A WEEK IN NORTH KOREA
Words, photos and film by Adam Baidawi
An infinitesimally small amount is known about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We know it has a population of 25 million people – roughly the same as our own. We know it as one of the world’s most withdrawn, repressive and corrupt regimes, thrust into existence at the end of the Second World War by its patriarch, Kim Il-sung. We know the nation’s founder quickly isolated the country internationally and introduced mass population controls with dissenters disappearing to mysterious, rural ‘re-education’ camps. Or worse.
We also know the Kim dynasty was passed down to Kim Jong-il, who started the country’s mafia-style drugs and weapons trades, and hardened his late father’s vice-like grip on a propaganda-covered population.
And we know that the family’s reign lives on through Kim Jong-un, a man whose Byongjin policy equally favours economic growth and nuclear armament.
But, beyond this, beyond the zany, trashy list-based articles, shaky-cam underground documentaries and ludicrous Seth Rogen films, North Korea remains one of the world’s most mysterious cultural aberrations.
Happily, this particular mysterious cultural aberration can be visited.
After you take an Air Koryo flight from Beijing, after you sit through an hour of propaganda/in-flight entertainment and eat a questionable burger, after your bags and body and laptop and phone are individually – and painstakingly – searched, you’re in Pyongyang. And you’re on a bus.
Here, you meet your minders. We have two.
Ms Kim is short and sweet with a little head of perfectly straight hair. In her 30s, she has a cadence identical to that of a telemarketer and carries a messy itinerary folder with her at all times. She’s been taking foreigners around the DPRK for a few years.
Brawny, kinda-scary Mr Lee is a little younger and newer to the tourism game. He has a square face and the admirable suggestion of a moustache. He puts his sunglasses on the back of his neck when he’s not wearing them. Though his English is poor, Mr Lee makes himself known over the next few days by habitually controlling me in public squares, guiding me with a stiff arm.
“We want to make this trip very successful and pleasant, so please don’t do anything unusual,” says Ms Kim over the bus loudspeaker. We’re driving down a barren, flat road to Pyongyang’s city centre. There doesn’t seem to be any other traffic.
Ms Kim explains that the country’s citizens are in the midst of a “70-day battle”. Not fighting, she adds, just working very hard.
“We are going to fix our food problems. People are working harder – later at night, earlier in the morning.”
Just before our arrival, the UN imposed sanctions on Pyongyang – most notably on its coal industry – crippling the trade economy. A 70-day battle seems an apt description.
This is our first hint of North Korea’s all- encompassing Juche ideology. It emphasises self-reliance and autonomy, but conveniently, true Juche can only be fulfilled with the populace subordinate to a single, sacred leader.
This philosophy was crafted, refined and masterfully put into place by the late Kim Il-sung, who, in passing, was crowned the DPRK’s Eternal President. And Kim used Juche as the foundation of dominance he and his lineage have since held over North Korea.
The preservation of Juche, at all times, is imperative to the obedient, nation-building functionality of the country. It’s why carrying religious texts or proselytising is a severe offense in the DPRK.
Nobody warns you that Pyongyang is immaculately, unwaveringly clean. Around every corner, it seems, are towering, bronze- kissed monuments to leaders past, present and eternal. Pyongyang is modern. There are skyscrapers. Trams. A subway. They’re all real. They’re all wholly functional. There’s no ‘aha!’ Truman Show moment. At least, not yet.
This is a capital city of elites – those who (or whose forebears) have paid their dues to the Kim regime. But most of all, it’s a city of innumerable, superlative landmarks.
We settle in to one of those landmarks – the Yanggakdo Hotel. We’re told we’re not to leave the hotel, at any point, without our guides. Even so, it’d be an exercise in futility, since the Yanggakdo sits on an island, removed from the capital. Removed from its people.
I’m here, ostensibly, to run the annual Pyongyang Marathon. The race has been open to foreigners for a few years now. I considered it part self-improvement project (read: time off the Marlboro Golds) and part cover (believe it or not, journalists and photographers aren’t warmly embraced by the Kim regime). It seemed a worthwhile exercise – we’re to run four 10km laps around the capital, taking in its sights and its citizens from an intimate vantage point.
The morning of the race, I stand with hundreds of foreign amateur runners in the belly of the May Day stadium – with a capacity of 150,000, it’s supposedly the world’s largest. In black-on-black, my bib number, 67, is the only identifying mark I wear. Curiously, the bib has a sponsor on the front. Waiting there, among a throng of adrenaline-chasing tourists and a sea of selfie sticks, I can’t help but think: I came to Pyongyang for this?
We walk out on to the athletics track – the start of a lavish opening ceremony, cheered on by 40,000 clapping locals. It feels grand. It feels Olympic. You quickly learn that everything in Pyongyang does. I miss the start of the race while I wedge energy gels into my underwear.
Unwinding into the first lap, I take in the city. Smiling locals line the streets – children, parents, grandparents, soldiers. And all gladly accept the offer of a sweaty high-five.
Two laps in and I’ve clocked my fastest half-marathon, ever – a not-totally-awful 1hr 55min. Shortly after, the professional racers overtake. First, it’s a wave of lean, long-limbed Africans, their graceful gait a blistering and obvious indictment on our amateur shuffles. Then, a throng of North Koreans whizz by. They’re shorter, stouter, with powerful thighs, and eyes trained only at the horizon.
Twenty-four kilometres in, with aches and spasms zigzagging up my miserable legs, oxygen scantly filtering through my Marlboro-weakened lungs, I notice a solider standing over a young boy, screaming at him. The boy’s no taller than my knee. The two lock eye contact. The boy, stubborn and petulant, doesn’t look down, maintaining his stern gaze with the military man.
After three laps, marshals attempt to guide me back towards the stadium, insisting that I can’t finish under the imposed four-hour limit. Bullshit. I ignore the opportunity of an early finish. With 36 kilometres down and a mere six to go, a government-official- manned minibus pulls into my path and swallows me up. I argue – pointlessly – that there are still 35 minutes until the actual cut- off time. They explain that they want the closing ceremony to be punctual. Of course they do. Still, a bitter rage swells in my chest.
I soon learn that another runner – another foreigner – has had a far worse day. An Ethiopian professional runner, who’d led the entire event, entered the stadium for his final 400 metres, only to be led the wrong way around the track by the guide car. The momentary confusion was enough for the second-placed runner – a North Korean – to seize the opportunity and open up an unassailable lead into the final stretch. The race was run.
Back at the Yanggakdo, I can only bring myself to shower and collapse into a heap on the bed. I stare at the yellowed, likely bugged ceiling of the three-star room. I fall into a deep, disoriented, paranoia-laced sleep.
For the first time in years, I have nightmares.
Is someone at my door? Were those North Koreans really walking into the train station? Were they actors? Do they know I’m a writer? Will Big Lee rip through the paper-thin walls of my hotel room and strangle me with his huge, hardened hands?
I jolt awake at about 10pm, limp over to the 18th floor lifts and head down into the belly of the ageing hotel. I pass the karaoke area and bowling alley, turn down an offer from a fresh-faced female staffer for a round of table tennis, and make a beeline for the ‘massage parlour’, as the hotel staff refer to it. Nationalistic wartime-era music videos play in the waiting room, showing missile launches, smiling Kims and the obedient, admiring masses. The masseuse laughs and marvels at the hair on my face and body, giggling loudly enough to drown out the music from the nearby television. I sink into the massage table and fall asleep.
“What do you think of the girls in Pyongyang? The traffic girls are very nice," says Mr Lee.
We’re on another bus. With time to kill. Lee’s chatting to Danny – a Melburnian twentysomething who is, quite obviously, apathetic to the allure of Pyongyang traffic girls specifically. Women generally.
Lee’s explaining that he wants to travel to Sydney in a few years.
“Do you know where to find the sexy girls in Sydney?” he asks Danny.
We drive for long stretches – traversing hours of barren, pothole-littered highway.
We learn a lot about Lee in this time. He’s watched Speed and Mission: Impossible as part of his English classes.
It’s clear Lee enjoys the long drive – an opportunity to probe the foreigners, Americans especially, with genuine curiosity. “Mr Rick, is it true that in the United States people walk up and just shoot each other?”
It’s also how we gather our local knowledge, that is, the official position as to what local knowledge we should and shouldn’t know.
Information is drip-fed, question by question. There are banks here. Interest can be earned. Most families opt to keep their cash at home – like they always have. Citizens are paid in crops (or rations) and money, based on their level of work. Farming and labour work is mandatory for most North Koreans. Ms Kim, for instance, will spend three weeks planting seeds after we depart Pyongyang.
As we pass a group of shabby, dirty-faced North Koreans wearily sifting through rubbish on a hill, Ms Kim hastily directs our attention to the front of the bus.
“I applied to the housing ministry – we’ve just moved into a beautiful 18th oor apartment,” she says, prompted by a desire to distract. “My friends say that I’m so lucky.”
As we leave Pyongyang and move beyond the monuments, public transport and clean, well-dressed citizens, the gap between the Haves and Have Nots becomes evident.
Income and wealth inequality is a relatively new construct in the DPRK. While the residents of the capital take opulent, chandelier-accented train journeys to their desirable government jobs, most still don’t have access to hot water. Regularly seen in Lee’s big, bear paw of a hand is a smartphone that looks to be running Android. He says he thinks they’re imported, not from China, but Egypt. It cost around $200 and has rudimentary cameras and phone games. Lee’s high score in a DPRK version of Temple Run – in which you outrun a bear – is 774,235.
Lee’s lucky to have a phone. Only three million North Koreans own one. That, coincidentally, is Pyongyang’s population. The inequality is a sensitive issue – a point furthered by mixed messages from Ms Kim.
“We cannot say that the people’s living standards in the country are lower or that the people’s living standards in the city are higher. Because it depends how hard they work.”
We visit the regional city of Pyongsong, taking a tour of its best primary school. We sit through an hour of carefully choreographed student shows – ballet performances, musical recitals, English lessons, table tennis showdowns. It’s impressive.
Between each, we’re guided through the school’s suspiciously darkened hallways. There, every few metres, sit large, graphic propaganda paintings. American general Douglas MacArthur is depicted in chains, being beaten by a grinning North Korean soldier. Elsewhere, American citizens burn in a medieval-style inferno; North Korean families witness and cheer as the ‘bastard’ Yanks, those with pointy fingers, long noses and blonde hair, are enslaved. The last piece sits adjacent to the ‘nature’ classroom, where 10-year-olds are taught about the solar system.
“They’re pretty serious posters,” says one of the Americans. Ms Kim, clutching her folder, looks at him with a schoolgirl smirk.
“This is the DPRK.”
The days that follow stretch into each other, the tour adopting a familiar rhythm.
We visit schools, bridges, dams, farms, museums, cemeteries, near-identical souvenir stores. We lay flowers at statues of the eternal leader. We eat lukewarm meals of fish and eggs and rice and soup. The restaurants are always empty.
What becomes clear is how efficient this machine is – and how devoid of hope the citizens are. Much of life here has remarkably unremarkable parallels with our own – think bowling alleys and clothes shopping and taxis and piano recitals. But it’s impossible to ignore the large swathe of daily existence that’s shrouded in the Kims’ shadow. Propaganda shouts from all aspects – outside schools, on vans, on wall-mounted televisions that face you in restaurants. Anything that could counteract or rebut government messaging – say, for instance, textbooks, magazines or the internet – is banned.
This feat, this domination of information flowow, might be the most incredible accomplishment of the regime. It’s impressive. And upsetting. It’s enough to make the most hardened anti-interventionist wish for a US-led ‘liberation’ – this time, maybe even without the grammatical marks.
The Kims have erased history and created their own. They’ve eradicated the concept of Free Time. Here, body and mind are mere vessels of the regime.
It’s not that the population is being overtly suppressed. It’s that the concept of dissent doesn’t exist. These people aren’t evil. These people aren’t weak. They aren’t even angry. Their tragedy is simply not knowing.
Visiting the DMZ – that invisible, military- manned demarcation between North and South – we peer into South Korean territory for the first time. Soldiers on either side stare, stoically, at each other. As voiceless as the soldiers may be, both sides take turns blasting propaganda. As we venture around the border, K-Pop echoes up from the south, matched by nationalistic orchestral pieces from the north.
We watch as a tourist group files on to a balcony on the southern side of the DMZ – our first visual contact with the ‘outside’ world in nearly a week. South Korean tour guides routinely explain to their groups that the infrastructure to the north, that is, where we’re standing, is merely a façade – that there’s every likelihood we’re actually paid stand-ins.
We wave to the tour group, 50 metres and a country away. A lone woman wearing a pink hoodie waves back. A South Korean soldier marches up to her and points a finger at her chest. Nobody else waves.
The final day of our tour is a national holiday, celebrating the birthday of Kim Il-Sung.
Suited, and sporting ties, we drive to the heart of the city and enter the Kims’ lavish mausoleum grounds. Side-by-side with tourists, mourners and foreign dignitaries, our bodies are meticulously sanitised as we enter the opulent, marble-lined building that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build.
A platform with revolving brush heads cleans the dirt from our shoes. We then walk on to a kilometre-long series of achingly slow travelators, Ms Kim instructing us not to hold the sides, cross our arms, talk loudly or put our hands in our pockets. We pass hundreds of portraits and photos of the DPRK’s deceased leaders. A sombre, specially commissioned song, ‘Kim Il-sung Will Live Forever’, trails us into the bowels of the building. Finally, we pass through a wind tunnel, air blasting our bodies at every angle. Bodies and minds now purified, we enter a grand chamber.
The impossibly lengthy, dark room is lit only by an eerie red hue emitted from the ceiling. And there, perfectly suspended in state in a crystal sarcophagus, is Kim Il-sung. The chorus of the song seems to resonate a little louder here, its crescendos echoing and bouncing to the high reaches of the ceiling.
We bow three times as we pass around the Eternal President’s body. We’re then led into an identical room where Kim Jong-il, his son, now lies in rest. We wander around a museum stuffed with mementos of their rule. Photos show Kim Il-sung with Castro and Assad, Arafat, and Guevara, and even former US president Carter. In glass-fronted cabinets sit medals, honorary doctorates and souvenirs from countries and regimes as far-flung as Portugal and Peru, Syria, Mali and beyond.
As we take the Eternal Travelator out, passing red-eyed soldiers and government workers, we watch as limousines pull up, each car bearing flags – some of the Middle East, some of Europe and the UN. On this day, everyone pays their respects.
The US could win a war with North Korea in a matter of weeks. But the pain brought to Seoul would be far, far too high. The DPRK arsenal, we know, is one thing that’s not a smokescreen of propaganda. For now, the regime has little to worry about. The most important war has already been won. Here, at least, Kim Il-sung will live forever.
“What did you think, Mr Adam” Asks Mr Lee as we stand outside the Mausoleum.
I reply that they possess an incredible love for their leader – and his predecessors.
“Do you love your leader in your country?”
I explain that Australia has churned through four ‘Great Leaders’ in the past six years. Mr Lee goes beet red and laughs the loudest I’ll hear him laugh all week.
“I really like you, Mr Adam.”
That evening, standing underneath the Juche Tower – a monument dedicated to the DPRK’s founding ideology – we watch a breathtaking, 12-minute-long reworks display in honour of the Eternal President. North Korean families crowd around, dressed in their nest clothes, taking in every explosion of colour. Everything is exactly as it should be – the grand finale of a grand show.
The final bus ride to the train station allows us a last chance to inhale Pyongyang.
So clean. A grown-up Disneyland. Pyongyang also takes a final moment to inhale you, too – a final smattering of goofy waves and curious stares. By now, we’ve become part of a symbiotic zoo; two alien attractions staring at each other, wholly unable to interact.
Looking out of the tour bus, most days, you can spot a handful of people rushing to or from work. It’s a wonderful, modest moment. A tiny crack in the veneer. In my week in Pyongyang, I saw it maybe a dozen times: North Koreans breaking out into an instantly relatable sprint – hair ruffled, face reddened, they’d chase down a bus, a tram. Without fail, they’d always catch it. They’d always make it. In Pyongyang, you always do.