“Because its regime is one of the most loathsome in the world, there is a temptation to see every political development in North Korea as a precursor to the sort of instability that might one day lead to real change”.
Time Magazine, October 2010.
We began our journey with the news that Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-Un had been made a 4 star general, a sure sign he would ascend to the leadership. This added to my excitement of visiting this hermit nation. However, from what I saw, this regime is going nowhere anytime soon.
As the country celebrated the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party, the DPRK seemed stronger than ever. An enormous military parade took place, reviewed by Kim Jong-il and his son, and in Pyongyang at least, the situation looked far rosier than the likes of Barbara Demick would make out. (On a side note, I can’t recommend Demick’s book, “Nothing to Envy” enough – it is incredible!). Even the world’s press was allowed rare entry to view this spectacle, a sure sign that the Koreans are proud of what they are achieving, and they have less to hide than ever.
All that said, in this land of Disney Communism, you can never be sure what is real or fake, and what is a happy coincidence or the result of careful staging.
There was a sense that I was just part of the slick propaganda machine of the Korea International Travel Company, but if anything, this contributed to my enjoyment of my time in the DPRK. Half the fun was the second-guessing of certain situations, and ultimately going with the flow and embracing everything that was thrown at us. By having no expectation of being introduced to a poor starving comrade in a remote village, but whilst still acknowledging that this may exist, I was mentally prepared for the experience.
The vibe was actually a little different on the last day of the tour, when the Lord and I left the group, and were ‘looked after’ by two guides and driver. The intimacy provided by these 24 hours actually broke down a lot of the suspicions and conspiracy theories building up in my head. The guides were interesting, honest and open. They seemed to have a real grasp of the workings of the outside world, but genuinely believed in the system they were a part of. They were aware of the difficulties, but the desire to be a strong nation that looked after itself was clear, and surpassed any interest in utilitarian patriotism feigned in the west.
We saw a huge amount in our 6 days in the DPRK and I’ve written about some of the things that really stood out. It’s a long one this time, but its something out of the ordinary, and I hope you enjoy reading about it!
The Kims are revered beyond anything we comprehend in the west, and their presence is inescapable. At the most basic level, a badge depicting the face of the Eternal President, Kim il-Sung is attached to the left breast of every citizen. I found myself slipping into a game of trying to find someone without a pin…it was a futile exercise, I didn’t see one pin-less person in 6 days.
The face of the Eternal President, and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il adorns every public building and their portrait hangs in offices and homes alike. They also appear in a huge variety of guises around the country on murals, which display them in victorious and glorious situations. At times, the colours of these murals were the only vivid colours on show, especially in the noticeably more deprived southern city of Kaesong.
The emotions, reactions and protocols surrounding Kim Jong-il and especially Kim il-Sung, rival that only of religious figures such as Jesus. To the Koreans, it seems Kim il-Sung is the saviour, as Christ is to the Christians.
The deification of the Kims was most apparent at the mausoleum of Kim il-Sung. I don’t think I will ever experience that level of mishugas again! As a mark of respect we were instructed to wear our smartest clothes. I obliged with a schnide Chinese Ralphy and a ‘Porl Smith’ silk tie.
We arrived at the complex, and had to check in everything on our person. Only our money could stay with us in the presence of the dead President. They even found the tissue in my pocket, which was duly checked in. It became all the more important to hold myself together and not cry.
All the staff were wearing the traditional national dress, but here, made out of sparkly black velvet. I have been searching for one ever since to wear for my Wizard’s costume for Halloween. These silent wizards guided us in neat rows of four down the endless silent moving walkways and escalators, presumably designed to give time to reflect and build emotion on your journey to view the President lying in state.
We were handed a Sony recorder that played a propaganda spiel about the death of Kim il-Sung. “The tears of the mourners turned to stone…” etc. It was amazing that they had found an English speaker who made the recording in the same passionate trembling intonation that is used by the North Koreans. If you have ever seen or heard reports from their state news channel you will know exactly what voice I mean.
The next stage was the most surreal. We were led into a huge marble room, with an enormous gleaming white statue of Kim il-Sung. The statue was backlit in pink and blue and had an unexplainable trippy effect on the senses. We approached the statue in our rows of four and made solemn deep bow to statue, before being ushered out of the hall, allowing the next row of four to come forward and bow. We then proceeded to the actual room where Kim il-Sung’s embalmed body is lying in state.
Before entering this hall the theatre continued. We were directed through a wind tunnel, intended to clear off all dust (we had earlier passed over a walkway of spinning wet bristles to the clean the soles of our shoes). In this final hall we walked around the President’s body and bowed on all sides of his body except at his head.
The entire performance couldn’t have been any more different from seeing Lenin’s body when we scurried though in a couple of minutes. This time it was more like a couple of hours. I felt like I was on a film set, and after the leaving, the whole thing felt like a dream. We had our picture taken on the square in front of the main building, and got a true sense of the enormous scale of the whole complex.
The showcase capital really does the DPRK proud. Its roads are lined with well-dressed people and even though the prettiest girls with the best legs are selected to be traffic wardens, its wide tree lined avenues escape the normal traffic of modern cities (probably because nobody has a car). Every building is grander than the last, the Arch of Triumph is larger than Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, the May Day stadium holds 150000 people and the city boasts restaurants and even a department store (although I imagine it’s $200 bottles of whiskey are beyond the means of most residents of a country where the average wage is only a few dollars a month, and recent currency reforms effectively wiped out most people’s savings). There is no sign of food shortages, starvation and misery here!
Fantastic monuments wait round every corner. Favourites were the enormous Juche tower, standing 170m high in the name of the principles of Juche (self-reliance, autarky and isolationism, amongst other things) on which the state operates, and the impressive reunification monument depicting two Korean women reuniting over one of Pyongyang’s highways.
The most memorable experience of Pyongyang was in its green Moran Park when everybody was enjoying the National Holiday by dancing, drinking and eating together. I was schlepped into the middle of a huge circle of people about 15 rows deep, and danced with a lady to the screaming, laughing and cheering of the whole crowd of old women. We brought the house down with our final bow to the crowd!
It was never confirmed, but seemed clear, that this city was reserved for the elite of North Korea. Around 2 million call Pyongyang their home, but as for the other 21 million residents of the DPRK, they may never be issued a travel permit allowing them to see Pyongyang with their own eyes.
We were treated to an unbelievable variety of both impromptu performances, and events that had taken months of painstaking rehearsal.
We visited the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang one afternoon. All children finish school at lunchtime and then go to a Children’s Palace (this really lives up to its name, think gilding and chandeliers!) where they learn skills such as Accordion, calligraphy or Tae-Kwon-Doe. We were taken around the classrooms and given a demonstration in each one, and at the end we watched an hour-long performance in the theatre. The talents and professionalism of these young kids was beyond anything I could imagine in the west. Even a power cut half way through was dealt with with the professionalism of an experienced global act. Dancing, singing, and every instrument under sun were played with precision and flair.
The military circus was another highlight, as were impromptu performances, such as when one of our guides was coaxed into picking up an accordion. Out of nowhere she played like a pro, and was accompanied by 3 waitresses of the glorified service station we stopped at, who piped up out of nowhere and sang traditional Korean songs in beautiful harmony.
The pièce de rèsistance however was ‘Arirang’ – aka the Mass Games. The spectacle left me speechless. I suppose you could best describe the mass games as the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony tripping on a huge dose of acid.
Held in the 150,000 capacity May Day stadium, the performance lasted 90 minutes, and boasted a cast of 100,000 (ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND!) men, women and children, performing a huge variety of skills in synchronisation. From mass gymnastics to the marching of the biggest brass band imaginable to men being fired 100 meters across the stadium by giant elastic slingshots.
Even the usually nonchalant Lord of Luxury/War was left dumbfounded. It was “the BEST thing I’ve EVER seen”.
Possibly more impressive than the performance on the floor, was the 20,000 schoolchildren sat at the back of the stadium. Each of the 20,000 was effectively a pixel in a 300 meter long video screen that was constantly changing as each child changed the colour of the card he was holding up to make a different overall image. It was incredible watching as they spelled out words in sweeping changes of the cards, or all snapped their card books to a new image in one go with a loud scream.
I am absolutely certain that I will never witness anything like this again in my life – and these performances in the DPRK will not last forever. I am proud to say I have watched it, and you should all catch it while you can! The Mass Games really encompass so much of what North Korea is about and what it strives to be, and could only be possible there, to such a quality and scale.
If you have managed to wade through my ramblings and have arrived at this point, congratulations, and thank you! Instead of a rambling conclusion I will leave you with one home truth about Korea. The rumours are true. They eat dog.