The brink of peace? OK, perhaps it is just the absolute stillness of the night, the crisp fresh air (anything is fresh after a few days in Beijing) and a calm that penetrates the dark night that gives me this feeling of ‘peace’. Having just arrived in the DPRK, I am still in a bit of a bewildered state. [FYI: this will be a first in a series of posts written while in the DPRK last week].
I am not sure what to expect, as there does not seem to be anything restless with this calm, nothing but a sense of relaxation. Of course, being from the USA that immediately sets off alarms as we are taught early on that the DPRK is evil (actually an “axis of evil”), so there must be something dark and menacing out there, correct?!? The US media and government never distort the truth, do they? Regardless, my paperwork made it through and I have arrived (although no stamps in the passport…).
♬♪♬♪♫ Moonlight Over Pyongyang… ♬♪♬♪♫ Nice title for a song, and I’d love to be able to write something moving to celebrate the peace and tranquility that rests over this city tonight, and I assume every night. Being a bit ambitious, perhaps a symphony to capture the spirit of people, their hopes, loves and dreams that create such great places as Paris, Hong Kong, NYC and even Cairo. All places where people are allowed to have beautiful thoughts and dreams, and transform them into great works of art.
Why can’t Pyongyang and all of the DPRK one day provide the world with the same? Strange thoughts on my first night, as I admit I am quite skeptical of just about everything the DPRK could offer.
That said, flying into the DPRK and to the capital city of Pyongyang, I was pretty stunned by the beauty of the countryside. A blanket of green consisting of mountains, trees and farmland that left me wondering what was in store for the week as we descended into the city.
With only one evening in the DPRK under my belt, I’m not sure I am qualified to attempt any such eloquence as song or poetry. Perhaps on my way out of the country, inspiration will hit and I can try out my talents on DPRK Immigration officials. For now, the only thing I can offer are my expectations coming in.
Expectations are easy. As I mentioned, I am American and we are pretty much programmed to expect a brutal regime where its citizens will look upon us with some disgust. These days, internationally, that may be par for the course as the US government makes Americans easy targets in the international community. While discomforting, it does emphasize why I love the USA all the more, as freedom should never be taken for granted and understanding the good along with being able to speak freely of the bad makes a true patriot.
Of course, growing more cynical as I get older, I trust all media (and governments) about as much as I trust the Pyongyang Times… A wonderful paper, if you like pure propaganda at its flowery best (it gives the old China Daily of the 90s a run for its money). Something to think about: propaganda machines are just about everywhere (FOX news, CNBC, Pyongyang Times, etc.), whipping up stories with sensationalism to back a belief they want to be taken as fact. Difference here, in the West we have a few more choices and resources to find the truth for ourselves.
Funny thing about the Pyongyang times, in the DPRK a photo or image of the great leader (Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un) must be treated with “great respect.” What does this mean? Well, for example, the copy of the Pyongyang Times that I received on the plane should not be folded in half as it would create a crease on the leader’s face.
The newspaper we were given on the plane were given to us flat, so when it came to putting the paper away, the only way to get around this was to fold the paper in thirds. Pretty easy solution, except when I went to read the inside pages, I had severely creased all the other photos of the “great leaders” on those pages…which upon viewing, the person sitting next to me joked “We’ll see you again in about 10 years when you’re released…” Sometimes, there is just no way out.
Also, another great piece of info to pass on: throwing a newspaper away with the photo of one of the great leaders on the cover is disrespectful as well…so I suppose you will forever see me holding a “folded-in-thirds” Pyongyang Times from here on out.
One person said upon hearing this: “where the heck do they put all the old papers if they can’t throw them away?!?” Good question.
So as I look out onto Pyongyang, I wish for some solitary music, something to catch the spirit of this place. I come up empty. Rather, I can imagine a deep, somber beat of footsteps trudging onwards playing in my mind…music to represent the worry about the life their children may have: uneasiness, with little opportunity for expression. Perhaps it is this silence that I am hearing. Silence like this tends to make men and women fight to create a better tomorrow…although I expect if I mentioned this to one of our guides, they would say “Of course, that is what happened on June 25th, 1950 and we achieve this goal.”
While I have had very little time to get a feel for the DPRK, it does not take a sociologist to understand that there is a chasm between “us” and “them”. A very stoic society, and with all this deification of their Dear Leaders blazing from almost every building and being pushed onto the local population…can they even grasp what “the real world” is like?
With the rain coming down as we came in, I did not see many people out and about, so the quiet, greying weather perfectly matched my expectations on what I would see in Pyongyang. A dull, grey machine that does not have any noticeable human parts. Not to be trivial, but the DPRK does not have the best PR in the States. Whether my feelings will change after a week, who knows? It will be fun to see how I picture this place after a few days, and hopefully the weather will pick up.
As for our hotel, it is actually pretty brilliant. Fills every expectation of a pre-80s Soviet/Communist Hotel: dated, but solid and with a little bit of intrigue. We are staying on Yanggak Island at the Yanggakdo Hotel, also know as the Alcatraz of Fun (via the Lonely Planet guide-book) as foreigners are allowed free rein on the island, just don’t think of leaving the island on your own. Hotel California may be a better name.
Ryugyong Hotel – Still Under Construction
It would have been great to have had the opportunity to stay at the above pictured monstrous Ryugyong Hotel, which pretty much dominates the Pyongyang skyline (the largest building), yet after 36 years since construction began, it is still unfinished. I believe that falls into the category of “white elephant.” It does serve as an example of how the fall of the USSR hit the DPRK hard, crippling its economy and stopping all major construction. Not sure what its future will be, but there are still discussions of the Ryugyong becoming perhaps another ‘Hotel California’, an enclosed enclave for foreign guests.
As for now, I sit at my Yanggakdo Hotel window very tired and smugly admiring my Canon 70-200mm lens. I say “smugly” because technically it is illegal to bring a 200mm lens into the DPRK…nothing like being a little bit of a rebel. Although, truth be told, the worst that could have happened is they would have taken the lens and held it until I exited the country, and I brought the lens specifically as I heard that DPRK customs have been flexible with foreigners bringing in a 200mm lens (I am not that brave, especially with my camera equipment).
As one of my good friends told me: “taking your 200mm lens that is technically illegal to bring into the DPRK…yeah, I can see this is going to be an eventful trip for you…” My final shots of the first day:
Looking west of the Taedong River (right hand side), you have the Juche Tower in its nighttime glory (along with the lights of the Workers Monument and May Day Stadium).
Looking east of the Taedong River (left hand side), you have the Folklore Museum, Kim Il Sung Square, Mansudae Theater and Pyongyang Pavilion and department store.
I would like to imagine that in those well-lit areas of the night, the streets are teeming with people strolling, kids playing and lovers dreaming…but the silence I hear outside makes this thought far-fetched. So the symphony I wish to compose will just lay in my head, waiting for another day. I heard there is karaoke, a casino and bowling alley in the basement of the hotel, so I just may head there instead…
DPRK looks modern and beautiful through your camera. Thanks.
Thanks Echo, it is a very quiet place and clearly UN sanctions have hit their country very hard…and while there are definitely poorer areas & populations that affect every country, there are many great positives as well. It was surprisingly very beautiful.
Wonderful chronicle of your first day’s impression of the DPRK. While reading this (and before, actually), I was struck by how my mind likes to read DPRK as “D*A*RK.” It’s fitting, somehow… Fascinating how an entire people can be kept in the dark by such a regime, but, at the same time, hard to understand how such a regime could itself remain at all relevant in the world at large. No matter what truth there is to North Korea’s claims of military prowess, I am far more sorry for the people who live there than I am worried about nuclear weapons. We have the power to fight back. They do not.
Lovely images. And good for you for bringing the 200mm lens! I would have done the same thing. 🙂
Great to hear from you, and yes I think you too would have brought in your 200mm! Didn’t bring it out much at all to shoot, but it was nice having it just in case. Agree fully with your comment about reading the DPRK as DARK. Insightful and describes the regime perfectly. It is sad to see such a great population of people pushed off to the side as politicians play their games. I hope the system does not throw away the talents of yet another generation. I do feel hopeful, but…
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colorful and nice 🙂
You are an amazing photographer.
Don’t thank me. Just know.
It is really nice to know you have enjoyed the photos, appreciate the kind words. Hopefully there will be many more photos for us to share.
I have more than enjoyed them. And yes, hopefully.
Wonderful photos again – OH that orange sun…
An interesting read. That thing about not being able to fold the newspaper – it’s all just a bit absurd. And besides, respect needs be earned not enforced, as otherwise it is not real.
Thank you, it really is an absurd situation for the whole population. The craziness going on there now…it is never ending for them.
Instead of the symphony what about this: Matt Corby – Made of Stone (Live at Studios 301)???
Thank you Luana ~ Matt Corby, is a talent. Never listened to him before, so thank you much for the introduction to his incredible music.
Exactly…the talent impressed me too! He made me think about a very young talented girl…
Dense emotions whenever I understand that there are true feelings, true passion; Light against the dark.
(and here we could talk about absolutely everything, not only about music).
This is a country that sit on my bucket list to visit but yet, I am not even sure when I would be able to visit it. I am surprise they even have an English newspaper in the country. You took wonderful photos in Pyongyang, it looks like a quite develop city. Thank you very much for sharing this!
Thank you Indah, it is an intriguing place…the people, and a look at the regime (or at least the facade they build up…cracks and all) which gives us a glimmer of what the life/culture is like. The people, as is with almost everywhere I visit, are the real gems. You’d find it fascinating.
Now that I have finally arrived at your firs day in DPRK it’s interesting to read your first reactions in retrospect. I admire the fact that you don’t take things for granted or necessarily at face value. Did you ever find out where the old papers were put? Fascinating question – that in many ways holds a lot of the secret of the country.
Thanks Otto, it is one of those fascinating secrets that I never did find out where the papers go…somewhere I think they are quietly recycled 🙂
Even in the rain your pictures are beautiful! ❤
Ha, ha…thank you Jackie ~ it rained a bit too much but still turned out well!
You know a lot more about Korea, North and South, than I do. The glorious sunset is an ache in my heart for the irony of contrast against a land that knows little beauty. Thank you for the thoughtful snapshots (literal and othewise).
Being there was simply an eye-opening experience I will never forget…underneath all the politics & rhetoric, is a culture and people who love life (even though their lives are in such contrast to ours). The sunset was incredible, and it was taken as we were driving at it took pleading to our guide for us to stop on the road so we could shoot these colors (I’d never see such purple hues in a sunset). Thanks you and wish you a great final days of summer!
Your wayfaring amazes me, R. =)
How much Korean do you understand, if any? =)
Just the very basics from a 2-week period which I crammed as much as I could ~ I think like most people, when you are in a foreign country being able to speak just a bit can make all the difference (and learning a language opens up doors to learning the culture). Would be a great language to speak… Do you teach your son Korean?
ANOTHER reason for guilt! (Yep. I’m quite good at this!) I’ve beat myself up over not having taught him enough Korean (which just means not having spoken enough of it with him) but this year we’re making some headway. =) I was just focused on exposing him to quality literary English (hence the CS Lewis audios since he was four) that I lost sight of the Korean. Will try to stay on track. =) Thx for caring to ask, Randall.