Portraits of Eternal President of DPRK Chairman Kim Il-sung and Supreme Leader of DPRK, Kim Jong-il at “Arirang” mass games.
This is a short summary of my trip to North Korea in August 2012. If I simply say that it’s a special place, I will say nothing. Apart from curiosity this trip was driven by a desire to swap roles with myself from 25 years ago and see how it is to be a foreign tourist in Soviet Union. And it turned out to be a weird role to play. At times I was getting a strong feeling that our tourist group was participating in a well prepared show. At some point the guide would stop reciting absurdly long titles of Benevolent Leader and burst out laughing. Alas, passing by groups of military officers with grim faces and pancake like forage caps reminded me of where I was.
Attendant at the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship captured by North Korea in 1968 which has since been moored in Pyongyang and used as a propaganda museum. Pins with portraits of the Supreme Leaders must be worn by all members of the DPRK Workers Party. Every citizen of the country is a member of the party.
Getting to North Korea as an independent tourist is impossible. The proud nation manages tourists in groups. Every group is herded by one or two guides, loyal to the party and drilled about what tourist can see and what does not exist for them. I travelled with a Chinese group from Danong, a little town on the border with DPRK. It was a great option since the cost of this tour was half the price of similar tours for westerners. Also this option had a bonus of the best company for this destination. Chinese primarily travel to North Korea for nostaliga about China from 30 years ago. We perfectly bonded on this and spent days discussing similarities between our homelands and evenings singing “The Internationale” over beer in the hotel restaurant.
Chinese tourists taking photos in front of a wall photo of Kim Jong-il and a dam in the town of Nampo, North Korea.
As soon as we crossed the famous friendship bridge which connects Chinese and Korean sides of the Yalu river the time jumped back a couple of decades. Progressive China changed into old brick walls of the customs house, solemn faces of soldiers and highlighted portraits of The Leaders, radiating cold happines around. The only connection to the real world was a huge plasma TV mounted on the wall showing people in old fashioned fancy clothes singing on the stage. The TV apparently was a present from across the river.
A schoolboy riding in Pyongyang metro under the portraits of The Supreme leaders. All schoolkids have to wear a standardized uniform with ties. Portraits of The Leaders have be hung in all houses and public places.
From the moment tourists cross the border into Korea till they cross it back, they are assigned a guide who is responsible for them during their time in the country. For me and a dozen of Chinese in our group two guides were assigned. One spoke Chinese and the other spoke Russian. This situation didn’t favour me at all since the Russian speaking guide had nothing else to do but always hang around a few steps away from me, eavesdropping on my conversations with other group members and peeking into my camera screen. From what I saw, tour guides in North Korea are pretty useless for tourists. They know incredibly well all names, dates and facts related to revolution, the workers party and The Great Leaders, but begin floating when asked questions about Juche ideology and completely switch off and forget the language after questions about daily life in the country.
Passengers on a tram in Pyongyang. A start is granted to a tram after 50,000 kilometers of service.
All foreigners in Pyongyang are usually accommodated in the Yangakkdo hotel which is situated on an island in the river in the middle of the city. The government could not find a better location for it. The view from the hotel is amazing, but the two bridges connecting it to the city are guarded and off limits for tourists. Every morning an army of buses pick up tourists at the hotel and drive them to places of great importance to every party member: monuments of The Great Leaders and others that commemorate important sayings, Pyongyang Metro, demilitarized zone, souvenir shops with ideological literature and ginseng. Tourists can catch a glimpse of real life in between, but it’s unreachable from behind the bus window.
Women sweep Mansudae hill square in front of gigantic statues of Kim Il-song and Kim Jong-il. This activity demonstrates love and devotion to revolution and The Great Leaders. North and South Korean soldiers guard demarcation line at the demilitarized zone between the two countries. The line goes along the grey concrete block in the centre.
I must say that I left the country with impressions that were different from expectations. Things looked much better in real life than on the photos in magazines, newspapers and blogs. There is a fair bit of cars in the streets of Pyongyang (not much outside though). Ramshackle buildings behind new facades do exist but most are knocked down and are being rebuilt. People dress smart and well. Rural areas are completely reclaimed as farmlands and look not worse than Laos or Vietnam. Even the infamous spooky Ruygyong hotel in the middle of Pyongyang is getting a facelift, but according to rumours inside it’s still empty.
Pyongyang by night with the spooky Ruygyong hotel. Taken from Yangakdo hotel.
Life of people in North Korea is controlled way more seriously than in Soviet Union. Everyone must become a member of the workers party and wear a Kim Jon-il or Kim Il-song pin on the chest. Travels outside of the town of residence require a clearance document. As a consequence the whole country dreams about living in Pyongyang. Only small numbers can get there though. Almost every citizen is involved into some form of collective activities, which according to the party developes a sense of communist comradeship. Kids spend afternoons after school in state run hobby clubs whereas adults do drills to prepare for demonstrations. The most fit and lucky ones participate in mass games which are held during a 2-3 month period every year. These games got into the guinnes world book of records as the biggest of this kind with around 100,000 participants. I had always been skeptical about any sorts of gymnastic shows until I saw THIS. But I will tell about the games in another post.
Children accordionist group showcases skills at the Pyongyang Children Palace. "Arirang" mass games. 100,000 actors appear on the stage during 1,5 hours show.