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