Posted on June 30, 2013
What lies across the border?
Looking into the DRPK from across the Yalu River (鸭绿江), I was met with a beautiful sight of a bridge from a thriving Chinese society venturing ahead into a shrouded mist of mystery, taking the question of “what lies beyond the DPRK border?” and putting it into physical form.
A perfect scene to contemplate the question: “Why is this enigmatic land hidden from the modern world in blankets of fog and misunderstandings?”
Granted, it was a little after 5:00am in the morning, so if it wasn’t for this photo I would have shrugged off this vision and marked it up as another strange dream, fuel by a little Chinese vodka (白酒) the night before. However, the morning chill and the coffee in my hand were awakening my curiosity as I peered at this scene. It felt as though I was entering a fantasy.
Awake and heading into a new ‘Heart of Darkness‘ as Joseph Conrad once coined. With a few biased expectations in my pocket and a building excitement that either the beliefs I currently held of the DPRK were true, or perhaps there was more to the story that was not visible through the fog.
Speaking of fantasy, little did I know that in my first full day in the DPRK, one of my oldest fantasies would come true: acting. One thing I should state very clearly, if you detest acting, then it is perhaps wise you do not travel to the DPRK.
My reason for stating this is that the DPRK custom is for all foreign guests to show respect for their ‘Dear Leaders’ often in the form of bowing before statues of their likeness. It is my assumption that you may have a different impression of the ‘Dear Leaders’ than your hosts, as I did, and thus the need for acting.
The best example of this is at the Mansudae Grand Monument, a place every foreign visitor must visit and pay respects to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. It was moments like these that I would guess that even Richard Burton would be jealous of my performance. Choose whichever Richard Burton fits your picture…the American actor or the British adventurer, Richard Francis Burton. I’d go with the adventurer.
This moment was not an unexpected one, as paying your “respect” to the great leaders is made clear before you get on the plane. There is no getting around this formality. It is more accurate to believe that you are paying your respects to the Korean people and their philosophy, as Juche and Communism in theory are actually pretty powerful. They just suck in practice.
The process of paying ‘respect’ included bowing and laying flowers at the front of the statue. The bowing I had rationalized and thought no problem, the issue however was that I had thought the laying of the flowers part would be done by a representative, saving us from the charade, but no it was the Full Monty.
I will admit very freely that I did not feel comfortable laying down the flowers, and if it wouldn’t have gotten me in trouble, I would have given those flowers to the first pretty woman I saw (which were many…but I will leave that for another post).
As I mentioned, for the paying of “respect,” the laying down of flowers was the most uncomfortable. Yet, however uncomfortable this moment was, it was matched by the surreal aspect of what is at the heart of DPRK politics.
There is something I do need to mention, because it freaked me out. When I approached these huge statues, I was hit by a feeling of awe. Considering the circumstances, it was a creepy feeling. I was not alone, as I talked with other Westerners about this, and they too had similar emotions. These statues are huge, very well done and with the reverence of the place and people and the lighting, it is impossible not to feel any emotions.
Fortunately, I read a post by author Alec Nevala-Lee quoting Peter Sellars on the affect that the act of “looking up” has on people (http://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/look-up/). I now understood that tilting the head back and up is an act that the body is not accustom to, so there can be a strange sensation. Although in Sellar’s example, he used Michelangelo’s incredible Sistine Chapel…not quite in the same league as the Kim statues.
Still, it was an eerie feeling to have, and I also put this down to the fact that I was in the DPRK. Viewing the statues was the hammer driving the nail home: staring upwards at these behemoth statues within the cultist ambiance of the day. Quite out of the norm for me.
The ceremony at Mansudae Grand Monument did not bother me much and it brought forth a series of introspective thoughts about people and their rulers. There is something to the saying “when in Rome, do as a Roman…” and going through this ceremony of respect in the DPRK (or in any other country) is a necessary step and perhaps the only way to begin to understand the culture.
In the case of the DPRK, ‘being a Roman’ is the only chance to even begin to fathom what goes on in everyday life in this country.
Sure, these required “shows of respect” are a little bit ridiculous for most Western foreigners to stomach, perhaps even becoming more of a joke toward the leaders than respectful, but then again this ridiculousness is a perfect initiation and introduction into this country.
It also gets the wheels moving, wondering just what makes this place click? Coming from my past knowledge of the DPRK (mainstream western media), it seems that the deification of the Kims’ follows a common path of past Communist societies, deepening misperceptions of the government.
Have you ever been caught up in a lie? It started off very small, almost inconsequential, but over time it developed a life of its own.
This is my take on what has happened here in the DPRK: a feeling that this whole place is beginning to catch wind of the secrecy and ‘misperceptions’ of the world beyond the DPRK borders, and it is creating fear within the government. What was once a small innocuous lie has grown too big to manage effectively, and at some point (as with all prevarications) the truth will eventually leak out.
Do not read too much into my next statement, but I believe the initial strength of the North Koreans is quite honorable. The DPRK is built on self-belief, self-reliance and a strong country that did not want to rely on foreign powers. Sound familiar anyone? It is similar to what a group of Americans in 1776 believed in and did something about.
Whether it was under the guise of ‘democracy’ or ‘self-reliance’ is irrelevant, it was a choice of a population. A belief they were willing to fight and die for, as North Koreans wanted something similar to what our revolutionary forefathers sought: a better life. I respect anyone who fights for their freedom to do as they choose.
The problem for me, of course, is that I am not too sure the decision after the war of increased isolation and a government that hides them from the rest of the world is what they bargained for. However, hindsight is always 20/20.
Also, remember at the time, the DPRK had a whole group of countries which to rally with, a standoff between the Communist bloc and the rest of the world, both sides each believing in their hearts that they were correct. Of course, it sucks to be on the losing end and I think that is the reality that the DPRK is having a tough time reconciling. The list is long, and for the most part pretty clear-cut on how this whole thing will end:
Every one of these countries have gone through reform (or are in the process) so it is inevitable, isn’t it? As George McFly would say: “you are my density”, and it appears that reform is the destiny for the DPRK. Question is, when?
As mentioned, history shows a pretty good track record for societies seeking the truth, and if the façade is a false one, the ruling party will crumble…and I imagine that Kim Jong Un is fully aware of the history. Considering Kim Jong Un is young and from reports, intelligent and well versed in the international infrastructure, I think he is the ‘perfect recipe’ to become the idealist leader, who understands it is time to open the DPRK to the international community. I know, it makes me sound crazy, but it is my optimism doing the talking.
From talking with Koreans around the world, the strength of Korean culture is the backbone of the DPRK society, and this is very much respected by the population in the South (politics aside). This is an aspect of culture that is, perhaps at its best, underestimated and misunderstood in the West and as foreigners, we just cannot discard this logic just because we are culturally immune to its effects.
The key in the “coming out” of the DPRK is China. China has the perfect blueprint for transitioning a cultish socity into one ready to contribute to the international community.
Not to get off point too far, but part of the spirit of the DPRK can be seen in the Mass Games celebrations every year. I have watched many of these from afar via video, and they are powerful. Part of me is very aroused by this spectacle, yet I also see productivity of the people being channeled into entertainment and propaganda, when it could be used elsewhere (like production). Then logic steps in and realizes that without any international support, there is little production, no great release for creativity and evolution of a society. It is difficult to have one (high productivity) without the other (free trade and a relatively open society).
By shielding the mass of population of how the world has evolved, the government has kept news regarding the stagnating standard of living away from its population. However, such news is becoming more difficult to control, and while many intellectuals are fully aware of the poor state of the DPRK economy, it gets attributed to UN sanctions and “the imperialistic dogs of the USA.”
To sit and listen to a lot of anti-US propaganda, it is important to realize that it is possible that the local people may hear things that may not be fully accurate (cough, cough). Yet, do not be naive to think it doesn’t go both ways. People on both sides understand that engaging a nation and its people is a heck of a lot better than threats and sanctions…yet here we are.
People are the same everywhere. After a good, hard day’s work, we walk home and live the best life that we can create. Within a normal day of existence, we also end up having to trust those in power to do what is best for our country and us. At times this may be contradictory.
Can a government be somewhat admired for clinging onto values that it once held at the beginning of its existence? Self-reliance and establishing a strong unity within the population is honorable. Perhaps for the first decade(s), there was some respect for the strength of such people, but things have gone pretty askew right now, I guess is a mild way of saying it.
There is a definite fog surrounding the DPRK, and cutting through it will be impossible without the leaders of the country taking their international responsibilities seriously. The actions of the DPRK government seem counterintuitive, as if they are uncertain how to get out from underneath all the deceptions created. Perhaps that is the biggest stumbling block in front of them now. Will they ever be able to legitimize themselves?
Unlike the photo that opened this post (showing the bridge from Dandong China that is the lifeline of trade for the DPRK), the bridge in the above photo is called the “Broken Bridge” brought to you by Gen. MacArthur and his squadron of B-17s and B-29s during the Korean War [edit: John E., has corrected & confirmed that only the B-29 Superfortresses were used]. It has been left as a reminder of US aggression. It serves as a good metaphor for the DPRK government as a whole, clinging onto the past at the expense of its future: a broken bridge is just that, it has very little practical purpose.
Posted on June 28, 2013
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…