Week 52d – An Obligatory Bow
A trip to North Korea isn’t really complete without enjoying a dog barbecue at least once. I’ve eaten dog once before in China, and have to say the taste of dog certainly beats the image of eating it. With so few restaurants accommodating foreign tourists, it seemed as though the whole tourist population of Pyongyang had converged on this single restaurant, serving a variety of barbecued dog dishes. Sadly all of these foreigners were able to use chopsticks far better than me, a dismal fact considering I’ve been in China for almost a year.
Up until now, I’d decided against asking Ms. Lee our guide any probing questions against North Korea. But after building up two days worth of trust and respect, there wasn’t going to be a better chance. I was under the impression that North Koreans who wanted unification believed South Koreans would happily throw away their capitalist, democratic life, to revert to a socialistic stranglehold where freedom is limited. Our guide portrayed a different picture, accepting that if reunification did indeed happen, life in North Korea would change forever, possibly for the better.
With the night still young and being forced to return to my hotel, I challenged my guard Mr. Jang to a friendly game of table tennis. It wasn’t a morale boosting victory I was after though, but the chance of conversing to try and understand a little more about life in North Korea. As the beer flowed, so did the conversation. Of course, talking to one person who has regular contact with foreigners isn’t going to give any definite answers.
It’s easy to see why the majority of North Koreans have no complaints with the system they live under. Everything is free. Free housing, free healthcare, free schooling, free electricity and free gas. There is also no tax, with only a small amount deducted to pay for the wages of those working in the government owned electricity and gas industries.
As the conversation took a lull, a Workers Party official entered the room and sat at the bar. His chest glistened with sweat above his blazer and white vest, and from the direction he came from, I would have guessed it was the strenuous exercises of a Chinese massage parlour girl who’d worked up this perspiration. Ordering a beer he looked towards the TV, which was playing footage of the recent Workers Party meeting, where Kim Jong Il’s third son, Kim Il Un (the Brilliant Comrade) was promoted to general, a possible move of ushering him in to power.
As we peered towards the TV screen, I asked Mr. Jang what he thought of Kim Il Un’s appointment. Amazed that we were so up to date with his country’s current politics, he responded, “of course I respect him because he looks just like his father and grandfather.” If the future leader of your country looks like a past leader you still fanatically worship, the chances are, he will be a sure-fire winner! A very clever marketing ploy!
I asked him whether he thought his third son was a better choice than his first or second sons, a question that was met with a look of bewilderment and the words, “he has more sons?” At first I presumed this was just the way a secretive state shared information, keeping their inhabitants in the dark. Then I realised I knew just as little about the children of my own Prime Minister David Cameron. Maybe it’s wrong to always jump to such preconceived conclusions.
Talking more politics, I was surprised that although he believed in his country’s socialist, ‘Juche’ approach at governance, he knew it’s not something that everyone agrees with and an ideology that wouldn’t be successful everywhere. I always envisaged North Korean propaganda would teach people that socialism was the one and only way of living. Maybe working in the tourism industry has led to thinking of the contrary.
Since arriving in North Korea, other than the beauty-blessed female traffic police, and several ‘New York taxi yellow’ police cars, there was little sign of a police force. Of course, any rational thinking person would realise that the amount of patrolling soldiers and a military backed government would make the need for the police virtually obsolete. As our guide pointed out, in a country where crime rates are virtually nil (possibly the thought of entering one of the notorious gulags is a good deterrent), there isn’t really the need for a highly visibile police presence.
Moving on to free-time, I wondered what people do when evidence of Western and foreign cultures is minimal. Gone are the choices of computer games, nightclubs and the singing of any non Korean karaoke songs. Instead the most popular activities are board games and picnics. Such innocence could explain why most people don’t get married until their late twenties.
The following morning, before catching our return flight back to northern China, there was still time to visit a few more of Pyongyang’s many monuments. Driving past the Tower of the Juche Idea, the adjacent Kim Il Sung Square was full of thousands of school children practising various performances for the 65th anniversary of the Workers Party. Intrigued by our random appearance, children stopped what they were doing and stared excitedly in our direction before unleashing shy waves and timid giggles.
The last stop of the trip was a twenty metre high Kim Il Sung statue, where the obligatory laying of flowers and a bow had to be performed. Plain clothes policeman watched our actions from a distance. Again our actions showed watching North Koreans how respected their ‘Great Leader’ is in other countries.
Visiting North Korea doesn’t come cheap and four days of non-stop itineraries only leaves you wanting more. As I poured over the doctored photos on show at Pyongyang airport while waiting for the return flight to China I realised I’d probably never experience a trip like this again. For a tight-fisted traveller who plans with the most meagre of budgets, this splurge was certainly worth it. Feelings that disappeared minutes later on the turbulence filled return flight with Air Koryo back to China. Like a scene from Final Destination, the small plane was tossed around like a pinball. It was only now that I questioned my agreement of travelling on an antique plane owned by one of the worlds worst airlines.