Note: I also wrote a short piece for Crikey on the subject yesterday.
I returned to China a few days ago after a week in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Every minute of the trip was fascinating, and I have many new insights into the place that I would never have gotten reading the news media. I saw things and experienced many incidents which were funny, disturbing and impressive. It was certainly unlike any place I have ever visited.
Here are a few brief initial thoughts, which I will expand on in the coming days.
Impressions of Pyongyang and the countryside
Pyongyang is a city of some 3 million people, and is well built-up at least in comparison to a typical Australian city. Apartment buildings are everywhere, uniform in style and often topped with a gigantic propaganda message reminding the populace of some crucial fact or duty – “Korea will prevail!”.
The city has an extraordinary number of enormous monuments and monumental buildings – political assemblies, museums, squares, memorials. The size and scale of these was impressive. However, the city did not feel crowded. It certainly did not feel like a bustling Asian capital. The main freeway out of town, at parts a 10-lane road, had only the occasional vehicle ambling along, dwarfed by the enormous thoroughfare. The scale of all this highly unnecessary construction would be impressive in any country, but is staggering in a nation as poor as North Korea. Much of the main construction, such as the mausoleum, was constructed during years of famine.
The central district of the city is reasonably small – though there are hundreds of apartment buildings and dozens of enormous national monuments, it felt like we only had to drive 10 minutes in any direction to reach the countryside. There, every square inch of flat land was given over to cultivation.
I only noticed one brief power outage while I was there, though at night the city was pretty dimly lit by our standards.
Life in North Korea
Most of what one reads about North Korea is very negative. This doesn’t mean it’s true, or necessarily even one-sided, but it can distort one’s view of what the daily life must be like. For instance, I didn’t expect to go to an amusement park in Pyongyang that had lots of happy families enjoying the rides. (I went on a few and they were excellent, better than what Luna Park has to offer.) North Koreans focus on their daily lives and family relationships as much as anybody, and the whole day isn’t given over to ceaseless labor and political brainwashing.
With that qualification, I can say that the DPRK is an incredibly regimented society. Almost everybody I saw was in uniform. The city didn’t look crowded, except when a rally was in progress, and I saw quite a few of those. The city is gearing up for celebrations marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party, and rehearsals, exhortations and meetings were constantly in progress, with thousands upon thousands of city residents lined up in ranks and files to listen or practice.
Outside the city, red flags marked the locations where work units were working in the fields or on constructions sites. Every North Korean has a place in a work unit, which makes one wonder how an enemy spy could possibly infiltrate the country. In the DPRK everybody has a place and knows it.
The DPRK worldview
The convention wisdom would have it that North Koreans are told they live in the most prosperous nation on earth, thanks to the wisdom of their great leaders. This is not the case – they know they are doing it hard, and that Westerners and South Koreans are doing much better. The rationing, shortages and hard work North Koreans experience is of course not attributed to mismanagement, but to the country’s wartime footing.
North Korea is like Blitz-era Britain; a country under siege, with a well-defined enemy, marshalling all its resources to hang on. Blame the U.S. Imperialists for the tough conditions – but we can take it! For a small nation to stand up to the combined might of the world’s superpower, a few sacrifices are necessary, but at least we are free.
Of course, the North Koreans are still largely ignorant of life in the outside world. But it’s hard not to have a grudging respect for the “live free or die” mentality, even if it’s based on lies.
The cult of personality
In the West, we like to make fun of the cult of personality surrounding the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. The reality was probably even more bizarre than this mockery would suggest.
North Koreans take their leaders very seriously – every citizen over the age of 15 constantly sports a pin depicting Kim Il Sung on their left breast, no matter what they are wearing. Almost every room one enters, save the bathrooms, sports the portraits of the leaders, and of course Pyongyang sports a 20m-high statue of Kim Il Sung. The monument itself is dwarfed by the eternal President’s mausoleum, which dwarfs the Vatican in scale and in piety. The leaders are everywhere, and reverence of them is by all accounts entirely sincere. It’s hard to imagine that every citizen is able to suspend disbelief all the time that their leaders are towering geniuses about every aspect of human endeavour, but I was told by several knowledgable outsiders that the topic was entirely out of bounds for humour or skepticism. Just as you would not expect to find a Saudi stand-up comedian specialising in Mohammed gags, to too are the Kims off the menu.
One highlights of the tour, and a great illustration of this, was the Museum of Metro construction. Pyongyang has a small and rather shabby metro system, but a glorious museum dedicated to how the wise and glorious leaders directed every aspect of its construction. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside, but that’s a topic I want to cover in more detail later.
Much more to come. A big thanks to Koryo Tours for making the experience possible.