Life in North Korea involves much bowing to the 'Eternal Leaders'. (Photo: Mark Thomas).

Down the rabbit hole: A Kiwi goes to North Korea

Mark Thomas discovers that ‘reality’ in North Korea means theme park-style monuments, hopelessly pot-holed roads, and much bowing to Eternal Leaders.

Living and working in Singapore last June you couldn’t avoid the mayhem caused by the first Trump/Kim summit.

But you could also feel the anticipation. On subsequent visits to South Korea I felt as if there was genuine hope for a new dawn, despite the lack of progress in US/North Korean relations. So we decided to check out the Hermit Kingdom for ourselves, perhaps before it changed for good.

Of course a tourists’ review of North Korea is hardly fully formed or even based on reality, because of the constraints placed upon you. Two full-time guides and a driver accompanied us everywhere we went outside of our hotel. However the few days we spent based in and around Pyongyang must have been how Alice felt, the first time down the rabbit hole.

The Kim cult is pervasive with dozens of images of Granddad and Dad Kim dotted around the city. I made the mistake of referring to them as former leaders and was swiftly admonished: They are the Eternal Leaders.

Advice about their status was clear from the extensive briefing we received prior to embarking – including, if you see a newspaper with an image of the leaders do not place anything on it and do not fold the paper causing a crease on the picture. This will be “problematic”, we were warned.

There are two significant memorials to the Eternals (although there are also many others celebrating anniversaries and feats around the city). The imposing 22m bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il stand side-by-side as part of a wider display of what’s called the Korean people’s revolutionary struggle. All tourists visit this and are required to purchase a $10 bouquet of flowers and perform a full body bow.

The Thomases meet the Kims. (Photo: Mark Thomas).

A similar process happens at what we would call the mausoleum where the dead Eternal Leaders lie for viewing. The North Koreans call it the Palace of the Sun as they do not think of them as dead. Everybody has to full bow three times here (east, south and west but not to the north where the head is). Unlike similar experiences I’ve had with dead leaders in Hoh Chi Minh and Moscow, here you’re so busy bowing and keeping moving that there is limited opportunity to study and take in the corpse before you. Is this the Kim distraction technique continued even at the end?

I met a Chinese student in Beijing a few years earlier who intelligently and passionately argued that Chinese communism, although far from perfect, was infinitely better than the corruption and dog-eat-dog infighting that engulfs the USA (and this was pre-Trump). But he at least had some international reference points. With no external internet and foreign media restricted, none of the North Korean people we interacted with seemed to have this perspective.

One of our guides, a late twenty-something recent university graduate (all young people have to do five years of military service) asked my younger son what he was interested in at school, and he said debating. The guide asked what that was.

Despite this the people we met seemed neither gullible nor oblivious, and I suspect this is because their world view has been so completely formed. The generational stories of the battles against the Japanese and the Americans and their proudly isolationist struggle still form a strong part of today’s narrative.

Pride of place in the Korean War Museum – or the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, as it’s called – goes to the extensive collection of captured US weapons, including a ship. Huge pictures of captured US officers signing confessions and writing apologies feature.

Pyongyang is supposedly a city of three million people, but it was difficult to reconcile that with what we saw. Although the Soviet playbook of big roads and impressive monuments is delivered strongly, the large boulevards were never full of vehicles or people, either on one of the six working days or on Sunday’s day of ‘rest’. Similarly the monuments and vast edifices we visited were usually empty. We were travelling in the middle of winter so there were few international visitors, but we were regularly told all these structures are also open to locals. Too busy walking to work, perhaps.

The metro we rode on has only two lines and 16 stations. It has better art than its Paris and New York equivalents, with dramatic multi-coloured chandeliers dominating the platforms and colourful brightly-lit murals of the leaders. However the light display doesn’t extend to the trains where the lighting is poor and the carriages badly ventilated.

The built history is all remarkably recent. None of the major buildings we toured were older than the 1960s. This is in part thanks to the violent 35-year Japanese occupation before the Second World War, and to the US bombing of the city during the Korean War which destroyed 75 percent of the city.

Aside from a handful of historic Korean structures, a drive through the developed western side of the city is reminiscent of the back lot tour at Universal Studios with all manner of dramatic, grand and oddly-shaped structures. There is the Sci-Tech museum shaped like an atom, the ice skating rink shaped like a ski hat, a replica of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, and a zoo which patrons enter by walking through the mouth of a giant tiger.

It also includes a current world record: The lengthiest building project on earth. Despite construction beginning on the 105-storey, 330m Pyodramatic hotel 31 years ago it remains unfinished and unused, with no completion date in sight.

Other remarkable visible features of the city are the candy-coloured residential apartments, concentrated in the poor east of the city. This ‘improvement’ programme began 20 years ago and was a cheaper and more visible spend than fixing the inadequate heating, lighting and unreliable elevators.

The candy-coloured apartment buildings of Pyongyang. (Photo: Mark Thomas).

We regularly came across dramatic examples of this parallel universe in which these people live.

The enormous Great People’s Study House, as their main library is called, was built as a 70th birthday present for Granddad Kim. We were told it has 600 rooms, but on the Sunday we visited the thing that stood out was how few people were studying or even reading there. We were shown some of the ‘vast’ international collection, exampled by two Kiwi agricultural texts from the 1970s.

Granddad Kim, as is the way with autocratic leaders, developed his own ideology called Juche – meaning (with bitter irony, as it has turned out) self-reliance. His son built the 170m Juche Tower to memorialise both it and his dad. We were told he personally designed it and that it contains 25,550 blocks – one for each day of the founders’ lives.

At its base are hundreds of plaques from ‘socialist’ societies and well-wishers from around the world – including from the New Zealand Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Society, gifted in 1974.

Both Eternal Leaders were apparently “forced” by their people to accept a national flower each as thanks for their “great success”. Granddad has a purple orchid and Dad a red begonia. They are modestly called Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia. A purpose-built building houses the flowers so they can be seen all year round, although once again no-one was there when we visited.

Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were ‘forced’ to accept a national flower each as a sign of their ‘great success’. (Photo: Mark Thomas).

In the ‘industry’ museum our guides proudly showed us all the power stations North Korea has planned. These plans date from 1983. Oddly, no-one could tell us how many have actually been constructed.

A day trip through rural North Korea revealed very poor roads and grim working environments. Despite almost completely empty roads, the conditions meant the bus had to crawl at times and it took an hour to drive 50kms. We would regularly see people in the middle of nowhere cycling in the biting cold.

North Korea seems like a country that time has forgotten. An English language newspaper in our hotel reported that current President Kim’s 2019 message calls on his “revolutionary soldiers to implement his plans and desires without an inch of deviation or concession”. This, nearly 20 years into the 21st century.

One surprise was that Pyongyang did not seem soulless. Although we had limited close-up contact with ‘locals’, other than those whose job it was to serve tourists, we saw plenty of people going about their daily business. We also observed locals on the underground and visiting some of the Eternal Leader monuments.

My impression was of a people focused on their mission to deliver the outcome of a “revolution” in progress. Their leaders have told them they will achieve paradise within 20 to 30 years and that all the hard work and deprivation, which is all they have ever known, is essential to achieving this.

Are they blissfully unaware? They certainly have very little awareness of the world outside, but in some senses there is also a degree of disinterest. From the acclaimed (although much exaggerated) military prowess of the founding Kim to his heroic (although patchy and greatly Soviet/Chinese-assisted) nation-building expertise, followed by his son’s brilliantly strategic (although unsuccessful) internationalisation, their dystopia has been comprehensively formed.

As we completed the tour what struck me most was a sense that the North Koreans’ reality was as real to them as our reality is to us. They would struggle to cope in our world much as the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts would.

Trump is the Cheshire Cat who will eventually disappear. President Moon of South Korea is Alice, and it is principally with him, for now, that any hope of navigating an improved future for this strange and troubled ‘Underland’ rests.

Mark Thomas leads a smart cities enterprise and has recently returned to New Zealand after living in Asia for two years.


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