Limited Northern Exposure

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INTO the land of family ties and military defiance, the wide-eyed and eager wander, in search of understanding and truth, but forced instead to bow to bronze aged statues.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). That’s what the visa said when my passport was returned from the North Korean embassy. Or did the travel agent send the passport to the wrong Korean embassy?

The whole world knows that there are two Koreas — North (aka the Hermit Kingdom) and South (Land of the Samsungs). Despotism. Oligarchy. Authoritarianism. Descriptions used by BBC and CNN. Don’t see “democratic” anywhere in that mix. The mouthful “DPRK” is code for KIMDOM!

The National Anthem

Seven days, three cities later, I have come to the realisation that the real name of the country in fact is also a state secret. More of that later, but in the meantime… the (secret) national anthem is You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Aegukka (The Patriotic Song) is listed in all official materials as the national anthem, and though Steven Gerrard, Kenny Dalglish or Kevin Keegan may never have visited North Korea (although Dennis Rodman has done so as part of his self-proclaimed “basketball diplomacy” initiative), the legends of Liverpool Football Club will be pleased to know that tourists never walk alone in the DPRK.

Yes, you may leave your shadow safely at home but you will never feel more shadowed in your life.

A Secret Province Of China

Don’t be fooled by the 2.5m, T-shaped concrete poles strung with barbed wire along the Yalu River, part of the 1,400km common border shared with China (and the 240km with South Korea). Throughout our eight-day stay, the only local currency we ever saw was in the glass casings in the shops selling antiques. Otherwise, it was the Chinese Yuan all the way.

The most widely accepted culture in the country has its origins in China too — the cheng ming or tomb-sweeping ceremony; the annual visit to one’s ancestral tombs and bowing to the forefathers. Except that the North Koreans have taken to celebrating it all year round, bowing to the late Grandpa Eternal President Kim Il-Sung, and the late Son Eternal Secretary General of WP Kim Jong-Il. And now Kim Jong Un expects it, or he might take pot shots at you or nuke you.

The North Koreans have taken it to a much higher plane — everyone (yes, EVERYONE, tourists included) are brought to, and expected to bow to those humongous bronze statues of revered leaders as and when they come across them in the course of the visit. And the Northerners do take bowing seriously — no umbrellas, no sunglasses, no caps when paying respects, and certainly no smiles. And when photographed, they must not be truncated. According to Victor Cha’s The Impossible State: North Korea Past And Future, there are nearly 40,000 statues of Kim Il-Sung alone, as of 1992, in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.

In addition to the 40,000 statues standing 24m high in 70 cities throughout North Korea, there are also about 30,000 plaster busts in the likeness of Kim Il Sung, and another 140,000 historical propagandistic structures and monuments to remind all future descendants of Kim, Lee, Roh, Bae etc., of what a great nation theirs is.

Books by Lenin and Marx are banned. But churches are allowed to exist.

Kim Ill Sung developed the “Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System” and a principle of which says “You must be firm in your position which states there is not anyone or anything greater than the leader Kim Il Sung”.

Moses said on the Mount “You shall have no other Gods but me”. A cursory comparison will show that Grandpa Kim took his political ideas from the Bible. He called himself “the Sun” and his son the “Shining Star of Paekdu Mountain”.

Kim Il Sung was once a Christian, brought up by a very devout Christian family. His father graduated from the most renowned Christian school on the peninsula, his mother a deaconess. To top it all, his grandfather and his brothers were also priests in Pyongyang.

Maxim Tupikov / Shutterstock.com
Maxim Tupikov / Shutterstock.com

Saturdays are Confession Days. North Koreans have to confess their wrongdoings and seek forgiveness from their current Revered Leader.

Movie Set Façade

North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung believed strongly in Lenin’s maxim “cinema is the most important of all arts”. Not surprisingly, since the country’s division, North Korean films have often been used as vehicles for the population to imbibe the state’s ideology. Not surprisingly, martyrdom and the happiness of society are the two predominant themes in the movies.

The entire country could well be one huge movie set. Otherwise, how does one account for the highly under-utilised 10-lane super highways and the actors strolling along them nonchalantly? Possibly waiting for the next scene to be shot? Or, for that matter, the blocks of apartments which whiz by as we are being ferried from one bronze statue to another. The occasional breaks in the lines of apartments (very similar to what you see in Hong Kong and Singapore but less well maintained) offer a glimpse of the slums behind. Since we were not allowed to have contact with the locals, it was challenging to say the least, to decide whether the locals we came across were players rehearsing for a movie about life in North Korea….

Chintung Lee / Shutterstock.com
Chintung Lee / Shutterstock.com

The Not So Secret Service

Spymasters galore fill the land. And in the air. About 20% of the male passengers on the morning flight to Pyongyang sported almost identical dark glasses, during the entire seven-hour flight.

When a group of visitors declined to join the main group at a particular tourist site, at least three security folks kept them company under the shade of a tree.

A Caucasian couple had three companions during a museum tour — the English-speaking guide, the driver and a spare guide just in case the first one was unable to answer questions about the displays.

And then there was the case of the road sweeper who deleted the shots of locals from the latest digital camera of a fellow traveller from our group while under the pretext of admiring his latest Canon digital DSLR.

This was only discovered later in the day when he wanted to review the shots he had taken.

And just like that you are left none the wiser, or at least with little proof of it.

This article was first published in STORM in 2014.

Main Image:

Attila JANDI / Shutterstock.com

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