Five Days in the DPRK – An Account of a Journey to the Edge of the World / Part 1
I became aware of going somewhere else, somewhere different, long before walking down the gangway to board the age-old and untrustworthy looking Soviet-made Tupolev 154.
Peeking through one of the windows of the narrow corridor I see the flight’s pilot stare out of the opened cockpit hatch. His hair unkempt, with a cigarette stub dangling from the left corner of his mouth, he’s got an utterly indifferent look on his face. Business as usual for him, I am sure. Not so for most of his passengers.
Inside the cabin the air faintly smacks of Kerosene. The colors, shapes, seats, knobs and dials are stylish, yet in a conservative, ‘70ies kind of way.
I walk past the galleys that growl in a guttural fashion, hidden from view by hackneyed purple curtains bloated by escaping steam, to the rear of the plane in search of my assigned seat.
I’ve got 25B. Too bad it’s not by the window. As I squeeze myself into the small creaky seat a voluptuous woman, Canadian by the sound of her accent, struggles to remove her oversized bag from the narrow overhead bin.
“I’ve got 26A! How come that’s by the front door?” she keeps on muttering to herself before fighting her way all the way back to the beginning of the aisle against the steady influx of boarding passengers.
As the plane slowly jolts out to the runway revolutionary music wafts through the cabin but is soon muted by the devilish roar of the aircraft’s rear-mounted engines as the Tupolev starts accelerating to take-off speed.
The Italian lady sitting next to me has long before gone quiet. Already having crossed herself repeatedly her complexion has slowly turned unnaturally pale. Breathing in a deep and slow rhythm her eyes are fixated on the old-fashioned knob holding the tray table in position in the front seat’s backrest. With her hands she’s clinging onto her own seat’s rickety armrests, turning their knuckles as white as her face.
Shallowly the metal behemoth rises above Beijing’s notorious smog layer into the overcast sky and takes a bearing of our destination Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), commonly referred to as North Korea.
Not long after take-off the air hostesses start wheeling their squeaky trolleys along the aisle, laden with beer, cider, and unnaturally colored sodas. I count seven cabin crew members, all women. Without exception they are impeccably well groomed, neat, and generally easy on the eye. Some passengers raise their cameras but are unambiguously signalled to take the finger off the buttons immediately. Photo models they are not.
Courteously, but mostly unsmiling, they go about dispensing the in-flight meals. The portions are more than generous, as if they were meant to be living proof that food shortages have never been an issue in the airline’s home nation. There’s fried chicken with vegetables and parsley, pork schnitzel, Bulgogi with lots of fried rice, fruit salad, and a brick of dusty pie.
After finishing the meal I remove the complementary copy of the English language Pyongyang Times newspaper from the seat pocket and leaf through it. It reports in bold letters of world-shaking events such as the latest bestowal of decorations and granting
of honorary doctorates to the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il by representatives of Enugu State, Nigeria, some Ecuadorian mountain commune, and the Nepalese Journalist Association. Furthermore there is mentioning of the brilliance and
world-encompassing influence of people and ideas I have never heard of, yet naturally it is Kim Jong Il seeing a Russian dance performance that makes the front page, while the Japanese and US imperialist aggressors’ plans for reinvasion
fill many others. Self-evidently the font is always a tad larger than the other text whenever the names of Kim Jong Il or his deceased father, the “Great Leader” Kim Sung Il, are printed. Having thus educated myself about the official
DPRK’s hottest news I put the paper back where it came from, careful not to crease the pictures of either one of the leaders in the process, as doing this, I was told, is considered borderline sacrilegious.
After about seventy minutes in the air a sudden mechanical jolt rocks the airframe. Still high above Pyongyang the pilot has jerked down the landing gear, the resulting air drag adding to the already infernal noise levels and producing a noteworthy vibration that causes my already petrified seat neighbor to shake like a leaf with horror.
Not long after the plane finally touches down reasonably smooth on the bumpy, pothole-riddled runway, to the significant relief of many of its passengers, I am sure, with the realization that the most dangerous part of the journey has probably already come to an end.
A flight with Air Koryo, the state-owned airline of the DPRK, blacklisted and therefore banned from European airspace for its poor safety record, is the only way of entering this land on the edge of the world by air.
North Korea, the secretive hermit nation, a small pocket of mountains in northeast Asia rigidly isolated from the outside world, and as such a state unlike any other. In the West the DPRK is often talked of as an odd little starving land of bombs and rockets, a warmongering pariah with a dangerously ludicrous screwball at the helm that has a penchant for terrifying the world. An opaque nation exhibiting a political construct built to fulfil a grand ideological vision, where militarism pervades everyday life; a final bastion of high ideals based on Stalinist ideas, its people hard-line communist and brainwashed automatons trapped in long bygone times.
Undoubtedly North Korea has developed characteristics that most outsiders find abhorrent and difficult to understand, yet the situation in the DPRK and its causes are far more multi-faceted than the picture that is usually given.
Bitterly divided along a 238km-long wavy border coated by a 4km-thick band of restricted military activity around the 38th line of latitude, the Korean peninsula is a landmass of one remarkably homogeneous people in a country ruled by two governments that have technically speaking spent, as a consequence of externally imposed division, the last half-century on war-footing. In the approximately sixty years since the end of the Korean War the two nations have endured virtually unremitting cold war, interspersed with attempts at more or less reconciliatory dialogue and negotiations, brinksmanship, and occasionally bizarre feats of violence. This has led to a profound polarization that has scarcely left any family in the peninsula untouched and has gradually enhanced a sense of separateness amongst its people. Undoubtedly North and South have grown apart, yet their want and efforts for reunification have dominated their respective political environments.
Until his unexpected and sudden death in 1994 it was Kim Il Sung who had shaped the political affairs of North Korea for almost half a century. Kim Il Sung set out his own vision for the nation largely derived from Stalinism, resulting in the creation
of an all-encompassing and rigid state-controlled system, and a leadership dependent on the cult of personality and even deification. He was feted for his perceived superhuman wisdom and omniscience that he graciously bestowed upon his people
during visits all over the country, dispensing on-the-spot guidance in any situation and thereby offering solutions for even the most persevering problems. Not just a great military hero, philosopher, and father figure, but a genius whose comments
were canonized and whose critics disappeared.
Every place Kim Il Sung has been to in his lifetime is considered hallowed ground. Buildings are named by the date that he visited them, and his portrait hangs high on the walls of the largest public halls to the commonest private rooms. His face peers from countless mosaics, reliefs, and paintings emblazoning buildings, and even badges on people’s lapels. The DPRK’s years are counted since Kim Il Sung’s year of birth. Similar things have been happening with his political successor, spiritual heir, son, and present leader of the nation, the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il.
At first sight Pyongyang airport reminds me of small regional airports of other developing countries I have been to, with the notable exception that exclusively Air Koryo planes are parked on the apron, almost all of them lined up in a seemingly mothballed state side by side at the far end of the field. The only exception is a single Airbus 300 of Korean Air, the South’s national carrier. What exactly the aircraft is doing here I cannot ascertain.
A portrait of a fatherly looking Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader” and “Eternal President” of the DPRK, looms from atop the only terminal building.
It takes long until we are finally allowed to disembark and get transferred in shuttle buses significantly more modern than the planes we arrived in. Clearing customs and immigration is not a quick procedure either, but that was to be expected. The stern
looking officials in their booths are dressed in uniforms of somber-colored cloth, timelessly stylish cut. Everyone dumps their cell phones into bags that are handed around, which in turn are collected by the authorities, only to be returned upon
exiting the country again. Bringing mobile phones or laptops to the DPRK is not an option.
Outside the terminal I board the waiting bus and shortly after I’m on my way along empty roads heading to the hotel in downtown Pyongyang. Insatiably curious to finally catch my first glimpses of everyday life in North Korea I stare out of the window. There’s hardly any motor traffic on the roads, and that only changes insignificantly as we are entering the city limits. Most people are walking, many men dressed in Mao jackets or worn military outfits, women in casually conservative dresses of often bleak colors.
As Pyongyang unfolds before me I get my first vistas of the city that literally rose from the ashes after the almost complete devastation it suffered during the Korean War, designed and built from scratch to impress with the progress and fortitude of
the nation and its people. Pyongyang was not only meant to become the political, cultural, and educational center of the DPRK, but a showcase city, built to live up to an ideal, to promote a mindset, a city as the manifest of the state and its
Despite the obvious infrastructural shortcomings it has had to put up with especially in recent decades it doesn’t only present the visitor with a striking contrast to other North-East Asian metropolises, but admittedly impresses with its orderly layout, ample green areas, cleanliness, and most noteworthy considering the city’s size and population of roughly two million, its fresh air. Pyongyang reputedly has 58sqm of green belt per citizen. At the same time it stands almost as if frozen in time, reminiscent of the flair of the mid-1980s’.
Pyongyang unfurls before the visitor’s eyes, unlike most other large cities that tend to sprawl unorderly with their organic growth. Its roads and wide tree-lined boulevards stretch arrow straight into the distance, flanked by enormous residential concrete high-rises, and cutting from colossal state buildings to monuments and memorials. They link oceanic squares and plazas set in alignment over the horizon, across the river, across the city, gleaming without a speck of dirt. Pyongyang is undoubtedly poor, but on the surface does not look destitute.
Yanggakdo Hotel, situated on a small island in the midst of Taedong River, is, with regard to a number of aspects, a curious oddity in itself. At first sight the soaring, cylindrical, 47-storey prism with its glass elevators zooming up and down the façade certainly doesn’t fail to impress. Opened in 1995, it is one of the two most significant tourist hotels in the capital, features a cavernous foyer with a steel-frame roof, approximately 1000 guest rooms, and a revolving restaurant on the top floor. The two main restaurants on the ground level, where also breakfast is served, are conveniently named “Restaurant N°1” and “Restaurant N°2”. A number of shops cater to hard currency laden guests, and perhaps most interestingly two spacious entertainment complexes are located in its partly claustrophobic, air-raid shelter like basement.
A small staircase followed by some narrow corridors with extremely low ceilings leads from the far left side of the foyer to the Korean managed area, comprising a billiard room, bowling alley, swimming pool, ping-pong tables, and of course a Karaoke room,
the latter being mostly occupied by chain-smoking and noisy Chinese men dressed in slacks and muscle shirts in the evenings.
A little, flea market like shop sells all kinds of functional goods, as well as some true gems like second-hand Sony cassette walkman players at the bargain price of 140 Euros a piece. Small bottles of Western perfume go for about 90 Euros upwards. They are neatly arranged in the show cases right next to tacky pink underwear and various DPRK souvenir items.
Buying a small bottle of spring water proves to be a somewhat bureaucratic process. The saleslady takes the bottle and puts it into a plastic bag. She then diligently fills out two receipts, hands them to me, and sends me to the cashier at the far side of the room. The cashier carefully studies the receipts, collects my money, and stamps both receipts twice before returning them to me together with my change in Euro coins. Back at the sales counter I finally trade the receipts for the merchandise.
On the far right side of the foyer yet another staircase leads down to the second entertainment area. It is managed and run by Macau Chinese, and doesn’t only feature a restaurant, but also the country’s only casino as well as its only nightclub. Again, Euros are the preferred currency here, even though US Dollars and Chinese Rembini are also accepted. On the same level one can also find the “Golden Spring Island Spa”, an Asian style sauna offering “tempting” services like “Rub down with damp towel” for eight Euros up to “Full Body Massage in VIP room” for 45 Euros. <Looking forward to getting the nitty gritty in that in part 2, I hope – Stick>
The Yanggakdo’s book shop sells DPRK all time classics like “The US Imperialists started the Korean War”, “Outstanding Leadership and Brilliant Victory”, and “Kim Il Sung: The Great Man of the Century”. Later I would also get an opportunity to purchase stamps commemorating the anti-imperialistic journalist congress that was staged in Pyongyang in the late 60ies’, depicting Richard Nixon getting stabbed by fountain-pens.
Next to the elevators in the lobby a huge showcase displays curious photos of the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il posing in a number of settings. As I start copying down some of the captions describing his “formidable feats” two
hotel employees rush over to suspiciously inspect what I am up to. Some of the literary gems…
“The leader Kim Jong Il acquaints himself with the situation of supply of commodities to the inhabitants in a local manufactured goods shop in August 2008.” (Kim Jong Il before mostly empty shelves)
“Soldiers pledge to defend the socialist motherland to the last.” (Kim Jong Il amidst a group of soldiers)
“Column of Korean People’s Army paraders who have grown into invincible ranks thanks to Songun politics (Kim Jong Il attending a military parade)
Presenting my notes I lie how impressed I am with the devotion of the Korean people to their “Dear Leader”, enticing me to document this fact for family and friends back home. My explanation seems to put them at ease, and they scurry off.
The rooms are spacious, clean, and surprisingly comfortable. There is even BBC on television, a welcome diversion from the seemingly perpetual praise of the achievements of leader and nation on the local channels.
“The hotel rooms and the bus are almost certainly not bugged” I was told before beginning the journey, with the possible existence of creepy crawlies scampering around the room not being the topic of the discussion.
“Disrespect to the Leaders is likely to cause heinous offense to your hosts, or worse. Koreans don’t criticize or ridicule them behind closed doors, and neither should you while you are in the country, not even in the perceived privacy of your room!”
It’s easy for the imagination to run riot in this country.
Stepping outside the hotel at night it almost appears as if the road leads to nowhere. Beyond the mostly empty parking lot that’s faintly illuminated by the light emanating from the building’s glass façade there’s only darkness and an eerie quietness, unnaturally unfitting for a capital city home to millions.
Brilliantly penned and put together. The one question I have is…."Why North Korea?" Please don't say "why not"!