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North Korea is like the urban legend of the Japanese soldier still fighting WWII out on some lonely island in the remote Pacific. In his mind, it’s all still very real for him. When he starts shooting at us, then it’s real for us, too. At first I didn’t know if they were even going to let me in the country, something about journalists not allowed in on tourist visas. That’s the first time I’ve ever been accused of journalism. Them’s fightin’ words. Obviously they’ve never read my work. Finally I convinced them I was just a blogger, so apparently that’s okay, heh heh. But the plot only thickens, of course, in direct proportion as the prices rise. You can only enter the country on guided tours, and ‘guided’ here means just that…guides, and lots of them. Tourists are not only NOT allowed to travel independently, but are rarely even allowed out of sight of the guides assigned to them, not hard when the assigned hotel is on an island, I guess. I was pretty skeptical, frankly more interested in notching my 145th country on my bedpost than in getting all cozy with the commies.
It’s not as restrictive as it sounded, in fact, mostly just pricey, especially for someone like me who almost always travels independently. The number of Western tourists for the whole year, in fact, is about equal to the number of Western tourists who enter Bangkok every hour of every day of every week of every year. There are more Chinese than that, though, they with something of a special relationship with North Korea. The occasion for my particular “mini-tour” was the ‘Arirang’ Mass Games, which are recognized as the largest choreographed spectacle of its kind, something like the opening to the Beijing Olympics on some really good steroids, them not me.
Approximately half of the spectacle occurs on the playing field itself, mostly of marching-band style, though much more intricate and grandiose, and ultimately a combination of history, choreography, gymnastics, circus tricks, and fireworks. The other half occurs in the bleachers opposite us spectators, which suggests a whole different dimension to the typical playing-field tableau. This is an elaborate card stunt, of course, in which each seat and slot is used in its capacity for playing pixel, producing color and texture, each person holding up cards on cue for massive mosaics. If it all sounds corny, as it may well be in one sense, in another it’s really quite spectacular. Still this, other spectacles, and tourist sights in general, are not the reason I travel. I travel because I want to know how the rest of the world lives. I want to hear their songs and their stories; see their homes and their hovels; feel their pleasures and pains, at least vicariously.
If nothing else, Communism stops the clock. I’ve seen it over and over and over as countries “come out”—or not—from the “iron curtain” of Communism—Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, etc. The countries behind those curtains are usually time-warps of the past, frozen in glass. However thoroughly they may distribute wealth, they weren’t particularly good at creating it…or anything else. Whether that is due to lack of profit motive is debatable. Most artists I know aren’t too motivated by profit. Cuba is probably the best country to compare with North Korea, since these two are almost alone in any modern defense of communism with connections to the Soviet past. But the two are totally different. Where Havana is funky, even skuzzy, Pyongyang is squeaky clean, almost sterile. Where Havana has crumbling buildings—sometimes with quite decent digs inside, Pyongyang has decent modern sky-scraping apartment buildings, each with a little puddle of shrubbery on the balcony ledge outside, and hopefully some food in the cupboards.
Whenever I told anyone that I was going to North Korea, the response was unanimous. “Take some food; they don’t have any.” At a few hundred bucks a day you expect food, though, don’t you? And this is the best (read ‘most’) I’ve eaten in days, if not weeks, if not years, if not decades, three (very large) squares a day, buffets and hot pots, multi-course dinners and brew-pub draughts. To what extent any of this is available to the average North Korean I don’t know, probably not much, though certainly available to the few ex-pats and embassy crews and probably some Korean higher-ups. The surprising thing is that what little commerce is there is hardly visible, usually no more than a small sign outside to indicate what is inside, and that usually located on an upper floor with concrete steps leading up to it. Nothing seems organic, intuitive, or even especially logical. Nothing is more sacred in free enterprise than “location, location, and location,” and Irish pubs don’t hide themselves away in a corner up five flights of stairs. People don’t carve their initials on the bar here, either. There is no actual ‘bar’ in fact, just seats at a table in my elementary-school cafeteria.
The beer is good, though, and reasonably priced at 5RMB or .50EUR. I never saw an actual North Korean won, though prices are quoted in them. Is this the first virtual currency, merely a number without a piece of paper to back up its value? Sounds like “Haitian dollars” to me. The surprising thing is how pleasant the city is. I’ve often wondered what future cities—without cars—will be like. The day will come sooner or later. Will people kill themselves? Will people go “Mad Max” in search of gas? There is no one alive today who remembers a city without gas. This is probably the best clue, and almost worth the price of admission right there. This is a city built for living in, and if the atmosphere is a bit sterile, then that may not be too surprising in a city once almost destroyed be war. And where Havana is populated by an aging fleet of ‘50’s-era American honkers, Pyongyang is traversed by few if any vehicles, just a few trams and trolleys and the ‘Metro of Time’ (the old Berlin subway). It’s a trip, too, all puns intended, complete with chandeliers on the ceiling and ladies holding flags along the edge of the platform to signal trains. They won’t let me take their pictures.
The sights are pretty scarce, in fact, almost the only history that which has transpired since the war. In this scenario there are only two leaders, Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il, and their pictures are everywhere, including the lapels of every citizen. Their son and grandson has yet to make his appearance on the walls and bridges, but makes the rounds frequently in the popular media, of course, increasingly with his wife. The few newspapers that exist are full of slight and slander, especially toward the US and South Korea, and placed prominently on sign boards for citizens to read. That tells you something right there, sooo old-fashioned. But sights and sites are pretty much limited to war memorials and monuments to workers’ dignity. It certainly keeps the kids busy, they all dressed up in matching black pants and white shirt—apparently the national uniform—and busily working on the next socialist celebration on the schedule…cool.
Kids may be the key to the castle here. Everything seems geared to them in that sort of father-son relationship. For fun, besides the brew pubs and celebrations, there are amusement parks. There’s nothing like a Ferris wheel to get my blood flowing. But all in all Pyongyang is a rather pleasant city, though I hear the countryside is much more primitive and poorer. Still for me it offers valuable clues as to what a future city might be like, without all the cars…and the cult of personality, of course. That’s where North Korea shows its true colors, that and a certain missile program. I’d like to think that a few more tourists and some person-to-person contact might help alleviate some tension around the peninsula. Surely these people know that they’re the world’s last Communist state, don’t they? Don’t they?