Notes on North Korea
The trip started with a lecture on how to behave, what to take with us, and what not to take. There were three of us, all Americans, on our trip to North Korea.
On the “No” list were books about North or South Korea, American or South Korean flags, books, newspapers, or magazines, clothes with political slogans. We were not to take pictures from bus windows, but to bow before all statues of the Leaders, and present flowers to them. Ties, jackets were necessary for the visit to the mausoleum. We were never to wander off by ourselves, read or carry a Bible in public, fold a newspaper with a photo of one of the Leaders on it, discard a newspaper with the same. On the “Yes” list were mobile phones and iPads, a joke since there was no wi-fi available to us.
Customs procedures were similar to those on entering China. The airport is a hangar with no tax-free shops but a new one is being built. We were met by our guides, one man and one woman, the woman very much in charge. I couldn’t understand why we had two guides for three people until it occurred to me that they were expected to report on each other. Normal suspicion may have been aggravated by the fact, we later learned, that we were the first all American group either guide had ever had or heard of.
On the drive into Pyongyang we viewed some cows, a bullock, a gamboling white goat, and people walking beside the road. In the city we saw children, some in Navy uniforms, and people carrying big bouquets of artificial flowers whom we were told were going to ceremonies. Our first stop was at a not particularly good copy of the Arc de Triomphe in a small park. I was puzzled both that they would want to copy it, and that they were so obviously proud of it.
More noticeable was what we didn´t see—posters, billboards, advertisements, shops, neon anything, motorbikes, and bicycles, the traffic mainstay of Asia. We were told shops were in the basements of apartment blocks.
Our hotel was on an island in the Daedong River. If you managed to leave the hotel unnoticed it would be a 10-minute walk to the bridge, by which time someone would have caught up with you. However, the view of the river from my hotel window was one of the loveliest things about Pyongyang.
We were lucky enough to have acquired tickets to the “Games,” a propaganda show to which our guides accompanied us. Think of the Rockettes multiplied by 80,000. There are, we were told, 40,000 people on one side of the stadium, about the size of Madison Square Garden, with cards in various colors that they hold up on command thereby creating complex pictures. The other 40,000 are in the arena doing synchronized dancing, marching, or acrobatics. Twenty men doing back flips across half the stadium or twenty women doing splits are impressive. The storyline was North Korea’s fight to free itself from Japan and then American aggression. Toward the end there were playful pieces, with chickens leading eggs by the hand. But except for the costumes, there was no difference between this and an intricate army drill. I found it chilling. The insistence on conformity called to mind the first Emperor of China, that ultimate manager, who after uniting China, organizing an efficient military and governmental bureaucracy, decided the next step was to see that everyone thought the same. The Kims have come close to achieving his ideal.
The next morning we were taken, with a bouquet of artificial flowers, to the palace of Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011. On his death the windows were blocked to create his mausoleum. The three Kims are known as the President, the General and the Marshall. We were taken, in bone chilling air conditioning, through marble corridors so lengthy that there are moving walkways. All around us women in the beautiful Korean national dress looked like a bevy of butterflies. On the walls were hundreds of colored photographs of the first two Kims, greeting, inspecting, congratulating. In one room we bowed before two white marble statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. In the next room Kim Jong Il’s preserved cadaver lay in state. Sometimes both father and son are displayed but we saw only the latter. One of our number noted that the guards stared at us incessantly until we left.
The next room empty, except for a huge rug and chandelier, was the Hall of Lamentation, all the walls being covered with bas-reliefs of grief stricken people. Slowly I registered that those weeping over the death of the General in these sculptures were not Koreans but Africans, Indians, South Americans, people of all nations lamenting Kim Jong Il´s death. Part of the mythology of North Korea is that the country is of immense importance, its leaders the focus of global attention. This global view is ironic since no information about the outside world is available to the inhabitants. People may not receive or send email out of country, nor is snail mail allowed in or out.
There were further rooms displaying the official ship, an armored Mercedes, and the private rail car on which Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack.
In a bookstore postcards of monuments and, interestingly, people on amusement park rides were available with flags and embroidered pictures but primarily there were piles of books in all languages about the President, the General, and the Marshall. One claimed that since the Kims´ rule the women of the DPRK have been protected from diseases.
A monument of concrete covered with grey granite tiles consisted of a hammer, sickle, and what we were told was a calligraphy brush, completing the symbolism of industrial and agricultural workers by including the intellectuals, an innovation. As we walked through this monument I had, with the man guide, my only personal conversation on the trip. As we walked up the steps, I asked if they had opera in Pyongyang.
He responded with great interest and warmth, “Yes, we have Verdi, Puccini, Massenet, everyone.”
I inquired, “And Chinese opera as well?”
“Oh yes, Chinese and Korean old and modern too.”
The others joined us at this point and the conversation broke off. Opera emerged a second time on this trip but with quite different affect.
Next was the Jushe Monument, a pillar with a flame on top. In the small elevator foyer at the base were marble and granite plaques purportedly from Jushe Societies around the world, including one from New York City. Jushe is a society, we were told, that propagates the President´s idea that man is in charge of himself and the world, able to do anything he wants. Again, the emphasis was on the global attention paid to the North Korean Leader.
We paused at a “coffee shop” with weak coffee and lousy chocolate cake, no worse than in China. It was a pleasant break but it was impossible not to notice that all customers were tourists as was true in the restaurants we were taken to.
Driving out of town, for the first time, we went to the renovated, humble home of the President, next to a cemetery. The family subsisted by taking care of the graves and farming. The house, two long sheds facing each other, now filled with farm implements and other tools suggests a level of poverty that would lead one to either despair or Communism.
The third day, when we saw the war museum, was I think psychologically the most difficult for us. The anti-American hostility was incessant. There had been anti-American remarks throughout the first two days but not aggressively so. The War Museum has two floors, one for the Americans, the other for the Japanese. There are also outdoor exhibits of weapons, and airplanes with pictures of the pilots dead and alive. Also on this part of the tour was the Pueblo, the American spy ship captured by the North Koreans in 1968. It was interesting that none of this was in the past for our guides. The U.S. is still a threat, responsible for everything that goes wrong now in North Korea. This fear and hatred unifies the country. There were film clips from the Pueblo incident, which, to my delight, showed President Johnson lying through his teeth, a thing he did well. Disconcerting were shots of people spontaneously weeping as the General, Kim Jung Il, drove by.
One of us asked the guide in the War Museum, when she remarked that the Russians helped the North Koreans during the war against the U.S., if they supported the present Russian government. The guide, a major in the army, hovered, probably having no idea what the “right” answer was, I doubt if she knew the name Putin, finally saying she supported the present Russian government.
The People’s Study House is a handsome, digitalized library. They brought up editions of Gone with the Wind, Huckleberry Finn illustrated by Thomas Hart Benton, and a volume on computers 10 years out of date. In an English classroom our guides urged us to talk to the students. I tried to engage a young woman over her book but she was so astonished by my presence that she could not talk and before she recovered speech we were on our way to lunch outside Pyongyang, passing a tatty Chinese cum Disney amusement park, to an outdoor barbecue where Chinese cast concrete dragons looped back and forth across the road.
Gazing at them I realized that the only Korean architecture I had seen was the President’s humble home. The Arc de Triomphe from France, monuments and statues in the Russian Socialist Realist style, the preserved cadaver of Kim Jung Il a la Lenin and Ho, the coiling Chinese dragons, everything was from somewhere else. I asked our woman guide why there was nothing in the Korean architectural style. The answer I received was no answer. She said the U.S. had bombed Pyongyang flat. We also bombed Dresden flat but it has been meticulously reproduced. Everything in Pyongyang mimics foreign ideas, suggesting something is awry with the national identity.
On our way to a school, for which we had brought two innocuous children’s books in English, we discussed the reunification of the Koreas. Our guide believed reunification was blocked by the U.S. When I suggested that China might not want the reunification the guide snapped back, “They have nothing to do with it.” While being taught they are the center of global attention, they simultaneously have no sense of global realities.
The principal and guide, after consultation, refused the books, basically because they were American. In the auditorium we watched a “cultural show” of singing and dancing by the students, some of it very fine. When we left I commented to our woman guide that in Europe and the U.S. there are superlative and famous opera singers who are Korean. She turned her back on me and walked away. Thinking she hadn’t heard me, I said it again and again she walked away from me. I am still considering this but have not come up with an explanation.
We were all ready to leave the next morning. One of our number commented that it was the first time he had been to a delusional country. Never before have I come into Beijing thinking, “Hurray. I´m at liberty in China.”