One thing they don’t like to give you whilst in North Korea is free-time. Free-time breeds curiosity and in North Korea curiosity can land you in a lot of trouble. After scoffing down a breakfast consisting of New Zealand Anchor butter and my first toast in a year, we were immediately on our way. Our guide Ms. Lee (one of four family names that make up 95% of the North Korean population), who had yet to crack a smile and Mr. Jang our guard, who seemed far more laid back, stuck to us like a wasp on jam.
As there were only my wife and I in our tour ‘group’, we would be joining up with a larger Chinese group. No matter what your nationality is, all tour itineraries include the same attractions. The only difference with the more trusted Chinese is they are allowed to stay in a city centre hotel, rather than an island in the middle of a river.
Waiting for the Chinese contingent, I was able to observe the city skyline in the hazy, early morning sun. Towering in the distance, the pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel looms above everything else. At 105 floors it will be the second tallest hotel in the world when completed. Work on the Ryugyong Hotel started in 1987, but came to a halt in 1992 when the country ran out of money and faced a demoralising famine. Work has re-started again on what some call ‘the worlds most expensive ruin’ and ‘the hotel of doom’, with the hope of it being completed in 2012 to coincide with The Great Leader’s 100th birthday celebrations.
In the foreground workers in their drab, colourless Communist attire walked towards their offices. Expressionless children walked to school. Soldiers with guns placed haphazardly against their bags waited for buses to take them onwards to their destination. Although informed by Mr. Jang that the legal age to join the military was nineteen, many soldiers on view looked as though they had only recently finished breast-feeding.
It’s obvious what a threat Westerners are still deemed to be. Whilst the fifteen Chinese tourists shared two guides between them, my wife and I had a guard and a guide just for us. Attempting to talk to any inhabitants on our own accord can be classed as an act of espionage and lead to imprisonment no matter how innocent this may be. Whether this is actually true, or similar to the, "if you pee in the swimming pool, the water turns pink," yarn you’re told as a youngster, it certainly works. Without the interaction, it stops the dilution of their culture and ideologies, while at the same time keeping their suspicions of foreigners heightened.
Our tour bus was soon racing on our way along Pyongyang’s quiet roads to our first destination, the International Friendship Museum near Mt. Myohyangsan. This was a good ninety minute drive out of the capital. Flags bearing the country’s and Workers Party’s emblems were out in full force in preparations for the ruling party’s 65th anniversary. With no advertising anywhere, the only posters were those full of propaganda.
Starvation. Malnutrition. Chronic food shortages. Such hardships faced by normal North Koreans seem a regular occurrence if you believe any of the articles written about the Hermit Kingdom. Driving through the ‘show’ streets of Pyongyang, it’s hard to validate any of these claims. Immaculately presented shops with shelves full of commodities, although of minimal variety, lead you to believe in a prosperous existence. As workers hand-scrubbed the pavements, it made me wonder how many of the inhabitants shop in these outlets and are able to buy the bulky TV’s on show.
Driving away from the city centre, rural life appeared from nowhere. Paddy fields full of farmers harvested their rice crops. Small towns of varying grandeur came and went. Some looked like recently built ‘model’ villages. Others were far more rustic and traditional. Along the empty roads, workers filled in potholes one by one by hand and trimmed the median hedges with scissors. For the small number of vehicles in North Korea, there seemed to be a ridiculous number of breakdowns, mostly communist-era built military vehicles.
Hugging the river for the majority of the journey, elderly men waded across the waist-high river with bicycles carrying a variety of products: tires, straw, people. Two women looked like they were digging a shallow grave for a deceased male relative, whose lifeless corpse was lying next to them. After seeing several similar images further along the river, I realised they were groups of workers hand-harvesting the river’s silt for construction projects. The original ‘corpse’ was jut a worker taking a well-earned rest. Some workers had waded into the river up to their waists to obtain the silt, obviously not scared by the chances of catching hypothermia.
The International Friendship Museum was built to hold all the gifts donated to the country’s ‘Great’ and ‘Dear’ leaders from people throughout the world. Currently it contains over 26,000 gifts, protected by Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers. Ms. Lee proudly proclaimed it would take eighteen months to see them all if you spent one minute viewing each gift. Using my high school mathematic skills, I realised this should have been eighteen days, a mistake bluntly rejected by Ms. Lee as an idiotic mistake on my part.
A museum full of lavish gifts might not tickle everyone’s appetite, but there are plenty of hidden messages underneath the surface of such an attraction. For the visiting North Koreans, it shows them that their leaders believe even personal gifts should be there for the entire population to enjoy, not selfishly taken for personal gain. It also shows local inhabitants the love and respect their country garners from nations worldwide.
After the death of their ‘Great Leader’ Kim Il Sung in 1994, China presented a life-size wax statue of him to North Korea as a sign of their condolences. A waxwork Madame Tussauds would be proud of, this gift has been given its own room inside the International Friendship Museum, where all visitors have to bow before his greatness. It was at this point that I learnt holding your hands behind your back is deemed an insult rather than a sign of respect in North Korea. A watching attendant angrily slapped my hands apart to a chorus of disapproving looks from a group of school children.
After visiting a temple and attempting to eat a nine-dish lunch we set back towards Pyongyang, passing regular military blocks. Whilst we sped through them unchallenged, locals waited to have their papers checked, unable to move freely from place to place without official approval.
The next stop on our action-packed itinerary was one of the Pyongyang’s two children’s palaces. Under the leadership of ‘The Great Leader’ these were built to allow children to practice a range of extra-curricular activities for free, from needlework to accordion playing. As we were led around the classrooms, the children smiled at us like little mechanical robots. "Every day 5,000 students come here and learn for free," Ms. Lee chirped, again trying to impress us with large numbers. There was no doubting the enormity of this ‘palace’, but if there were really 5,000 learning students behind the many closed doors, they were certainly the quietest and most well-behaved children I’ve ever had the pleasure of venturing near. Before leaving we were treated to an ‘impromptu’ theatrical performance of music, singing, acting and gymnastics. So professional was the performance, it was hard to believe that they only practiced after school............
.........to be continued
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