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.