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 VIII – Leaving North Korea

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

There is no breakfast for me, I have to finish writing my postcards. The letters are getting bigger and the number of words is declining. The lunch box for the trains saves me. Somehow the trip is over; I am looking forward to China, the internet, contact to the world and contact to back home. We say goodbye to our guides at the train station. Leaving Pyongyang, I take a few pictures. I miss my zoom lens. Rain is starting to fall. All the excitement from our train ride to Pyongyang is gone, I feel tired.

I am a bit stressed. I took thousands of pictures and they are not well protected. I went through all my memory cards and hid all pictures that could lead to trouble (in my point of view). The camera does not show them but they can easily be found with a closer look at the cards. I am concerned I could be in for a more throughout examination. I was always being nice and friendly but asked a fair number of cheeky questions and my constant picture taking was a concern for our guides. And there was the incident at the collective farm. I gave my hard drive, on which there are most but not all my pictures, to someone else. The border officials enter the train. They want to see our mobile phones and we all have to unlock them. A man in uniform mistreats my screen, I did not take a single picture, a single video with my phone. As I get the phone back an internet browser has been opened but is showing a blank page as I have no connection (how could I). The control of our bags is as superficial as on our arrival. A short look into this bag, another into that. Someone asks for cameras. I show mine; one girl shows hers, another guy who has a digital and even an analogue camera, just says nothing. They note down the type of my camera. I ask myself I they will suddenly turn professional and unhide the pictures on the camera. The girl who speaks Koreans overhears them talking that they will need to have a closer look at my camera. But no one ever arrives to take that look. Two uneventful hours later the train starts to move. On some phones the border guards deleted random pictures with no apparent logic and in total disregard of the restore function. No other border losses.

We are all looking forward to China. Some especially as they have Chinese SIM cards and are anxiously waiting for the hundreds of messages that have accumulated for them while they have been in North Korea. We reach the Yalu river; people are still trying to catch a glimpse of North Korea from the viewing platform. Some phones start to beep. The Chinese border guard arrives at our compartment. She smiles, she says hello and by just doing that she has already put the maximum distance between her and her Korean counterparts. One guy is so immersed in his phone and the internet that he doesn’t even notice. She pokes him, hey, hello, I am here, can I see your passport, please? I have never been so happy to be in China. Arriving to China from Germany you are upset by the internet restrictions of the Chinese firewall, coming from North Korea, the perspective is totally different. It is dark as we leave Dandong station and the view opens up on some high-rises. The façades are full of LED lights, not just a row as in North Korea but the full façade. We are back, back in the world, back in the abundance.      

Time for Some Reflection

What did I learn? I was badly surprised how difficult it is to gather reliable information. My plan was to pose a lot of friendly, critical but information-seeking questions. That didn’t go far. The guides are adept at evading this sort of question, probably at many points stretching the truth onto and beyond breaking point. I realized how difficult it is to get someone to tell the truth if your ability to investigate yourself is extremely limited. Rüdiger Frank expresses perfectly how a visit to North Korea feels in his very interesting report on the Rason Special Economic Zone:

“If you have ever been to North Korea, you might know that feeling: you are in the country, and at the same time, you are not. Foreign visitors usually stroll through the streets as if they are caught inside a huge transparent rubber sphere. They can see and hear, but most of the time there is this invisible but tangible wall between them and the world outside. Foreigners manage to break through that barrier only rarely, and if so, only for brief moments.

This is what visitors then speak about with excitement: how they could raise a shy smile from a child, how one of the assigned guides after a long night of drinking finally opened up and provided a glimpse into his personal desires and worries, how they made brief eye contact with a stranger on the street. In the end, this is why most travellers go to North Korea—to look behind the scenes. In addition to the standard images of goose-stepping soldiers on Kim Il Sung square, rising rockets, leaders-looking-at-things, starving children, and nuclear threats, there must be more. But the country does not easily show its real face; xenophobia, nationalist pride and the state’s information policy stand in the way.”

In this atmosphere, rumours and misinformation spreads easily. A reporter of the weekly Wirtschaftswoche penned a generally solid report about the 2015 trip of German Parliamentarians. Nonetheless it contains some inaccuracies and it is telling that these inaccuracies are in areas that fit neatly in the usual North-Korea-is-so-closed narrative. I can assure the reporter that it is standard practice that you can keep your mobile phone, it has been like that for several years. The parliamentarians did not get special treatment and that information was not particularly difficult to find. I also bought, and drank, Coca Cola on several occasions. Even a mobile data network exists, I have seen a just received e-mail with my own eyes. Yes, that was a mobile phone of a foreigner but I would be surprised if the high elite could not access that network as well. The second picture in the adjoining gallery tries to make Pyongyang darker than it is, the sky shows the picture was taken at dusk, making the lights less visible than in the real night. To confirm clichés is easier than to challenge them.

I am glad that I visited North Korea. I have a better grasp of the country and have had stimulating thoughts about many aspects of life there. The books that I read before, during and after my trip have been a great help. Many aspects became clearer, others remain an enigma. Reality is, as always, complex and has many layers. Many things are different in North Korea but the country is also not monolithic, changes are ongoing. They are not easy to spot on first sight, especially not for a first-time visitor but obvious to long-term visitors. Maybe they will be very consequential for the future. Market forces have arrived. Previously, and contrary to other communist states, nothing had a price and everything was rationed. Government failure and hunger in the mid-1990s set the change in motion. In great need, private activity was allowed and has stayed a part of the mix ever since. Markets develop. The path is not linear, in 2009 all North Koreans with savings were factually dispossessed. A new currency was introduced and the old bills could only be exchanged up to a limit of about US$ 40. All savings above that threshold were effectively lost. After protests it seems this limit was raised to the equivalent of $ 300. For a long time, the order of the day had been that North Koreans had money but no options to buy, nowadays the supply of goods seems plentiful and money the limiting factor. Together with the market, social and especially financial distinctions were strengthened. Several times I have mentioned new things that have/were developed in recent years. The North Koreans were keen showing them off, we went to the supermarket, a stylish café, the microbrewery, the water park, we heard about the skiing area. There is a distinction between the haves and the have-nots. And the haves get more and more options to show that they have.

Kim Jong-un associates himself with the new projects, tries to displays an image of himself (and thereby his country) as modern and progressive. The new North Korea moves forward every day. He might regret that one day. He raises expectations and if these expectations are not fulfilled there might be blowback. There is a skiing area, celebrated as a victory for the country. Will more and more Koreans begin asking themselves why they never have any opportunity to go there? Seen from this perspective, North Korea has more similarities with Communist Eastern Europe in the 1980s than the regime might like. What will the future bring? I am curious and as I write these sentences, I realize that I would love to go there again in a few years.

And by the way, where is all the money for the new parks, the new apartment houses, the skying area coming from? Can North Korea afford the new Chinese taxis? No one knows. China seems the most likely source of cash. What is written in the contracts? What happens if North Korea can’t pay? Will the source keep on giving or will the source start to take?  

If you have navigated yourself so far-off usual norms as North Korea has, the hurdles for positive change are enormous. Progress on this planet lives of knowledge and of exchange. Idea “A”, developed here, meets idea “B”, developed somewhere else and that leads to innovation “C”, which only fulfils its full potential in the conditions at place “D”. North Korea has cut itself off these streams of knowledge and ideas. The combined knowledge, experience and understanding how this world functions will be very low in the North Korean ruling elite. Furthermore, a system has been created whose myth of foundation and history have little to do with reality. A system, that is based on adherence to a god-like leader, where submission and obedience are rewarded and critical thinking is detested. The abilities needed to move a country forward are in short supply, today’s world is too complicated to be ruled by one person from the top. You need properly working institutions on all levels.

If you want to improve a system like North Korea and stay in power you can only make changes that do not destabilize the system. For real development, it would be necessary to execute changes that go to the heart (to stop lying, to allow criticism, to devolve responsibility to lower levels). But then you might well find yourself under heavy criticism quickly and potentially lose power. Nothing the ruling elite will have any interest in. And even in North Korea politics is following and creating its own dynamic. If it is claimed for decades that the outside world is threatening and the enemies are just waiting for a good opportunity, if it is being told for a decade that to save the fatherland rockets and nuclear weapons are an absolute necessity, people tend to believe it at some point. It is difficult to then suddenly explain that everything is different. People will not question the sudden change (as they will not question anything anyway) but they will also not embrace it. Kim Jong-un is still relatively inexperienced. In 2011, after the death of his father, he became the new ruler at the tender age of 28. Apparently, he went to a school in Geneva but what other qualifications does he have?

The North Korean Special Economic Zones make the problems clear. The German Parliamentarians met several government officials during their visit. Some seemed to understand how a market economy works and what is important for possible partners. Others did not. One North Korean Parliamentarian treated it as a given that if his German counterparts wanted, a German company would certainly set up a factory for solar panels in North Korea. The thought, that this would need to make economic sense for the German company, that they would need rule of law, a certain trust in the system, easy access and no continuous surveillance was difficult to bring any closer to him. He thought that he would just need to convince his German counterparts and they would set the wheels in motion. In the competition for foreign investment, that North Korea seems to be hoping for, it is not alone in offering cheap wages but unique in all the “side effects”. 

Currently, there are more than 20 Special Economic Zones. Such zones are credited with a major influence in China’s early economic rise. Kim Jong-un sees them as an important tool, he has established 19 new zones in the four years of his rule since 2011. International investors should be lured with simplified rules, North Koreans without a reason have no access. Most of them are rather small but some warrant a closer look. The most famous is Kaesong. At the border with the South, South Korean companies could invest in the national idea and a common future. The bonus was cheap labour on their doorstep. The project made a lot of sense. But with the worsening of the political relationship the enthusiasm for Kaesong waned. In 2010, after North Korea sunk a South Korean warship (46 dead), South Korea decided not to allow any new projects. In 2013, the complex was closed for a few months after a nuclear test. At the 10th of February 2016, after more nuclear and rocket tests, South Korea cancelled the cooperation. The next day, North Korea send all South Koreans working in the complex home and in the night, South Korea cut the electricity and water supply. As a reaction, the North expropriated southern possessions in the zone. There seems to be no way back this time and if you look at the developments in the last years it looks like an own goal of the North.

Rason was established even earlier in 1991. Again, the idea makes a lot of sense. North Korea shares a short border with Russia. China, although located close to the Sea of Japan, has no access to it. Chinese companies can use the harbour, maybe even produce something in the zone (even seen from China North Korea has cheap labour) for export to Japan or even the US. As Rüdiger Frank reports he is happy about the fresh ideas in Rason, but economically, the concept is met with only limited success:

 “In the middle of town, at the central square, stands a huge monitor. Like the one in front of Pyongyang railway station it shows the state TV news and occasionally a movie. In the evening, people sit on the ground and watch. Around them are little stalls selling food and drinks. Photos? Yes, of course. Don’t we also want a beer? Say that again? Go and sit there, right among ordinary people who have neither been briefed nor brought here for a “spontaneous” party with foreigner? Sure we want to. I somehow expect that our little stall will soon be empty, but no, none of the locals escapes. On the contrary, I see curious looks, and then broad smiles and excited conversation after I tell the waitress in Korean that I have studied one semester at Kim Il Sung University in 1991. I sit among these North Koreans with a strange feeling of happiness, and I think how sad it is that I am so excited about something that would be normal in most other parts of the world.”

But the economic activity is limited. There is a new road to China, a new railway to Russia but the harbour sees little traffic. Frank calls the investment “mediocre in comparison to even the smallest Chinese city”.

Sinŭiju is another example. It is the town where we crossed the border from China. The zone was established in 2002 and led by a Chinese-Dutch businessman. His arrest in China ended the project. It was re-established as an “international trade zone” in 2013. A year later China finished a new bridge. With four lanes it is designed for the future. On the North Korean side, it ends in a green field, no construction activity is visible.

[Update December 2020: Google Maps now shows a road under construction.]

Another project with a future was the already mentioned Kumgangsan. North Korea received hard currency; South Koreans could enjoy the scenery of their homeland (Mount Kumgang is supposed to be the most beautiful mountain in all of Korea). As already written the death of a South Korean tourist ended the project. In 2014, it was re-established in an enlarged format as the “Wonsan-Mt. Kumgang International Tourist Zone”. Plans of two million visitors by 2020 were formulated, at least two investor seminars have been held. How should that be possible? Under the current rules at least 200,000 guides would be necessary to take care of these tourists. Questionable if that many tourists want to go hiking under surveillance if they can do similar hikes back home without any strings attached. In private talks with investors, officials acknowledged the important role South Korean and/or Japanese visitors would have to play in order for the zone to be successful. Difficult in the current political climate.

All in all, the North Korean attempts feel rather desperate than competent. It will hardly be possible to resolve the contradiction between wanting access to foreign capital but not giving away any control or to loosen the isolationist policy. Wikipedia knows 25 countries with Special Economic Zones. As a businessperson do I want to pursue a project in North Korea if I can also do so in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, the Ukraine, Zambia or the Philippines? Rather not. Do you want to invest in a country that is subject to UN sanctions? That tests nuclear weapons from time to time? Where you and your foreign staff cannot do a single step unobserved? Where you cannot live normally amongst the locals? Where most executive personnel will not be comfortable living? Where it is near impossible to get information? Where not even a basic token of political openness exists? Where nearly no one knows any foreign language? Where it is possible to lose everything (Orascom) without having done anything wrong yourself? Where people from certain countries are routinely called “bastards”? Where you have no option of recourse if the regime decides not to want you anymore? Eleven questions and eleven times the answer is clear: No, you do not want to invest in such a country.

Despite all these hurdles we should not lose sight that there are people in North Korea who want to change things, who want to improve their country. The Special Economic Zones are a sign of that, but they are also a strong reminder that the way is long and a lot of help necessary (and less appreciated than one might think).

Otto Warmbier

Another reminder of what goes wrong in North Korea happened in early 2016. I am not talking about nuclear or rocket test, I am talking about the American student Otto Warmbier. He had travelled to Pyongyang with the same tour company than me, but had been arrested as they were about to leave the country. A few weeks later details leaked out as the “severe criminal” was paraded in front of the cameras in a bizarre and disgusting, carefully orchestrated press conference (full length video).     

What had happened? A person had, in the staff area (second floor) of the Yanggakdo Hotel, taken down an “important political slogan” (“Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!”). The slogan had been left behind in the corridor. Very grainy pictures from a surveillance camera are supposed to show the incident. The quality of the footage does not allow to identify the person. 

How is that a severe crime? Well, fiddling with propaganda slogans is a severe crime in North Korea. In the case of Otto Warmbier, a story was invented to make it sound like a direct “attack” against North Korea: By his American education and the bad influence of the mass media an innocent minded, adventurous young man was prodded to prove his bravery and show a “western victory” over the DPR Korea. The idea for the crime came from the Friendship United Methodist Church, that wanted to put the slogan as a trophy into their church. The unity and motivation of the North Korean people should be harmed by the crime. Otto Warmbier was reluctant to perform the task so the financial distress of his family was deftly exploited. He should receive a car worth US$ 10,000. He was promised that his family would receive US$ 200,000 in case he would not return. That would allow them at least to pay half the university education of his two siblings. Part of the game is the enigmatic Z Society (a “secret” society at the University of Virginia). Future membership, combined with certain wealth, was a possibility if he would steal the slogan. Due to the close connection between the Z Society and the CIA, the US government was fully informed and in support of this “despicable act”. The Friendship United Methodist Church is very rich and Warmbier was shown the official bank account statement with 42 million dollars. The church is closely linked with many politicians as they need the money for their election campaigns. “Lastly, I would like to clearly state that I was the victim of the United States consistent hostile policies against the DPR Korea, I innocently tried to earn money through my crime. In order to accomplish its political interests, the United States administration does not distinguish between friendly and enemy countries. Therefore, they manipulate people like myself to commit crimes in those countries. I wished that others do not follow in my footsteps. I hope all of you can now understand the Z Societies encouragement of my crime. Thank you all for listening.” The very severe and pre-planned crime failed as the slogan proved to be too heavy. He fled with his previously prepared silent shoes. 

Warmbier then had to thank North Korea for the fair and humanitarian treatment, told other Americans to visit Pyongyang to see for themselves the (good) “reality”. As the last act a prisoner of North Korea had to say under tears that he fears that his family will be harmed by the US government. The “interview” was accompanied by several bows and apologies and happened, of course, under the portraits of the eternal leaders. What a ridiculous story. The depiction of the US is hilarious, shows a complete non-understanding of the reality there and would be funny if the consequences for Warmbier would not be that serious. For the North Korean ghost writer his father has a small company, just getting by, the family fears the government (“I beg for any kind of public protection for my family”), university is so expensive, big money and secret organisations arrange all things. Innocent Otto is just a pawn in the great power play. Sounds more like he is a pawn in a North Korean power play instead.

Has Otto Warmbier committed the crime he was accused of? Maybe. I know the hotel and I know the spirit of the groups of Young Pioneer Tours. Their western guides try to give you the feeling that you are in a totally normal country and can have a lot of fun. Many of their customers are young and have very little idea about North Korea. Remember the guys from our group that just left the hotel after a few beers one night? As one of them learned about the South Korean tourist being shot at Kumgangsan she reacted with a “if I had known that, I would not…”. Maybe after a few beers one night, Otto Warmbier really ventured into some forbidden area, finding that pretty cool, seeing the sign and thinking… Maybe some other tourist, who was in Pyongyang at that time, recognizes himself on the video and shares this secret with no one. Had I, as a German citizen, tried to steal that sign the story would not have ended with my imprisonment. An investigation, contact to the German embassy, a lot of apologies and I would probably have left the country as planned. Germany is not the “enemy” and Germany is not powerful enough to warrant acquiring a bargaining chip. Most of all Otto Warmbier was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Do I consider North Korea a safe country to travel to? Yes, I do. In the case you are American, it carries a certain risk though.          

Some details about the press conference. It is progress that you find it on the internet [although by 2020 the official account where it was first uploaded is deleted]. It was certainly not meant for inner-Korean use, otherwise the sentence “you can easily find detailed information on this church from the internet” would not have appeared. Besides all the uniformed people and all the black suits, there is a man with an inept green rain jacket. You can only get away with that if you are working for the Chinese News Agency Xinhua. Keep on standing out, green journalist, you give cover for others.

The verdict? The “severe crime” was punished with 15 years of hard labour. In case there are no extraordinary developments Otto Warmbier will not remain in North Korea that long. Imprisoned Americans are normally used as bargaining chips, that will be “traded” in the next years to force high-ranking Americans to visit North Korea. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton (both after their respective presidencies), Denis Rodman (Kim Jong-un loves basketball) or James Clapper (at that time the Director of National Intelligence) all brought prisoners home. Detainees are treated well while in North Korea.

Does the North Korea government seriously think that anybody will believe that made-up story? That anyone will consider a government that conducts such a trial as a serious partner? As being serious? No one will. As long as the North Korean leadership believes that they are smarter than the rest of the world, that they can play according to their own rules, they will score plenty of “victories” but fall ever more behind.

[December 2020 update: The story of Otto Warmbier did not end as predicted. Yes, he returned home about one-and-a half years after his imprisonment but with severe brain damage and in a comatose state. A few days after his return, after his parents had requested the removal of his feeding tube, he died at the age of 22. North Korea gave botulism and a sleeping pill as the reason for his condition. The available evidence, and he was carefully examined after his return, does not support that. His parents claim that he had been mistreated in North Korea. The available evidence, and he was really carefully examined after his return, does not support this. I do believe that the most likely explanation for Warmbier’s condition is a failed suicide attempt shortly after his sentencing, as described in this magazine article. In the televised interview Warmbier seems in emotional distress. Compared to previous American hostages, who basically read what they have been told to read, he puts a lot of emotion into his statements. He was young, inexperienced and probably went to North Korea because it is cool. The great majority of my tour group where of this kind. They had remarkable little idea about the country they were visiting. If I had been arrested, I would have known how the game goes. That I have to keep my head down, do what I’m told, that I would be held in a villa in Pyongyang and at some point, other people would get me out of the misery. That might take half a year, that might take two years, three years and if the political winds are blowing the wrong direction that might take five years. Did Otto Warmbier know that? In all likelihood no. He was at the mercy of a hostile regime, had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labour, was all alone, had no access to information and had absolutely no one to talk to. Had he known how these cases usually resolve, that might have given him hope, that might have saved his life.]

I wish the North Koreans a better future, they deserve more than what they get right now.  In case you read all my posts on North Korea, I have treated you, so far, to 882 pictures. Still, a few more are to come: