Features | Society | East Asia

The Silent Treatment

In this country they assume you’re an enemy right off the bat,” the elderly Polish-American tourist said as our ancient Soviet airplane descended into the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on the regular Air Koryo flight from the northern Chinese city of Shenyang.

By Saion Athelinas for

In this country they assume you’re an enemy right off the bat,” the elderly Polish-American tourist said as our ancient Soviet airplane descended into the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on the regular Air Koryo flight from the northern Chinese city of Shenyang. Growing up in communist Poland, he had escaped to the US in his youth. This trip to the world’s last surviving Stalinist dictatorship was his way of confirming his worst fears about what he had avoided by leaving Eastern Europe behind.

The eight-page English-language Pyongyang Times I was leafing through certainly confirmed the common perception of a country stuck in a time warp, focusing on past glories to paper over current inadequacies. The lead story, “Victory in War: 55 years on”, was about the anniversary of the end of the inconclusive Korean War. Another article dealt with the Taft-Katsura agreement between the US and Japan, calling it an “American-Japanese conspiracy aimed at interference in and domination of Korea”. The agreement was signed in 1905.

Only on the penultimate page did a story betray the trouble North Korea is currently in, with the UN World Food Program warning that the country is experiencing the worst levels of food shortage since the mid-nineties.

Not that one sees this side of life in North Korea. Like other visitors before us, we were shuttled from regime-approved sites to foreigner-only restaurants with as little interaction between ourselves and the local population as possible. We trooped obediently through the mausoleum of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). We politely looked at the thousands of gifts presented to North Korea’s ruling family by foreign potentates and bowed before another enormous statue of Kim Il-Sung in downtown Pyongyang, which is currently undergoing a facelift to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the founder’s birth.

I travelled to North Korea with two young American women who were fluent Mandarin speakers. Our excuse for visiting was the Arirang Games, a visual extravaganza held in the May Day Stadium that is the regime’s jewel in the crown. Featuring 100,000 gymnasts, acrobats, martial arts experts and sword-wielding majorettes in khaki-coloured uniforms, the ceremony is a kitsch, emotional interpretation of Korean history infused with adulation of the DPRK’s ruling family. The event had been brought forward two months to pre-empt the Olympic opening ceremony in nearby Beijing by four days.

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Our minders’ favourite pastime was eating. Lavish by local standards, the beautiful and perfectly impassive waitresses brought plate after plate of local delicacies until we could eat no more. It was the DPRK’s none-too-subtle way of demonstrating that talk of famine was inaccurate. But the eating habits of our slim minders spoke otherwise, shovelling food into their mouths and regarding us strangely when we said that we would rather take a walk in the streets than visit yet another restaurant. One of my travel companions repeatedly tried to make small conversation.

“How many years did our driver have to study before he became a driver?” “Two months, but he has a lot of experience,” one distracted minder answered. “Who is the most famous person our driver has driven?”

“The Minister of Railways,” he said, a note of suspicion creeping into his voice about our line of questioning.

The centre of attention was the driver ingesting food at phenomenal speed, sometimes with his chopsticks, sometimes tilting his head back and tipping the bowl’s contents into his mouth. Whether eating or piloting our bus with sadistic acceleration towards the lackadaisical pedestrians of North Korea’s empty highways, our driver remained silent.

“They loathe us,” one of my travel companions said of our guides. “We make their skin crawl. Can’t you see the hate in their eyes?” She mentioned how, at one point in the negotiations over where we could and could not go on our severely circumscribed trip, she had put her hand on one of the tour guides, and watched him flinch. “It was obvious that he wanted to move away, but didn’t out of politeness.”

Later, they openly threatened my companions. “The DPRK and the USA are still technically at war,” they said. “We would like your trip to conclude with success.”

An early evening light cast a soft pall over Pyongyang’s muted grey apartment towers. In the streets, pedestrians vastly outnumbered the occasional packed bus or car. Hundreds waited patiently in single file at the bus stops. No emotion registered on the faces of those waiting, neither impatience nor exasperation. At a traffic light, another overburdened antique bus had broken down. Some ten men were pushing it. The rest of the commuters sat inside, seemingly oblivious that getting off would lighten the pushers’ load.

The wide boulevards were scattered with hundreds of people. They walked around, squatted on pavements or thronged the main square where thousands of people marched up and down, some holding pikes, rehearsing for September and the anniversary of the DPRK’s founding.

“Are these people rehearsing for the celebrations?” we asked. “Yes,” came a curt reply. “Can Americans attend?” “No.” Dusk crept over a concrete barricade of tall buildings. In the fading light, the streets teemed with hundreds of people. Later, I stood watching the scene from my hotel room that was filled with electric light. But outside my hotel room not a single lamp was switched on in any street or apartment block, a result of the chronic electricity shortages.

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Our hotel was on the verdant grounds of an island in the middle of the Taedong River that bisects Pyongyang. We dubbed it Alcatraz and were discouraged from trying to leave unescorted after one such attempt ended at a guard-shack with the sound of dogs barking beyond. From my bedroom on the 31st floor I could just make out the opposite river bank. Ranks of labourers shouldering spades walked in single file in the streets at the end of their workday. Clusters of gendersegregated groups squatted on the verge, lectured by erect orators. Others huddled against corners, faces to the wall, urinating. There were no glass panes in the windows of the decrepit, Soviet-style blocks. If this was a showpiece city, the mind boggled at what the countryside must look like.

Yet North Korea is supposed to be in the middle of an investment boom. Increased construction activity in Pyongyang, an upgrade of the country’s underperforming electrical power plants and an overhaul of the antiquated rail network are all signs that change is coming. In December, Egyptianowned Orascom Telecom will officially inaugurate North Korea’s first commercial mobile phone network, a projected $US400 million investment spread over three years. North Korea’s stealthy opening to business is all part of an ambitious plan launched late last year to transform the national economy by 2012, the centennial of late leader Kim Il-Sung’s birth. Ground has already been broken on a commercial street in downtown Pyongyang that will feature a 50-floor hotel, a trade centre, a modern department store and offices.

Our visit wound up at one of the city’s elite department stores. There, listless saleswomen loitered around stacked shelves. An entire section was filled with sleek white washing machines, dryers and flat-screen TVs produced by Haier, a low-cost Chinese white goods company. The saleswomen outnumbered customers in the echoing halls and there was little sign of commerce. In the food hall, refrigerated display cases were stacked with bottled water, beer, canned foodstuffs and other imported luxuries far beyond the purchasing power of this famine-wracked country’s average citizen.
“Is this an expensive area?” I ask of our minders. “No,” came the inevitable reply. “In Korea, all areas are the same.