Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

North Korea IV – Pyongyang I

– Fourth report of an eight-part series on my August 2015 visit to North Korea. –

The Yanggakdo hotel has 47 storeys and the elevator reaches until the 43rd floor. The fifth floor is missing. There is a button for the fourth and the sixth, but not the fifth. But you clearly notice that there is a fifth floor, it takes twice the time from four to six than between other storeys. The word goes that North Korean intelligence sits on that floor. Possibly correct but who has any interest in observing me? Honestly no one. But North Korea is certainly prepared for all possibilities. North Koreans that live abroad are also forced to stay at the hotel when they return home, they will be of much more interest. Or scientists working on Korea. Some of them are blocked from entering anyway but others are not. The situation seems to be uneven. Brian Myers, a controversial academic, reports that he could still travel after the publication of “The Cleanest Race” (in which he makes his disdain for the DPRK clear) but was under very tight surveillance thereafter. By the way, South Korea is also blocking some academics, it does so because it deems them “too friendly” to the North.

Mansudae Grand Monument

We finally visit the Mansudae Grand Monument and will be able to “pay respect” to the two great leaders or at least their statues. In 1972, a 20-metre-high bronze statue of Kim Il-sung was erected on the hill. In the background is a panorama of the Paektu San (North Korea’s “holy” mountain) and on the sides two groups of revolutionary sculptures. At first the statue was covered in gold leaf but that was removed after strong Chinese criticism. China’s leaders would not be ready to help North Korea if they could afford golden statues. Back then, Kim Il-sung was wearing a Mao suit, looked seriously and pointed forward with his arm. In 2012, as the old leader had been dead for nearly twenty years and his son had died the year before, it was time for an update. His arm is still outstretched and pointing towards the future but the “eternal President” is now wearing a Western suit, has glasses and is smiling. He also had to move a bit to the right to make space for a statue of his son. Kim Jong-il is now standing right next to him. But there was something wrong with that statue, he was wearing a coat, very atypical for the “eternal General Secretary”. Since 2013, Kim Jong-il is wearing his usual parka. (See all three variants here.)

Time to learn a new photography rule, the most important of all. Don’t cut the Kims! Always take a picture of the complete statue, never just of a part of it. If you have by now acquired a healthy antipathy against the Kims, it is a rule that makes you dream. You can take totally legal pictures now and back home you can cut and dissect as much as you want. You “pay respect” by bowing to the Kims. You don’t have to but not doing so is considered an unfriendly act. The already mentioned Brian Myers, for example, categorically rejects doing so. If you want to show even greater respect you buy some flowers that you can lay to the feet of the two “eternals”. I have no interest in “paying respect” to the Kims. They have been cruel and selfish rulers and the sooner they were gone, the better. But I also have no problem with bowing in front of them, nothing to fight about. For me it is a simple movement of my body, nothing more, if someone else sees it as an ideologically charged symbol so be it. I also acknowledge that I am in the land of the Kims and these are the rules here.

North Korea is one of the few countries where I thought about the morality of going there before my departure. I decided to go because I do believe that contact is better than non-contact, I do believe in the concept of “change through rapprochement” that was pioneered in the German “new eastern policy” in the early 1970s. I do so even if this change is going very slowly as in the case of North Korea. But you could have said that as well about the GDR in 1980. History has turns and twists. My visit is bringing money into North Korea, upwards of 1.000€ are changing from my pocket into the hands of the Kims. I have no influence on what this money is spend on, maybe on parts for rockets, maybe for the nuclear programme, a bottle of champagne for someone politically well-connected or, also possible, some equipment for a hospital. I don’t know. My money could be used in ways that I do no like. No good perspective. But what is the alternative? For more than ten years North Korea is under economic sanctions and is there anything to show for? Has anything changed? The regime seems to be solid, most North Koreans know of no alternative, every oppositional breath is mercilessly suppressed. Money for weapons seems to be available anyway. The theory behind broad economic sanctions is, that by worsening the life situation of the common people pressure builds up on the governing class to change their behaviour in order to make the life of their people easier. Otherwise, they might be confronted with ideas of regime change. In the case of North Korea this concept is ridiculous. If a regime survives if more than a million people starve to death (as happened in the mid-1990s) because of a totally failed agricultural and economic policy, that clearly shows that there is no feedback loop between the people and their leader(s). From a theoretical perspective, sanctions work best the better the feedback loop between the people and their government. In the “democratic” South Africa of apartheid times, that worked well. The black majority had no voice, but the moment the world made clear to the white electorate that they could not go on in their ways without feeling some pain, South African politics shifted. In North Korea this idea is clearly not going to work.

Targeted sanctions are a better option as they try to hit the decision makers directly and not the common people. Even an überKim cannot do everything by himself. He needs helpers to fulfil his orders, keep the government humming, control the people or send them into labour camps. This elite receives more resources than the common people, thereby buying their loyalty. Targeted sanctions try to hit the privileges of these people directly by denying them their expensive watches, their cars, their champagne, their luxury. Without these privileges the elites will lose their loyalty and either instigate regime change themselves or stop protecting the regime from the change instigated by other forces. In a system as self-reliant as North Korea, targeted sanctions are really hard to pull off. Many luxury goods are small and easy to smuggle, and if a government goes as far as to regulate the possession of mobile phones, it is easy to make a distinction between the elite and non-elite. Smartphone (without internet) in one hand, normal phone or no phone in the other.

In my point of view, standard economic sanctions are totally useless in the case of North Korea and targeted sanctions hard to perform. For me, it would make more sense, however unpalatable that may seem, to try more exchange and cooperation. If a few North Koreans realize by my visit that there is another world out there, that this world is not hostile to them, that people there are actually friendly, that this other world works differently than the North Korean propaganda suggests, then my visit will maybe have achieved more than all the sanctions of the last decade. And yes, I do hope that my money is being used to buy some medical equipment, and no rocket part. I am in Pyongyang and I have a clean conscience.

Is my idea that exchanges change minds naive? Maybe, but as pointed out there are few other options and I have an example that at least got a head working. Someone from our group was speaking with Mr Ri, for some reason they came on the topic of Cuba. She told him that Cuba and the US had recently ended their enmity and started to improve their relations. He was flabbergasted. He didn’t know, North Korean media had no interest to tell him. Have they really lost the other country besides them that was keeping up the fight?  

As a guide, Mr Ri makes me worry. I can’t really build a relationship with him. He appears super-correct, sits behind you in the bus, always watching while you cannot watch him. We have frequent contact with another group and their guides (often visiting things together) and out of the four guides he is the only one that gives you the feeling he is supervising you. His English is too weak to talk with him about the intricacies of the DPRK. He told us that he had been told to learn English so that he could work as a guide, where did he work before? He is superb at Taekwondo. He is watching me taking tons of pictures and he doesn’t really like it. I would love to know what is written on his list. He has one, we are all one there. Most things on the list, maybe all, will be totally mundane. He pulled the list out as he asked me for my name and marked the pronunciation. What else is one the list? I’d love to know.

My deal for the trip goes as follows: I want to see as much as possible, I want to have as much freedom of movement as I can have, I want to take as many pictures as I can get. In return, I offer honest interest, and the genuine effort to understand how North Korea “works”. I also offer an open mind, if a Kim does something good, I will acknowledge that and not reflexively condemn it. In order to achieve my aim, I am ready to hide my distaste for North Korea’s rulers (alive and non-alive) and their rule of suppression. Will Mr Ri accept that deal? I am not sure, and to be honest he is in the more powerful position. I decide to score some goodwill points. Walking towards the Mansudae Grand Monument, I buy some flowers.

Next to the parking lot is a single saleslady. The guides point us (me, a girl from our group and our western guide) towards her. The supply is low and demand high. 4€ for a bouquet. We follow the path, past a few fountains, passing by the parliament. Yes, there is one, the Supreme People’s Assembly, and there are elections for it. They are neither free nor fair. Once or twice a year the parliament meets. Closer to the monument there are plenty of flower shops. Supply high, demand low. I look at the flowers in my hand and think about how I could speed up their degradation as soon as I have laid them down. The ensemble with the statues, the background and the sculpture groups at the sides is impressive. In front of the leaders are plenty of flowers and at the sides are carefully arranged pots with more flowers. Well visible are several well-dressed men, each with an earphone, positioned strategically around the monument. There are certainly better places for displays critical of the regime. I put on my zoom lens, it’s time to get some closer shots with half a leg or so. Mr Ri explains about the sculptures and the Chollima movement (rapid development by working harder). I switch my head off; I rather inform myself about propaganda from other sources.

The Metro System

Our bus stops in front of the metro station. At the building to the right, I notice one of the new, less eye-catching propaganda slogans. Not red colour on white ground but grey writing chiselled into grey stone. Academic Rüdiger Frank has written about more and more of them appearing. Our one, single metro ride is the next highlight. In other places a very ordinary thing, a tourist attraction here. Pyongyang’s metro has been styled on the example of Moscow. Deep down in the earth to be able to function as an impenetrable bunker in times of war, pompously equipped halls, “palaces for the people”, beauty should be where the people are. One of the best communist ideas. The metro was opened in 1973 and had grown to 16 stations by 1987. None has been added since. At the opening, the DPRK could celebrate having beaten the South to be the first Korea with a metro system. By now, the South has more than 500 metro stations (not all of them below ground though).

If tourism in North Korea would follow normal rules, tourists would use the metro as a mode of transport and one would be here, one would be there and they would behave as if they are in a metro. But if you treat the metro as a tourist attraction, your tourists will behave accordingly. We come in a group of twenty, which means that in the slow 10 A.M. traffic we are a sizable part of the crowd. The station is beautiful. Everybody gets their camera out. Paintings, mosaics, people, workers, all that cannot escape is taken a picture of. It resembles a human zoo. Taking pictures is allowed (contrary to Moscow). We are going to ride six stations and not just two like most other groups. We have a look at the station, move one station, look around, take the train for four stations more and have a look at another station. It is not on par with Moscow or St. Petersburg but nonetheless interesting. The newspaper displays are amazing, people can take in the latest propaganda while waiting. And the ladies in uniform with their red paddles, four or five of them take care of every train. They are picture-shy, probably they know that in case one would start to pose a “hungry pack” would soon surround her. The carriages are old ones from West Berlin. Equipped with pictures of the eternal leaders these old-timers have style. For a long time, tourists were always shown the same two stations, leading to speculation that only these two would exist. Maybe these are the two most beautiful stations, the station where we exited was already noticeably less extravagant. But at least it had an interactive station map. You press the button and the map shows how to get from A to B, otherwise people might get lost in this complicated two-line system. The metro is one of the few places where you might actually end up sitting next to ordinary North Koreans. If you are able to bridge the language divide, you can even have a talk.

We get back above ground and stand in front of an Arc de Triomphe. Not that small one from Paris but the real one. But obviously the Parisians tried to copy the North Korean design. It is dedicated to the fight against the Japanese from 1925 to 1945. As fitting for a metro exit, there are a few kiosks. Some of them are nowadays privately operated. We buy some ice cream and wait for the signal to start our walk through Mansudae park. North Koreans show no differences to other nationalities in their park behaviour. They walk around, sit on benches or in the gras, frequent a small kiosk or try to be sporty. All fairly normal. Back on the street, we see two foreigners on bikes, no guide no nothing. I want that too.

We stop for pictures. We stand in the middle of a six-lane road and take pictures of the pyramidical Ryugyong Hotel. It’s a special North Korean case. Three “wings” that rise in an angle of 75° to a height of 330 metres. 105 storeys, 3000 rooms, five rotating restaurants. Construction began in 1987 and if it would have been finished, as planned, in 1989 it would have been the highest hotel in the world and one of the highest buildings in all of Asia. It just would never be finished. Construction work ceased in 1992. For 16 years, an ugly, grey concrete ruin with black holes where the windows were supposed to be and a rusting crane on top was a very visible and better-not-talked-about landmark of Pyongyang. No explanation was given for the stop of the work but the connection to the economic problems in the communist world after the dissolution of the Soviet Union is obvious. There are though more fundamental questions about the building. It was built in massive concrete which is unique for a building of that size, it might well be the heaviest building ever constructed. The quality of the concrete is disputed and the rumour goes that the elevator shafts are twisted. Compared to other skyscrapers the height of every storey is very low.

In 2008 works resumed. The Egyptian company Orascom gained the right to build a mobile phone network in North Korea. In return they had to finish the hotel. The façade was covered with bluish glass panels. Nothing was certain about what was supposed to happen inside. In November 2012 the Kempinski hotel chain announced plans to open the hotel but these plans were shelved in March 2013. The hotel is closed off, around it some cranes are visible. According to our western guide, who once was inside, it is mostly empty. We take pictures, a friendly traffic policeman keeps the traffic away from us.       

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

Some confusion. Are we allowed to take pictures? First it is a “no”, then a “yes”, but only the entrance portal, in the end also in the courtyard. I end up with the, for this task, unsuited zoom lens on the camera. An attractive girl in a brown uniform and perfect English greets us at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. Opened right after the war in 1953, it was reconstructed in 2013 as an “impressive monumental building”. It took only ten months from the start of the planning to the successful completion of the project. As the building to sign the armistice treaty in Panmunjom was built in just one day, I ask myself why the museum took so much longer. Well, it is a lot bigger. In Western countries it is rather stressed how long it took to construct some buildings to show the effort and the complexity of the task, in North Korea (and generally in East Asia) it is rather emphasized how quickly things have been erected. Well, both arguments are kind of ridiculous simplifications.

Let’s read what the maybe not totally impartial portal has to say about the museum:

“Located at the beautiful shore of the river Pothong is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum that was inaugurated at the 60. anniversary of the victory in the Fatherland Liberation War. The museum, erected for the everlasting glory of the eternal merit of the generalissimo for the victory in the war and for the Songun revolution and the heroic fighting spirit and the great achievements of the army and the people of Korea. It is the focal point for the education on victorious traditions and the spirit against imperialism and the USA. It is known as a museum of worldwide recognition in plastic, artistic, architectural and aesthetic aspects. 

The museum with its main building, its panorama hall on the liberation of Taejon and the educational square outside has a building area of 93,000 square metres. In the central atrium is a coloured statue of Kim Il-sung, in the uniform of a Marshall who receives the excited shouts of joy of the people during the military parade of victory with his raised hand. All elements of the atrium, like the ceiling on which the star of the generalissimo is sparkling, and the grand staircases are constructed in a majestic way to be able to show the merits of Kim Il-sung on the victory in the war as truthfully as possibly. The museum shows, beginning with the exhibitions and presentations up to all details of construction and style the great achievements of Kim Il-sung, who defeated US-imperialism, who prided itself of being the “strongest” in the world, in the principal of being truthful to history. In the presentation hall for the fourth operation in the first stage of the Fatherland Liberation War you will see the car, in which Kim Il-sung crossed the railway bridge on the river Rimjin under danger to his own life. The bridge, shown in the situation with the wall paintings reaching a perfect harmony, that shows impressively how hard and dangerous the path to victory, that Kim Il-sung moved on, was. Furthermore, there are historical objects and materials like the orders (written by Kim Il-sung by his own hand), photo documents, letters (written by himself), maps ratified by his signature, divided in all stages and times of the operation. Many halls, like the grand diorama on the operation for the liberation of Seoul, rooms for the navy, reconnaissance units or the artillery are presented in a way that shows the impressive military foresight of Kim Il-sung and allows to appreciate the war methods of the Korean way. That allows their effectiveness to a high degree. The museum is not only an exhibition of remains from the war but a centre of education on revolutionary thinking and a venue for class education where the military and the people of Korea are equipped with the fighting spirit of previous generations.”

Got it? The style of the tour was similar. First some enemy hardware from the 1950s and then we enter the USS Pueblo. This espionage ship of the US navy was captured by North Korea in 1968 and the crew released only after an official, fairly submissive apology by the United States of America. One of the big “victories” of North Korea. The question if the ship was in North Korean waters (as claimed by North Korea) or in international waters (as claimed by the US) was never resolved. Onboard we see a film that tells us why the US is responsible for nearly everything bad in the world. Some in our group are delighted because we are finally presented with the heavy propaganda that everyone associates with North Korea. Little of what is being said here, has much to do with reality.

We enter the main building and all of us have the same thought. There he finally is! In front of a fireworks panorama is a larger-than-life statue of the current ruler Kim Jong-un. We had seen some photographs of him but nothing else, no propaganda posters, no paintings, no statues. Plenty of his father and grandfather, but never him. Now here he is, with his round face and characteristic haircut. It is not allowed to take pictures but I am so excited that I totally forget. Oupps. The guide starts to speak, she mentions the statue and says Kim Il-sung. She must have misspoken, but no, she repeats “this statue shows Kim Il-sung as a young man”. The museum has a massive size and is technically and artistically well-done. Dioramas, you walk through trenches, it is varied and visually interesting. In contrast, the information given is of rather inferior quality. No lie is cheap enough. The guide tells us that the Americans started the war. That is not true and even in their own story sounds implausible: The Americans, together with their South Korean vassals, had prepared for their attack for months. The North Koreans were taken by surprise but under the heroic leadership of the heroic general Kim Il-sung beat back the attack within one-and-a-half hour and went themselves on the offensive. They marched on until they had nearly all of Korea under their control. Only a small area around Busan remained under American control but then American reinforcements arrived and the North Korean troops were beaten back, of course not, they choose a strategic retreat. Obviously, our guide was not allowed to say “retreat” without the word “strategic”, because of that she always repeated it and put a special emphasis on the word. Retreat, strategic retreat! But why did the Americans need reinforcements when they had planned for months for the attack? Who cares about details like UN-troops when it is a lot easier to say that the Americans are bad and are to blame? But on with the story: Several “strategic retreats” later the troops of Kim Il-sung found themselves close to the Chinese border. Kim Il-sung flicked a switch, made heroic decisions and soon the Americans found themselves back at the 38th parallel north. They begged for an armistice. Kim Il-sung waited for two years before he gave in to their pleas. The Chinese intervention, which saved the North Koreans from their final strategic retreat, is not mentioned with a single word. The museum is massive, we see only a part of the exhibition. On my enquiry, I get confirmation that Mao’s army helped the North Koreans. In one room we are being shown a photograph. Looks like Kim Jong-un but is supposed to be the young Kim Il-sung. The statue was modelled after that photograph. Photoshop can be so helpful. The water barrel in the toilet puts things back into perspective. Despite all its victories, North Korea is not able to guarantee, that water is coming out of the tap.

Water Park

Our itinerary is mixed. We visit cultural and historic sights but sometimes we also visit entertainment spots. Today we are going to a water park. One of the new attractions that were developed in the last years under Kim Jong-un. In order not to leave any dirt, we receive woollen slippers to put over our shoes. We enter and there is a statue of Kim Jong-il with his outstretched arm in front of a beach panorama. We hear the word respect; we form a line and we bow to the statue. Personality cult in perfection. A family arrives, they form a line, they bow. Some people cross themselves when they pass a church, in North Korea you bow when you meet a statue of a Kim. We are being led to a few viewpoints. It is the first time that I am in a water park with my camera and the license to take pictures. The park is nice, there are at least 10 slides of various sizes and I understand that you can have fun here. We will be there for about two hours and I don’t want to spend another 10€ for the extra of having a swim. A few people think the same but as we are on a group tour you cannot just do your own thing. The choice is between being inside the water park or inside the small café of the water park. Two girls from our group, who were amongst those that tried to leave the hotel two days ago ask if they can wait outside. Fresh air is better than a café with thick curtains on the windows. The guides say no, they ask why not, there is even a fence around the building and they don’t mean it in the way that they complain that there is a fence but in a way that the fence gives them an orientation, prevents them from doing something wrong, is actually helpful. North Korea changes people.

Again, the question arises who has access to a park like this. There are a lot of people in the water park but can everybody come. What is the price? My question remains unanswered, the guides claim that everybody can but I am not sure if I should believe them. But maybe I should, it is really full. Still, the water park is the closest we have come so far to a place where North Koreans have fun.

A small group of non-swimmers, we look for a spot to while away the next two hours. We manage to get to a platform where we can see most of the water park. There are some tables and chairs and there is a small kiosk. We are not meant to be there but no one seems to notice and no one seems to care. The prices for the drinks are revealing. A small can of orange juice is marked at 3000 won, at the exchange rate that we were told that would be 25,42€. Improbable. The prices in the tourist shops are far removed from reality. We order five drinks and end up paying a bit more than two euros in Chinese yuan. That is the only foreign currency they have any interest in, no clue what to do with euros or dollars. Thankfully, we had a Korean speaker amongst us, not sure if all that would have worked out without.

Everybody is sitting on the bus but someone is missing. We wait and an interesting form of non-verbal communication develops. Someone from our group has a frisbee and some guys start to play. The North Koreans like it, they don’t seem to know the concept but they like it and watch. The frisbee is thrown towards one of the North Koreans, he throws it back, a pattern is established: tourist, North Korean, tourist, North Korean… And all are happy.

After dinner we are supposed to visit the Diplomat’s Club. Being a diplomat in North Korea must be a harrowing experience of loneliness. Even they are not free to move around as they like. The Diplomat’s Club is a place for them to hang out. We are being told it would be a bigger version of our hotel basement with about the same options. I would love to see it, but not spend the whole evening there. Unfortunately, the only options we can choose from is to go right back to the hotel or stay a long time at the club. I opt for the hotel. We go back with Miss Park, the guide of our “sister group”. It is an intimate setting with only five people on the bus. We ask about her life, where does she go on holidays? She goes skying. Where? At the new sky area in Masik-Ryong. Has she been there before? No, it’s the first time. “Do you know how to sky?” No, but she is going to learn. That is how you make an elite happy, by giving them the feeling that they have options and their life is improving. North Korea has a skiing area since the winter of 2013/2014. In the past, the Chollima movement was employed to quickly build living space for the population under great hardship. Today the movement is called on to build a skiing area. Have fun Miss Park.