Thursday, September 23, 2010

September 2010: Eight Days in North Korea aka DPRK

Eight Days in North Korea aka DPRK

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that the original Axis of Evil was Iraq, Iran and Syria. When it was pointed out that all were Moslem, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea aka North Korea, was substituted for Syria. So it was to North Korea that I went in September 2010, traveling with Global Exchange/Realty tours. I had gone with them before: to Kabul and to Palestine/Israel and liked their approach, more educational than most.

There were eight of us in the group, plus the South Korea tour manager. Three were PhDs, one a Fullbright scholar, another a soon-to-be medical student, a ex-Navy guy, a would-be priest, our Italian Global Exchange representative and me, a retired civil servant. Ages ranged from mid-twenties to mid-eighties. Good group though the ex-Navy guy had health issues.

The Juche Idea is DPRK’s guiding philosophy, teaching that “man is the master of everything and decides everything”. This was first articulated by Kim Il-sung in 1955 and is what distinguishes the Korean approach from that of the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. Kim Il-sung is the first and Eternal President, despite his death in 1994. His son and successor, Kim Jong-il, is listed as the Supreme Leader, Chairman of the Presidium and Chairman of the National Defense commission. It is his third son who is soon to be designated heir.

And there is a Kim cult. Portraits of the Eternal Leader are in the foyers of all the buildings I entered, the guides began all their explanations with praises of Kim 1 and 2, people bow before a facsimile of Kim 1 - occasionally Kim 2 is part of the picture but always, Kim 1. Bookstores had a plethora of Kim-written books; almost impossible to find much else.

We had two nights in Pyongyang, a night in Kaesang and the DMZ, returned to Pyongyang for two nights and then a night at Wonsan and back to Pyongyang for the final two nights. The Yanggakdo hotel was some 40+ floors with a revolving restaurant on top - quite classy. You could see the new, even taller, hotel that was being built, a triangular shaped structure. It seemed North Korea was expecting/encouraging visitors. There were other tourists: Germans, Austrians, Canadians, Malaysians, Americans, all with guides. I talked with a Canadian who was part of a group of American teachers who came yearly to consult and advise on educational matters.

But visitors were segregated from the average Korean. We had a tour guide and two assistants. Our guide had studied and traveled in Europe worked for an international organization in North Korea before becoming a guide some four years ago. He was very good. His assistants were pleasant, less facile in English, and filmed us throughout the tour.

We. and the other visitors, not only ate apart from the local people - two dining rooms in the hotel - and were forbidden from taking photos of people. Certainly we could not wander abut on our own - our passports were taken from us upon arrival and returned only as we left the country. As we were ending our trip, an international film festival had begun which meant the hotel was well occupied. I saw two men, probably Eastern Europeans from their accents, waiting around for a minder so they could go on a morning run.

Driving about Pyongyang, I saw lots of statues and monuments but few people walking about. I did see individuals, mainly women, cleaning and clipping for the forthcoming October 10 celebration. Grass clipping was done with both sheers and scissors. And buses and subway were jam packed. We did ride the subway, in a car with only one other passenger, who seemed a bit bemused by us foreigners and quickly ran out at the first opportunity. The North Koreans live in rent-free assigned high rise apartments. Everyone I saw, in and out of the City, seemed reasonably well fed.

Sunday morning was spent at the Bongsu Christian Church where a very professional choir performed. A visiting minister from the US received much applause when she mentioned reunification. The resident minister’s sermon was more about ethics than religion. The members were primarily female and quite well dressed, as opposed to us in our tourist grubs.

In Pyongyang, we visited two hospitals: one was the Maternity Hospital and the other, the Academy of Koryo Medical Science. Equipment in the maternity hospital seemed modern enough. We were told medical care was available to all. The mothers and babies seemed well cared for but quiet; no babies crying. The Academy works with alternate medical care; I was shown acupuncture, accupressive and cupping techniques.

Along with various statues and monuments, we were visited the alleged native house of Kim Il-sung, the Kim Il-sung University, the library (Grand People’s Study House), and the Liberation Museum (which had a lot of captured US equipment from the Korean War US/War of Liberation(DPRK). I didn’t see a lot of students at the University except at the new Aquatic Center. The library seemed well used; I walked by an active English class among others. Both facilities have records extensively computerized (though no Internet available to us!).

A biggie was the visit to the captured US spy ship, Pueblo, where a video was screened, presenting the DPRK point of view. Not a high point of US Foreign policy.

We stopped by several art galleries and a embroidery studio. The embroidery work was exquisite. I watched the workers taking small stitches on thin silk material that would eventually be a figure or a scene. Very Impressive.

The Mangyondae Student and Children’s Palace had an active after school arts program in Western and Korean music and dance. They put on one of the three performances we saw and it was very professional. From drumming to dance to violin solos. The other performances were the Mass Gymnastic and Art Performance Arirang which was a combination of the Olympic opening ceremonies and Cirque du Soliel with a touch of the Edinburgh Tattoo. The third was the Circus where the performers were, I was told, all Army people, even the daring trapeze artists.

A cooperative farm was on the itinerary. Along the highway, there and elsewhere, corn and peppers were set out to dry. At the farm, I observed dried corn being loaded into new sacks with the US flag printed on them. Also, we were invited into a local home, they called it two room but I thought it three (Kitchen, living room and bedroom areas) with refrigerator, washer and dryer. However, facilities are VIPL: very improved pit latrine.

There were two trips out of town: one to Kaesung and the DMZ where the Armistice was signed. The Sinchon Museum,a pean to the atrocities of Americans, was on the agenda. Another video presented with the DPRK point of view. Overnight was at the Kaesung Korean Inn, where sleeping mats with mesquito nets substituted for beds; it was immaculate with TV and modern plumbing. Meals were served on low tables with consumers seated on the floor - hard for some of our crew.

The second out of town trip was to Wonsan. Enroute we stopped by the King Tongmyong Mausoleum, a magnificent spectacle, and the Children's International Camp, where kids spend several weeks in a natural setting (a light weight Adventure-bound?). Overnight, we were on the coast of the Sea of Japan where several of the guys swam - I settled for barefoot walking along the private Foreigners’ beach. The hotel was quite comfortable though not many were staying there.

A day trip was to Mt Myohyang, a tourist attraction, reportedly crowded year round with people, wildlife and hiking trails. There is the International Friendship House, a 200 room marble building with a Korean tiled roof full of gifts sent over the years to the two Kims; nearby is the 50 room annex. It’s as if all the Presidents’ gifts over the years were housed in one rather than the many Presidential libraries across the US. Also in this lovely mountain area was one of the two Buddhist temples we visited, all lovingly restored.

The tour ended with a stop at a souvenir shop, some karaoke after dinner and we were done!

And the good news was I made a tight connection in Beijing so, having left Pyongyang Saturday @ 9AM, I arrived in SFO @ 8 AM Saturday and was in the house, greeted by Sam, the cat, @ 10AM.

The bad news was the computer crashed and I had to put in a new hard drive. .

Impression: This continues to be a closed society, wedded to its philosophical base, the Juche Idea. (I found an excellent discussion of it on Wikipedia.) But there is a tourist infrastructure which seems t indicate the North Koreans are interested in contact with the rest of the world. It may be they want to show off what they have, which they feel is unique to them with little input from the outside. I don’t know.

But people seemed friendly though most of my contact was with the apartatchiks. Our South Korean companion said you could question anything but Kim Il-sung and the Juche Idea. Reunification is a goal but the United States is seen as standing in the way - we are the boogieman, a convenient scape goat. Our guide said he thought perhaps the military and the foreign services could combine in his lifetime but it would be his son’s lifetime before any reunification.

The tour cost $2750 inclusive meals and Beijing-Pyongyang air fare. SFO-Bejing via United was $1184.90.