Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

License to Il

A chilling visit to North Korea

Twenty kilometres north of the factories where You Eal turns out seventh-generation keypads for the global cellular market, the peasants in the fields around Kaesong lack running water, heat and fuel. It is –12°C, and under a dusting of snow the ground is solid. Apart from some sickles, hoes and the odd bullock cart, there is no agricultural machinery. On the trip south from Pyongyang, 160 kilometres away, the only animals to be seen are a few goats and hens.

The contrast in the countryside to either side of the thirty-eighth parallel is striking. The north is treeless, arid and devoid of vegetation, anything larger than a shrub gleaned as fuel by the peasants who roam the hillsides, transporting their finds on rudimentary cradles to their huts. Trench systems are a consistent feature on the barren hillsides, and the return journey up the deserted four-lane Reunification Highway (completed in 1989) provides a clear view of rows of gun emplacements and pillboxes facing south. The military are omnipresent.

In the countryside a few miles east of Kaesong, we stopped to view the only original surviving burial mounds of one of the Korean dynasties. I opted to walk a portion of the way. Passing by stooped old women carrying bundles of twigs and leaves ten feet tall on their backs, I avoided a pile of human excrement. It was largely composed of what appeared to be straw.

In the Yanggakdo Hotel, the assortment of international guests (mainly East German steam engine fans) left the breakfast and dinner buffets embarrassingly untouched and jostled each other at the fried egg stand. There was no milk, and bread made an appearance twice in five days. Hot water was supplied for four hours daily, although we did have heat, and some light. Our Korean minders, in another wing, had neither.

In the basement Stanley Ho runs Casino Pyongyang, which sports a massage parlour and karaoke lounge, staffed by Chinese and off-limits to the Koreans. Unfortunately, similarities with Macau were few, but here I could defrost my feet and eat immoderately expensive fried rice, priced in euros. In the city itself, crumbling concrete tenements with broken glass and plastic sheeting showed minimal light, and the chimney stacks were lifeless.

The shops were predictably bare (no bread, fresh meat or vegetables), with tinned goods and biscuits being the staple items. They were again unheated and poorly lit. In the many cavernous public buildings, we filed past huge murals of the Great Leader, hosted by whey-faced women in overcoats and gloves, and froze politely as we listened to the latest tale of American perfidy or of extraordinary sacrifice in the building of the nation.

The city itself is attractive, with wide, tree-lined boulevards, riverside walks and parks leading inexorably to yet another war memorial or outsize statue of the Generalissimo. The main public buildings are imposing, more so than those in the southern capital. There is no traffic other than trams and buses, and the occasional bicycle. Most walk. Attractive young women in sky-blue uniforms and jackboots perform pirouettes as human traffic lights for the intermittent motorist. I wonder what they wear in summer.

On the morning of my final day, sirens sounded at 10 am and within minutes buses stopped, streets and houses emptied, and the entire population disappeared into subway tunnels and bunkers to freeze for an hour in an air-raid drill. We drove through the empty city, attracting hostile scowls from the few police and soldiers enforcing the curfew. One group stopped us and informed me through my translator that, as bombs didn’t distinguish between foreigners and Koreans, I should be in a basement too.

Conditions are as bad as, or worse than, anything I recall seeing in Eastern Europe, Russia or Albania. But what I found significant was the stoical, almost jovial acceptance of this lifestyle. In contrast to the apathy and cynicism of the Eastern bloc, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) gives an impression of bustle, purpose and self-belief that is very striking. I was particularly impressed with the absence of any form of public drunkenness.

Granted, the bellicosity of the regime is long-standing, and the likelihood is that a visitor to this place would have come away dismayed by any visit in the last twenty years. What differs this time is the level of the stakes, the virulence of the rhetoric sparked by the American “axis of evil” designation and the palpable anger in the streets.

The DPRK’s entire mythology is built around its history of defiance, struggle and victory over the imperialist and capitalist powers, Japanese and American. They date a conspiracy to ensure their economic subservience to 1844 when a motion in the US Congress authorized the opening of trade. The first attempt at commerce was made in 1866 when the USS Sherman, a Confederate blockade runner with a cargo of cotton and tin, reached Pyongyang. A decade earlier, on a similar mission, Perry had met with Japanese hospitality and Pinkerton his Cho-Cho-San. The Koreans were less receptive. The Sherman was burnt and its crew massacred, thus setting a door policy that many Seoul nightclubs continue to this day.

The North Koreans see themselves as the heirs to the patriots of 1866. Those events are as vivid a part of their national consciousness as the Pueblo incident in 1968—when an American intelligence ship was captured off the coast of North Korea and its crewmen held prisoner for eleven months—or the shooting down of a US helicopter over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in 1994. The USS Pueblo, bullet and shrapnel holes emphasized in red paint, floats on the Taedong River on the site of the Sherman’s destruction. School groups are led through this and other museums of the Korean War that emphasize a history of US hostility and atrocities, including germ warfare and the first airborne delivery of napalm. These exhibits are essential props to a regime that defines itself in relation to a long-running aggression from the US and the West. A year ago it looked as if tentative attempts at a market economy were being introduced, but this remains at heart a Marxist-Leninist state, which rallies back to its roots when threatened.

This is not a regime that is going to collapse from the inside. The North Koreans are schooled in adversity, brought up to see America as perfidious and hostile, and are intensely proud of what they have built from the ashes

of the Japanese occupation and the 1950-53 Korean War. Citizens believe what their leaders tell them. It is one of the most insular places on earth. I left thinking we are all dangerously complacent in believing that we will sort out the present impasse. Given the level of mutual hostility, an incident now could very rapidly escalate out of control.

In an aging Tupolev on the flight out to Shenyang, China, I brightened when an attractive young hostess engaged me in conversation. When would I be back, and how many of my friends would I bring with me? She was familiar with Moscow, Bangkok, Beijing and Khabarovsk, but, she said, Pyongyang was far nicer. She was determined to work hard for the Fatherland. Did I understand the basis of the juche (self-reliance) idea? She was eager to enlighten me.

I smiled, realizing Dostoyevsky would be easier going, and opened my book.