Travels in North Korea

Selection_032Sylvain Cheze

Pyongyang. Day One.

The first thing that strikes one is the relative proximity of North Korea. The capital, Pyongyang is only a 90-minute flight from Beijing. Condensate drips from the ceiling of the Air Koryo Tupolev but otherwise it’s quite a comfortable flight. No photos allowed, we’re told. The cabin crew is immaculately turned out in the airline’s new navy blue uniforms. The service on board is pleasant, and the meal consists of a cold mini hamburger and local cola. The in-flight magazine has no advertising, no frequent flyer promotions, in fact there’s nothing commercial about it. Rather, it’s a procession of photographs of monuments, factories, farms, kindergartens and the military. Welcome to North Korea!
Pyongyang has a brand-new airport. We land in bright sunshine. Immigration is brisk and we pass through quickly. Customs is more intense. They ask to see any books, magazines, other printed matter. Mobile phones are taken away “for registration” (foreign phones do not anyway work on the local network). Laptops and iPads are opened and inspected. “Do you have any movies, any YouTube material?” The customs official looks through my apps and files. I have the movies Searching for Sugarman and The Quiet American on my iPad. He plays each one for a few seconds, smiles, and hands the device back. The inspection is professional and pleasant and we’re out in the arrivals hall in about 30 minutes to be greeted by two guides assigned by KITC, the Korean International Travel Corporation. No independent tourism is allowed in North Korea and all travel must be arranged with KITC and accompanied by their guides. We introduce ourselves. “I am Miss Pak and this is Mister Kim”, the guide announces.

Officially, it’s the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. You may take photos of the airport building, our guide announces. However, she adds, there are three restrictions to photography in North Korea: no photos of the military, no photos of construction sites, and photos of the statues of leaders must be full-body shots (no close-up head shots, no pointing hands, etc).

The double roadway into the city has little traffic: a few trolleybuses and trucks. It’s a nice contrast coming from the seemingly perpetual congestion of Beijing. We pass teams of men and women repairing the road verges. The work is all manual: people are squatting with hand tools or pushing barrows. On first impression, the countryside looks like parts of Central Asia, with similar trees and fields. They apply white paint around the bottom of trees just like they do in that region.

Pyongyang is cleaner than any city I’ve visited. I imagine this is partly because there is no private commerce in North Korea and consequently little or no consumer trash. This also seems the kind of place where the penalty for littering is severe. Everything appears well maintained, albeit a bit worn and outdated. Billboards consists only of propaganda slogans or painted images of leaders in various modes of pointed guidance: “Let us brilliantly inherit and develop the glorious revolutionary traditions of our Party!” And so on. There is a constant flow of pedestrians walking or waiting for buses, or cycling. Some of them look up and return a wave but most ignore us. Pyongyang hosts a few thousand tourists every year and has done so for several years; consequently, the rather scruffy foreign tour groups are probably no longer a novelty.

Our first stop is the Arch of Triumph, built to commemorate the resistance to Japanese rule. The guide informs that “this is also the spot where our Eternal President, Comrade Kim il Sung, first addressed the people upon his triumphant return to Pyongyang”. Hence the name: Triumphant Return Square! The square is marked by a large mural, which depicts a young Kim addressing an apparently enthusiastic crowd. The arch is modeled on the more well known one in Paris. Only that it’s 10 meters higher, we’re told. She rolls off dates and numbers with fluency: there are exactly 25,550 granite blocks in the structure. Each block represents a day in the life of the Great Leader up until the day the arch was opened, his 70th birthday. I’m amazed by the apparent strength of feeling towards the Japanese. Their occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 is something that few of us in the West have any knowledge about; the hurt lingers on in North Korea some two generations later, kept alive no doubt by the incessant propaganda.

We pass through the city center, which, to my surprise, is filled with modern high-rise buildings. I had expected shorter, drab structures, something more akin to the 1970s, communist-style. The area bustles with traffic, although nowhere near the congestion of most capital cities. There are small kiosks dotted about, but no shops evident in the center. Maybe they’re simply not noticeable due to the absence of advertising. Maybe it’s because as rumored few of the new buildings are occupied. However, there are however flags and banners at every turn. Sweep away defeatism, self-preservation, expediency and self-centeredness!

There are few privately run cars in North Korea. We’re told these cars have an orange number plate, and I see only one during my five days in country. North Korea manufactures its own brand of cars and the “Pyeonghwa” (meaning “peace”) is pointed out. Trolleybuses and trams are also made locally, mostly engineered from Soviet models (and, more recently, from Chinese and Korean ones). I have a sense of déjà vu, having seen the same assortment of public transport in the former Soviet Union. There are traffic police at every intersection. They are smartly turned out in blue and white, a bright contrast to the drab olive of the military. The women twirl and pirouette in jointed movements, with style, salute the occasional big-shot; they seem conscious of and to enjoy the attention the process brings. You may take photographs of the traffic police, we’re told.

We check into the Yanggakdo International Hotel: 47 floors high, over 1,000 rooms, with a casino in the basement, and a revolving restaurant on the top floor. Everything has been arranged by KITC, so check-in takes only a few minutes. The guide informs us that we may walk around the car park, but must not leave the hotel premises. Foreign tour groups appear to be the hotel’s only occupants this week. “Please hand in your passports”. Yes, for registration. That’s the last we see of our documents until we leave the country at the end of the week. The hotel is comfortable and clean and reminds me of the large Soviet-era hotels in Russia and Ukraine although I read subsequently that a French company built it in the 1990s. The hotel is located on an island in the Taedong River, which splits Pyongyang, and the view down the river at twilight is spectacular. Like any big city the view is of skyscrapers, monuments, mass housing and factories. Just no advertising and few street lights visible anywhere.

We head out immediately to visit the Grand Monument of the Leaders on Mansudae Hill. Tomorrow is 9th September, the anniversary of the founding of the DPRK in 1948, and one of the year’s big occasions on which to pay homage to the Leaders.

There are busloads of people heading up to the statues as we arrive. A steady tide follows, groups of soldiers (“No photos, please,” we’re reminded) and what appear to be organized groups of office or factory workers. They wait quietly in line, each group carrying flowers. Our group is asked to buy a bunch of flowers at a kiosk on the way up. “Five euros” we soon understand is the standard price for flowers for foreigners when bowing to monuments in North Korea. The guide announces the procedure: we approach the statues in a line abreast; someone elected by the group goes forward to place the flowers; everyone must bow in formation.

It’s all rather dignified, no chatter, no emotions showing, almost like a ritual. I look at the faces of the people, but it’s impossible to say what they are thinking. Most avoid eye contact. For most, my sense is probably nothing at all; this is just something you do if you live there. The groups walk up in line, place flowers, bow and walk off. We do the same. This is definitely one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve had in my life. We bow to these two ordinary blokes whose legacies endure within the incredible mythical world they created. The statues are in bronze, large and very impressive. The Eternal President, Kim il Sung, points into the distance, while The General, Kim Jong Il, his son, looks on with satisfaction. They are smiling and the spotlights draw attention to and exaggerate their teeth. There is little time for camera adjustments and we snap away until we’re called away. It seems impolite to go back and get closer once we had retreated from bowing, so a telephoto lens comes in very handy. I make sure I have the full bodies covered in every shot: arms, legs and teeth.

Day one over, we head back to the hotel in our little tourist bubble. At dinner, I pick my way through the smoked fish and shredded cabbage and try to make sense of the kaleidoscope of images in my mind. The one that stands out most is the image of large bronze teeth grinning down at that silent procession of obedient beings.