Archive | November, 2009
November 19, 2009

North Korea: U.S. Imperialists ride the Pyongyang Metro

“The metro, a monumental edifice in the era of the Workers’ Party, is providing the people with easy access to different parts of Pyongyang and is very instrumental in their ideological and cultural education.” – KCNA

Of all the things we did in North Korea, taking a short trip on the Pyongyang metro was probably the least interesting. Maybe it’s because I have to ride the incompetently-run DC metro at least twice a day, and so try to avoid subjecting myself to public transportation whenever possible. Or perhaps I just don’t find the concept of rocketing under a city via a sardine can all that fascinating. Nevertheless, a few fun facts about the Pyongyang Metro…

The Pyongyang Metro opened in September 1973 and has a mere two lines, with a total of 17 stations that have names such as “Comrade”, “Three Rejuvenations”, and “Sacrifice in Battle”. Personally, I find metro station names with no reference to their actual geographical location to be incredibly confusing, but I’m sure there is some sort of sound logic behind this decision. The stations – some of the deepest in the world – are over 100 meters underground and can be used as bomb shelters for the city’s residents when Pyongyang is under attack from U.S. Imperialists such as ourselves. At $0.03 a ride, the Pyongyang Metro is also one of the cheapest metro rides in the world, when there is actually enough electricity to run the system.

As with everything on a tour of North Korea, your trip on the Pyongyang Metro is heavily restricted. Tourists are only permitted a short ride between the Puhung (“Revitalization”) and Yonggwang (“Glory”) stations. Our bus driver dropped us off at the Puhung station and then drove to the Yonggwang station, where he waited for us to emerge from the underground. The entire thing seemed absurd.

Upon entering the metro station, our guide directed our attention to a map of the metro. She explained that you could press the button under the name of the station you wished to travel to and the route to that station would light up. I thought this interactive map was a bit unnecessary considering the system only has two lines, but perhaps we could use something similar on the DC metro so the hordes of tourists would stop asking me dumb questions.

Your SmarTrip card is not accepted here.

The first thing I noticed about the Pyongyang Metro was that it looked an awful lot like the St. Petersburg and Moscow metro systems. In fact, it seemed as if the Soviets just rustled up their excess construction material and installed the system for the North Koreans, who then placed murals of Kim Il-Sung where the Lenin ones typically hang.

The long ride down

Puhung station, with Kim Il-Sung mural in the background. Interestingly enough, these metro cars are from West Berlin, built from 1957 to 1965.

I’m not really sure what these metro employees do, but they are there. The same cannot be said for DC metro employees.

While waiting for your train, you can catch up on the “news” via the papers that have been placed in glass cases on the station’s platform. Since I don’t read or speak any Korean whatsoever, our guide started reading the news to me. “Here it says that in the United States there are 3.5 million hungry children. Is that true?” I shrugged my shoulders. “Hmm…I don’t know. I haven’t heard that.” And I thought to myself, what an ironic story to place in a newspaper there, considering over a million North Koreans died of hunger in the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, I reminded myself to Google this statistic when I get home. So I did. And it’s true.

Our train finally arrived, and our guides hustled us onto one of the cars which was, of course, free of North Koreans.

At the end of each car are portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, in case you forget who’s in charge.

After a short ride, we arrived at the Yonggwang station, which is decorated with multi-colored chandeliers.

Like the Moscow metro, the Pyongyang metro has thick, steel blast-resistant doors that can be deployed in case of attack.

The Pyongyang Metro also has small booths so that a worker can monitor the escalator.

While riding the escalator, you can listen to the revolutionary music that is piped in to make your journey that much more enjoyable. It really does soothe the soul.

Above ground. The building on the left is the Koryo Hotel.

For more information on the Pyongyang Metro, check out the online version of the official Pyongyang Metro book that you can buy after riding on the metro. The rest of my metro photos are here.

November 8, 2009

North Korea: Air raid sirens in Pyongyang

Just a quick post this time, as I’ve got to start working on various things I have been putting off.

A few weeks ago I posted some photos of Pyongyang in the morning. Here are two videos of Pyongyang in the morning. In the first you can hear the air ride sirens echoing throughout the city followed by several announcements. In the second you will see North Koreans heading off to work as well as schoolchildren (maybe?) waving around some flags while music plays over the loudspeakers.

November 5, 2009

North Korea: Bowing before Kim Il-Sung’s embalmed corpse at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace

It’s yet another early morning in Pyongyang and our tour group is in one of our hotel’s incredibly large banquet halls, picking at the remains of our breakfasts. It’s the same thing every day: kimchi, undercooked omelets, instant coffee, and the most incredibly dense donuts I have ever encountered. One of our guides is scurrying around from table to table, quickly looking over our attire to ensure we are dressed properly. She spies my flip-flops.

“Lindsay, do you have other shoes?”

I pick up the brown dress shoes I carried downstairs with me. I hate wearing dress shoes, so try and minimize the time I have to clumsily walk around in them.

“Oh yeah, don’t worry, got my dress shoes here.”

Our first stop on today’s itinerary is the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the former residence and office of the “Great Leader” and Eternal President Kim Il-Sung. I guess it’s like the North Korean equivalent of the White House, with one minor difference. When an American President dies, we bury him and give him a nice headstone. The lucky ones might get a crypt or an eternal flame. When the North Korean leader dies, they embalm his corpse, put it on display inside his home, and declare it one of North Korea’s most sacred sites. Very few foreigners, and even fewer U.S. Imperialists, are allowed into Kim’s mausoleum.

Prior to our trip, we were informed that we would have to bring a set of dress clothes for our visit to Kumsusan, as it is a site of great importance to the North Korean people. So, that morning, we were all dressed in our finest, or what passes for your finest when you have to stuff nine days worth of clothes, toiletries, and Snickers bars in a backpack. I was wearing a semi-wrinkled white dress shirt, brown slacks, and brown shoes. I basically looked like I was going to work that morning and had neglected to iron my shirt.

Our bus takes us through deserted streets to the northeastern outskirts of Pyongyang where the palace is surrounded by massive gates guarded by soldiers in dress uniform. We enter a building off to the side of the palace and encounter a bizarre contraption featuring rotating spools of astroturf. After stepping onto a damp pad in front of the machine, we then proceed to walk on the rotating spools, which cleanse the bottom of our shoes. There will be no mud tracked into the Great Leader’s palace.

After depositing our cameras and bags in the coat check room, we were instructed to line up in rows of four and walk to the security checkpoint. I’m not really sure why we have to line up in rows of four, because we were quickly forced back into a single line in order to get through the metal detector and subsequent patdown by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army. But then again, this is North Korea, and if you’re told to get in a row of four, you get in a row of four.

Having been checked for explosives, weapons, and cameras, we then encounter an incredibly long moving walkway. I was a bit surprised to see a standard airport feature in a somber mausoleum. We began walking on the moving walkway, as most people, save the exceptionally lazy, usually do, until we were quickly instructed by our guide that we were supposed to stand still and let the walkway slowly take us to our destination. So we stood there, quietly, and patiently, as the walkway delivered us to…yet another walkway. It seemed like we had traveled for a mile on these things. In fact, I’m willing to bet that, as with everything in the DPRK, it’s the longest moving walkway in the world.

We reach the end of the final segment of the moving walkway and once again line up in rows of four. We’re led into a dimly lit room where we stand in a sloppy formation and wait for our row’s turn to step forward and stand before the the large white statue of Kim Il-Sung, which was bathed in a beautiful pink and blue lighting. We don’t bow here, just quietly stare at the statue looming in front of us while music plays in the background. God, this place is so weird. And we haven’t even gotten to the actual corpse yet.

Before entering the next room, we are each handed a miniature audio device similar to the ones you can rent at museums. This room contains yet another large statue of Kim Il-Sung, and the walls are decorated with bas reliefs of mourning soldiers, farmers, workers, and intellectuals. We march around the room in our rows of four, each of us clutching the audio device which contains a track of an over dramatic man with a British accent telling us how the death of Kim Il-Sung was basically the worst thing to ever happen in the history of mankind.

Finally, it was time to see the Great Leader himself. First, however, we had to be purified, and were led through a chamber with powerful jets of air that blew any specks of dirt off of us American Imperialists. Thoroughly cleansed, we entered a dimly lit room with high ceilings. In the center of the room was a glass coffin containing the body of Kim Il-Sung, which was draped with a blanket so that only the head was visible. In front of us, rows of somber North Koreans bowed before the coffin, under the vigilant gaze of ramrod straight white gloved soldiers clutching their polished Kalashnikovs. My row of four quietly stepped forward and stood at the feet of the Great Leader. We glanced at our guide, who was standing furthest to the left in our row, and followed her lead as she bowed. We then walked to the left, stood at the Great Leader’s side, and bowed again. For whatever reason, you don’t bow at his head, so we just stood there for a moment and then walked over to his other side, where we bowed for the last time. As we left the room I took one last glance over my shoulder to take in the bizarre spectacle. Lenin’s Mausoleum truly has nothing on this place.

The next rooms contain a giant map showing all the places Kim managed to visit during his tenure, as well as his personal rail car and official vehicle. The Great Leader rolled through the streets of Pyongyang in a Mercedes, by the way. Man of the people indeed.

We were then led into yet another room which was filled with all of the “awards” bestowed upon Kim Il-Sung by foreign governments and political parties. Most of them aren’t real awards, but rather trinkets with little value that have been put on display to give North Koreans the impression that their Great Leader was highly respected all over the world. I spy a few Soviet medals that were awarded to millions of citizens and can now be picked up for a few dollars at any souvenir market in Russia. I was quite amused to come across an honorary degree from Kensington University of Glendale, California. I had never heard of this university, so Googled it when I returned to the United States. Turns out it’s nothing more than a diploma mill. I wonder if some North Korean apparatchik saw a Kensington University advertisement in Reader’s Digest and sent away for it.

Having acquainted ourselves with the numerous accomplishments and accolades of Kim Il-Sung, we were then ushered into an extremely large room with several large desks, each adorned with a thick book. Our guide explained that these were guestbooks and that it was customary for visitors to sign them. Since we were such a large group, he suggested that perhaps just one person could sign for the entire group. We all hesitated, hoping someone else would be the first to volunteer. A member of our group finally stepped forward and was led to one of the desks while the rest of us plopped down on the couches lining the perimeter of the room. I wondered what I would write in the guestbook if we were all required to sign. “Dear Kim Il-Sung…love what you’ve done with the place. Your mausoleum is a million times more impressive than Lenin’s. Cheers, Lindsay.” I’m not sure if that would pass muster with the guides. Luckily I didn’t have to find out.

We leave the mausoleum the same way we’ve entered – via the extremely long and slow moving walkways. This time, though, the moving walkway opposite ours is filled with hundreds of North Koreans, most of them in military uniforms, on their way to pay homage to the Great Leader. Some of them stare at us with puzzled looks while others quickly glance away, as if they’ve just seen something utterly revolting. I suppress the urge to smile and wave. We’re not at the funfair anymore, comrades.

After collecting our cameras from the coat check, we head outside to explore the outside of the mausoleum, which is fronted by a massive, deserted square. Off to one side, members of army platoons and work units wait patiently for their turn to climb a set of bleachers and have their group photo snapped in front of the Great Leader’s final resting place. At least now they are smiling.

More photos here.

November 1, 2009

North Korea: Mass Dance videos (aka massive dance party, Pyongyang style)

Here are a few videos I took of the Mass Dance to celebrate the DPRK’s independence day. Our American guide informed us that this music and style of dancing is considered “modern/socialist”. Ain’t no hip-hop in the DPRK, that’s for sure. Also, I’m glad we aren’t required to do this on the 4th of July, because I’m a horrible dancer.

November 1, 2009

School in the DMZ / Yankees in North Korea / Potemkin picnickers

Over the past few weeks there have been several interesting articles about North Korea. The first, “Soldiers, Mines and Sounds of Children Playing” is actually about the South Korean Taesung Elementary School, the only school inside the Korean DMZ.

Kim Han-seul, a fifth-grader, attends a most unusual school. Each morning, his school bus picks him up at a bustling town outside the Demilitarized Zone that separates South and North Korea. It drives through wire fences, tank traps and military checkpoints along a road flanked by minefields.

After a 50-minute drive escorted by a military jeep with a blue United Nations flag, the bus unloads Han-seul and a score of other students at Taesung Elementary, the only school inside the Korean DMZ, a heavily armed no man’s land guarded on both sides by nearly two million troops facing off in an uneasy truce.

The second article is from NPR’s Louisa Lim, who spent five days in North Korea and basically had the exact same itinerary as my tour group. In this article she details the DPRK’s misrepresentation of history at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the USS Pueblo and interviews U.S. tourists who were visiting the country while she was there:

For those few American tourists — about 300 so far this year — who visit the Hermit Kingdom, the experience can be discombobulating. The Americans are segregated from other tourists, even at mealtimes, and often feel they are given a hard sell on the evils of American imperialism.

Scott Nguyen from California said the message was clear.

” ‘You evil capitalist swine pig. You screwed us over, and you’re continuing to screw us over. If I had the opportunity, I’d punch you right now.’ That’s really the feeling that I got,” he said, adding that even after leaving North Korea, he was still feeling the effects of the relentless barrage of propaganda.

“In some sense, I have to retrain myself to call it United States of America, and not Imperialist America, because that’s all we heard,” he said.

But Frank Cruise from Detroit, who was in the same tour group, said he hadn’t felt any personal animosity against him.

“Maybe some people were more suspicious than others, but I liked the people very much,” he said.

I dunno, maybe they had different rules in place after our group left, but the part about Americans being segregated from other tourists is false. Yes, there were no non-Americans in our tour group, but that was only because other nationalities are not as restricted as Americans (i.e., you can stay for longer than five days and take the train out of the country rather than fly). All tour groups, American or not, eat breakfast in the same banquet hall, and when we were confined to our hotel for the night we hung out with plenty of non-American tourists.

As for the experience, yeah, it’s quite “discombobulating” as she puts it, but I didn’t personally feel any animosity from the North Koreans we interacted with. Or at least I didn’t get the impression that they wanted to punch me (who knows, maybe they did, but they certainly put a smile on their face while they fantasized about it). Rather, it seemed to me that the long-winded speeches on U.S. Imperialism were basically lines that the guides had memorized and were required to recite at various points throughout the tour. There was no emotion behind the speeches. I was amused when, during our trip to the DMZ, one of our guides actually apologized ahead of time that the North Korean officer would be using the phrase “U.S. Imperialists” several times. The propaganda videos, museums filled with artifacts from wartime exploits that never happened, and anti-U.S. rhetoric never affected me because I knew it just wasn’t true. It was just depressing that the entire populace was being lied to.

The third article “Picnic in North Korea” describes another tourist’s recent trip to North Korea and her suspicion that the picnic of joyous locals was staged:

To get to the beach, you walked a path where a young boy sat painting a picture of the waterfall — it was almost too picturesque. The locals had spread out a feast of kimchi, bulgogi, mounds of fat purple grapes, cold bottles of beer. Soon some of the picnickers were cheerily exhorting us to join them, even picking up food with chopsticks and depositing it straightaway in people’s mouths. Beer was poured; songs were sung. It was the first time I’d seen North Koreans smile wide, toothy grins.

After a while the tour guide sauntered over and reminded us that we weren’t supposed to talk to locals. She didn’t sound convinced of her own words. I suddenly started to see everything anew. Why were the picnickers here in the middle of the workday? Why was their food, those perfect pyramids of fruit, untouched before they pulled us over? Even the boy; I peered at his easel as I walked back and saw he was using a kind of paint-by-numbers kit.

This article was rather timely, as over the past few weeks I’ve had several friends ask me if our “impromptu dance party” with the Pyongyang picnickers was really that impromptu. My gut feeling is that it wasn’t staged (and there were several big differences between my experience and Ms. Lee’s), but truly I just don’t know. I suppose the government could have rounded up hundreds of its citizens, placed them in a park with food and drink, and instructed them to be hospitable to the group of 16 unimportant American tourists who would soon be walking through the park. I certainly wouldn’t put it past the regime. But then again, we’ll never know.