A tale of two cities:
With daytime tour schedules tightly controlled, several members of a foreign media group who visited North Korea’s showcase capital this month found the only way to escape minders was to slip out after midnight.
The streets were virtually deserted, mostly unlit and silent. A cough echoed eerily across broad, empty boulevards. An ajumma was slumped over, snoring in the only business open ― a street-side sweet potato kiosk. Portraits of the Great Leader smiled benevolently from their illuminated alcoves as a Korean couple strolled, arm in arm, down the shadowy streets.
But in Pyongyang, is one ever unobserved?
An invisible loudspeaker that was droning unintelligible Korean from a side street suddenly blared “Hello! Hello!” as a lone foreign reporter walked by.
Pyongyang’s surreal aura made it feel a world away from Seoul, not a mere 195 kilometers to the north. Throughout a three-day tour of Pyongyang’s monuments, factories and schools, comparisons between the two cities were inevitable among Seoul-based reporters ― and Pyongyang’s lack of neon-lit nightlife was just the start.
On the surface
The two capitals share similar topographies. Both are set on the banks of broad, slow-moving rivers, with populated islands in midstream. Seoul was built in a cradle of mountains; Pyongyang on a range of hills. There the similarities end.
Pyongyang’s unpolluted air is refreshing. There is little industry and automobiles are few ― although buses and streetcars are as crowded with passengers as they are in Seoul. Traffic lights do not operate; instead, Pyongyang’s pirouetting traffic wardens direct autos so effectively that in five days, I don’t recall our tour bus halting once.
Secondly, unlike fast-changing Seoul, the architecture of Pyongyang appears stuck in a 1980s time warp, noted Bradley Martin, a member of the tour who first visited in 1979, and recently wrote “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.”
This is not to say the city is unattractive. While many buildings are grandiose, most are constructed on a human scale, and there are few of the steel and glass monoliths that suck color from other Asian capitals. Most buildings seemed well maintained, if plain.
There is little advertising. Only one billboard, outside the Rail Station, advertised Pyonghwa Motors, the North Korean-Reunification Church joint venture. However, Soviet-style propaganda signage ― often promoting the “Military First” policy ― adds color to the cityscape. Anti-U.S. propaganda appears toned down, although a poster of a giant fist crushing a GI remains on display in the city center.
If Seoul is a monument to capitalism, Pyongyang is a monument to, well, monuments. Like Imperial Rome, this city was designed to awe foreign barbarians and local provincials. It succeeds. Kim Il-sung’s mausoleum “makes Lenin’s look like a trash can,” said one tourist. The May Day Stadium seats 150,000 ― compared to Seoul’s World Cup Stadium, which accommodates a mere 64,000.
But Pyongyang is not rich. The only district with adequate street lighting is the foreign compound, and the public spaces of even the finest monuments, such as the bowels of the Juche Tower, faintly smell of urine ― the odor drifts up from public toilets, which are strangers to chemical disinfectants.
Pyongyang’s population is 2 million, one fifth of metropolitan Seoul’s. From the 40-story Juche Tower, the city limits are visible in every direction. An orderly place, it has none of the chaotic commerce of Seoul. The unhurried, uncrowded streets, and the beauty of its green hills and willow-lined rivers, create a smalltown ambience, and impart an oddly spell-binding effect.
The outdated fashions add to this charm.
The denizens of Pyongyang dress reasonably well. For most men, black Mao suits are a la mode, while more daring cadres affect the style of the Dear Leader, sporting his idiosyncratic beige zipper suits, shades and bouffants. Others wear tunics cut from what is clearly high-quality cloth. All the best-looking girls wear uniforms. Female soldiers, traffic wardens, museum attendants and even immigration officials are all drop-dead gorgeous. But in stark contrast to fashion-crazy Seoulites, Northerners appear to have little taste for international brands, and no youth fashion is visible.
The biggest difference is that absolutely everyone wears “Great Leader” lapel pins. These are not for sale ― they are handed out by work units. Higher-level officials wear pins featuring Kims Senior and Junior, side by side. (‘Lil Kim, incidentally, goes by either “Dear Leader” or “Great Leader,” but his Dad is exclusively the latter.)
Under the skin
But what of the people? After a half-century of division, are they similar to South Koreans?
Yes. They share the passion, sense of humor, kindness, communal mentality, pride, xenophobia and great loyalty to authority figures of their brethren in the South. This is apparent after just a few days.
What is apparent immediately is their shared spatial insensitivity. Consider South Koreans’ habits of recklessly switching lanes in traffic or shouldering aside passersby on sidewalks. This is replicated in Pyongyang. Despite the tiny number of automobiles, drivers constantly hit their horns as nonchalant pedestrians cross ahead of them.
The North Koreans are, however, helpful and honest. A member of the tour, a dual passport holder in transit to Pyongyang via Beijing, was initially denied a China exit in Beijing because his entry stamp was on his other passport, which was in luggage already loaded on the plane. An Air Koryo attendant shot off, to return, minutes later, pouring sweat and lugging the suitcase. “No, don’t shake my hand. I’m too sweaty,” he said.
Transparency remains problematic in Seoul, but there is no comparison with Pyongyang, where even expert guides, when pressed on facts or figures outside the scope of their cheat sheets, were lost. Dredging up the most basic information was a struggle. Take salaries, for example. At an embroidery plant, reporters were told the minimum wage was around 3,000 won; the next day, a separate group was told 10,000 won.
The information hotspot was the Koryo Hotel’s bar, which offers superb service and a “Casablanca”-type atmosphere as foreign guests and cadres mingle guardedly over (excellent) micro-brewed ale. However, once discussion moves past small talk, propaganda switches in and the answers become predictable. Unlike opinionated South Koreans, it is virtually impossible to extract a North Korean’s personal viewpoint ― if indeed he has one ― on political issues.
Our fearless guides
Our lead minder was Choe Jong-hun, 50, an officer with the quasi-diplomatic Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Russian academic Dr. Andrei Lankov identified him as a former security service employee, rewarded with a position to earn some foreign currency. A splendid fellow, in our first night at the bar, he ripped off his shirt, slapped himself on the chest and roared: “All right! Ask me anything!”
Once in full flow, his face reddened, his finger wagged, and any table within range was in for a pounding as propaganda issued forth, denouncing the “evil Americans.” The following day, in a thunderous voice, he threatened to throw one journalist off the bus after she asked if a woman could possibly succeed Kim Jong-il.
But he was not the “Communist Taliban” of common belief. Choe had a soft side, wonderfully crooning a melancholic song at the karaoke. And despite repeated threats to deport ill-behaved journos, he won some sympathy when, shaking his head, he wondered how he had ever been lumped with 17 reporters.
In short, he was a classic ajeossi. If he switched the phrase “evil Americans” with “profiteering foreign funds” he could find a place behind any Seoul editorial desk or taxi wheel.
Our female interpreters were 20-year-olds from elite families. One was the granddaughter of the founder of Kim Il-sung’s secret police; another, of the commander of Northern troops involved in the Panmunjeom Ax Murder incident (she had only a vague knowledge of the attack by North Korean guards that killed three U.S. soldiers in 1976). They were more open to questions, and seemed taken aback by Choe’s more theatrical displays of vitriol.
None had heard of The Beatles or Elvis Presley; one knew of Britney Spears. Another evidenced surprise that Seoul was not composed entirely of one-story homes. They were impressed by the capacity of iPods, but less by The Strokes. All expressed enormous interest in family photos. But the interpreters could also be fierce. (Reporter: “Could we get off the bus for a picture?” Interpreter: “You may not!”).
Having covered North Korea for over two years, I was thrilled to finally visit the country. Getting the feel of the place and being able to, at last, put a face on it ― a face not so different from Seoul’s ― will certainly add balance to my reporting.
But after the trip, I was in a deep depression for two days: Pyongyang was a beautiful city and it had been a fascinating tour. But what made it uniquely poignant was the realization that despite its geographical proximity, I may never be permitted to return. Given this, the pain of separated families must be unbearable.
I just wonder about that loudspeaker at 2 a.m. ― is surveillance really 24 hours, or was it just a coincidence that I passed by as they looked up?
by Andrew Salmon