My visit to North Korea was strange. All preconceptions, researched or not, were irrelevant. Not a single moment in this mysterious and reclusive nation was as I had expected.
After being a tourist for 5 days in this infamous state I was surprised at how normal life began to feel. Despite advance warnings, I saw no threadbare clothing, no malnourished children, and no blackouts. At least not in the capital. Tourists don’t witness that side of North Korea. Hints were visible of course – a countryside hut with no windows, the bumpy, shovel-built roads where machines were too costly – but our eyes were delicately diverted to areas of prosperity and modernity and, in particular, Pyongyang. The city, however, felt unexpectedly candid; myths of government-paid actors pretending to be ‘normal people’ were just that – myths. Everyone we talked to, everything we saw, seemed genuine, be it mothers walking their children to school, men drinking beer in their local bar, or elders playing chess on the banks of the river.
What was most unsettling was not physical: the North Korean ideology, based on the immortalisation of Kim Il-Sung and his family dynasty, is deeply embedded in the collective mentality, saturating the lives of the population. There are an estimated 34,000 statues of Kim Il-Sung in the country, and combined with the billboards, postcards, commercials and pins, not forgetting the mandatory portrait inside every public building, it makes for a cult of personality to make even Stalin jealous. Throughout the trip, we saw only one person not wearing a pin of their ‘eternal president’; a monk, high up in the foothills of the North. Back in China I had been told a story of a North Korean student studying in Beijing. She had forgotten her Kim Il-Sung pin in her room. Upon realising this she became distressed, insisting on leaving class to retrieve it. This pseudo-religious love for the Kims was conspicuous and constant. When conversing with a North Korean you can have a completely normal discussion. You can discuss your mutual interests, you can share a joke, you can see eye to eye on many issues, but if the wrong subject is touched on, the human being you were talking to switches, turning the conversation into an unnatural recitation of state propaganda. I wonder if, and how, our guides truly believed all that they told us. A lot of North Korea felt like this – unnatural and memorised, a rigid status quo on an alarming scale.
It was worryingly easy to become caught up in this indoctrination. Sometimes, we were even encouraged to partake, albeit gently. We would be praised if we bought flowers to place in front of the Kims’ statues, while disapproval from our guides faced those not referring to Kim Il-Sung, his son or his grandson as President, General, or Marshal respectively. The founder of the DPRK – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its official name – and his descendants have different titles as they each abolish their position for future generations, in order to remain all-powerful and everlasting.
This belief system extends to their fear of the western world, most notably their paranoia and hatred of the US and their “puppet allies”, as France, the UK and South Korea would be referred to. Propaganda is ubiquitous: in the Pyongyang circus, each of the dozen or so acts involved demeaning a foreign country in some way or another. On television, people are taught of their liberator Kim Il-Sung spectacularly beating the West, thus saving the North Korean people from the “evil” and “unjust” capitalist powers. In the War Museum, until 2013 named the ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum’, a group of schoolchildren looked on with wide eyes and admiring smiles as an interactive display depicted a North Korean platoon triumphing over a group of corrupt US soldiers.
However, traces of globalisation mean that the chauvinism employed by the Kims for so long could be becoming less effective in keeping this isolated state in the dark. To my surprise, ‘Bend it like Beckham’ and ‘Titanic’ are among the Western films played on national television, and hearing the Beatles was a regular occurrence. We ate pizza at Italian restaurants, and shopped in high-end supermarkets filled with foreign goods like Swiss chocolates and Italian wines. Our guides were keen to learn of our opinions on football and famous actors, and to hear of our national cuisines. Alarmingly for the government, North Koreans are getting more and more curious. However, this development was only visible within the capital. Pyongyang-ers would not dream of washing their clothes in the river, or lighting fires to keep warm in winter as those in the countryside do. Pyongyang is a city of handpicked, middle-class elites, to the extent that their fellow citizens can only enter their capital upon invitation. With its modern metro system and newly-built skyscrapers it is thought of as the showcase city, the apex of the country’s achievements to date. Due to this, tours normally spend most of their time in Pyongyang, not-too-subtly avoiding the poorer regions within this increasingly unequal state.
Every so often it was necessary to take a step back, and appreciate the distance North Korea as a country has to come to catch up with the modernity its neighbours enjoy. The streets of Pyongyang are largely empty as cars are too expensive to import, and popular technology such as computers are 20 years out of date. North Korea is a land frozen in time – a 3,000-roomed, rocket-shaped hotel dominates the Pyongyang skyline, dwarfing the 47 storey Yanggakdo Hotel by 170m. Yet construction started on this colossal building back in 1987, and it is only just coming to a close. Many Chinese tourists I spoke to told me that they had come to North Korea to get a glimpse of Chinese life in the second half of the 20th century. The lack of freedom of speech, ethnocentrism, and political oppression means North Korea indeed harks back to the Maoist era, and coupled with the Soviet-style blocks of Pyongyang, I often felt as if I had stepped into a history book.
Fortunately, there are tentative signs of technological advancements. Students at Kim Il-Sung University have been able to use the internet – for educational means only – under supervision for the past 5 years, and in 2014 North Korea bought $82.8m of Chinese smartphones, double that of the year before. Popular opinion too is changing; numbers of defectors were gradually increasing until the clampdown after Kim Jong-Un’s succession. The progressive legalisation of the black markets in 2002 and 2010 were encouraging signs of economic reform, and experts say that more reform under Kim Jong-Un is necessary to maintain his tight grip on the nation. In other words, reform, in one form or another, is inevitable.