TRUE CHILDREN of the PARTY

“hardcore” PICKINGS from my DPRK DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

"Koryowood", Film City – walking behind our two guides to the auditorium

It is impossible for me...

At the end of our tour through  – let’s call it KORYOWOOD (Film City), a favorite child of KIM JONG IL – we got a chance to watch a North Korean production at the auditorium. The two of us – with our two “permanent” guides sitting behind us – waited in the complete darkness while the technicians tried to start the film. It took them several attempts to get the screening going.

...to accept the promotion

In the dark I got my camera ready without being looked over my shoulders.

The love story turned out to be a pitiless propaganda piece with the purpose to drill emotions to follow the party line. It carried a wicked message for all those whose emotions threatened to override party discipline.

Indoctrination is everywhere. Sometimes it is annoying, sometimes it is painfully obvious but it can also be quite subtle. French people we met complained about constant propaganda by their guides. They wouldn’t miss an opportunity, they said, to shower them with anti-Western, specially anti-American and anti-Japanese warmongering German tourists said the same.

In this respect, our experience was different. Our guides had their hands full with saying NO to us and our appetite to make contact with North Koreans from all walks of life! They often were exasperated and didn’t know how to control our curiosity. They didn’t seem well prepared to deal with people who had no political agenda but travelled, eyes and ears open, looking for genuine life situations.

My repeated referral to China about missing travel restrictions helped to put them on the defensive too. China was the only point of reference that was relevant for them. When I told Jong Hui and Min Bing Gee, our two “permanent guides”, that in China I could could enter any supermarket and pay in local currency they were very surprised.

37th floor

“facade” PICKINGS from my DPRK DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Pyongyang is a FACADE city. The Yanggakdo Hotel where we stay, is built to impress – like much of Pyongyang’s architecture. Oversize constructions in DPRK are a sign of quality while the inside of the monumental buildings is often less striking.

Our room is on 37th floor, facing the Taedong river with the city panorama. On my elevator rides I realize that a couple of the lower floors have the corridor lights turned off day and night. I find out that on these floors only “insiders” live like Russian circus artists, gymnasts, tourist guides (they always have to stay in the same hotel like their foreign guests). To my big surprise the button for the 5th floor is missing in the elevator. I try to stop and enter the 5th floor but I can’t.

No button for the 5th floor

Breakfast is very convenient to exchange information with fellow travelers. I’m told that the 5th floor is occupied by the secret service monitoring the hotel. My question, why I can only get Chinese CCTV channels and NHK international from Japan in our room but not one North Korean TV program which I would like to watch, nobody can answer. Even our guides seem to be puzzled because they get North Korean channels but no NHK international in their rooms. It turns out that tourist floors are assigned different channels than “insider” floors…

It doesn’t matter where we stay, we cannot leave the hotel on our own. Tourist Travel DPRK has no program for “Strolling, Walking, Hiking unattended”. Travelers who stayed at the Koryo Hotel in the center of Pyongyang were not allowed to leave the lobby on their own. When they tried, the receptionist immediately called their guide who came down from his room and stopped them.

The Yanggakdo Hotel is on a little island. We couldn’t cross the bridge on our own to go downtown or to the nearby railway station. To keep us from doing that our guide told us the following story: Not long ago a Chinese visitor had crossed the bridge, gone to the railway station and taken the train. He ended up in the province, hopelessly lost because he couldn’t communicate with the locals. As he didn’t find his way back he panicked. The travel agency had to pick up the completely confused Chinese tourist.

It was quite obvious that the story was imaginary. Restrictions are so rigorous that not even a Chinese can leave the Yanggakdo Hotel, cross the bridge and go downtown on his own. To enter the railway station without a guide and ticket in hand is even more impossible. To buy a ticket – no tourist can get Won, the North Korean currency – is a mission impossible without the DPRK travel agency’s permission. Nevertheless if that Chinese would have overcome these insurmountable obstacles the conductor on the train would have definitely called the police and had arrested him.

LIPS and LIPSTICK

Lips and Lipstick, local guide, agricultural university, Wonsan

cynical PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Quite a lady

North Korean lips and Chinese lipstick, Kaesong City

Hairdresser at a cooperative farm, Wonsang

Local guide, Wonsan

Traveling through DPRK I come to the conclusion that, first, without Chinese help a revolt is impossible and, second, China does not lend it’s hand for an uprising. Mobility in DPRK is strictly controlled, districts, cities, villages, cooperatives are hermetically cut off, people have only shovels… indoctrination is very effective. After a disastrous currency devaluation, most people feel a lot poorer now. Hardship stifles protest.

My impression is that the Chinese don’t want to topple KIM JONG IL’S dictatorship for cynical and pragmatic reasons. They may fear that, without his ruthless grip on power, it could provoke a serious revolt and North Korea could rush inadvertently towards reunification with South Korea. A reunited Korea under Seoul leadership and allied to the US, highly developed, democratic and western oriented would make the “Chinese Teeth feel very cold“ indeed.

The Chinese tactic and strategy, it seems, is to keep the KIM’S in power, their paranoia alive and DPRK’s economy in endless decline.

They don’t want to get unpleasant things – like KIM JONG IL’S dictatorship – over and done with. In fact they detest a collapse of the system. They seem to prefer to draw out the agony: “Besser ein Schrecken ohne  Ende, als ein Ende mit Schrecken”.

The end will come but in endless and invisible small steps, unnoticeably. Then the Kim regime will come under Chinese patronage. They will help but at a price. North Korea will move into China’s orbit. China is already now buttering up the North Korean consumer – not South Korea and the West. They will keep the KIM JONG IL regime afloat and secure KIM JONG UN’S succession

Lips and Lipstick, local guide, cooperative farm, Wonsan area

The Chinese want to make sure that their North Korean lips will have Chinese make-up on. China, it seems, pays great attention that North Korean and Chinese economies will be close-knit. Beauty products are a forerunner of this strategy, the lipstick a symbol of it.

Public kiosk (not private) in Pyongyang, street vendor selling water at KIM IL SUNG'S 99th birthday – She was not allowed to sell me a glass of syrup, my “permanent" guide said NO.

For the Chinese leadership governments, dictatorships come and go. Their goal is to penetrate systems and political structures by means of production, exert influence and strengthen ties at all levels through market domination.

North Korea will become a satellite of China. This is not what the KIMS want. But there is no alternative to the regime survival of the KIM family.

Primatologist, our local guide at the showcase maternity hospital in Pyongyang

Guns, Lips and Lipstick, local guide, Pyongyang

Signs of Things to Come?

private enterprise PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Nestle products

Having in mind that in November 2009, North Korea had devalued its old bank notes with virtually no advance notice by 100 to 1.  The old denomination of 1,000 won was replaced by the new 10 won. North Koreans were only allowed to exchange up to 100,000 won approximately US$25 to US$30 according to the then-market exchange rate of the old currency for the new bills. Many people saw their entire private savings wiped out overnight. North Korean Supreme Military Authority issued shoot-to-kill orders on the Chinese-DPRK border. Authorities were afraid of a massive exodus by middle class North Koreans with god.

I was looking for the old won and found prices in old won in Sariwon City at an ice cream seller.

Shell fishers refused to be photographed

I was also keen to find signs of private enterprise in this classic stalinist regime of KIM JONG IL. At the beach in Wonsan I met shell fishers selling their catch in small portions.

Apples from China

One day, traveling overland, our guides allowed us to make a toilet stop. We sat at the stairs of a closed down highway restaurant beside the road, bought a cup of tea, a brochure with the thoughts of “My Dear Leader“ and some apples (probably from China).

The dishes, tea and coffee they had brought in cardboard boxes. This stop was well organized and run by a group of women and men which must have had the support of the local bureaucrats (and our guides too) looking for Euros. It was the first and only time I saw Nestlé products in North Korea.

She was serving tea

Private traders selling their goods - Is this a sign of things to come?

Private enterprise dies last or as we say in German “Die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt”. Are these traces of things to come?

When I look at the girl – she was quite a lady – who served us tea and coffee with Coffee Mate from Nestlé, I think these are indeed hidden signs of change, of “Big-Brother-influence” creeping up on North Korea from over the border, “brotherly touches” not even “My Dear Leader” KIM JONG IL, the last Gate-Keeper of Stalinism, can avoid…

But most astonishing to me were the North Koreans who sold and traded their goods in a remote area on the South coast 30km outside of Wonsan. I was able to take a snapshot while driving by at 08:30 in the morning after we had stayed overnight at an old Soviet-type sanatorium (with cold Fango) outside Wonsan .

learn from BIG BROTHER

chinese PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

It pays off to walk behind a Chinese. This invaluable lesson I learned in DPRK. Chinese in groups are a friendly bunch, they laugh, are loud, say hello and often ask to make a photo with you. They care less about restrictions, take pictures we are told not to make and walk around more freely. Moving behind a Chinese or a Chinese group of travelers is like moving your boat behind an icebreaker in the Arctic Zone. Chinese seem to be “naturally“ hearing impaired, easy-going and not responsive to every whim of their guides.

I quickly understood that if I wanted to make contact with local North Koreans I had to hang behind my guides at least 20m – and behave like a Chinese.

“over the rainbow“ – International Friendship Exhibition Shrine of KIM IL SUNG in the hills of Mt Myohyang

waxwork-PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

KIM IL SUNG'S spectacular warehouse of gifts of fellow communist dictators

The International Friendship Exhibition Shrine IFE of The Eternal President KIM IL SUNG is a vast traditional building without windows, containing 120 rooms with over 100’000 gifts presented to him by fraternal foreign leaders from many parts of the world.

The hills of Mt Myohyang are quite beautiful

The pompous building is located in a idyllic landscape in the hills of Mt Myohyang. Before we enter the vast shrine we have to put on plastic shoe covers and are asked to show reverential attitude. We have to pass a metal detector inside and to hand over all photo and video cameras.  Taking pictures is strictly forbidden. My iPhone was already sealed.

Ursula was “honored“ to open the huge doors that led us inside the temple like monument after she put on ceremonial gloves to protect the golden shine of the door knob. Beside our “permanent” guide we were joined by a local guide who took us – thankfully – only through some dozen of the 120 enormous gift rooms. KIM IL SUNG’s gifts are like Tales from a Crypt, especially the steel armoured train carrier by his mentor and protector Mao Zedong and the three limousine cars by his close friend Joseph Stalin are noteworthy (sorry no photo).

The presentation of the local guide is almost religious, the atmosphere in the windowless temple-like monument is sombre as we walk the over-polished corridors, our shoes in plastic covers. Suddenly, the tone of our local guide gets very serious and emotional. She opens the door to the most surreal of all rooms, to the final room of the exhibit. The over-life-sized waxwork of  “The Eternal President“ KIM IL SUNG – a gift from the Chinese leadership – is standing in a bucolic 3D landscape with birdsong and shopping center music. We are asked to bow our heads respectfully before leaving the room. Our local guide is moved to tears. Steps to make “The Eternal President“ KIM IL SUNG into a divine figure were highly obvious analogous to the Egyptian Pharao.

At the end of the tour through the windowless temple-like Palace, up on the terrace, we have a fabulous view of the surrounding hills of Mt Myohyang.

Below shot of the warehouse roof

Up on the terrace...

We are asked to talk about our experience with “The Eternal President“ and write down our feelings which Ursula dutifully did.

Our “permanent“ guide translates Ursula's feelings into Korean to be published in the eternal guestbook

Our “permanent“ guide translated Ursula’s handwriting for the “eternal“ guestbook of KIM IL SUNG’S International Friendship Exhibition Shrine.

On the other side of KIM IL SUNG’S “warehouse of gifts“ is a similarly pompous warehouse where KIM YONG IL’S gifts are stored.

We chose to have lunch

Lunch at Myohyangsan

We choose to have lunch at the government restaurant close by instead of visiting KIM YONG IL’S shrine of gifts. Sitting all alone in a huge building without electricity in a cold eating hall, being served by two waitresses and surrounded by a grand idyllic wall painting, I regret not having visited the second warehouse-temple-like building of KIM IL SUNG’S son KIM YONG IL.

They say that parts of the exhibit show row after row of wide-screen televisions and stereo equipment donated to “My Dear Leader“ by industrialists of foreign countries. Like KIM IL SUNG’S warehouse-temple , KIM YONG IL’S ends with his statue (which I also missed unfortunately).

Grand idyllic wall paintings are in many public buildings

The taste of the past was remarkably odd.

a Step FORWARD – this time it might be different

key-PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Coming by train from Beijing on April 10, having experienced the enormous building boom, industrial development, highway building and the extension of the superspeed train right up to the DPRK border town, my guess was that “Big Brother“ would tell the last Stalinist dictatorship of “My Dear Leader” KIM YONG IL, that time had come. When I sat foot in the DPRK, I was under the impression that only China had the key to the future of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And so it was a reinforcement of my thinking how things would develop when Lukas, my son in law, sent me from Shanghai CHINA DAILY’s article on

Foreign and Military Affairs

China, DPRK to develop two economic zones

The SNAKE in the GRASS

tricky PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

KIM IL SUNG at the Grand People's Study House

It’s NOT a lie! No, I don’t say they lie at me. It is a different frame of mind, sometimes it is an anxious state of mind that dictates them and their actions, other times it looks like utter confusion or just paranoia in hiding.

It is the dictum of “The Eternal President“ KIM IL SUNG – the only statesman on earth who remains President even  after his death in 1994 that is of utmost importance.

KIM IL SUNG at the Grand People's Study House

KIM IL SUNG – The Eternal President

He and his son KIM JONG IL, called “My Dear Leader“, are telling Right from Wrong, Good from Bad. They decide what is real and what has to be banned, who is sent to the university or to the work camp, to the labor camp or to the gulag. KIM IL SUNG and KIM JONG IL have a six-decade grip on power.

KIM IL SUNG with local guide in the entrance of the Grand People's Study House

All in the Family - KIM IL SUNG “The Eternal President" and his son KIM YONG IL, called “My Dear Leader"

Our two “permanent“ guides work under the spell of this government-mind-set, they tell me that the local shops are closed when they are open, that people don’t like to make contact with a foreigner when in fact they wish just that. They change our itinerary every day but if we want to make an additional stop, it’s impossible.

This gentle local guide liked my questions, Agricultural University, Wonsan area

They make me feel like a disobedient child who doesn’t quite get it when I keep asking questions or like a snake in the grass when I make photos of simple life events.

Fear is guiding the system. The world of DPRK is under a delusion.

The hinge joint is the personality cult.

My guess is that “Big Brother“ will tell them. China holds the key to the future of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

BREAKFAST at a SOVIET SANATORIUM

Our local guide and receptionist at a formerly Soviet spa

FANGO-PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

At lovely lake Si Jung, the sanatorium is tucked away...

We are located in a old Soviet-type sanatorium at lake Si Jung outside Wonsan which was built  in the early 1960s, when North Korea grew rapidly. During that time a chain of resorts were built all over the Soviet Empire for the Communist Partys’ leading members to visit and consult each other, relax and go hunting.

Built on an artificial lake, the sanatorium is tucked away behind the road but close enough to the sea with a view to the mountains we had just passed. It offered privacy to the communist party members of the Soviet Empire from Georgia to Kazakhstan, from Moscow to Kyrgyzstan. Tourists nowadays pay for their upkeep (since almost no communist party boss is left over “from the good old times“ and those from China and North Korea most likely prefer more comfort.).

From "Russia" to "Kyrgyzstan."

From the "Georgia" to "KAZAKHSTAN"

We stay at this famous spa with electricity for 3 hours in the evening, almost no running water and a special fango-pack  treatment that was cold because of a power cut.

We are the only guests and retire early to do some talking and writing. Unexpectedly at 10pm, the light goes off and we sit in the dark not quite remembering where the toilet was… .

From nowhere we jump awake at 5am next morning realising that we forgot to switch off the light… . Suddenly the electricity was back on… .

Waitress at the bar

Breakfast is at 8am. We are very well received by our waitress behind the bar which serves us a full meal under a big painting of a mountain scene close to the Chinese-North Korean border.

Oh! KIM IL SUNG!!... Oh! KIM JONG IL!!... Oh! Communist Party!

NO!…NO’s!… recorded!

FORBIDDEN PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Every day it happened several times that I was reprimanded or hindered in taking photos or shooting a video. Sometimes it was physically made impossible by our guides to take pictures  or – when they did not succeed – they tried to interfere, stood in my way and blocked my view.

To shoot a farmworker woman in Mount Kuwol area - "No! No! It is NOT allowed!"

To get me in line, they also threatened me openly that everything would be confiscated at the airport on my departure. I knew that this could be the case since it had happened to another traveler at Pyongyang railway station upon his arrival by train from Beijing. He had taken photos in the train and somebody had informed against him. All his shots were deleted by a security official when he passed the exit checkpoint at the railway station in Pyongyang. I felt inevitably reminded of the former Sovietunion where we had traveled in the 1960s extensively by car and two times with the Trans-Siberian-Railway, once on our way to Japan in 1969 and the second time in 1987 from Zurich through the Sovietunion, Mongolia to China till Hongkong. Photos of the locomotive with the red star of the Trans-Sib-Train, shots of the typically wooden houses and their backyards, of people and countryside, just about everything got me in trouble in Russia at that time. Time has not only not changed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Actually it is worse than I initially thought. Controls were tight and severe restrictions were imposed. I could not leave the Hotel in Pyongyang on my own and not in any other City we traveled to. I could never freely walk the streets of Pyongyang, Sariwon, Kaesong, Wonsan or any other place we visited. In Sariwon, two girls dancing to the singing and clapping of their parents were told to stop when the local guide noticed that I was filming. In Pyongyang we tried to go by tram or bus, but though we insisted, we couldn’t even get close to public transport.

Public transport like tram or bus in Pyongyang was out of reach for us.

Friendshipstores were the only shops foreigners could enter and buy goods –  with one exception. In Wonsan City, though my guide tried to hinder me I went in a local cloth shop and bought some tights for my wife. Unofficial contact with people in the street or countryside was cut immediatly. Only with a good portion of “Zivilcourage” I could get my way… sometimes.

Drinkingwater turned into a state secret

But often I could not like this picture shows in the streets of Pyongyang at a little kiosk where I wanted to buy a cup of drinking water like everybody else. Most trivial undertakings turned suddenly into state secrets.