That would be a better name than the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. Of course any country that feels the need to shore up its credentials by affixing such prefixes as ‘democratic’ and ‘peoples’ is bound to be dubious. As a rule the more a regime emphasizes its democratic values through the amount of adjectives in its name the more ruthless and undemocratic it is. As such the D.P.R.K is the worst of the lot, as it not only claims to be democratic, but also to be governed by its people. The reality is much more bleak, it is governed by a ruthless tyrant and his cronnies, all belonging in one way or another to the Kim-clan. North Korea is in effect Kim’s personal playground, a fiefdom if you will. It is ruled with an iron fist without regard to its people.
Kim Jong Ill, quite frankly puts other would be dictators to shame. He makes Mugabe of Zimbabwe look positively democratic and benevolent, and even the late Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan seems lame by comparison. That this poor country is ruled by a dwarf with a severe height complex, a bad hairdo and a terrible dress sense (he walks around in a beige jumpsuit) only makes matters worse. He is sure to have confidence issues which he tries to overcome by having his people glorify him, and by bullying the outside world with threats of nuclear destruction.
And this is the country I decided to pay a visit, thus putting more money into the very hands that shouldn’t be getting it. It was a bit of a moral dilemma, but in the end my curiosity won from my moral objections. To call the country interesting is an understatement. It is the first country I have been to where I have actually been shocked by what I saw and felt. It is the first country where I felt uncomfortable travelling around. It is a military state par excellence, and the amount of armed men and women belonging to the various security forces is simply staggering. I would estimate that around one third of the country is employed in the business of keeping a eye on, or keeping alive the all persuasive fear of the regime, of the other two thirds of its citizens. I have decided to try to describe this country and my experience in it by cutting it up into different aspects.
Lets start with the country as a whole. As said above, it is a police state ruled by an autocrat. It is kept in power by the sheer weight of its security apparatus. All money goes to that arm of the government. Upon entering it, one can feel the oppression that pervades this society. The fact that you can only visit as part of a tour group with assigned guides and can only go where they tell you to, and under their supervision and may only take photo’s with their permission already says a lot. You are rigorously checked when entering, with special attention paid to your camera and to your literature, in case you bring in ‘reactionary’ material. No mobile phones, usb sticks, data delivery devices, extra memory cards, binoculars or laptops are allowed in. You are not allowed to pay in the local currency and are not permitted to take it out of the country if you happen to acquire it.
As foreign tourist we are still privileged in this country. The normal folks are even more strictly controlled. They can’t just hop on a train or bus and go to the next town or city, let alone to Pyongyang the capital. To travel one needs permits, which are no doubt hard to get. Everybody of course has to have an identification card. Both the permits and the identification cards are checked all the time and everywhere. In the local train that our group took from Sinuiji on the border with China to Pyongyang I had a glimpse of what this meant. In our carriage, which I am sure held only the higher ranks of the hierarchy, the men and women sitting further down the aisle were checked and re-checked countless times. Checked by four people, with at least two armed figures on hand for extra effect. Entering or exiting the train or the train station meant more checks. At every station we stopped the platforms were bustling with soldiers, police and others in uniform, I would say they made up about half of the crowd on the platforms. Probably quite a few were waiting for trains as well, but for sure a lot were just there to inspire fear and obedience. As we passed the country side I noticed that guards were stationed at every bridge, tunnel and at the villages along the way. Taking a bus is no different, as there are random checkpoints all over.
Lets move over to the scenery. North Korea is a mountainous country and in winter at least it is also a monochrome country, the overwhelming colours being brown on the country side, and grey in the cities. This actually goes so far as to the people themselves who prefer to wear the darker shades in the colour spectrum. It is like the whole country is in mourning, and why not? I would be if I would be living there. But back to the scenery. Another aspect that became obvious quite fast was the lack of trees and if you draw it out further the lack of life in general. Barren and lifeless were thoughts that popped into my mind often as I peered out of the windows of the train or bus. The lack of trees can probably be explained by a desperate population cutting them down for firewood, the barrenness was partly due to the season. But where were all the birds and other animals? You would at least expect to see a few signs of animal life. I saw a few magpies, but not many. Again I can only presume this, but perhaps the land is so infertile that there is no food for the birds, and they simply flew off to greener pastures. Others might have been killed and eaten by a starving populace. As for domestic animals, I saw about 5 scrawny chickens, 10 oxen variously employed for pulling carts or ploughing fields and 2 troops of geese on the entire journey. No dogs, no cats, no horses and no pigs.
While the countryside looks barren it is actually cultivated to the extreme, with every square centimeter ploughed and ready to use. But it all seemed hopelessly inefficient to me, a strong wind or some heavy rain would just whittle away the fertile top-soil. In fact I suspect that is what has been happening for years, while the fields all looked neatly ploughed and parceled up, they look infertile. There isn’t any manure or fertilizer in the country to change this situation. The whole countryside reeked of desperation. ‘If we plant crops everywhere, we might at least get something’ seemed to be the general consensus. Other things I saw where the ubiquitous rows of red flags augmented by banners with communist slogans and pictures of happy and hard working farmers and soldiers, groups of farmers overseen by armed men digging away in fields or in ditches, white painted villages with grey tiled roofs, all of the same style and looking rather dismal despite the fresh lick of paint. As for the cities, apart from Pyongyang and then only its centre they too looked rundown and gloomy, though again a fresh layer of paint had been applied to most buildings.
The country can be compared to a tired, shriveled old man, worked to the bones by his boss, with nothing left in him anymore. Yet his boss insists that he keep on going, patching up his suit to make it look new, and hiding the signs of his age and weariness by covering them up.
As for the people. The most visible expression on most peoples faces was a glum look. Then there was hostility, especially by the uniforms, and fear. Often people just tried to avoid us when we walked by in our group, preferring not to make any eye contact. The only exception is the children who are still blissfully unaware of the situation and canter around laughing, playing and singing. On the countryside people looked gaunt and malnourished, in Pyongyang the men and women were better off. Here the party elite lives and they have it somewhat better. Cars are few though, even for the better off that is way beyond their means. There are bicycles, but on the countryside most people simply walk. Busses and trains run, but as I stated you need a permit to go anywhere. Still the trains were filled to the brim (with the exception of the carriage we were in of course).
The capital. Pyongyang is a showcase capital and it consists of a lot of monuments, statues and big buildings. It is one of the few places in the country to get enough electricity to give everybody light in the evening. Even so in the suburbs things are different. The centre has a few streetlights, but mostly the electricity seems to be used to light up useless monuments and plaquards of the Eternal and now deceased President Kim Ill Sung and the current leader, Kim Jong Ill. These plaquards are everywhere, images of them standing in front of a mountain smiling, in front of an hydroelectric power station amongst happy engineers and workers cheering them, in front of a lake with birds perched on their shoulders and children running to them with flowers, all in vivid colours. As a whole you can’t escape the gaze of father and son, as they are on every building, on every station, in every room, in every train carriage, in every bus and pinned as buttons on every citizen.
The propaganda. It takes the form of those plaquards and other paraphernalia described above, including various statues of the eternal president. Suitable myths have been created around him and his son to turn him into a god-like figure. Visits to his so called birthplace in Pyongyang (actually he was born in Khaborovsk, Russia, but what do the N. Koreans know), to the Friendship Exhibition which is nothing more than an ostentatious building housing gifts from leaders around the world (think the likes of Ceausescu, Stalin and the sort) showing how greatly respected and revered their presidents are and to the great bronze statue of Kim Ill Sung are compulsory for everybody. Bowing to this statue and a curious wax version of him in the Friendship Exhibition Palace are also obligatory. Then you have the Victorious Fatherland History Museum where we as foreign tourist were put into a room with a film explaining in bad English how the Korean war was planned and started by non other than the U.S.A. and how they had occupied the south and repressed its population. The actual footage shown was a mixture of old reels from the First World War, the second World War, some scenes from a masacre which was purportudly carried out by the Americans in South Korea before the war, but the soldiers looked like they were Japanese and the victims Chinese, leading me to believe it was something from the Second World War, and then there was some Great Depression stuff. It was all very laughable if it wasn’t so damned sad. This is clearly what the North Koreans are fed every day.
The group. Our group consisted of three Europeans and about 13 Chinese. We had two guides, one Chinese speaking and one English speaking. The three Europeans were a Norwegian couple and me. The Chinese were nice, but didn’t seem interested in the trip. I had the distinct feeling they were there for business, a feeling only enforced when we left the country and one of them showed a big wad of Chinese money when he was searched on the way out. The Chinese spent most of their time drinking and having a good time. There was one exception an English speaking fellow who decided to sit with us. However we soon found out he was quite an odd individual, socially inept and starving for attention. He was constantly flirting with the girls and in the end they were rather annoyed with him. Unfortunately this strange man was made my room mate, upon his request. So during the day I had to contend with the oppressive atmosphere in the country, and at night I was treated to my room mate walking around naked through our room. It wasn’t a sight I particularly wanted to see. It made a weird experience even more bizarre and I felt I had somehow entered the twilight zone. With a guide for just the three of us it was rather hard to take any illegal pictures from the bus or train, so my photo’s are what the regime is happy for the world to see.
The tour. We were taken down to Panmunjom and fed some propaganda there by the army officer guiding us around, we visited Kaesong, but were not allowed to walk around town or take pictures of the city. We were confined to a restaurant and a restored old Confucian school. We toured Pyongyang, taking in the metro and several monuments as well as Kim Ill Sung’s purported birth place (as far as I know he was actually born in Khaborovsk, Russia) and the dull Victorious Fatherland History Museum, the only purpose of which was to show us that terrible propagand film blaming America for the war. We went up North to visit the International Friendship Exhibition and to bow down to a wax puppet. Also around there was a Buddhist temple of mild interest.
Finally the guides, they were nice enough and I felt sorry for our guide in particular, though I am sure she must belong to the upper class to be allowed this job. But she seemed embarrassed at times about the obvious lies and the state of her country as a whole. She must know better of course as she is around foreign tourist more often and is privy to information that the rest of the citizens are not.
It was an interesting experience, but I shall not return until this regime falls which I hope will be soon. Nobody deserves to be treated the way the North Koreans are treated. I was planning on writing in my usual cynical way but on this topic it is just impossible. The government of North Korea just disgusts me too much.