Friday, 22 November 2013


My Amateur Impressions.

It is often the case that people, especially journalists and others in the media, visit North Korea with an 'agenda'. They go determined to get dramatic photos and publish reports which back up preconceptions that North Korea is run by bellicose madmen and the population is miserable, oppressed and starving. The same might be said of some North Korean 'escapees' living in Seoul who are only too happy to collude with journalists and provide dramatic 'copy' for TV, books and newspapers. After all, the more dramatic and horrific the reports the better they sell, and 'reconstructed/staged' photos and film clips are not unknown. Some, if not all, of what we see and read in the West may have some truth in it, but, and it is a big but, I have yet to see any reportage which has been gained by independent travellers, or reporters, with unfettered access to the country and the ability to speak feely to the locals, because it's just not possible. I mean I too could, if my intentions so demanded, go to any country and city in the world and come back with photos and reports of squalor, crime, police brutality, oppression, poverty, death, destruction and general foulness. Even ( especially ) in parts of London, let alone the favelas in Rio, the shanty towns surrounding Mexico City or the vast slums of Bombay to name but a few. Or the opposite. However anyone, if they so desire and are feeling particularly brave, is free to visit these places. Not so in North Korea.

The lack of freedom of access is the overriding problem in North Korea. It certainly does not endear them to the outside world and fuels suspicion, something that they seem oblivious to. They maintain rigid control of where visitors can go and to whom they can speak ( if indeed any of them could speak sufficient Korean ). One's impression of North Korea is gained not just by what you see, it's by what you don't see. That and the fact that it is difficult to take at face value anything that you are told; in other words you are often spun a blatant load of bullshit.
So, it was with that in mind, that I joined the tourist group on a fairly comprehensive journey around the country to see what I could. I had a totally open mind and the sole reason for this trip was, for me, sheer curiosity. I did not have an agenda.

It was made clear to us before we arrived that we had to obey gracefully the restrictions placed on us by our guides who, incidentally, were charming and highly efficient. This was not to protect us from any repercussions, it was to protect them. If a tourist strays 'off-piste' or takes photos of prohibited sites ( normally involving the military ) they, the tourists, would not get into trouble, but the guides would. Also, we were aware that our guides had to tow the Party line. It was fine to discuss and question but would have been counter-productive to argue. Our guides had much knowledge of the West ( they get to read a lot of western newspapers and magazines shown to them by the likes of us ) and it's ways; they were intelligent and had much experience of dealing with Western tourists. In practice our guides were remarkably flexible about what we could do, so long as we asked permission. Apart from anything else North Korea is keen to attract tourists and is gradually opening up more sites. To get on the wrong side of them would simply mean that places would again be put out of bounds and the relevant tour company would lose carefully acquired access.

As shown and described in my previous ramblings, North Korea has it's own 'take' on the world and is beholden to the philosophies of 'Juche' ( literally 'Master of Oneself' i.e. control of the country, self reliance and two fingers to the rest ) and 'Songun' ( 'army first'; i.e. the protection of the country is paramount ). They are also patently brainwashed from cradle to grave into not just admiring but worshipping Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, and the rest of the Kims as a consequence. Their history is somewhat 'adapted' to suit this purpose. This is reflected in their (mis)understanding of the 'liberation' of the country from the cruel Japanese colonialists in 1945 and the war-like Imperialist US aggressors in the 1950 Korean war. Incidently, when asked why they spend so much money and effort trying to produce nuclear weapons when other tasks seem more pressing, the answer is simple and commonly accepted; "if the US aggressors have them pointed at us then we must have a viable means of retaliation" ( Songun again ). Its their idea of Mutually Assured Destruction ( MAD ) I suppose; the dogma of the old Cold War. In effect I seriously doubt if they will ever launch an attack on another nation. They would risk having all their prestigious 'show-off' architecture bombed flat and lose much credibility in the likely lack of effective support from outside. Their army might be massive and robotically impressive on display, but I suspect it's technical capability is somewhat lacking due, in large part, to the fact that they ain't got much fuel and industry to replenish military hardware. In other words there will always be much 'sabre-rattling' to appease and impress the local population and project war-like capability to the South, but I believe it's 'all mouth and no trousers'. After all, unlike some nations, they haven't actually invaded anywhere in the last 60 years and they don't harbour any lunatic terrorists ( woe betide any Al-Qaeda operative who tries it on in DPRK! ) . OK, I'm no military expert, but that is my view.

There can be no doubt that the system of government in the country is dictatorial and the powers that be are obsessive control freaks. The fact that the hierarchy of the Korean Workers Party and the Armed Forces, fronted by whichever Kim happens to be around, maintains an iron grip on society and viciously suppresses any form of dissent, is pretty apparent. It is also apparent that this hierarchy lives in a luxurious style, hidden from the masses, and enjoys much privilege ( unlike our politicians and civil servants? ), unless they screw up when the consequences to their standing and welfare are profound ( unlike our politicians and civil servants ). They are, nevertheless, feared and respected. Having said that, they are improving the way of life, bit by bit, for the population. If Joe Soap thinks that things are getting better, however slowly, he will be relatively content. The experienced French 'professor' in our group has seen big improvements in the agricultural system and infrastructure over the past 10 years. The impression given by outside commentators is that the North Korean rulers  are 'mad'. They are patently not. For good or evil they have held this country together and resisted all kinds of opposition, sanctions and survived several natural disasters during the past 65 years. It may all collapse but I wouldn't bank on it happening any time soon, and I don't believe South Korea would be too happy to sort out the wreckage.

So, this is a relatively small nation ( pop. 22 million ), dividing a peninsular, which is paranoid, full of jingoistic national pride and maintains an insane worship of Kim Il Sung. Propaganda and 'selective history education' is rife, but one cannot help be impressed by their sheer bloody mindedness in pursuing their own programme, lifestyle and, despite intense international criticism, US sanctions and other embargoes,  giving two fingers to the rest of the world.

My observations, in no particular order:

The country is so clean. This is mainly due to the fact that they haven't got much to make it dirty with. City streets, and main roads, are constantly swept, by hand. Not much fuel so little industrial pollution ( apart from the alarming wood-burning fuelled lorries ) and there is a lack of consumer goods. Eco-warriors, Green-activists and Climate Change zealots should hold the place up as a shining example to us all.

It is the ultimate Socialist state. Everything is Government controlled with few markets or shops and little free-enterprise, but I suspect there is a flourishing black market somewhere. No neon signs, adverts or noticeable shop fronts. The benevolent Government supplies your every need ( vouchers for necessities obtained from Government outlets ). All live in the same state of impoverishment apart from the select cadre of 'apparachiks',  of course, who are afforded the finest of luxuries in true communist tradition.

Despite rumours and western propaganda, and the fact that we were escorted, I believe that the population is now relatively well fed and self-sufficient as far as agricultural produce is concerned. I did not see any hungry looking people or signs of severe deprivation. I can't believe there is anywhere on the same scale of crowded squalor that exists in parts of the sub-continent, South America or Walthamstow. The people we saw all looked perfectly healthy, fit and smiley. Village housing may have been basic, but relatively clean, neat and tidy.

Traffic congestion is definitely not a problem, bicycles are the main form of personal conveyance and the wide city streets are remarkably free of bustling crowds. I remember inventing a 'bustle rating' for cities in India from 1 to 10, where most registered 8 to 10 ( packed to nightmare chaos ). North Korean ratings would be 0 to -1.

The monopoly of the makers of statues and monuments to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I saw no statues of anyone else. Heaven forbid. I believe that the makers of these shiny bronze statues are employed internationally by the sort of countries that want grandiose monuments to their dictators. It is one of the main North Korean exports.

Many industrial sites with nothing being produced. Lots of talk of things being produced.

Hardly any wildlife observed other than magpies, two pigeons in Wonsan and many egrets near Nampo. No horses anywhere. I suspect it will be some time before they have a runner in the Derby.

The only country in the world where they don't have a following of the Royal Family, Premier League Football or Mr Bean ( or Tom and Jerry for that matter ).

They don't celebrate Christmas. A very sound reason to go there over the Yuletide period.

Their ability to stage mass displays must be the best in the world. Even little displays ( as in the kindergartens, schools and circuses ) are impressive. Probably achieved by rather Pavlovian techniques, but impressive nevertheless.

I believed it when I was told that their hospitals and health services are both free and good ( in the major cities ). Song Sim waxed lyrical about this, and she had experience of the system. OK, if you get seriously ill out in the bundu you will probably just die. I don't expect they whinge about it quite so much as we do.

No terrorist problem or racial conflict or illegal immigrants or welfare scroungers or football hooligans or race riots or any riots for that matter. No chewing-gum on the streets and no drunken night club revellers, or any night clubs, or revellers. We were told that the country is relatively ( serious ) crime-free. I can sort of believe that.

Lack of electricity and hot water, but they did their best to switch it on and stoke it up for us tourists.  By the colour of the water that came out of many hot/tepid water taps it was apparent that they hadn't been used much. It was rapidly switched off when we left most establishments. Lifts in hotels outside Pyongyang only worked on arrival and departure.

The only 'locals' we had any contact with were hotel and restaurant staff who were, on the whole, charming and pulled out all the stops to make us feel welcome ( except for that flash hotel at Mt. Kumgang ). I believe they were genuinely pleased to see us, probably because of the 'hard' currency we provided.  Maybe they were being 'monitored'. Maybe they should monitor some of our surly staff in UK.

So many impressive and vast buildings in Pyongyang, mostly of the monumental Stalinist architectural style. It was apparent that many were ongoing building sites and many others might just have been facades ( nobody ever seemed to go in and out of them ). Reminded me a bit of a Hollywood film set in places. We never set foot inside any of the grand theatres and museums, other than the new and indeed impressive Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum ( featured earlier ). I think several of the few shops displaying 'fancy' goods were doing just that; displaying but not selling. Much 'image' without substance.

The deification and worship of Kim Il Sung. It serves a vital political need. How genuine? Your guess is as good as mine.

That will do for now and I hope this blurb comes across as I intend, however inexpert, as 'unelaborated and unbiased' and not too boring. I may think of a few more things to add. I hope to find a way of showing some of the video clips I took, but this might prove beyond my computer expertise.

In the meanwhile "Anyung-Ee" ( goodbye ).

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