North Korea...Asia's new resort destination...as long as you're not American and enjoy plentiful communist propaganda (see left and right...nothing like a well-dressed woman waving a semi-automatic handgun to inspire patriotic sentiment) and a well-rehearsed pitch that casts everything American as manifestation of the devil. It's hard to know where to start in writing a description of this trip...definitely one of the weirdest we've taken. China felt like a warm, cuddly capitalist haven when we got back.
So...here goes. We had an unusual opportunity, on a couple weeks notice, to fly to Pyongyang and see some of North Korea. They're still a bit bitter about our little war with them and do a great job of using the anti-American rhetoric to rally the otherwise destitute (and potentially disgruntled) citizenship...the old tactic of building up an evil enemy to focus the people's attention away from problems at home. The collective 'we' Americans were often referred to as the "American Imperialists" and the "American aggressors." Our photo ops were limited to the places where we were given permission..."No pictures from the bus!"...although a small, palm sized digital camera gives one a bit more flexibility and we got better about getting our pics quickly before we attracted much attention. They definitely have a bit of loosening up to do.
Forgive the quality of these pics. They are from our hotel and give a sense for what one finds nearly everywhere. To the left is a calendar hanging in our room. It lists three holidays. The first reads: October 10, Juche 34 (1945): The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung founded the Workers' Party of Korea. The second reads: October 8, Juche 86 (1997): The dear leader Comrade Kim Jong Il was elected General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea. The third reads: October 17, Juche 15 (1926): The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung formed the Down-With-Imperialism Union. Gotta love that. (They use the term 'Juche' to describe their philosophy of self-reliance and have developed their own calendar based on the year of Kim Il Song's birth. Juche 15 is 1926...15 years after the 'Great Leader' was born.) No mention of Halloween or Columbus Day, curiously. The picture on the right (above) was taken in the lobby of the hotel. It is a standard world map with various time zones highlighted as one often sees in hotels...this one could be the world's most comprehensive study of communist time zones. Conveniently, they have chosen Pyongyang and Havana as the two locations to feature. Helpful.
Ostensibly, the 'purpose' of our trip was to show-off the Mass games, although we suspect hard currency had something to do with it. The Mass games are an extraordinary performance in the true communist tradition held once every three years at Pyongyang's May Day stadium, which they claim is the largest in the world. In spite of our cynical frame of mind and the not-so-subtle propaganda, it was incredible and performed on a scale unlike anything seen in the west.
The images in the background of these three pictures are made up of cards held up by 50,000 people. The speed and precision with which they changed were remarkable. Another 50,000 performers came on to the field at various times (5,000-10,000 at a time) in 10 'chapters' that told the story of Korea's 'founding' under Kim Il Song, whose picture is all around town. We were told that the stadium holds another 150,000 people. This is one of the few places the reclusive president, Kim Jong Il, will appear.
Here we are (at left) before the performance began. This is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the worker's party of Korea...notice the '60' just below the hammer and sickle (to which the North Koreans have added a paintbrush). The hammer represents laborers; the sickle, farmers and the paintbrush, intellectuals.
To get a sense for the scale of this place, we have cropped a small section (see right) of the background card holders just above Andy's head. You can see each card holder's head behind each card.
The day after we saw the mass games, we drove down to Kaesong City and Panmunjom to see the DMZ....names that will be familiar to those who followed the Korean War. We were told we were just the fourth group of Americans to see the DMZ from the North Korean side since the war ended...hard to know whether that is true. It was a day filled with American bashing, starting with a briefing from a NK general that made us feel like we were extras in a 1950s movie. (see picture to left) This guy carried on about the American aggressors and Imperialists, well aware of the make-up of his audience. Our kids proved to be good ambassadors and even managed to get this hard-liner to crack a smile...see right...at least, it looks like he's smiling. Both kids attracted a lot of attention...as foreigners, we were unusual to begin with and two blond children were a real rarity for the locals. No one else in our group dared asked this guy to pose for a picture.
A social historian would be hard-pressed to design a more compelling experiment to study the effects of communism and capitalism. A single country and people...including many individual families...split roughly 50 years ago and put under two different political systems. One literally is unable to feed its citizens (CNN reported that 40% of NK's children are undernourished) while the other is a gleaming capitalist superstar. The North Koreans, ironically, lay claim to the desire to reunify north and south...the split is (of course) the fault of the Americans. There are reunification posters, statues and slogans throughout the country. Interestingly, North and South Korea have agreed to send a combined team under a single Korean flag to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
This is one of the most striking pictures we got while we were there. It is the capital city's largest statue of Kim Il Song and citizens are expected to regularly pay their respects here. These two children were roughly the ages of Sophie and Griffin. Below the statue are rows of flowers. Our group was required to contribute a single bunch of flowers and walk in a line to the base of the statue. Needless to say, no American volunteers stepped up so a French woman graciously agreed to handle that duty. We were also told it was illegal to get a picture of this statue that wasn't of his entire body...I got one of just his knees and feet just in case I ever need something with which to taunt the North Korean government, which refers to itself as the DPRK, the Democratic (sic) People's Republic of Korea. You have to give their propagandists credit for having chutzpah.
One of the North Koreans' prize possessions is the USS Pueblo, an American ship they captured in the 1960s. We were given a tour of the boat by an old officer who claimed to be one of the North Korean navy crewmen responsible for the capture of the boat. He was even kind enough to point to the place where the US captain was found "cowering" under a desk when our guide boarded the ship. The Pueblo still sits in a prominent spot in central Pyongyang. Here is Sophie just before her heroic attempt to commandeer the Pueblo and sail her out to open water.
(Left) A traffic guard waiting for some traffic to direct. She moved with the precision of a guard at Buckingham Palace but there weren't many cars on the streets of Pyongyang. (Center) Griff doing his ambassadorial duties while surrounded by curious North Koreans. (Right) Standard propaganda on the streets of Pyongyang. The whole place feels like it is stuck in 1960.