September 1st, 2015


Travels in North Korea, Part 3

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

The first thing I ever remember reading about North Korea, and what really sparked my interest in the country, was a Straight Dope column from 21 July 2000. Titled "Is the world's tallest building in North Korea?", it described the absurdity of building the world's tallest hotel in what is surely the world's most isolated and least visited country:

At 300 meters (985 feet), the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang — there's a phrase to make your jaw sore — never came close to being the world's tallest building. But it would have been the world's tallest hotel, except for two problems: it was never completed, and even if it had been, somebody's built a taller hotel elsewhere. Always the way in the "world's tallest" sweepstakes.

The North Koreans began constructing the pyramid-shaped Ryugyong in 1987, reportedly aiming for 105 stories to beat out a structure the South Koreans were building in Singapore (not Kuala Lumpur). With 3,000 rooms and an estimated cost of $750 million, the thing was strictly an ego trip for North Korea's rulers — Pyongyang's few existing hotels were, and are, virtually empty. In 1991, some time after the Ryugyong had been topped out, work halted for unknown reasons, though "out of money" would be a good guess. The 3.9-millon-square-foot concrete structure is lit up at night, at least in propaganda pictures, but is thought to be crumbling.

Today, twenty-eight years after the Ryugyong Hotel was started, it remains under construction, though it's no longer the derelict concrete shell Cecil Adams described. In 2011 the exterior was finally decked in shiny blue glass, transforming the structure from a cavernous monstrosity to a very modern, very attractive structure. It completely dominates Pyongyang's skyline, being visible from almost everywhere in the city, but throughout our tour our guides never once named or referred to it. This seemed to me part of a pathological perfectionism pervading every aspect of North Korean society: anything flawed, inadequate, or incomplete was rarely acknowledged and never freely discussed. Which isn't to say that North Koreans believe their country to be perfect, but they are so fiercely proud of what it does have that they do not appreciate foreigners gawking at its many faults and shortcomings.

It was Saturday evening, the first night of our tour, and our bus was wending its way through the streets of Pyongyang en route to our hotel. Our attempts to steal furtive glimpses of the elusive Ryogyong Hotel gave way to a rapt fascination with the city itself. Pyongyang is at once eerily familiar and so unlike any other city on earth. The architecture is modern, in the sense that everything dates from the 1950s onward. In common with countries of the former Eastern Bloc, residential housing here is a mix of low-rise Soviet-era buildings and ultra-modern high-rise apartments. The older buildings are spartan but not at all shabby; most of them have shops or offices on the ground floor. Conspicuously absent, at least from the main boulevards, are the soulless, prefabricated panel buildings typical of Soviet satellite states. Every so often we would pass a stunningly beautiful work of architecture—here a triumphal arch, there a grandiose theatre, then a futuristic-looking stadium. Many otherwise unremarkable buildings featured large portraits of the two Kims, or revolutionary propaganda slogans in bold white brushstrokes on huge red banners.

Unlike the desolate intercity highways, the city roads in central Pyongyang have plenty of motorized traffic. Vehicle ownership is conveniently marked by the colour of the licence plates: white for state-owned vehicles, black for military, and orange for the odd private car. Taxis are commonplace, and seemingly always occupied by well-to-do young ladies. The sidewalks are full of people walking or biking home from work, swarming into the Metro stations, or forming impossibly long queues for the trolley buses. (The work week in the nominally socialist DPRK is six days long, with only Sundays off.) Traffic at major intersections is regulated not only by the usual electric lights, but also traffic wardens rhythmically gesturing in their impeccable blue and white uniforms.

[The elusive Ryogyong Hotel] [Kim Il Sung Stadium] [Pyongyang Station] [Typical street in central Pyongyang]
The elusive Ryogyong Hotel Kim Il Sung Stadium Pyongyang Station Typical street in central Pyongyang
[Kim Il Sung mural] [Traffic warden] [Propaganda posters] [Mangyongdae Children's Palace]
Kim Il Sung mural Traffic warden Propaganda posters Mangyongdae Children's Palace

Before long we had turned onto the bridge that would take us to our destination, the 47-storey Yanggakdo International Hotel. It's well known that tourists in the DPRK are forbidden from leaving their hotels unless accompanied by their guides; the Yanggakdo enforces this rule geographically by virtue of being situated on a small island in the middle of the Taedong River. The hotel's isolation is mitigated somewhat by its entertainment offerings, which include several gift shops, a casino, a massage parlour, a brew pub, a café, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, a billiards hall, a karaoke bar, a ping pong parlour, and a revolving rooftop restaurant. Sarah, our British tour manager, encouraged us to think of the place as "the Alcatraz of fun".

Our bus pulled to a stop outside the hotel, and we grabbed our bags and shuffled into the lobby to collect our room keys. Sarah reminded us that the power in Pyongyang was unreliable and in short supply, and announced that hot water would be available for only for short set periods in the evenings and mornings. Our entire group was installed in rooms near the very top of the hotel, affording us excellent views of the city. Though it was a bit hazy that first day, from the hallway windows we could already pick out a number of landmarks we'd soon be visiting close up—the Tower of the Juche Idea, Kim Il Sung Square, the Grand People's Study House—as well as a number that would remain off-limits, such as the Ryugyong, the Yanggakdo Stadium, and the golden-domed Russian Orthodox church.

We had an hour or two to rest and unpack before meeting for dinner in one of the half dozen downstairs restaurants. My suite looked nice enough in the fading daylight. I had two twin beds separated by an end table with an ancient-looking panel controlling the lights, alarm clock, and radio. Except for a couple of the lights, none of the controls worked. Beside one bed was an attractive wooden clothes rack, a table and armchair, and an empty refrigerator which ran so noisily that I immediately unplugged it. The bathroom was of standard European design, the bathtub and toilet bearing tissue-paper banners proudly announcing that they'd been sanitized for my use. The counter top near the basin was well stocked with toiletries, though unfortunately labelled only in Korean.

[Yanggakdo International Hotel] [My hotel suite] [View over Pyongyang] [Look who's on TV!]
Yanggakdo International Hotel My hotel suite View over Pyongyang Look who's on TV!

Opposite the bed was a modern flatscreen TV whose only offering was the state-run Korean Central Television (KCTV). When I switched it on, I was greeted by a close-up of Kim Jong Un's grinning mug peeking out from under a straw hat. The camera pulled back to reveal him seated at a fancy wooden desk on an outdoor platform overlooking a coastal airfield. The chubby leader laughed and cheered as he watched military planes and helicopters take off and drop a seemingly endless supply of bombs on a nearby island. It was like watching a kid play with toy soldiers, except these were not toys.

It took me a few minutes to grapple with what it was I was watching. In the West, North Korea is widely seen as being run by a volatile and oppressive tinpot dictator, and the TV's grinning, trigger-happy Kim wasn't doing much to disabuse me of this notion. Why was North Korean state media seemingly playing into this Western caricature? After thinking about it for a while, I realized where I was mistaken: KCTV doesn't produce its programming with a foreign audience it mind; it is made solely for consumption by the local populace. Like any other country and government, the DPRK has constructed a standardized narrative to justify its existence, and the role of the media is to produce entertainment and news reporting consistent with that narrative. The DPRK's narrative goes something like this:

For decades, the Korean people suffered under a brutal Japanese occupation, until the heroic Kim Il Sung single-handedly liberated the country in 1945. However, Korea soon came under a new occupation, this time by the imperialist Americans. Kim once again rose to the challenge, and by 1953 he had victoriously repulsed the Yankee invaders from the northern half of the country. For his singular feats against seemingly impossible odds, the Korean people enthroned Kim Il Sung as the country's rightful and eternal leader.

Today, despite its people's yearning for reunification, south Korea remains occupied by the American army and illegally administered by their puppet government. But their war of aggression is not over. No peace treaty was ever signed, and the Americans remain intent on conquering all of Korea. They are prevented from doing so only by the might of the Korean People's Army, as constituted by the infallible Kim Il Sung, and now entrusted into the command of the great successor Kim Jong Un. The free people of northern Korea must remain ever vigilant, ever ready to defend themselves against encroachment and domination by the forces of capitalist imperialism.

When the North Korean people turn on their televisions and see the grinning Kim Jong Un supervising the air force training exercises, the ballistic missile test launches, and the endless parades of soldiers marching through the streets of Pyongyang, the intent isn't to make them feel dominated, subjugated, and scared into subservience. Rather, they are supposed to feel empowered and reassured that, despite the ever-present threat of invasion by the American imperialists, Kim Jong Un and his loyal Korean People's Army have everything under control. See how Marshall Kim confidently laughs and smiles? He's not at all afraid of those belligerent Americans and their opportunistic running dogs! Bear witness to the mighty military forces under his command! With Kim in charge, no foreign power dares impugn the sovereignty and safety of the Korean republic. It is the great Comrade Kim, and Comrade Kim alone, who guarantees the peace-loving people of the nation will never again come to harm.

(Continued in Part 4.)