SPY and SUSPECT – all in one

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

In North Korea, everybody is a spy and at the same time a suspect. Even if there is no reason to believe that something is wrong, to suspect something behind something, it seems to me, is an “official duty” that drives the system. We tourists are constantly watched, but we are not the primary suspects in this game. Tourists are the fat cows that have to be milked and guided through the “idyllic pastures” of KIM’S make-believe world. Total national isolation from the outside world, suspicion, mistrust and denial within the country, self censorship and total restraint – based on severe punishment – make this illusory world survive.

From afar, looking over the “facade”-city of Pyongyang from the 37th floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel, I get the impression that the KIMS are in a private war with practically everybody. In this treacherous spiderweb world of paranoia where emotions are enslaved to the communist party everyone is suspect.

It is the main task of all our guides, “permanent” and local ones, to keep up the myth that DPRK is a normal country and Pyongyang a modern almost western like capital. But whenever we engage with someone they cut off contact. If we don’t give in, pretend not to understand they threatened us that all our material, fotos and films, would be checked and deleted at the airport upon departure – because in case of problems the guides are the suspects, they will suffer and maybe their family members too.

MUSHROOMS and OASIS

springtime PICKINGS from my DPRK DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Ryugyong Hotel, Construction start 1987, still vacant – Unfinished Mushroom

Monuments, statues, monoliths, murals to the KIMS, the North Korean military and the Juche Idea are sprouting like mushrooms in Pyongyang.

Relaxing after the relentless propaganda I take a few free, unobserved minutes to follow a mother and her child in a nearby park as they cross a bridge over a little pond.

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.

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 .