s how old the country is. Practically nobody knows life without the Great Leader and the version of history he promulgated. Even under these circumstances, the government feels assured of the fealty of only 28 percent of the population.
The South Korean authorities hope for a gradual fusion of the two countries. But no-one predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the swift move to German unification. No-one is going to get this one right, either.