Thursday, September 15, 2011

Completing The Axis

Whilst in Dongbei I visited the towns of Ji'an and Dandong, on the banks of the Yalu river which forms the border with North Korea. Staring out across the divide is like looking through some sci-fi time-vortex: the Chinese side is bustling, noisy, full of lights, shops, cars and the shouting mass of Chinese humanity, whereas just over the slow waters the other bank is moribund and lifeless with barely a soul stirring. As night falls there is barely a light to be seen in the enigmatic Hermit Kingdom. At the Hushan Great Wall (the easternmost section of the Great Wall which reaches right to the DPRK border) the Yalu river narrows to such an extent that the Korean border fence is only 10m away. Getting so close there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to visit what is perhaps the most intriguing and isolated country in the world today (with the possible exception of Eritrea) whilst also completing my tour of George Bush's infamous Axis of Evil.

The Yalu river a Yibukuo where it narrows to less than 10m. The left side is China, whilst the right is North Korea.

Visiting the DPRK, however, does not come cheap. You have to visit with an organised tour and even the cheapest, where you stay for only 3 nights and enter by train from Dandong cost around $800, more than I had spent in the previous 8 weeks. And it's not just a question of money, but also the fact that my money will be going straight into the pockets of a less-than-savoury regime. (Where my money goes when I travel is an issue that I feel is very important and I go out of my way to try and ensure that it goes to honest, local people who are providing a service, rather than some large company - I much prefer being able to physically see the person to whom my money is going, and perhaps share a smile with them.) Nevertheless I would never get another opportunity and, misgivings aside, duly signed myself up to join a Chinese tour group and soon found myself standing on the platform of Dandong railway station with 17 Chinese tourists wondering what the hell I had let myself in for. A tour to North Korea is unlike visiting any other country: you are constantly chaperoned by two guides; contact with locals is strictly discouraged (unless it's to buy souvenirs); you are constantly bombarded by Party propaganda; and you are only allowed to go where the authorities want you to go. They cannot, however, stop you from opening your eyes, and the train journey to Pyongyang afforded the perfect opportunity to observe the North Korean countryside. There were three things that struck me straight away: the absence of cars - everyone was either on foot or cycling; the neatness - the infrastructure is reasonably good, the houses that I saw in a respectable condition, and very litter about; and finally that every inch of land seemed to be given over to agriculture. Paddy fields in the flat valleys, and maize everywhere else. Even road verges and disused railway lines were given over to growing crops. This is understandable yet strange at the same time. The media image of North Korea that we get in the West is one of mass starvation and malnutrition as crops fail to cover the country's needs, and so it is only natural that such a country would want to stave off further famine by growing as much of its own food as possible, yet on the other hand I found it hard to believe that such a fertile and intensively farmed country (from what I could see) was chronically suffering from food shortages.

A typical North Korean farming village (at least representative of the ones I saw from my train and coach windows). Fields of billowing rice out front and solid and simple houses behind.
As our train rolled into Pyongyang the weather remained the same but it felt as if it had become suddenly far more overcast. The city is completely devoid of colour: the grim, Communist apartment blocks are all kitted out in various unexciting shades of grey; peoples' clothes are invariably olive drab, brown or dark grey; and, apart from a few propaganda posters urging greater work effort for the glory of the country and the Party, there are no posters or adverts and it's difficult to spot the shops for lack of signs. To live in Pyongyang is to be among the favoured of the regime and life for people there is vastly more comfortable than for those in the rest of the country. But even knowing that I was not expecting to see children roller-blading in the central square, or families having picnics in the parks, or even groups of school children hanging around together, having a laugh and buying ice-creams from the street kiosk.

Although there were a few more vehicles on the streets there is no risk of traffic jams occuring in Pyongyang any time soon, and most people are squeezed into old buses and trams. Should there be any traffic problems then people shouldn't worry as at every major intersection there's a young policewoman ... not really doing very much. Ostensibly they're there to conduct traffic, but it's obvious from the short skirts and narrow waistlines and the fact that they're all pretty young girls that Kim Jong-il is a dictator with a bit of a uniform fetish. Although I can understand: if I was an autocratic despot with an entire country at my disposal I would probably do the same. It was here that I also got my own, English-speaking guide, although guide is perhaps an exaggeration. Seeing as there was at the same time an international taekwondo tournament being held in town there was a dearth of English speakers, and so a university student had been roped in to ensure that I was kept in line.

The agoraphobia-inducing expanse of Kim Il-sung Square in the heart of Pyongyang. Grey museum buildings with huge images of the two Kims flank the Peoples' Study Palace whilst youngsters rollerblade around.

Tours to North Korea may be short, but they are certainly packed. The next morning we were breakfasted and in our coach heading for Panmunjon and the infamous DMZ (the inappropriately named De-Militarised Zone that forms the border between North and South and which is the most heavily militarised border in the world). After a couple of hours driving along a deserted highway with more rice and maize fields rolling by, we were disgorged at the incongruous Panmun Souvenir Shop. (For a Communist, anti-capitalist country, North Korea has a surprisingly large number of souvenir shops and not a single opportunity was passed up by our guide to ensure we didn't miss any of them.) After a while a military guide escorted us to the Joint Security Area and the hall where the armistice was signed in 1953 between the Northern and UN forces that brought the Korean war to a stop, but not to an end - officially the two sides are still at war and there is only a ceasefire (although according to the North Korean propaganda the "American imperialist agressors got down on their knees and begged for surrender, recognising their defeat, handing a glorious victory to the heroic DPRK army". Then we were taken the conference room, housed in a blue bungalow that is perfectly bisected by the border, where negotiations are carried out between the two sides, sitting at a common table that straddles the border. Therefore, by circling round the table, it is possible to briefly cross from North to South Korea.

The huts that house the ongoing negotiations between the North and the South at Panmunjon that srtaddle the border. The building in the background is for South Korean visitors and is called Freedom House.

The following day we were taken to Myohyang-san the site of the pompously-named International Friendship Exhibition. Two giant, modern exhibition halls, with kilometres of tunnels dug into the mountain present and display all the diplomatic gifts given to the two Kims. An obligatory place of pilgrimage and indoctrination for all North Korean school children where they are told how beloved their "Dear Leaders" are, just look at all the presents we get from all over the world. A morbidly fascinating place and the pinnacle of self-aggrandisement, it's just a shame that we were rushed through the complex by our guides and couldn't stop to marvel at the comedy of it all. Amongst the priceless objects, such as fine porcelain sets, jewel-encrusted swords (from Colonel Gaddafi), crystal vases and silk tapestries from diplomats to trade delegations and even some suspect societies (like the Japanese branch of the society for the study of Kimilsungism) were some even more priceless (in comedic, rather than monetary, value) artifacts such as seriously-dated stereo systems from the early 80's, a set of golf clubs, and a stuffed crocodile bearing a tray of drinks glasses (the latter from the Sandinistas, who must have, on the back of the gift, risen in my esteem). Laughing, unfortunately, was not allowed, as for North Koreans this is an intensely solemn place. So much so that we were all ushered into a grand hall, with the most select gifts ranged along the sides and at the far end a life-sized waxwork model of Kim Il-sung posed, mid-stride, in a bucolic, woodland diorama, complete with stuffed gambolling fawns and chirping birds, and made to bow in obeisance to the Eternal President.

Ordinary North Korean peasants may be starving, but there's enough food to be found to furnish the tourists with a good half-dozen courses.

Then it was back to Pyongyang where the propaganda continued with a visit to the Pyongyang Children's Palace. At this extra-curricular institute, gifted North Korean children are instructed in various arts, such as music, painting, calligraphy, dance, martial arts, etc. so that they can then perform in front of tourists to awe them with the superiority of the North Korean people and their immaculate educational system. Endless rooms of little kids playing faultlessly on guitars larger than themselves, strumming on zithers, punching away at pianos, practicing their plies, all the while overseen by stern teachers and camera-toting hordes of tourists. Getting into such an establishment ensures a good life for the child and its family, but at the cost of becoming a propaganda puppet and arduous work of performing at a young age. And perform they do, as we foreigners (as every tourist who visits North Korea is almost obliged to visit the Children's Palace) were ushered into a theatre and treated/sunjected to an hour of dance, music and singing performances by pre-pubescent girls and teenagers.

Young girl at Pyongyang Children's Palace performs a song and drum routine for foreign tourists.

That was not to be the last performance that day, as in the evening, after another lavish dinner, came the pinnacle of our trip to North Korea: the Arirang Festival. The festival is an artistic and gymnastics performance that is performed annually every day for two months in summer. Everything about it is superlative (not least the cost, which for 3rd class seats for foreigners cost some $130): it is held in the largest stadium in the world, with a capacity of 150,000 and features some 100,000 individual performers over the course of the evening's spectacle. The festival is one great hagiographic performance to Kim Il-sung and the DPRK, extolling the prowess, virtues, greatness and advancement of the state and its people in song and dance. I won't go into any great details about the performance, except to say that I was most impressed by the intricacy and precision of the performance's card stunt that involved perhaps 30,000 children flipping coloured cards in perfect synchronisation to create pictures and words on the opposite tribune. Incredible. (For an in-depth description of the performance, along with a host of pictures I highly recommend this website.) Yet despite the mind-blowing performance I couldn't help thinking about the resources that the Festival must suck away from the rest of the country (for many of the performers it is their main job), resources that the country can ill-afford to squander.

Scene from the Arirang Festival where thousands of performers are choreographed with precision to glorify the Kim regime.

And that was pretty much it. After a brief visit to the exquisitely decorated Pyongyang metro the next day (the deepest in the world as it also serves as a mass nuclear shelter) we were bundled into the train for Dandong. Oddly the journey back ended up being something of a banquet. The Chinese hadn't been expecting much of the Korean cuisine and so most of them had taken substantial supplies of food with them, only to find that not only was the Korean food more than palatable, but also that there was a lot of it, and so there was never any risk of going hungry whilst there.

I have various, mixed thoughts about my visit to the Hermit Kingdom. On the one hand the way that the tour is set up and with the official chaperones you only get to see what the authorities allow you to see and contact with the locals is almost zero, so it is hard to get an objective view of what the country is really like. Both the North Korean government and the Western powers have a vested interest to exaggerate their respective positions I think the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Life in North Korea isn't all milk and honey as they would like to put across, but quite patently not everyone is starving either. The cult of personality is certainly there, with every Korean obliged to wear a pin with Kim Il-sung's likeness and there are numerous posters and murals of both Kims around, but from the priming I had received from the media I had expected golden statues at every corner. What I would most love to know, however, is whether the ordinary Koreans themselves truly believe in the regime and the propaganda, or whether they are just going along with spiel so as to avoid punishment. Either way North Korea is as inscrutable as ever.

A video of one chapter from the Arirang performance. Breathtaking despite the dodgy message and slight groupthink creepiness.

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