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

“KINGDOM of KIM“

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

Film City – "rea"l street cleaners

The film sites have a 1930’s Chinese street, a Japanese street, a US corner, a South Korean quarter and a bizarre selection of European architecture. They have three focuses: against the American Aggressor, the anti-Japanese struggle and the fight against the occupied capitalist and decadent South Korea. Watch out for signs of Massage Parlors that illustrate their South Korean compatriots’ decadence.

KIM IL SUNG visited Cinema City about 20 times in his lifetime to give on-the-spot advice to North Korean filmmakers. KIM JONG IL has a passion for cinema, thanks to his lifelong interest, the film industry is well financed. He dropped in over 600 times to give direction to the film studios.

Film City – American street corner, against the US-aggressor

But the North Korean filmmakers could not satisfy his vision. When their performance did not improve, KIM JONG IL didn’t hesitate to take other steps, orchestrated by himself.

Film City – Lactogen – Prepared in Austr...

Massage Parlors that illustrate their South Korean compatriots' decadence

Choe Eun-hui, a South Korean movie actress, was the first being kidnapped in HongKong by KIM JONG IL’S secret agents in 1978. Her husband, the South Korean film director Shin Sang-kowho flew immediately from Seoul to Hongkong to look for his wife, was soon after kidnapped and brought to Pyongyang too. The fanatic movie buff KIM JONG IL, who likes Rambo and James Bond movies, wanted the South Korean film director to make “good“ movies for North Korea. After almost five years in the Gulag for trying to escape twice, Shin Sang-ko made several movies. One of them is probably the most famous North Korean film called “Pulgasari“, a socialist version of “Godzilla“, though the North Koreans deny that he was involved.

In 1986, the couple were given the permission to travel for the first time abroad. They went to a film festival in Vienna and though they were followed by North Korean secret agents they managed to enter the US embassy and asked for asylum eight years after having been abducted.

Film City – Bizarre selection of European architecture