My tour guide, Mr Li, asks “Is Australia divided into a North and South as well?”. Resisting the urge to make a joke about the Northern Territory, I tell him that it is not. These were the type of naïve, yet always cordially couched questions about everyday Australian banalities that I fielded during my visit to North Korea, a nation of 23 million prisoners – physically and psychologically. But it is important to separate the regime from the perpetually violated – yet often still jovial, and always inquisitive – people who have the misfortune of living in the last truly rogue state.
Arid land, emaciated husks of livestock (their owners not dissimilar), and a myriad other abject miseries fly past the window of the 17:27 to Pyongyang. Local farmers stare wide-eyed, some wave at perhaps the first foreign person they have ever seen.
“Thirty minutes until arrival”.
The “city of flat soil”, the literal translation of Pyongyang, is by far the most gentrified in the nation, yet the bleak hopelessness which defines rural life doesn’t ebb when you arrive on urban ground; it is simply traded for an existence – perhaps even crueller – among total artificiality, a state of limbo in which one knows they are imprisoned while acquiescing with their captors, lest they be sent to one of the North’s notorious ‘aquariums’. Pyongyang is only for those who are, relatively speaking, in on the joke – those who know that the outside world at least exists; those who know that Kim Jong Il didn’t, in fact, hit eleven holes-in-one the first time he picked up a golf club. These are mostly political elites, families with a history of loyalty to the regime, and polyglot tour guides, Mr. Li included.
Outside residents are prevented from travelling anywhere near the capital by checkpoints littered along the inbound roads. From afar, Pyongyang almost passes as an average city, mutatis mutandis. Pastel-shaded apartment buildings occupy the outskirts of the city, dated — but not offensively so — glass structures cast shadows over downtown, and spotless public squares are plentiful. On the ground, however, Pyongyang’s brittle veneer of moderation shatters. A visit to the ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’ sets the tone for my trip. A palatial structure, captured US army vehicles from the Korean War proudly accent the sides of a vast granite courtyard leading to the entrance, with towering bronze statues guiding the way.
My camera is collected and I head in, closely followed by security, to learn the truths about the Korean War (after bowing to the statue of Kim Il Sung in the lobby, of course). A short film is played first, detailing how the ‘South Korean puppets’ and the ‘American imperialists’ were the true aggressors in 1953. Leading me through various exhibits reflecting the same sentiment, the female guide has her script rehearsed to a tee, musing matter-of-factly on the might of the DPRK and the ‘absolute atomization’ of their enemies. She clearly doesn’t believe what she’s saying, and that makes two of us. There were indeed atrocities committed by both sides during the Korean War – the Sinchon massacre comes to mind – but there is no mention of any wrongdoing on the North’s part whatsoever.
The final exhibit I am guided through is gauche even by North Korean standards. A rather realistic jungle setting plays home to various recreations of battle scenes with wax soldiers and replica weapons. Indomitable Koreans, faces contorted in roars of battle, bayonet Yankee chests. A slaughtered American lies mangled, faux crows pecking at bloodied eye sockets. Lovely.
Exiting through the gift shop, I am easily persuaded to purchase a copy of the rather presumptuously titled Japan’s War Crimes Past and Present for my library.
Militaristic propaganda is no less brash in public. Driving (or cycling, as the overwhelming portion of the population is wont to) through any street in Pyongyang, you will see painted on bus stops the images of Korean fists pummelling the US Capitol. Buildings are dressed in screens showing missile launches, and there are three-metre flags on every second street light, no exaggeration.
This particular evening happens to be New Year’s Eve, so Mr. Li and I make the pilgrimage to Kim Il Sung Square, but not before trading swigs of local ginseng liquor and becoming exponentially funnier to one another – he, edifying me with his arsenal of obscenities in Chinese; I, telling some story or other about Australia. One gets the impression it was one of the very few moments he gets to genuinely laugh — a temporary prison break. New year’s eve in Pyongyang is no mean event. Floating into Kim Il Sung Square, we are greeted by a hundred thousand people chatting, chuckling and generally having a good time.
I weave my way to the front of the square, where ice carvings of nuclear missiles, among other things, stand proud. Children frolic and laugh, their youth the fleeting ticket to ignorant, innocent bliss before they become aware of their imprisonment. Murmurs grow louder, my cue to rendezvous with Mr. Li for the countdown. Ducking and dodging through the crowds – and receiving a fair share of curious stares for my trouble – a tap on my shoulder halts me. A slight, short, fresh-faced female extends her hand to me with a sheepish smile. Her dress – the greatcoat likely the heaviest part of her – gives her away as a soldier, off duty to celebrate the evening. I’m struck, and understandably a tad suspicious, but I humour her hand regardless. She lowers her head an inch, and with a chirpy ‘Happy New Year’, walks away. I am greeted no fewer than five more times on my journey back to Mr. Li – two children and three soldiers. Simulacrums of soldiers crushing Americans are plastered across the city. For all my well-wishers know, I could be one of them.
Mr. Li, upon my return, hands me a bottle of an unidentified liquor with a snake floating in it and tells me to knock it back when the clock strikes twelve. I am in no state to refuse. The year departs, snake coats my palette, and a shower of fireworks ignites the sky. My initially cautious, reticent demeanour abated by fermented grain and Mr. Li’s warm smile, I jest to him that a particularly wayward firework might be a missile. He laughs.
The light-heartedness swiftly cedes to a formal tenor the next morning. I am to join the ranks of very few other Westerners in having met the President of North Korea. I’m not talking about Kim Jong Un. The incumbent Kim, you see, is not the president – merely ‘Marshall of the Workers Party’. Kim Il Sung, Un’s grandfather, retains the title of President, almost 25 years after his death — a ‘necrocracy’, as Christopher Hitchens once put it. A short drive takes us to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum where the President and his son Kim Jong Il lie in state. Mr. Li, suit pressed, hair slick and face solemn, briefs me on what is to come, although his words do not do justice to what I am about to experience, and nor do mine. He straightens my tie, and we advance to the North Korea’s Mecca.
Exploring Beijing in the days prior to my arrival, I was taken aback by the grandeur of Mao’s mausoleum on the southern end of Tiananmen Square, with its stone statues, metal detectors and guard of austere soldiers. Believe me when I say that Beijing’s efforts hold not even the ghost of a candle to those of Pyongyang. Entering through two solid bronze doors, I am stripped of my coat and gloves by the concierge. Proceeding through two airport-grade metal detectors, I am thoroughly frisked by a soldier. He lifts my hand and scrutinises a cut on my knuckle for no less than five full seconds.
We continue on in silence – talking is not allowed anywhere within the complex – along what may well be the longest travelator on the planet, a five-minute end-to-end journey lined by oak walls. Locals precede and tail us, calm – for now. Sorted into quad-file lines, we turn left. The immense size of the room I have just entered almost brings me to a standstill. White marble underfoot and gilded columns lining the walls, we stride up to rather bizarre, quasi-modern 3D holograms of the great men and bow thrice. There is no loitering; lines are kept moving at all times and I am hurried on. Mr. Li whispers to me that we will now see the leaders. We are readied to stand in their presence by submitting to an electric shoe-cleaner and walk-through personnel dust blower, a doorway with concentrated jets of air blowing inward.
We enter a large square room, each corner manned by a soldier at attention, dark but for a soft, red glow engulfing the pedestalled crystal coffin in the centre. The President lies within, suited and draped with a red flag to his breast. He looks rather spritely for a man who has been deceased for a quarter century, his healthy sheen courtesy of annual jaunts to Russia for embalming and upkeep. An agonized shriek pierces the silence as a local woman, tears flowing, prostrates herself in front of the pedestal.
The man to my right muffles a cry, others dab tears away with handkerchiefs. The line flows regardless; we bow three times and shuffle on to an identical room, repeating our praises for General Kim Jong Il, who passed away in 2011. The day of reverence concludes in the adjacent museum, displaying the awards and accolades presented to father and son by various institutions, domestic and international.
An occasional muffled wail interrupts. One wonders from what vein the overly theatrical displays of emotion are sourced – are people simply trying to appease those they are with and keep up appearances, or is the grief a ‘genuine’ feeling, synthesized by the lifelong indoctrination and cult of personality that dominates every aspect of life in North Korea? Either way, it is further indicative of the pervasiveness of the omnipresent state and leader’s cults of personality on the minds of its helpless subjects.
Farewelling Mr. Li at Pyongyang Station, my North Korean odyssey concludes with an overnight stay in Sinuiju, a town recently opened to visitors and located a stone’s throw from the Chinese border town of Dandong. I am toured around what is said to be the most prestigious kindergarten in the country, and yet another disparity between the state narrative and reality rears its head. The head of the kindergarten pulls a folder off the shelf and invites me to look some drawings students have done. Sketches of Korean youths punching bloodied Americans, missiles and guns fill the pages. What a surprise.
I am escorted to an impressive auditorium, where my minder and I fill the only seats out of the 400-odd available. Students of the school trot out, spiritedly dancing and singing along to patriotic numbers, including everyone’s favourite ‘Ode to Kim Jong Un’. A troupe of young girls perform soccer tricks and wave the North Korean flag around for the grand finale. Everything is choreographed to perfection – a fitting metaphor for the veneer of the country as a whole.
With the show over, I am invited to meet the performers. They appear far more invested in my camera or in touching my hair and giggling than they do with blowing me to smithereens as ‘their’ art would suggest. A search of my luggage and camera sees me out of North Korea, so easily do I cross the border at which many have perished attempting to flee.
North Korea is a prison. All are imprisoned physically, their passports – if they have one – held by the state and rarely permitted to be used, the overhanging threat of labour camps for those caught trying to flee. Individuals with some form of knowledge about the outside world – usually those in Pyongyang, people like Mr. Li – face further imprisonment in artificial opulence, forced to kowtow to the demands that come with the rampant narcissism of the regime, made on pain of death to worship the very men who bestowed this abjection upon them. It is more than likely that most in Pyongyang feel a helpless guilt when they try to reconcile the famished, tortured rural population living in desolate misery with the hundreds of millions of dollars squandered on marble and gold buildings to fill with more propaganda in their city.
Propaganda which does not in any way reflect the people or their attitude to outsiders. This holds true for civilians and military, young and old. The people of North Korea are spirited, genial and curious, despite their unenviable situation. Do not turn a blind eye to the blatant crimes against humanity perpetuated daily; the worst crimes in history have been aided by ignorance and inaction.Change begins only with awareness and understanding. And when one is aware of the difference between the regime and the public – oppressors and oppressed – then one understands why change is imperative.
Jasper Burgess is an intern in the office of Aaron Stonehouse and a student of International Relations and History at the University of Western Australia