Day 4 (17 April 2016)
Another day had started on my tour of North Korea and a lovely breakfast was already waiting for me by the time I got to the large bright ballroom of Hyangsan Hotel where guests took their meals.
Waiting for us too at the ballroom were our guides A and B. Having spent almost two and a half days with them I was starting to feel quite comfortable around them.
But something ominous seemed to have happened that morning. A our female guide went around rather discreetly to each of her charges at the breakfast table and asked if anyone had left any newspaper shreds in the bin.
M, the curious and enthusiastic elderly American gentleman, as expected asked her what it was all about. But also as expected A kept her mouth absolutely shut on it. M later tried to get some information on this from B our male guide but his mouth was firmly shut too.
We guessed that the newspaper involved were either North Korean and had a picture of one of their great leaders on it, or foreign. If the former, then the offender should have known that tearing up a great leader’s face was wilful desecration and a heinous sin. If the latter, then the offender might be considered to be trying to pass on foreign propaganda to lead astray some innocent North Korean soul.
We made our way back to Pyongyang after breakfast. During the drive, we got to speak with A some more. A was a most vocal defender of the North Korean regime. Not that we tried to turn her against her beliefs, but she seemed to feel the need to make us understand that her country’s socialist system was a good one and in any case good for herself and her fellow countrymen. And even if we still could not agree with the system, the official position was apparently that we should agree to disagree and respect the country’s freedom to pursue happiness in the way it deemed fit based on its particular circumstance and culture.
I really do not see why A would oppose her government. Her life seemed pretty good. Even if she was not especially wealthy I believe that her life was definitely a lot more comfortable than that of anyone else living outside of Pyongyang. She received a really good education, had a wonderful job and lived in a home in a nice looking building in a nice area of Pyongyang (she showed us) granted by the government because she and her husband had worked hard and performed at their jobs. She and her family were very well taken care of by her government.
A viewed the south on the other hand with quite a fair amount of disdain. She believed that the south had abandoned its own Korean culture and was trying to be like America. Obviously subscribing entirely to her government’s description, A really thought that Seoul looked like another New York and she seemed quite disgusted with that. But her observations made me think about her hometown and wonder if it was then alright to build a Korean city looking like Stalin’s Moscow on steroids.
I really did not know how to feel about A’s beliefs about the south except that I knew how mistaken she was. It was very apparent that she did not know how much Korean culture, and I do not include K-Pop in this, had become well known across the world because of the south and its entertainment and tourism industries. She was unaware that so many of the south’s historical monuments had been restored and/or preserved and proudly promoted to the world. She was oblivious to the goodwill in Korean culture built up beyond the Korean peninsula through the south’s efforts. Countless people in for instance China, North Korea’s benefactor, enjoyed Korean culture and this was never because North Korea was such a good friend or anything that they had done. But can anyone blame her for not knowing all that?
Nevertheless, despite the somewhat negative sentiment about their southern sister, there was still at least some desire for reunification in the north. The way that the north proposed for this to take place sounded simple and reasonable enough: the two sides should reunify as a federation with either side continuing with its existing system and way of life. I secretly smirked when I heard this however. Without even going into all the complicated political, social and economic implications that will arise from reunification, I have no faith at all that the two sides will ever see eye to eye on even the most basic of questions. Where should the capital be? What should the federal government look like? What would Kim’s status be in the reunified country? I also notice that all of the federations in the world today consist of states that more or less share similar if not identical political ideals and beliefs. The north and south share nothing except race and traditional culture and those alone are not going to bind them together as a political entity.
I wonder if the federation idea is a serious one to begin with. In fact I am not sure at all that the country’s leadership genuinely wants reunification. How many of their people would still want them and the system they govern by after having seen what the south had achieved? I remember reading before the trip a book written by a former British diplomat who had been in Pyongyang for a couple of years. He thought that any North Korean elite who might have harboured any dream of reforming the country would only need to be shown the plight of the Eastern European communist-era elite post-Cold War to kill off that dream.
But I do also note that there is always the bogeyman in the west, together with its cronies in the south, that can be presented as the obstacle to reunification.
What awaited us back in Pyongyang was I believe a real treat for our American group members. We were taken to see the USS Pueblo, a US spy ship captured by the North Koreans.
On 11 January 1968, the USS Pueblo left Japan with orders to among others gather signal and electronic intelligence from North Korea. On 23 January, the ship was approached by a North Korean submarine chaser. The North Koreans claim that the ship was in North Korean territorial waters whereas the US insists that they were in fact on the high seas. The submarine chaser was later joined by four torpedo boats, two fighters and a second submarine chaser. The North Koreans also opened fire on the USS Pueblo killing one crew member in the process. The USS Pueblo was eventually captured together with its entire crew. The North Koreans released the crew at Panmunjom just two days before Christmas that same year. This was achieved after the US had given the North Koreans an apology, an admission that they had been spying and an assurance that they would not spy on North Korea again. The ship however was never released but retained as a trophy and, I must say effective, propaganda material.
The whole USS Pueblo incident was obviously a PR victory for the North Korean leadership, at least in its own country, as was clear to me at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. This is a palatial museum built with the little ship and all the other military vehicles captured from the US during the Korean War showcased outside the main building as evidence of North Korean might and military success against the evil imperialists.
The first thing that we had to do when we entered the museum building was bow to a statue of the first Kim. This was unexpected but I was already beginning to feel numb about bowing to inanimate objects by then. But the theme of the museum and the presence of so many Americans in the group made the bowing this time feel like there was a special meaning to it.
The museum building looked really large but I am sure that we did not see most of it. We were taken very quickly through the exhibits by the very eloquent young lady soldier who was our guide and everything went by in something of a blur. I do remember watching a video on the Korean War based on North Korea’s perspective though. Of course the evil imperialist US started the war for some utterly evil and selfish reasons!
M asked A about how North Koreans felt about Americans. I overheard the conversation and what I took away from it was that North Koreans did not hate Americans in general but all the same they were angry with the American government for always trying to bring them down. It later struck me that the North Koreans still seemed to be blaming the US for just about all of their problems except that I am still hazy about why they thought the US would want to spend so much effort for so long just to compromise one single nation in the world.
After the rather politically-charged morning, we drove towards Nampho to marvel at North Korea’s engineering prowess. The West Sea Barrage was built west of Nampho across the mouth of the Taedong River. It is an 8-kilometre long system of dams which closed off the river from the Yellow Sea and took the country five years and massive amounts of resources to build. Oh and obviously the barrage could not have been completed without the genius and leadership of Kim Il Sung and the will and perseverance of the North Korean people. I can however definitely believe that the North Koreans were a very diligent and determined people.
A was clearly very proud of the barrage and was not shy about showing her pride in the structure and how it was completed wholly by North Koreans. She proudly told us that the Taedong used to cause floods in Pyongyang but the construction of this barrage solved the problem. She then asked us if there was anything like this in our countries, i.e. whether we had anything so wondrous in our countries. I thought that that was a pretty strange question to ask but I doubt that she would have had much access if at all to information about engineering feats outside of North Korea.
Having sufficiently impressed us with their engineering prowess, it was time to also impress us with their social-engineering prowess. We ended the day of sightseeing at the Chongsanri Cooperative Farm. The purpose of this cooperative was to pool together the manpower and resources of the families involved to work the farms and they would then share the harvests based on family size and contributions to producing those crops. Someone asked how they kept track of how much contribution was made by each family. The local guide replied that they just knew.
The cooperative was also a self sufficient settlement with its own flats, schools, medical services and anything else the farmers might need to keep them happy. The families living there were of course eternally grateful to their great leaders for this wonderful creation. The local guide shared this love and respect for their great leaders with us by getting us to present a bouquet of flowers, at our own expense, to a statue of Kim Il Sung (with attendant peasants no less) and then bowing to it.
It was at this farm where I realised that probably every place we went to had detailed records of our visit. Before our bus departed the local guide came looking for A with some document and I heard the former uttering my name. Now to have someone in this country saying my name like that was a little scary for me. A then appeared to verify some information about me for the local guide and then we went on our way. I asked if anything was up but of course no one gave me any answer.
The visit to the cooperative farm made me wonder even more about the people who did not live in the cities or on model farms like this one. I had read about people who were starving in the countryside but if they existed I do not believe at all that they would be allowed to appear in front of me.
I think the most relaxing part of the day for me was at lunch which we took in Pyongyang. We were treated to a lovely meal of bulgogi and the absolutely delicious raengmyon. I wished that I could have had a second helping of raengmyon but I was not sure that it would be appropriate to ask for more food.
This day had felt like an especially politically charged one for me. Although I could not say that I felt uncomfortable it still felt a little strange to be part of a tour like this. Then again one really needs to keep a very open mind when visiting North Korea.