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.

HOT SPRING – soviet-style POMP

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

Entering the resort – Lonely as the lamp post...

The Ryonggang Hot Spring is located 40 km outside of Nampho. The compound consists of 12 houses. There are no other hotels between Pyongyang and Kaesong.

DDR-style design – We live on the ground floor – Our two “permanent" guides are in the background

The Ryonggang Hot Spring resort looks like DDR-design. It is guarded by soldiers with machine guns around the clock. It is closed off to the outside world as well as to those who are inside. Nobody can enter, nobody can leave without permission and guide.

It has been a famous spa of the former Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. The vacation compound in the woods offered complete seclusion where Communist Party Members of the former Soviet Empire, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, from Poland to Cuba, could enjoy themselves in total privacy.

It has special services like floor heating in the bedroom, a bathtub with hot water from the hot spring  for three hours in the afternoon and two hours in the morning…

Reception area

The reception area was huge, well, that was my impression when I entered the main building. But soon I had to adjust my perception of space in this “otherworldly“ environment.

Billiard room

After dinner we went to the billiard room – it looked like the first class waiting room of a  small town railway station. One could still feel the activity of decades ago.

Going to the bar, another  – abandoned – enormous empty space brings up the fantasy – I can’t resist it – that, year by year, train loads of vodka and kaviar must have passed through this exclusive resort which served former communist apparatchiks from all over the world.

Pomp in the UDSSR has always been expressed by size.

Pomp in the UDSSR has always been expressed in size and kilos. Oversized constructions carried the nimbus of “Excellence“ and “Quality“.

Dining room

In that respect, our dining room was of “very high quality“. It was super huge and  only the two of us were experiencing the remote and odd luxury in the woods of this once exclusive resort.

Bedroom with floor heating from the hot spring

Times have changed? I guess they have – in some respect. Nowadays, modern communists expect more comfort.

The game is over. Now we tourists pay for the upkeep.

Hot water for three hours in the afternoon and from 0600-0800 in the morning

Now the tourist pay for the upkeep

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 .

OVERLAND in DPRK

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

“entering DPRK” by rail from China was still very much on my mind when I pressed my movie camera to the car window trying to find a stable position for shooting. Traveling from Beijing to Pyongyang by train had made a lasting impression on me. But moving overland by car through DPRK was different. Though my guides wouldn’t allow our driver to stop or even to slow down when I asked for, I still got in closer in contact to land, buildings and people.

On the Panmunjom – Pyongyang highway I got the permission from my two guides to shoot through the window. This highway is the direct access road to South Korea.

Like other highways we have passed, this one looked like an airstrip or a tank corridor too.

Fire wood - The man following on the side, the woman pulling...

Though the road was in poor condition, the car windows dirty and the circumstances very shaky, I was elated to get that chance. No cars were in sight. Sometimes people were walking on the highway.

Female farmworker

As it always happened day after day, the two guides discussed every move of us over lunch and talked daily to the main travel office in Pyongyang to get instruction.

tête-à-tête

After arrival in Pyongyang that evening, they must have discussed the filming with their superior because next day all shooting from the car window was forbidden…

more NO!…NO’s!… ways to look behind the curtain of DPRK

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

...only a few running cars

Highways like frontline airstrips

Highway roadside traffic

The NO!…NO’S! of our two guides are an everyday occurrence. I don’t work with hidden movie or photo cameras, my shooting activity is open but my focus I keep obscured by not looking through the finder.

Shooting from the hip

Since the guides don’t allow stops on the highway or in cities without prior permission from the central travel office in Pyongyang I shoot from the hip.

Army road block

I take photos or movie from all types of angles. My “luck“ is that roads and highways are often in poor condition and we roll by comfortably at 40-60 km, perfect to take snapshots.

Highway bikers - much more common than cars

Just as regular as pedestrians and bikes are oxen carts on the highway.

Man and ox - regular highway traffic

Broken down trucks on the roadside I see sometimes more often than cars driving.

Head transport on the highway

Driving overland on the highway from Pyongyang to Wonsan on the East coast, a distance of about 200 km, I count 25 oncoming cars while on our side I see 11 vehicles in need of repair.

The most modern trucks I have seen in North Korea

A NO! NO! shot. North Korean soldiers wait for the blow-out to be fixed

Hitch-hikers in the tunnels are a special experience.

Hitch-hikers are extremely rare

The NO!…NO’S! are an attempt to hide the harsh living conditions of the North Koreans and erase them from the travelers eye.

Crossing the railway tracks, our driver has to slow down... - In the background behind the biker people are walking on the tracks. This is very common specially in the morning and evening hours. Rail tracks offer the shortest link to the next destination. Trains ran not very often and when they approach the people on the tracks they honk early.

Our guides allowed the driver to make an unplanned stop only in a very remote area but even there Tung Hui followed me, stood in front of my camera to prevent me from taking pictures.

Woman transporting coal to the city

As a western tour operator, stationed in Beijing and in the North Korean tourist business for over 10 years, said to me: “We all know that the view KIM JONG IL’S dictatorship imposes on us does not reflect everyday life in DPRK.”

But there are ways…  …to look behind the curtain.

A moment to himself

Pushing uphill

Pulling wood along the highway

Highway “DECORATIONS“, DPRK

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

Monumental concrete structures “decorate“ the highway

Ever so often we pass concrete structures on the left and right side of the highway from Panmunjon to Pyongyang . Ursula’s questions about the purpose of it, Tung Hui answers with “highway decorations“.

The entrance gate to the DMZ is made of concrete slabs which can easily be dropped as roadblocks against advancing South Korean tanks

The concrete slabs don’t look like sculptures though. They remind us much more of the entrance fortification to the DMZ. They can easily be toppled by hacking away the bottom part.

Another sample of roadblock on the way to the DMZ is the following.

Concrete road block - The wooden wedge can easily be removed

PANMUNJON – It is 70km to Seoul

Panmunjon - Tomb of lost hope - View to the South Korean side

North Korean war photo from the Armistice Talks Hall at the DMZ

North Korean propaganda officer “welcomes“ Ursula at KPA post

CHEJU-honeymoon-dream PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

The wishful thinking of reunification obscures the fact that North and South Korea are light-years apart. Social and economic realities of the two Koreas’ are differently cycle-controlled. But both seem to have adopted the rule: If reunification is not working, stick to it anyhow!

We join a group of Chinese tourists - In the background the entrance to the Demilitarized Zone DMZ

Arriving at the KPA post just outside the DMZ we join a group of Chinese tourists. We were picked up by a soldier in his thirties – in charge of propaganda – who took us to the Armistice Talks Hall where negotiations were held from 1951 till the signing of the final ceasefire accord on 27 July 1953.

At the Armistice Talks Hall we got a lecture on the Korean war. The Chinese group applauded and agreed with the remarks of our North Korean soldier.

The Korean nation is divided along the 38th parallel into North and South Korea

As we had experienced before, Chinese tourists had more leeway and could move more freely which rubbed off on us two. Whatever the Chinese were allowed to do at the 38th parallel we could do also: we got more photo opportunities, were allowed to visit to the toilet in the official border building finding out that the toilets didn’t work because of electricity shortage.

I asked the North Korean army man when he would like to marry. He said “after reunification, maybe next year“. He thought it would not take longer than 2 to 3 years at the most. He would then go on honeymoon to the famous Cheju island in the South Korean sea.

North Koreans’ believe that KIM IL SUNG liberated them and that South Korea is still occupied by the US army up to now.

Ursula in front of the North Korean version of the final armistice treaty which was signed on 27 July 1953. The text goes like this: “On July 27 1953, the American imperialists got down on their knees in front of the heroic North Korean people and signed here the ceasefire for the war they had provoked.“

To them, the Americans were – and still are – the aggressor who started the war but finally had to succumb to the North Korean forces. Of the two Koreas’ they believe, it is them who live in a free and democratic state since 1953.

The countryside at the 38th parallel

The eerily soundless environment oft he DMZ was only interrupted by our lively Chinese tourist group.

North Korean propaganda officer elaborates on Panmunjon DMZ with an illustration that totally belittles the death-zone and the extremely heavy fortified border strip which makes escaping impossible

It’s a unique experience to see things from a North Korean perspective. The population is hermetically cut of from all outside influence and can not imagine how different the world is outside of North Korea. In their opinion it is just a matter of time until the American aggressor is defeated and the capitalist system of South Korea collapses. It’s like somebody kicking the can down the road but the can is getting heavier, the distortions more difficult to hide. The danger of a total collapse of the systems shows itself in the military posturing and in the harsh Gulag style atmosphere within DPRK.

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.

KIM IL SUNG’S Homecoming, DPRK

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

The huge Mosaic illustrates KIM IL SUNG’S triumphant Homecoming after he “liberated Korea from Japan” at the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945.

Jürg shooting KIM IL SUNG'S homecoming mural

It shows in great detail how the young KIM is addressing an enthralled crowd.

The story though as it is presented on the mural omits the fact that it was not KIM IL SUNG and his partisans who liberated Pyongyang but STALIN and his Soviet army. In 1945 though, the partisans of KIM IL SUNG gave full credit to the UDSSR.

With this vast mural KIM IL SUNG celebrates the defeat of the Japanese army

This larger than life-size Mosaic is located not far from the Triumphal Arch in Pyongyang.

The Triumphal Arch of Pyongyang is the largest in the world, he is 3m higher than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris