“Things could be bad in China under Mao.” My very drunk Chinese communist party friend slurred as he leaned forward over the table. “Almost as crazy as in North Korea today. If you want to understand us, go there.” Six years later I finally went. And this is why now is the time to go.
The DPRK now
Superficially, the media is pretty accurate about life in the world’s most isolated state. You will be permanently supervised, stay on an island hotel, and visit only the ‘best sites’. You will listen to endless accounts of the great leaders, Korea’s fine socialist system, and the glorious victory against American imperialists. But if you look carefully you will also see a society that is not a pantomime, the stubborn humanity of its people, and its scarily fragile future.
Pyongyang, the world’s only ‘perfect’ city, did not induce culture shock. That’s because it felt like a museum. Among pastel 50’s housing blocks and clockwork Czechoslovakian trams, the streets streamed with spotless citizens. They were noticeably small, and immaculately dressed in either pressed shirts or soldier’s uniforms. All had a red Kim badge pinned to their chest. The playground of the great leaders contains every symbol of a socialist paradise – the ornate people’s library, cinemas, fairgrounds, a skating rink, and endless monuments to the cold war. There are no beggars, disabled people, or pregnant woman – I don’t remember seeing as much as a blemish on someone’s face.
People of North Korea
“At harvest we help the farmers bring in rice,” said Choi, our guide. “Otherwise I always live here because my family are official residents.” She bought flowers for us to lay at the feet of a giant Kim Il-Sung statue. We had been briefed to treat the leaders with the sensitivity of a religion. Yet still someone from our group was thoughtless enough to almost land our guide in a struggle session. Previously a tourist lost a guide his job – and his right to live in the capital. He and his family were stripped of their core class status, and had to move to a village to till paddy fields.
We did not of course see the hostile classes who live in labour camps (read ‘Nothing to Envy’ or ‘Escape from Camp 14’ for more on that). But as we drove through the countryside there were signs of poverty everywhere. Each scrap of land was farmed, from the edges of the roads up to bare hills shorn of trees. There was almost no evidence of mechanization – peasants hoed, builders constructed, all by hand. Statistically it is as poor as the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. But in Africa you seldom find thousands of citizens mobilized to build a ‘motorway’ (pot-hole-ridden road wide enough to land fighter planes on) with nothing but their ‘selfless patriotic sacrifice’. The model farmhouse we visited contained a bewildering range of ancient electrical equipment. But one broken socket.
North Koreans know very little about the outside world because there is no Internet and they cannot phone abroad. No foreign products are on public sale except some Chinese and Malaysian
snacks. Unlike in China, no patriotic intelligentsia returned from the west to build the new communist society. 60 years after they held off the capitalist invaders (never thanking the Chinese and Soviets without whom they would have been obliterated), people think the cold war is still being fought. The subway is 360 feet underground to be used as a bomb shelter. Militarism and propaganda posters are everywhere. People are deeply proud that after centuries of barbaric feudalism and foreign humiliation, Korea has built a strong and ‘equal’ society, which even the Americans fear.
But our guide Lee grew up on the Chinese border. “When I was a boy, the two sides of the river looked the same. Now the Chinese town has grown, the buildings almost reach the sky, and you can smell barbecued fish across the water.” He said seriously. “It seems many westerners own computers, do you? You must be very rich!”
We quizzed our guides non-stop for days. What are you paid? What films do you watch? How do you get a job? What happens when people break the law? What do you know about your leaders? What do you think of China?” Perhaps living in China had made us more sensitive to ‘face’ and political euphemisms, because our guides were very open with us. Only seldom did someone cross the line that leads to a barefaced lie and a tight-lipped frown. “It is not healthy to eat meat. So we eat it seldom.”
They told us how the middle class earns most of their income from trading on the side, that they secretly watched ‘Titanic’ during English-training, how an old Aunt was an underground Christian. But unlike other Asians they do not covet South Korean beauty products. “Our ginseng makes the best face cream”. Korean society is becoming more modern; “Men used to decide everything, in the last few years women seem more equal.” They told us about their childhood dreams, romantic dates, and holiday barbecues in the park. They admitted that while the crude shell-carved souvenirs for sale were locally made, the dreadful food we ate (in the poshest restaurants) was imported from China.
The coming storm
It is said that China can turn North Korea on and off like a tap. And in our island hotel bar, we met the Chinese who will help bring about the end of the DPRK. They were savvy, cash-driven, and ethnically Korean. They were also over-weight and drunk, and we sang karaoke with them until 2am. Mr Huang is from Jilin, and on the train to Pyongyang he changes out of his Adidas trainers and into his white shirt. He pockets his fake Chinese official passport, and pins on the red Kim badge he was given by Korean officials – if not for the belly he could be a local. ‘Things are starting to change round here; the elite are learning how to make some money. I’m setting up a free trade zone to build factories’.
In China, communism never fell. Despite the party’s known atrocities, in the eyes of the majority it has kept its right to rule. This is due to spectacular economic growth, beating the Japanese, and preventing ‘western attempts’ from carving it up. China was poor, but it was self-sufficient with a leadership including genuine visionaries like Deng Xiaoping. North Korea is just poor. While China was so horrified by the collapse of the USSR that it fired tanks on Tiananmen Square and poured more fuel on the economy, Kim Jong-Il turned from communism to a re-hyped
personality cult. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans died of famine in the 90s. He extracted bribes from China and blackmail from South Korea to keep the state going. But the new leader is said to be ‘spoiled and weak’. So as China’s corrupt state-business seeps over the border to entice Korean officials, it may undermine the order and ignorance keeping the country together.
The view from the West
Some Korea-watchers have optimism for the future. Living standards are improving, and the Pyongyang middle classes know more about the world. Kim Jong-Un has made vague statements of market-orientated reform. Can things evolve for the better?
But the geo-political situation is frightening. The economic gap between North and South Korea is the widest between neighbours in the world. There is a real risk of violent upheaval, or perhaps worse. Will North Korea’s 22 million almost totally uneducated citizens be left at the gradual mercy of Chinese interests, becoming a corrupt economic colony? Or will their more democratic South Koreans cousins get a look-in? China will want to stop this. Except for icy Tibet and other remote minority lands, China has never yet bordered an American ally. And after decades of stalemate South Koreans look down on their cousins as brainwashed war-mongerers. They arrive in Seoul as desperate refugees almost incapable of fitting into ‘capitalist’ society. If the North collapses, they may use force to prevent a flood of refugees. Add the threat of nuclear conflict between crazed Northern ideologues who risk losing their power, or even between China and the West. Korea is not just a fascinating example of utopia gone brutally wrong, but one of the greatest threats to global peace.
Now is the time to visit North Korea, so you can glimpse its people before the brittle society cracks. Meet the kind guides with their ordinary lives and duty-free tips. Look out over fields of peasants whose universe is limited to their village paddies, weekly party meetings, and worship for the Kims. See the border towns where secret trade makes the brave riskily rich. Be humbled by the proud doctor in the empty star hospital; as he shows you the archaic and unused equipment, a spasm of shame flashes across his face, knowing what you know. Will their children lean drunkenly over a bar table one day, recounting the crazy old days while Gangnam Style plays?
This is not just a place for great photo-ops and endless piss-takage. It is more than a museum for a borderline extinct mass society where people are like gods and coca cola doesn’t exist. The world will bear witness to what unfolds for these people, and we will raise our small voice in the international community. Visiting North Korea is our chance to know, care and learn before its too late.
This post was written by a green party member who wishes to remain anonymous, and all names have been changed. However the poster is happy to respond to comments below.