The ghosts of Pyongyang

The Korean People’s Army put us on a bus and took us away. All I had were my clothes and my passport as I took a seat on the right and got comfortable for the ride to destination unknown.

This is a little like we’re going to prison, said the Frenchman to my left. Except prison buses don’t have seats covered with velour. Certainly not in North Korea.

Pretty side of town

We were banned from bringing virtually anything. Metal and liquids were out, watches were frowned on in case they had GPS locators inside, I left my belt behind to avoid the hassle. We had our passports checked and were scanned - subjected to close inspection - by metal detectors before boarding.

We waited half an hour in Kim Il-sung Square, that space in the heart of Pyongyang where a large portrait of the eternal president faces smaller paintings of Marx and Lenin, a space transformed into a bus terminal for the afternoon. In that time a Cuban military attache in full regalia, diplomatic figures, and representatives of the international news media had walked past.

It was the afternoon of February 16, the 70th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birth (officially) and the first major date on the North Korean calendar since his death in December. Word passed around that the destination was the palace, and there would be a military parade. A soldier sat three rows behind us.

The route was not the most direct available, instead we we drove past the prettiest buildings. The main road to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (the name changed that afternoon to reflect the fact Kim Jong-il’s body would soon be joining his father’s inside) is wide and long enough to be an airstrip but there was no traffic within two kilometres.

After a long but brisk walk from the bus, passing military hardware and unsmiling soldiers, we reached our vantage point, one of the balconies.  It was about 2.30pm, so the temperature was near the -3C maximum, but would soon drop. We found a place to stand that was mercifully out of the wind, generals to our left, aid workers and diplomats to our right, cameras in the pre-approved strategic locations, and waited.

Meet the Supreme Leader


Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un appeared. We strained our necks for a glimpse of his black overcoat, and the haircut that seems to deliberately emphasise the similarities in appearance with his grandfather. Kim Yong-nam, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and, according to some estimates, the most powerful person in the country, was with him. Kim Yong-nam made the speeches. Like his father before him, Kim Jong-un is a silent figurehead.

The parade began. Thousands of soldiers marched and chanted with hypnotic precision. Army, navy, air force. Men, women, children. Pledges of loyalty. Shouts. Aggression. Discipline. Perfect timing between thousands spread over a square kilometre of parade ground. Unity. We will defend you at the cost of our lives. Fireworks at three in the afternoon. Shells fire in the distance, echoes reverberate off the walls. Smoke drifts in the background, fading into the fog. Trucks roll by with missiles. Armoured personnel carriers drive in formation, numbered in order from one to nine.

This is the North Korea they want the world to see. The side of the country they are proud to show. Devoted, strong, healthy, with a military ready and willing to take on all comers. A nation united.

An army to roll over the cracks in society, and crush them.

Pyongyang is a city haunted. The ghosts of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il linger, manifesting themselves in portraits on buildings and in trains, on the breasts of North Korean citizens, in the nightly news. They are also present in more insidious ways, influencing after their deaths how people act, speak and think.

The feeling is pervasive, heightened on a frozen winter’s morning as we wind our way through skeletal trees to the crest of the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery. With encouragement from our guides, we line up, one of us walks forward and lays flowers at the headstone of Kim Jong-suk, wife of one supreme leader, mother to another and now grandmother to a third, and bow.

It is usually a rite of passage for foreign visitors to pay respects (and pay for the flowers) at the 20-metre statue of Kim Il-sung at the Mansudae Grand Monument, but that was closed for repairs.

When the giant curtain is lifted from it, probably this weekend, expect to see a fresh statue of Kim Jong-il standing alongside. The cemetery was our next-best option for fulfilling the obligation. We would later repeat the procedure at the modest, four-metre statue at Kim Il-sung University, and the first statue of Kim Jong-il, unveiled to the world on February 15, depicting he and his father on horseback. Each time I swallowed my tongue, swallowed my pride, and followed the party line.

At the cemetery, we turned and took in the view of Pyongyang below. Only the tallest and grandest of the buildings poke through the fog that morning, the closest and most arresting of which is the palace.

We walked down the steps. Rows of graves, each featuring a bronze replica of the buried war hero’s head, were flanked by depictions of battles and attacks in stone and bronze. In many ways the cemetery mirrored every other monument we visited on our short stay; the scale was massive, the style was Socialist Realist, and we were alone.

Our visit was a small delegation of mainly Europeans on a trip designed to coincide with the birthday celebrations. Kim Jong-il’s death in December changed things only slightly – those in power north of the 38th parallel are keen to show continuity under the new Supreme Leader.

The young, cherubic third son of Kim Jong-il quickly assumed two of his father’s four most important titles, and was on Thursday installed as ‘‘first secretary’’ of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Kim Jong-il was named ‘‘eternal general secretary’’.

A big anniversary

The announcment was timed for the impending 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth on Sunday (April 15) an event which will feature military parades, fireworks, cultural festivities, and the launch of a satellite rocket which is designed to carry the threat that North Korea can put a bomb anywhere in the world. Such actions make it hard to tell whether they use military threats as a ploy to get food, or use aid negotiations as cover for playing with weapons.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea deals with the world because it has to. Despite Kim Il-sung’s self-reliance philosophy, and the peninsula’s longer-term history of preferring to be left alone, North Korea needs international trade to survive. Only 15 per cent of the land is arable, the rest is rock. It has mines, heavy industry, weapons, but lacks food and money. That’s where trade and tourism come in.

About 2000 Western tourists visit North Korea annually, more come from China. Our delegation was not a tourist visit, but it was similar in key respects. We paid in cash, in advance, in a Beijing hotel room. Our passports were taken away to the embassy, and we were told we would have them back in 12 hours. We did. We took an Air Koryo flight in a new, shiny, Russian-built plane where the service was efficient and prompt, and the food was edible and plentiful.

We were bussed around to monuments, paid for souvenirs in euro or yuan, sometimes getting change in US dollars. We could order as much food as we could eat during the three meals a day that were included. (No starvation to be found here but we did hear how, in 2000 at the worst of the famine, an onion and a tomato constituted a day’s food at the hotel, and that the guest was lucky to receive it.) We were not allowed out of the hotel unaccompanied.

Our trip was also a bit more personal, more intimate, than the typical tours, and was billed as a cultural exchange. Our Korean guides were hospitable, friendly enough to share photos of their family, and when they said ‘‘no’’ were polite enough to smile.

Time to relax

We were able to stop for coffee (Pyongyang’s only cafe is in room in a building just off Kim Il-sung Square where they do a decent cappuccino and have a selection of cakes) and the pizza restaurant (warm and friendly atmosphere, good food, in an anonymous grey building off the main streets, take the stairs to the third floor, can’t miss it) and the occasional walk around the city streets before dusk.

Most of our questions about business were answered, and we got a glimpse of how the foreign currency economy worked (there’s a different exchange rate for visitors so they get better bang for our buck) and were exposed to Korean views on international relations (which might well have been written by the central government, but it was interesting to see the varying degrees of passion with which the scripts were repeated).

Nothing bad is said or spoken about. Questions about famine are shrugged off. One Korean man intimates that the economy is in bad shape, another’s wallet is empty after handing over a US $5 note. We pay for beers with any North Korean who will join us, knowing their monthly salaries won’t come close to the bills we rack up. When the power goes out in the hotel one evening, one Korean man shrugs, mutters something about an explosion, and goes off and about his business as though nothing unusual has happened.

At first glance, Pyongyang leaves a positive impression. The streets are wide, clean, uncluttered by hawkers or beggars, uninterrupted by advertising. Government propaganda breaks up the otherwise uniform, eastern-bloc look of the streets. There are no brand names to be found. Everything has been built since the city was bombed flat in the 1950s.

Transport system

Control is the order of the day, every day. The traffic, about as heavy as Canberra’s on a lazy Saturday afternoon, is a mixture of new North Korean-made cars ambling alongside shiny black Mercedes, the occasional 20-year-old Lada, and a few from the US. There are taxis, which we were told are mostly for government use.

Most people take electric trams, electric buses, or the impressive underground railway network, or they cycle or walk. The government tries to assign citizens’ housing close to their workplace. The occasional Burberry scarf or Mickey Mouse backpack can be seen, but most of the population was dressed in heavy, dark and dull overcoats of blacks and greys and greens.

Sensible, ordered, practical, efficient, sterile. Through subjective Western eyes, it was easy to wonder where the life is.

Being there and meeting people didn’t really answer that question.

In total control

Those we spoke to were pre-approved, either in the form of our guides, staff at the hotel and places we visited, or shopkeepers used to dealing with foreigners. Even when we were among citizens the chance for interaction was limited.

The clues come from a distance – a young girl plays in the snow by a street corner, boys kick a soccer ball behind the Workers’ Party of Korea monument, men and women walk across the frozen Taedong River, people queue for coupons or rations, construction workers hack away at the solid, icy ground, squads of people are deployed to place flowers around the city for the holiday.

No one appears to be starving, no one appears to be relaxing. You can choose to do anything the state tells you to do. You can go wherever you are allowed within the Democratic People’s Republic. The checkpoints we breeze past are not for us.

Even in the capital, surrounded by citizens, it is easy to forget that North Korea is full of living, thinking, feeling people. This is because how they live, think and feel is dictated by the state, and if they had any desire to live, think or feel differently they certainly wouldn’t be telling us.

Information is strictly controlled. There are touch-screen mobile phones that only work on the internal Koryo network, there is a tightly monitored computer network and there are three television channels offering variations on the same theme. (Look, Kim Jong-il is pointing at things, Kim Jong-un is inspecting a different military unit today, listen to this week’s threat of merciless punishment against Western imperialist aggressors.) The Hermit Kingdom is hermetically sealed; in many ways it is a parallel world.

The largest and most important newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, carries an oversized portrait of Kim Il-sung and revels in its role as a mouthpiece for the central committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Hate and love

As the days inside the bubble wore on, I began to understand more directly just how the state sustains itself. The country may be poor and on the brink of starvation, but the power structure has survived the Cold War, the fall of communism, a six-year famine and resultant exodus. The regime has two main weapons in maintaining itself: hate and love.

Hatred and fear inside North Korea is well documented. The great enemy is the United States, all other countries are lesser enemies. They look over the demilitarised zone and see their brothers and sisters in the south as oppressed. They are still at war, and the phrase, ‘‘Who knows when the next Korean war will break out’’ comes from the lips of several people in uniform.

Refugees, sometimes called defectors, have told about the way fear works internally, with estimates of 200,000 people in North Korean jails, details of public executions, systemic abuse and torture. While the government sends squadrons of workers overseas and claims that no one ever seeks political asylum, every week Seoul accepts at least 50 North Koreans from Bangkok.

The internal control comes from the military, which is pervasive. Under the socialist system, where food, clothing, shelter, housing, employment and a small amount of pocket money is provided by the state, there is nothing to encourage people to turn up to work and put in the effort required to keep the country running. In capitalism, we turn up to work for money. That is not the case in North Korea, so fear, the threat of war and patriotism are used as motivation.

The military plays its part in maintaining motivation and indoctrination. About 1.2 million of the country’s estimated 25 million people are in the army, and a further seven million either have served or are in the reserves; about one in every three people. Our four regular guides each served at least five years.

We saw plenty of AK-47s. Many, like those the guards hold at monuments, are real. Others we were told are fakes, wooden props used along with red banners and flags at worksites to ‘‘agitate’’ the population, although we were not told how. Red banners and flags are deployed on farms and worksites, soldiers guard empty fields even in the depths of winter, uniforms become increasingly prominent the closer we drive to the border. War is part of the scenery.

It is in an opera house among the generals on February 16 that the truest sense of the cult-like love for the Kims shines through. They stand, chanting for Kim Jong-un that they will defend him at the cost of their lives; there are tears in their eyes as they see the smiling portrait of Kim Jong-il; there is a feeling, an atmosphere, that unites them in patriotic fervour.

Those we are allowed to be among describe Kim Jong-il as a father figure, and there seems to be genuine love for him. They point to the long lines of people, standing for hours to lay flowers at the Dear Leader’s portraits, and say that no one is forcing them to be there. Westerners don’t understand the place the Kims have in North Korean hearts, they say. And they’re right; it’s a different world view.

A time of change

Not everyone feels this way. In one furtive encounter in the hotel I was told ‘‘not everything is as it seems’’, and was left, after a mysterious conversation, with the impression that work was being done to bring about change within North Korea.

Being taken through cold and mostly empty museums and monuments was fascinating, but hollow, as if something was amiss or missing. There are no dissenting opinions on show, we are shown no art or literature that isn’t approved, and for all the talk of democracy and having three political parties in parliament, only one party’s flag can be seen on monuments and major buildings – the one draped over the body of the eternal president.

It is in Kim Il-sung’s image that Kim Jong-un is being made. There is an uncanny resemblance between images of the wartime general of the 1950s and his grandson. There is even talk about the similarity between their handwriting. The regime is cultivating the idea the 28-year-old is destined to rule. In carefully edited news broadcasts he smiles and laughs with his father in footage from December, inspects military units he is now in command of, and undertakes the sorts of tours and inspections his father and grandfather were famous for.

On February 16, he stands in front of the troops at the palace and looks calm, solemn, and waves. When the emotion surges in the opera house that evening, as the chanting of soldiers and generals and government officials reaches a crescendo he stands still. Continuity. Power. Control. Only at his signal do they stop.

In that room, he has already won hearts. The question is: how widespread is the love, how deeply is it felt by the average citizen, and how many people will kill and die for the ghosts of Pyongyang?