GlobalWonk arrives in the Hermit Kingdom - 9.9.2008
Reports out of Japan indicate North Korea intends to make an “important announcement” on October 20th, 2008. Many believe it may be related to Kim Jong IL’s health, or some type of change in the government.
GlobalWonkwas in the DPRK for their 60th anniversary in September. The only word that accurately describes the experience is surreal. The government is a thugocracy. The only people with a decent standard of living are the Dear Leader and his lackeys. Everyone else lives in the 17th century.
The entire society is based upon a cult of personality created by Kim IL Song (with help from his Stalinist Soviet sponsors) after World War II. They completely manufactured heroic deeds the Great Leader performed in his nearly single-handed routing of the Imperialist Japanese. If you don’t believe it, just check out the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang. It is larger than the one in Paris, France, and is dedicated to Kim IL Song’s victory in defeating the Japanese. When you ask your guide/agents when and where the Japanese surrendered to Kim IL Song, they have no answer. I asked if they ever heard about the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I asked them if they ever heard that the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Powers on the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. They simply look at you in disbelief. The North Koreans have their own version of history.
The government is paranoid. Your passport is confiscated the moment you step foot in the country. All cell phones are collected at the airport and kept until you depart. You are not allowed to bring GPS equipment into the country.
I had two guides/agents that followed me everywhere. They told you what you could/could not take pictures of. You could only take photos at the designated tourist sites, all homages to the Great Leader, President Kim IL Song. They arranged your meals. They booked your hotel room and checked you into your room. They are the first people you see each morning and the last each night. They followed you everywhere. The hotel for outsiders is on an island in the middle of the Taedong River to help segregate you from the populace. You could not leave the hotel on your own. You were advised not to talk to any citizens.
The most stark contrast was drawn while visiting Dandong, China. Dandong is situated just north of the DPRK on the Yalu River. I was there during the Harvest Moon Festival. China and North Korea used to be connected by a bridge, built by the Japanese durring their occupation of Manchuria and Korea. The United States bombed the bridge during the Korean War (1951 I believe) and dropped the south side into the Yalu.
Today the north side of the bridge has been repainted by the Chinese. It is covered in neon and other bright lights and has become a tourist attraction. I believe they call it the “bridge to nowhere”. You pay a few Yuan and can walk to the southern end of the bridge to look at the concrete platforms/pilings that used to support the bridge on it’s path into Korea. The steel is long gone.
The contrast between the bustling, frenetic Chinese society and that of the DPRK is most distinct at night. The northern, Chinese city of Dandong is brilliantly lit and vibrant. The other side of the river lays dark. In supposedly the fourth largest city in North Korea, scarcely a single light is lit. It is surreal.
We know from the example of their bretheren in the south that the Korean people are industrious and intelligent. I personally witnessed how hard they work day-to-day to survive in the north. The fact they do in spite of governmental neglect is testament to their aheer will and tenacity.
For the sake of these poor souls I sincerely hope we get some good news on Monday. Let’s hope it leads to the opening of their society. Let’s hope it leads to direct foreign investment that will help them modernize and bring the collective standard of living to acceptable twenty-first century levels.
More DPRK reflections coming soon….