North Korea: Love Thy Leader – II
by Israel Shamir on 23 May 2016 0 Comment

Feet on the Ground: DPR Korea is thoroughly demonised. It is supposed to be the poorest country (Wikipedia); hell on earth, its national airline “the world’s worst”, its cities shambles. The demonisers did a good service for N Korea as my expectations were so low that I immensely enjoyed every minute and every meal. Actually Air Koryo, the native airline, is not too bad and comparable to provincial airlines of its neighbours Russia and China.


Pyongyang airport is eerie if anything. It is big, modern, advanced, marble-floored, immaculately clean; our old reliable TU-154 looked like a rusty bus on its perfect tarmac. Its many immigration booths primed ready for an endless stream of arrival passengers let me in smoothly, faster than Heathrow, and the customs delayed me just for a moment. The customs officer asked me for the password to check my laptop, but she did not insist when I demurred. But this big international Terminal Two was empty of people; instead of a hundred, just two flights were showing on the tableau, a Beijing and a Vladivostok flight.


I stayed in one of the best hotels, 45-story high twin towers of Koryo Hotel. This place, normally catering to hundreds and hundreds of tourists, is practically empty. Just a few tiny groups, a couple of Dutch and a few Japanese friends of Korea came to breakfast.


N Korea is under sanctions, the heaviest sanctions ever applied by the UN SC against any state. Such sanctions would send any country reeling. They are construed to cause collapse, and are just marginally better than an all-out war. The sanctions are similar to the interdict the medieval Popes applied to rebellious kings. Such an interdict had sent a stubborn emperor begging to Canossa.


Pyongyang the capital city is big and modern, even ultra-modern; seeing it from my 30th floor of a downtown hotel, I thought first of Atlanta, or even Brasilia. There are very few cars, mainly taxis. Private ownership of cars is not allowed. Ostensibly there are two million dwellers, but there are few people on the streets. Where are the people, I asked my gentle host. They are at work, it is working time, he says, somewhat taken aback at my astonishment. After the Party Congress was over, there were more people around: apparently, the citizenry preferred to stay home while the big bosses roamed the capital.


Over the last forty years, I’ve been to many Third-world states in their Socialist stage: to Burma and Tanzania, Angola and Vietnam, Laos and Cuba. If we are to compare them with neighbouring non-Socialist states, they were inexpensive, generous with public space, kids-friendly, scarce of consumer goods, poor of communications, overcharging foreigners, currency-fiddling, and rather shabby. I tended to consider this shabbiness an unavoidable feature of Third World socialism.


North Korea is not shabby, at least Pyongyang is not. The city is built on a large, even magnificent scale, with broad avenues, neat traffic policewomen in brash uniforms overseeing the roads and smartly saluting the passing cars, with imposing buildings and monuments that would shame those of Washington DC. The most impressive buildings were erected in the last few years. There are new apartment high-rise blocks in prime locations instead of old Soviet-style five-story tenements. Such apartments would cost over million dollars apiece in any major Western city; they weren’t sold but distributed for free, mainly to scientists and teachers. At least, so they say.


Last year, a fantastic and lavish Science and Study Centre had been built on spacious grounds. Perfect floor and walls, electronic gates, hundreds of computers, models and graphics explaining various sciences would make any city proud. Its purpose is to encourage kids to become scientists, pure and simple. Sure, incredible buildings were erected within the last ten years in many parts of the globe, as the new-rich countries discover the joys of modern architecture as never before. Dubai, Baku, Moscow created new wonders. Pyongyang is on the similar level, on the cutting edge of new architecture.


There are no older buildings at all. It seems that the city has been designed and created anew like a Communist Brasilia. I always prefer old to new, but in this particular case, there is not much to regret. Pyongyang has been erased and hastily rebuilt a few times, most notably in the Korean War 1950-1953, when the US bombers did not leave a single building standing.


The American command “turned its fury on all standing structures that might shield the Chinese from the cold; cities and towns all over North Korea went up in flames <until> Pyongyang resembled Hiroshima”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica. The US dropped more ordnance on defenceless Korea than it did on Germany or Japan. We must keep in mind this most cruel war of the cruel Twentieth Century, for otherwise we can’t understand the Korean character and the recent moves of the Korean leadership.


They are not afraid of war, because they went through the terrible war. Once they seized an American vessel in their waters and jailed the sailors for spying. They disregarded the US threats of an all-out war. At the end, the US president LB Johnson apologised in writing (the only case in the US history they said they are sorry) and the sailors were released, some six months later.


There are a lot of children, many more than you’d expect, a lot of children on the streets, often unaccompanied by an adult. The kids appear clean and neatly dressed, many wear a school uniform or white shirts with red scout ties.


This is a socialist state, I remind myself; they are children-friendly, even children-centred, like “our” states are more attuned for retired folk. Their budget goes for kids, best buildings go for kindergartens and schools.


The Korean women carry their small kids on their backs, like the Japanese did, years ago. Now (and I visited Japan just before coming to N Korea) I haven’t seen even one mother bearing her child on her back in Japan in ten days, while in Korea they are plentiful. There were very few children to be seen in Japan, as opposed to this lot in Korea.


It is not that they have more children. Koreans I asked admitted to have one, rarely two kids. It’s just their kids play outside and walk streets while our kids play inside and under supervision. Our children are immersed in the virtual reality of computer games, their children walk the earth. They are rarely alone: usually, they are in a group. Less frequently, one notices even such small kids that would never be allowed to go unsupervised in our cities, bravely stride along big streets of the city.


As for other qualities, the Koreans are so generous with public space, that it would be considered wasteful and impossible elsewhere. There are many gardens, great vistas, green lawns, vast squares. I do not know another city on earth with such unhindered views as the view across Kim Il-Sung square. You can see for miles.


And now for their less pleasant features. Their communications are quite restricted. They have mobiles, practically everyone has, but a foreigner can’t make a telephone call to a native Korean’s telephone. There is no internet even in an expensive hotel. The Koreans can’t send and receive emails from abroad, can’t access any foreign sites at all, only their own Intranet. They can’t travel abroad, can’t marry foreigners. It is the Hermit Kingdom, after all.


The consumer goods are rather expensive, with a good average salary about $US400, a good bike or a big TV easily costs over fifteen hundred bucks. Clothes in the shop are drab, like in neighbouring Chinese towns.


The climate is harsh, the soil is poor. Pyongyang has frequent sand storms blowing from Gobi Desert from Inner Mongolia. It is too cold or too hot. In short, N Korea is not paradise, and can’t be turned into paradise with any regime. S Korea has a better climate and better soils, but its regime is far from comfortable. I visited S Korea first time in the late seventies, when the state was run by the dictator Park Chung Hee. People would come to me on the street and beg for an invitation to any country abroad to leave their wretched place. There was no freedom, no democracy, no child care, just a dictatorship and the US occupation troops. This is the lot of Koreans, North or South.


If in defence, nuclear power, technology, housing N Korea has reached 21st century; aesthetically, it is in a class of its own. Their music and songs are a rehash of Soviet revolutionary and military songs. Their typical titles are “Follow the 7th regiment”, or “Mother’s Voice”. The Mother in the last hit is the Party, while the Leader is the loving Father and the People are their children. If a song is about love, it is love of People to the Leader.


But then, this is usual for an Oriental religious society: Jews say the Song of Songs is about love of God to Israel, Muslims say Omar Khayyam actually meant “Wisdom” when he wrote “Wine”.


The N Koreans are very kind but so restrictive that I hesitate to witness. There are many road blocks checking permits. On no occasion was I allowed to roam Pyongyang alone; I was not allowed to go to a restaurant of my choosing, or even to leave a concert where very loud martial music has been performed for hours. If they have a program in mind, they will do the program. Great people, but definitely no fun. Perhaps the natives have more choice than visitors, but my stay was an exercise in humility and submission, like a stay in a monastery. This religious connotation is intended, as we shall explain further on.


(To be concluded…)

Courtesy shamireaders; first published

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top