Korean City Guides: North Korea & Pyongyang
Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) 조선민주주의인민공화국
Dominic Al-Badri heads north of the 38th Parallel
A strong contender for the winner of the 'most misunderstood country in the world' prize, there is little doubt that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has a serious image problem.
Blame for this in the West can be laid at the doorstep of any number of actors, from intellectually-challenged U.S. presidents to sensationalist Japanese media. Matching the rhetoric blow-for-blow, the DPRK's official Korean Central News Agency fires back in a struggle that has lasted 55 years, since the armistice that froze the partitioned Korean Peninsula in 1953.
Amidst the world's last remaining cloud of Cold War fog and confusion, it is sometimes difficult even for seasoned observers to remember that, inaccessible and remote as the DPRK may be, it is still a country that is called home by 23 million people.
Holidaying in the DPRK is not straight-forward, but nor is it as difficult as many think. In recent years, endless newspaper articles and media reports about the abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s, gung-ho U.S. government pronouncements about the Axis of Evil, the on-going hoo-hah over the DPRK's denuclearisation process, and inevitable references to the demilitarised zone that cuts across the country as "the world's most heavily militarised border" have coalesced to give the impression that the country is a besieged garrison state on a permanent state of high alert, as prickly as a hedgehog.
Given that, it is little wonder that most people shy far away. Ironically, the DPRK may well be just about the safest country in the world for Western tourists to visit, partly because outside hotels tour groups must always be accompanied by their guide-minders who ensure none of their charges inadvertently breaks the law, and partly because the citizens are honest folk; in shops, for example, if the exact change is not available, customers may find packs of chewing gum or bottles of water replacing small denomination coins.
Korean Central History Museum, Pyongyang.
Freedom of movement is, however, restricted. Part of this is due to the determination of the DPRK authorities to show visiting tourists the extraordinary achievements that the regime has accomplished since 1953 in the face of worldwide hostility. Whatever one might think of the regime's politics, it is hard to be unimpressed by the capital city, Pyongyang.
During the Korean War, the city was completely leveled. (More bombs were dropped on the DPRK by the U.S.-led U.N. forces in 1950-53 than on Japan and Germany combined during World War II.) It may not be the prettiest city in the world, and older apartment blocks are definitely showing their age, but the rebuilding from scratch of Pyongyang has been a commendable effort undertaken at "Chollima speed."
Dotted throughout the showcase capital are numerous monuments to the nation's father and Eternal President, Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994. Justly revered as a skilled guerrilla fighter who played a pivotal role in organising and leading resistance to occupying Japanese forces in the later years of the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-45), the elder Kim remains omnipresent in the form of avuncular portraits and grand bronze statues at various public points throughout town and country. He is also on the wall of every private house and government office, inevitably accompanied by separate portraits of his son, the Great Leader, Kim Jong-Il.
As magnificent as some of the architecture is, everything is dwarfed by one of the most grandiose building projects ever undertaken, the Ryugyong Hotel, a 6,000-bed pyramidal behemoth topped with five revolving restaurants that has only recently been awoken from a suspended state of construction. (It is due for completion in 2012, when there will be celebrations galore to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Eternal President.) Clearly visible from every part of the city, it is best viewed early on a summer morning as it looms eerily out of the haze that hangs over Pyongyang while the capital wakes.
And yes, unlike Beijing or Tokyo, it is haze, not smog. One thing Pyongyang has got going for it, and which the state-run Korea International Tourist Service really should latch on to as an eco-friendly marketing tool, is pretty much the cleanest air of any capital city in the world.
The 6,000 bed Ryugyong hotel, Pyongyang, DPRK.
This is due to the almost complete absence of private cars, the banishment to the outskirts of factories and the nearly 200 parks and open spaces dotted throughout the city. It is said that with 58 square metres of green belt per citizen, Pyongyang has four times the U.N.-suggested amount of greenery per person.
Arriving from Beijing - as one almost invariably will, on a glorious Soviet Union-era Tuploev jet operated by the DPRK state airline Air Koryo - the contrast could not be sharper. People walk to and from work, ride the metro or bicycles, or squeeze onto one of the bulging trolley buses or trams that ply the streets from early morning until mid-evening. Crossing main thoroughfares and highways on foot is a breeze. Want to stand in the middle of the road to take a picture of the highway-straddling Monument to the Three Charters of National Reunification? No problem! No cars!
The DPRK's ongoing electricity supply problems mean that light bulbs are either low wattage or long-life, contributing to another of the capital's most striking features: dark nights. Pyongyang rivals the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka for darkness come nightfall; the city is virtually pitch black, but unlike Dhaka it is also silent to boot. The combination of the lack of motorised transport, and the absence of all kinds of advertising and street lighting come as a welcome surprise, and the stillness which settles over the city as dusk falls means even faint sounds from far across the city float on the wind. The experience of poking your head out of a wide-open window on the 36th floor of a high-rise city centre hotel and seeing and hearing almost nothing of the surrounding metropolis is initially unnerving, but rapidly becomes addictive.
Tour itineraries are fixed prior to departure and inevitably include at least a few days in Pyongyang. There is little flexibility for improvisation; many museums, for example, are not open in the sense of having regular opening hours, but rather open for particular tour groups, involving extensive prior co-ordination on the part of the hosts to ensure guides and other staff are on hand. And it is not just museums; visits to schools and co-operative farms follow the same pattern. Model farmers and singing schoolchildren need to prepare for visiting tourists, who, technically are all invitees of the state-run Korea International Tourist Service - guide-minders bear full responsibility for the action of their charges, which helps explain the nervousness with which cameras are viewed.
Our guides told us that all citizens are required to report camera use outside of obvious tourist spots; snapping shots from inside buses, we were told, could cause grief for the guides. (Nor was this idle talk; when leaving the country by train across the River Yalu, which separates the DPRK from China, officials inspected all the photos on all the cameras of the members of our party, deleting those deemed "sensitive," such as pictures of soldiers or smiling children.)