Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A glimpse of Kim's Juche dreamstate - part 1

Before hopping on the Air Koryo flight from Beijing's capital airport, I thought I had seen some weird countries. Belarus is definitely one of them, Qatar I found pretty strange and how about semi-independent republics like Abkhazia or Iraqi Kurdistan. But comparing with the country I was flying to from Beijing, these places would become rather normal. The Air Koryo flight didn't just brought me in another weird country, it brought me in another world. A very surreal world. A world called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). My visit to the DPRK is one of my most memorable journeys so far, therefore quite a long report below.

November 11th, Hong Kong, China
In order to get to the DPRK, I had to book a guided tour as it is the only way to get into the country. After some research in Hong Kong I found Beijing based Koryo Tours, which offers relatively cheap tours and has a very good reputation. I contacted them, subscribed for the 'DPRK winter tour' and booked a train ticket to Beijing. A Canadian friend from university, Mark, decided to spend 5 November days in North Korea as well and in the morning of the 11th November we hopped on the 25-hour sleeper train to Beijing. Some other friends from university joined us to the Chinese capital and the 3 days I spent in Beijing were together with Mark, Edouard, Stephanie, Sebastian and Tatiana. Also I met my Bulgarian friend Kalin in our hostel and I spent most of my time playing Chinese chess with him.
After three relaxing days in freezing Beijing, I went with Mark to the office of Koryo Tours for a final briefing of the tour through North Korea. We met our excellent guide Simon, who informed us about all the restrictions in the DPRK and gave us an impression on what to expect. The morning after we flew into Pyongyang.

November 15th, Pyongyang, DPRK
The very first contact with North Korea was already on the airplane from Beijing to Pyongyang. We flew on a very old-fashioned Russian-made Ilyushin-62 with an interior straight out of the 1960s. On the flight, the stewardess handed us North Korea's only English language newspaper, the Pyongyang Times, which propagates the DPRK's view on world issues. One article about two small islands in the Japanese sea, which are claimed both by Japan and Korea starts like this: "There are many countries in the world, but there is not such a shameless country as Japan which abuses history.......". The article continues summarizing the Japanese invasion of Korea during World War II and points out all the bad things the Japanese did in Korea. The page on 'International news' basically lists articles about people all over the world who burn flags of the 'US imperialist aggressor' and 'National news' mostly is about the success of the North Korean education system or other domestic industries.
The short flight brought us in Pyongyang airport, consisting of only a few Russian-made airplanes and a very simple concrete airport building. Prior to the customs and immigration checks we had to hand in our mobile phones, but the whole immigration process turned out to be much easier than expected (if you're looking for difficult border crossings try entering or leaving Russia). I walked out of the airport, talked a bit with my group mates and soon after we met our lovely local guides, mister Kim and the very charming miss Kim. We hopped on the bus which would be our transport for the following four days and the driver drove us to the North Korean capital Pyongyang.
My first impression of Pyongyang reminded me of my travels in the former Soviet Union. 'Uninspiring concrete buildings, rusty trolleybuses, a ridiculous amount of statues, and cabbage; every self-regarded socialist state has it all and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is no exception'. This description of a British traveller in our group pretty much summarizes my thoughts during the first minutes in Pyongyang as it really seemed like any Russian city.
The tour and the explanations of miss Kim however changed my opinion. First of all, North Korea is not a communist state, but has an ideology called Juche (meaning self-reliance) which is more like national-socialism rather than communism. And although Pyongyang seems like a Russian city, the people are very different. While Russians and Chinese enjoy freedom, economic growth and plan their future, North Korea is pretty much stuck in the Cold War and is too busy dealing with its history in my opinion.
The talks of miss Kim about Korean issues were quite naive, although honest. She talked about North Korea's food problems openly, but also stated that North Korea won the war in the 1950s and she believes Kim Il Sung (first president of DPRK) solely beat the Japanese and American aggressors. Marking this North Korean victory, the Arch of Triumph, is our first stop in Pyongyang. The Arch of Triumph is like the one in Paris, although a very proud miss Kim told us the North Korean arch is 3 meter taller.
From the arch we continued the city tour to the central Kim Il Sung square of Pyongyang. It is a huge square surrounded by concrete buildings decorated with slogans and symbols of DPRK. One of the buildings has pictures of Lenin and Marx on each side and another building carries a huge painted flag of North Korea. On the concrete of the square itself are lines of dots painted, which apparently mark positions for military parades.
From the square our tour continued to fountain park, where ironically most of the fountains aren't working (although this might be due to the November cold). And from the park, a short stroll brought us to probably North Korea's most important site, Mansudae. It is an enormous bronze statue of 'Great leader' Kim Il Sung and all visitors to North Korea come here to show respect for Kim Il Sung. Simon bought some flowers and as a group we made a bow for him. Showing respect for Kim Il Sung is very important for our local guides. Simon mentioned it is like putting off your hat when entering a church, the way how Kim Il Sung ruled North Korea might not be accepted by western minds, but his ideology is what people believe in and that is what I respect. By the way, there are some rules on making pictures of the statue, it is prohibited to make a picture from the back for example and also you have to make a pic of the whole statue (like you can't cut off the legs). Mansudae is a bit higher than the city center and we enjoyed a nice view over Pyongyang.
Back in the bus, we drove along Pyongyang's clean, wide and empty streets to the Sosan Hotel. It is a huge 30 floor concrete building in the suburbs of the city, which was quite empty during our stay. In the evening I played some pool and drank a couple of beers with my group mates before going for dinner in a nice Korean restaurant. The hotel has a few shops inside to buy souvenirs, some drinks and snacks. And although mostly empty, the Sosan was a pleasant place to stay with a nice view over the city from my room.

My ability to wake up early is highly underdeveloped, which meant that I didn't appreciate the 7am wake-up call from miss Kim so much. The reason of the early wake-up call is a fully planned schedule for our second day in DPRK, starting with a visit to Kumsusan memorial palace, which is the mausoleum of Great leader Kim Il Sung. In comparing Kim Il Sung's mausoleum with Lenin's and Mao's resting places in Moscow and Beijing, the latter two would become a big joke as the Kumsusan memorial palace is absolutely huge. There was a large crowd of North Korean people all waiting to pay respect to the body of the late Great Leader. As foreigner you can only get inside with a special invitation and everyone has to bow three times at the body of Kim Il Sung.
Kim Il Sung died in 1994, he was the leader of the DPRK since it's foundation in 1948. Interestingly, Kim Il Sung is officially still the president of North Korea, because he is regarded as the 'eternal president'. Kim Il Sung's son Kim Jong Il now is de facto leader of North Korea, he is officially 'General secretary of the Korean workers' party' (the ruling party of DPRK since 1948), 'Chairman of the national defense commission' and 'Supreme commander of the Korean people's army'. It basically means Kim Jong Il is the ruling leader of the DPRK, but not officially the president. Like his father is called the 'Great Leader', North Koreans name Kim Jong Il the 'Dear Leader'.
The mausoleum of Kim Il Sung actually was his former residence, rebuilt into a memorial palace by his son. Inside we noticed how Kim Il Sung is worshipped, virtually as a God. North Korean people believe in Kim Il Sung's Juche ideology and his 'incredible achievements' during World War II like Christians believe in the writings of the Bible or like Muslims believe in the Koran. People march in the palace with much discipline (our group had to do the same) and some queue up the whole morning just to pay respect to Kim Il Sung.
In continuing our tour, close to the Kumsusan memorial palace is our next stop, the revolutionary martyrs' cemetery. In total about 120 small statues of guerrilla fighters and 'revolutionary martyrs' who died in the war against Japan are displayed on the hill. The view from the cemetery over the city is really nice, especially due to the clear winter sky, and from the hill we could see our next stop in the sightseeing tour, the 'tower of the Juche idea'. This Juche tower is built next to Pyongyang river and the view from the top is really stunning.
From Juche tower we went to Kim Il Sung's birthplace and we had lunch in Sosan hotel afterwards. In the afternoon we visited 'USS Pueblo', which is an American spy ship captured by the North Koreans in 1968. It is one of the most important tourist sights in North Korea, because the ship is used to point out that Americans are the 'aggressors' and attacked Korea by spying on them. Although the North Korean arguments mentioned in the video we saw on the ship are not exactly objective, in a way the Koreans make a point. The Korean peninsula has always been the victim of foreign powers. It was certainly not Korea who invaded US, but the US and Soviet Union who invaded Korea in 1950. Furthermore, the US policy towards North Korea has always been very aggressive in my opinion. The US accuses North Korea for having a nuclear program, but what would you do if you would be the leader of North Korea? With aggressive speeches of the guys in Washington, 35000 American troops still in South Korea and the fact that the USA has over 10000 nuclear warheads, I certainly would make a nuke if I would be in the position of Kim Jong Il.
After all this political talks on USS Pueblo, it is time to see some daily life in Pyongyang. We went on the Pyongyang metro, which turned out to be very interesting. It seems stupid to include a metro in a tour schedule, but in North Korea it is definitely worth a visit. As foreigner it is very very hard to have contact with North Korean people besides our guides and the people in the hotel. To be on the metro, we had an opportunity to see how normal people life and go to work. We had a feeling to be a bit in touch with the locals, although just very little. Also the metro stations are nicely decorated and it was interesting to see the various statues of the Great Leader inside the stations next to colorful painted walls with Juche propaganda.
After our metro tour, we drove for 2 hours on an empty highway out of Pyongyang to Mount Myohyang. We stayed in a huge (and again pretty empty) hotel in the cold mountains. In the evening I played some snooker in the hotel and we enjoyed Korean karaoke (according to Simon the best karaoke room in Asia). As this story is getting very long now, I will continue this story of my trip through North Korea in part 2.

NB: Due to some problems with my camera, not all these pictures are mine. Pictures: 2 (Air Koryo flights), 3, 5, 6 and 8 are all made by Mark Knibbs.