Thursday, March 9, 2017

Dancing in Pyongyang, North Korea

Dear leader wakes from gentle dreams
When daybreak through tall windows streams.
To glorious feasts shall he repair,
Whilst kin and comrades drink despair.

It’s hard to write about North Korea because everyone seems to think they already know exactly what the country is like from what they’ve heard in the news. In reality, as is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere between the evil dictatorship portrayed by US propaganda and the people’s paradise portrayed by DPRK propaganda. Getting into North Korea is easy enough, but independent tourism in the secretive nation is impossible. Our tour group had to always be accompanied by guides wherever we went, and we weren’t allowed to wander off anywhere outside of our hotel on our own. That said, we were offered a less restrained view of the country than I'd expected over the course of our short stay, which focused on the capital Pyongyang and the surrounding countryside, and groups that stay longer are permitted an even more in-depth look at the country. Of course, that isn't to suggest that all of the official stops on our tour hadn't been pre-approved and chosen specifically for the effect they might have on foreign tourists, whether that is to show the absolute loyalty of the Korean people to their leader or create the illusion of a higher quality of life among the masses. Furthermore, we never got any hint that the people we met were actors, that we were being watched or that our hotel rooms were being tapped. Indeed, with roughly five thousand Western tourists visiting the country each year, it would be surprising if the government had the resources to covertly track and tail each and every foreigner. That said, certainly only those with a sufficient level of unquestioning loyalty to the state are allowed to learn English, and if you're thinking of doing anything illegal, any passerby on the street would point you out to the authorities without hesitation. Some sixteen Westerners have been detained in the country in the past ten years, but they’ve all broken the law in some way. Our guides were very specific on the distinction between what is “offensive” and what is “illegal.” Not bowing to the statues of the glorious leaders, or using the term “North Korea” instead of the accepted “DRPK” (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) are deemed offensive. Theft or the attempt to spread religious literature, on the other hand, are illegal. As for photos, we were told not to shoot military vehicles or individuals, construction sites and if we wanted to photograph a statue, we had to photograph the whole statue in one shot. Everything else was fair game, and my photos were never checked when I left the country.

The capital city and playground of dictators, Pyongyang, feels at the same time old-fashioned, on account of its Soviet stylings, and modern, due to its impressive collection of skyscrapers dotting the horizon. The illusion of wealth and prosperity, however, are very much a facade, and any close examination of these skyscrapers reveals them to be empty and crumbling away. Driving into the city from the airport, we saw the massive spherical Three Revolution museum, streets lined with blooming apricot blossoms, North Korean flags and stars dotting every corner and a group of hundreds of people practicing a choreographed dance in Kim Il Sung Square for the upcoming festivities. Three days from our arrival was the Day of the Sun, a cult-of-personality holiday dedicated to the Eternal President Kim Il Sung's birthday, and one of the biggest festivals of the year. Although he’s been dead since 1994, Kim Il Sung is still the official president of the recluse nation. His late successor is the Eternal General Kim Jong Il, and the current leader is the Eternal Marshal Kim Jong Un. One of the interesting rumors I heard during my stay was that Kim Jong Un is making a concerted effort to put on weight because the added fat makes him more closely resemble his wildly-popular grandfather and thus strengthen his claim to power. Across the city, you can see countless murals and pictures depicting President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il, but there aren’t any of Marshal Kim Jong Un. Apparently, Kim Jong Il had refused to have his image worshipped while he was alive, and so his son is carrying on that tradition.

Our hotel, the Yanggakdo International Hotel, is a 47-story building on an island shaped like a ram's horn in the middle of the Taedong River, which runs through the city. The hotel, which was built with the help of the French, is surprisingly swanky. The lobby is all lined in marble, the elevators don’t tremble, and the 19th-floor room I shared with another tourist was just as nice as you'd expect in most Western hotels. I was delighted to find a DPRK state-run TV channel, which offered the entrancing spectacle of lines of high-ranking military officials joining their voices in a sustained shout as Marshal Kim Jong Un looked with approbation. There was also a Japanese channel, a Chinese channel, a Russian channel, a movie channel with English subtitles and English Aljizeera, though I highly doubt the average North Korean has access to any of these channels. In the basement of the hotel, there is a tunnel barely taller than I that leads to a billiards room, a swimming pool/sauna, a bowling alley, a little shop with some clothes and snacks, a few restaurants and a casino. All of the attractions were staffed, but there were no hotel patrons taking advantage of any of them, other than a few Koreans playing billiards. Anywhere else in the world, this basement and all of its mirrors would have seemed really cheesy, but here in the DPRK, even the simplest things can be impressive. Even the bookstore was fascinating, what with its copy of Anecdotes of Kim Jong Il's Life and its nearly-magical stories of the man, the English-language Pyongyang Times and its article about Japanese repressions of Korean people and some patriotic music scores. Music and singing are very important in the DPRK, as they seem to be the main media by which nationalism and propaganda are spread. When we headed back to the lobby to taste some North Korea draft beers, our server, at our urging, regaled us with a moving song detailing the exploits of General Kim Jong Il.

On our first full day in the DPRK, our group dressed in our Sunday best and headed to the Palace of the Sun. We drove through the center on the city on Changeon Street, an 8-lane road with perhaps twenty other vehicles. Due to limited amounts of gas and in an effort to “reduce traffic,” cars are restricted to driving only three days a week. On the street, nonetheless, there were a lot of people, perhaps a quarter of whom were dressed in military garb and marching in formation. According to one of our guides, you must be 18 to serve in the military and military service is not required, although it's an extremely popular option. What we didn’t see, of course, were any homeless people, the very idea of which is unheard of in communist countries. Within the Palace of the Sun are the mortal remains of President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il, which have been preserved much in the same way as Lenin and Chairman Mao (carve out all the innards, remove the eyes and the tongue, plastify the skin and stuff the body with chemicals). The entrance to the building could only be accessed by visitors by means of a long travellator. The 10-minute trip was passed in silence, during which time we were told not to smile too much, but rather look with gravitas at the framed portraits of the leaders along the walls of the marble corridor. On the left were portraits of President Kim Il Sung, who looked like the consummate communist leader. His pictures almost always showed him laughing comfortably with the common man, either in a factory, in a field, or in a school with some children. His son, on the other hand, who visage stared down on us from the right, seemed rather uncomfortable around other people, based on his portraits. We were greeted by more marble and framed pictures on the inside, as well as several plaques with the communist hammer, sickle and intellectual brush, all of which had been tastefully arranged to keep the presentation from looking too ostentatious. We entered a large chamber and walked in rows of five under a few extra-large crystal chandeliers to two huge wax statues of the smiling, deceased leaders. When we approached, we bowed deeply for a few seconds and immediately exited before entering the part of the palace where the bodies were kept. To make sure we didn't track any dust in, we had to pass through a little chamber of powerful fans that gave our clothes and hair a vigorous blast. President Kim Il Sung was interred in a large chamber dimly lit with red lights. We approached the body, once again in rows of five, and bowed at the dear leader's feet, his left side and his right side. The body was dressed and covered by a red blanket, giving the impression that he was simply sleeping. We exited into his award room, where all of the accolades presented to the president by foreign leaders were on display. One entire wall contains awards that had been dedicated from President Kim Il Sung to President Kim Il Sung, such as the Orders of Freedom in the DPRK and the Order of Labour. However, there were awards from all around the world, particularly from Laos, Senegal, Russia/USSR and several African nations. There were also a few countries you wouldn’t have expected to see represented, such as Italy and The Vatican, but much of what was on display was in fact commemorative degrees or medals instead of rewards. The general's room was the same design and we went through all of the same motions with the fans, the bowing and the award chamber. In another part of the palace, the trains of the president and the general have been preserved, including the desk where Kim Jong Il had supposedly dropped dead of a heart attack on his train while working at his MacBook Pro.

Pyongyang's Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is especially interesting if you’ve also visited the Korean War Museum in Seoul, South Korea. Whereas the South Korean version employs a few creative exhibits to promote a picture of complete innocence on the part of the South Koreans defending their land against the evil North, the North Korean sister museum takes a slightly different approach. Visitors are greeted by great Soviet-style bronze murals of heroic combat and then treated to an exhibit of wrecked US vehicles, tanks, planes and the USS Pueblo, the only American ship to be held by a foreign power. Inside the ship we watched a 10-minute propaganda video explaining how the shameless "US Imperialists" used the ship to spy on the Korean people. The video taught us how the Americans swirled up lies and threats against the Koreans, but were ultimately cowed by President Kim Il Sung's superior intellect and made to apologize with their tails between the legs and promise never to spy on the Korean people again. The presentation was mostly designed for an audience of North Koreans, not foreigners, so I doubt any of the usual guests find it odd that one of the letters supposedly written by a captured American sailor absurdly begins "Your eminence, President Johnson..." Inside the museum itself, we saw another video clarifying how the Korean War began. Alongside the images of wicked American death dealers juxtaposed with cute Korean babies waddling about, we learned that the US Imperialists invaded the peace-loving nation of Korea on a Sunday because no one would believe that a “Christian nation” would start a war on the Sabbath. Whereas I found the excessive patriotism of Seoul’s Korean War Museum nauseating, here it is so over the top that you can't help but find it humorous. The rest of the museum contains exhibits intended to educate guests about the heinous war crimes committed by the Americans, which included dropping bombs containing mosquitoes and spiders with various diseases, such as malaria. There is even an entire room dedicated to the ultimate defeat and surrender of the US Imperialists, which also celebrates the number of US dead with a graphic and disturbing display. The whole hyperbole of the museum serves to diminish the legitimate war crimes that were committed by the opposing side during the war, like the saturation bombing of the north and the widespread torture and brutal massacre of suspected communists.

One of my favorite sites in Pyongyang was the metro system. Just as in the USSR, these stations have been decorated with ornate marble columns and beautiful murals in an effort to construct “people’s palaces.” Traveling down into the Korean underground, the deepest metro system in the world, we also had our first real opportunity to get close to the locals. Our smiles and waves got very little response at first, but eventually a few seemed to warm to us. The kids seemed especially interested to see us, whereas the adults hid their curiosity a bit better.

Our only journey outside of Pyongyang involved going to Kaesong, the ginseng-production capital of the DPRK, and the nearby demilitarized zone with South Korea. We left behind the pot-hole-free roads of the capital for the farmland and scraggly trees of southern North Korea. I tried to get the guides’ perspectives on the country’s division and their hopes for reunification on the way south. They consider the country to be artificially divided by foreign forces, and although the DPRK’s proposals for reunification have been reasonable and fair, the current relations are at a low point, and reunification seems quite unlikely in the near future. The reason one of the guides offered to explain these bad relations was that the South Korean president is very pro-US and follows their imperialist policies. Nevertheless, Marshal Kim Jong Un has left the door open to resolve this national tragedy, which has separated 30 million family members, and has invited the South Koreans to come back to the negotiation table whenever they are ready to be sensible and the US is ready to back off. There is a Korean saying that says how the men in the south are really handsome and the women in the north are really beautiful, and so neither country can be truly complete on its own. I think this expression sums of the legitimacy of the desire for reunification, if not the sincerity of the endeavor. Entering the demilitarized zone meant walking down a long corridor lined with barbed wire and huge cylindrical stone that had been rigged to fall down into the corridor and block access to any invading forces. The Military Demarcation Line, the official border between the North and the South, was marked by a tiny 6-inch concrete wall guarded by soldiers. The only place it was possible for us to cross to the other side of the wall was within a small neutral building that straddles the border of the two nations. In an effort to keep tensions low, there are only soldiers from either country posted here when tourists are present, and tour groups are scheduled to appear on either side at different times. As such, we didn’t spot any ROK soldiers on the opposite side of the wall, but even without them the tension was palpable.

A one-hour drive east of Kaeson offered us a rare and unrestricted view of the real North Korea. Our goal was the viewing post of the mythical "concrete wall." This famous conspiracy theory that is more or less unheard of outside of the DPRK states that a 240-kilometer-long wall stretches the entire length of the border with South Korea. Built by the US Imperialists, this wall is a criminal act designed to physically segregate the northern half of the peninsula and perpetuate Korea's national tragedy by sabotaging any hope for peace and reunification. And just like the USS Pueblo still held as a trophy outside the Korean War museum, the wall stands as "concrete" evidence of American aggression and interference. Before being offered a chance to see the wall for ourselves, we were treated to a lecture detailing the specifics of this particular crime. The wall stands 5-8 meters tall and its width varies between 10 meters and 19 meters. This presentation prepared us mentally for seeing the wall, which is widely dismissed by UN countries are pure fantasy. When we finally entered out on the grass knoll about 4km from the wall, we were offered a wealth of antiquated binoculars to aid our vision. Across the lethal stretch of minefields could be faintly discerned a segment of what could have possibly been a concrete wall. Thus, it would seem that the myth is confirmed. Nevertheless, how is it that a massive wall more than double the length of and three times the width of Hadrian's Wall at its peak can only be seen from this one viewing area outside of Kaesong? How is it that there's no convincing photographic evidence from either side of the border? Well, the North Koreans who come here no doubt buy into the carefully-orchestrated sales pitch and the long list of statistics without giving the whole thing a second thought. After all, it fits perfectly into the worldview of US injustices that they've been spoon-fed since they were children. However, for the Western tourist, the official South Korea and US explanation of anti-tank barriers is a far easier pill to swallow, especially when you take into account that this is the same area where Kim Il-Sung's forces crossed the 38th parallel in tanks before capturing Seoul in 1950. While the North Korean government may think they are sowing seeds of doubt among Western visitors, who are likely expected to go home and denounce their own country's lies after looking through those binoculars, the exposure of the harsh realities of Korean rural poverty along the way and their contrast with the sterility and prosperity of the capital probably does more harm than good.

dog soup
A particularly unique experience was being able to visit a North Korean movie theater, where we were treated to one of the most famous movies in the DPRK, a 30-year-old film titled Order No. 027. The story follows a troop of DPRK soldiers who sneak across the border during the Korean War to retrieve a set of documents as part of a special operation. The soldiers were everything North Korean soldiers should be - they put their leader's, the Party's and their family's needs ahead of their own; they were brave, loyal and showed ample self-restraint; they were masters of martial arts and camouflage; and they were willing to lay down their lives for the DPRK. The ROK troops, on the other hand, were disorganized and dressed like gangster thugs. The movie was defined by its occasionally unbelievable action scenes of Tai Kwan Do and gunfire, which often used freeze frames, sped up frames and rapid repeats to emphasize the heroism of the DRPK soldiers. We were fortunate enough to get to watch the movie with the DPRK's most famous film star, Lee Won Bok, who played Master Sergeant Kim Yak Gun in the movie. After the film he did a short Q and A, as well as took some pictures and signed autographs.

On the Day of the Sun, we visited the statues of the dear leaders and showed our respects to the tune of military propaganda music, as did hordes of Koreans dressed in suits and hanboks. From the state-approved patriotic music, to the ubiquitous soldier presence, to the military emphasis in movies and on TV, to the countless pictures and statues of the dear leaders, to national holidays geared toward the glorification of the fatherland, the patriotic and military indoctrination here really is overwhelming. I don't doubt that the school curriculum is dominated by teachings of Korea's victimization at the hands of foreign enemies and the superiority of its military force. When neither freedom of expression nor freedom of information is permitted, critical thinking is no more plausible than a child dismissing the fairy tales of Santa Claus out of hand simply on the basis that they don't appear sync with observable reality. Like children, the North Korean population devours the myths that it is fed; only here they never learn to question those myths and are never permitted to grow out of them.

A few other tourists and I skipped out on some extra sights of the city for an opportunity to fly above Pyongyang in an old Soviet helicopter. While we were waiting at the terminal, we watch the military orchestra on the TV and listened to one of the Korean tour guides telling his favorite joke: The Roman Catholic Pope, George Bush, Michael Jackson and a school girl are riding in a helicopter. Suddenly there are some technical troubles and the helicopter is going down. There are only three parachutes for the four people. First the pope takes a parachute and says, "I'm very important. I'm the leader of a billion Catholics." Then he jumps out. Next George Bush takes a parachute and says, "I'm very important. I'm the leader of millions of Americans." Then he jumps out. At this point, Michael Jackson starts to cry, and when the school girl asks him what's wrong, he points to the fact that there's only one parachute left for two people. The school girl looks at him and smiles. "Don't worry, Michael, George Bush took my school bag."

photo by Eric Stinnissen
In Pyongyang’s equivalent of Central Park, we met a few friendly kids who were delighted to smile and wave at us and shout "hello!" This was the Day of the Sun, a day of celebration, and so we danced in the park amidst a few hundred Koreans. The main choreographed dance event, however, took place in the square in front of the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium.

We got to interact with the "locals" when we visited a local brewery, and even though the people here had likely been planted for us, we were still delighted to meet them. The Koreans, likewise, were delighted to meet us, and they asked me in very basic English what my name was, where I was from and if I could sing them a song of my homeland. This last request took me by surprise, and I decided to sing the Ukrainian National Anthem, which with its excessive Soviet-style patriotism was just like what they were used to. The North Koreans reciprocated, and soon we had a bit of a song competition going. There weren’t many songs which all of the Westerners knew by heart, so at once point were singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, although the North Koreans seemed to find catchiness of the tune completely uninteresting and some wandered off. With one of our guides translating, we were able to pick their brains a bit more on what they think about the rest of the world. They told us that that they despise the US government, which is directly responsible for all of the suffering of their nation, and its sanctions, but they tolerated us because their leader, Marshal Kim Jong Un, had said at his New Year’s address that anyone who is friendly to the DPRK is a friend of the DPRK.

Traveling to North Korea is an incredibly unique and memorable experience. One of the last communist countries remaining in the world, the DPRK's international infamy lies in a chilling list of problems, including an established track record of human right’s abuses, a starving population, a burgeoning nuclear program, mass political repression and an overemphasis on nationalism, military indoctrination and warmongering. That said, some of the same accusations can be leveled at their main imperialist enemy, whose continuous military occupation since 1945 has formed the greatest obstacle to the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. Many of the people there are happy and feel a strong sense of pride toward their country, and while one can successfully argue that this is merely the effect of brainwashing, that hardly invalidates the genuineness of the feeling. In America, North Korea is regularly regarded as an evil state ruled by an unhinged tin-pot dictator. In North Korea, America is likewise seen as the epitome of evil, and children are indoctrinated from birth into a worldview that America is the undisputed leader of a global effort to oppress the free peoples of the world with the chains of capitalism and that the DPRK is the last bastion of peace-loving people anywhere. This mutual and hyperbolic demonization does little to improve the situation for the North Korean people or make the world a safer place, but indeed serves to distract international efforts from those North Koreans suffering in abject poverty, just as the fantasy of the DPRK being under constant siege by a stronger power and thus demanding massive military investments distracts the North Korean people from their own government's failings. Moreover, while I don’t support Kim Jong Un’s attempt to produce nuclear armaments, for a dynasty that is worried about losing absolute power and authority, defensive nuclear weapons might appear to be the strongest guarantors for its survival. North Korea’s development of offensive systems, in my opinion, is largely aimed at convincing a domestic audience of the country’s military supremacy and the leader’s bravado, and less about directing any serious threats toward neighboring powers.

April 15, 2016

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