The Past in the Present
Text by Stefania Zini,
photos by Stefania Zini and Alessandro Belgiojoso
Seen enough of the richness and beauty of Europe’s historic sites? Bored of speeding down the pristine snows of Alpine slopes and tired of apres-ski? Holidays under tropical palm trees now a mundane event? Then time travel is the next experience for you. This is not a vision of the future – all you have to do is book a trip to North Korea. You will experience for yourself just what it means to live in a country where the will of an entire nation has up to now been suppressed by the overwhelming power of its own ruler.
Pyongyang. The Mansudae Grand Monument
When at the end of the eighties Communist regimes across the whole of Europe collapsed and democratic reforms began, North Korea, against the tide of events, shut itself off completely from the outside world. To this day its rulers robustly support a state structure based on Communist ideology. And even though in the past one hundred years history has proved that Communism is an unattainable utopia, this does not in the least trouble the comrades in their traditional jackets from the ruling and only Workers Party.
North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to give it its full title, is the only country in the world where a head of state, the late Kim II Sung, was declared President in Eternity after his death. The cult of the personality is here seen at its most refined and most cruel. Here there are still social rules in force which, elsewhere, were consigned long ago to the history books.
Surprisingly, it is quite easy to get to North Korea. Moscow has several tourist agencies which offer standard tourist trips of 4 to 10 days, incorporating a visit to the capital Pyongyang and several cities. Trips cost 150-220 euros a day, good value as this is all-inclusive. There is hardly any need for holiday cash during the trip, just something for souvenirs. But it is virtually impossible to change anything in the standard tour programme, or put together an individual itinerary. What cash you do take should be taken in Euros, as dollars are the currency of the enemy number one – America.
The Korean International Travel Company, the state’s own tourist organisation, is very similar to the old Soviet Intourist. Its managers are past experts in designing tour programmes to allow the tourist to see ‘everything’ – not just what they need to see or could see. The tour company gives you advance warning that you have to keep to schedule and not try to make changes to it when you are there, and you must follow the guides’ instructions to the letter. There is a form to be filled in and the most important question in it is: What is the purpose of your journey? If you can say with some conviction that you are an ordinary tourist you will get a visa relatively quickly and without much difficulty.
Pyongyang – 7.00am. Korean kids stay in a row waiting for instructions: it’s time to warm up after sleeping
The flight from Beijing to Pyongyang is two hours. On my flight, the plane was full, but not with foreigners. There was our small tourist group, a French family – also tourists – and the wife of a Norwegian diplomat who with her daughters was returning to her husband after a breath of fresh air in Norway. The rest of the passengers were Korean and their baggage, rather surprisingly, consisted of huge trunks filled with state-of-the-art plasma screens, expensive computers and hand-painted Chinese vases. The guides had an immediate answer for my provocative question. “They don’t buy these things themselves, of course. Foreign organisations often send parcels as humanitarian aid.”
At Customs, all our equipment was scrutinised thoroughly, and we were asked to leave suspicious items like mobile phones in the left luggage office to be collected before our flight out. Two smiling Koreans then escorted the group to a minibus parked at the terminal exit.
“I’m Park and this is Lee, we’re your guides. This is our vehicle for the trip and this is our driver, Hee. Welcome to Korea!” Park spoke good English, in a very polite and calm, though steely, voice. His calm manner and smooth gestures, and even the freshness of his crisply-ironed cream shirt neatly tucked into black trousers, hinted at long practised habits of discipline and control. Only the occasional bead of sweat glistening on his sallow skin betrayed that even steel-veined guides like Park suffered in the stifling air of an August day.
Pyongyang Kim Il Sung Square. Rehearsals for the national holiday of the 15th of August.
From that moment on, every day from eight in the morning till late in the evening, our schedule overflowed with excursions and trips. We got a short breather during the ample breakfasts, lunches and evening meals. The tables were laden with dozens of serving dishes, large and small. There was usually a main dish of meat and rice. Portions were so huge that you couldn’t eat everything on offer.
Our short tour took in three cities in four days: Pyongyang, Kaesong and Myonhyang, with most time in the capital.
Pyongyang still preserves the ghost of the late Kim Il Sung, also known as the Great Leader, Sun of the Nation and Red Sun of Oppressed Peoples. His image, preserved for eternity in bronze, granite and paint, watches over the streets and grey squares from hundreds of posters and plinths.
You can criss-cross the city several times in the course of a day, and never see a traffic jam – wonderful! You’ll see more cars in London in the middle of the night than in the middle of rush hour in Pyongyang. Lee and Park explained that most of the Mercedes and Volvos and other foreign cars we saw were official government vehicles. Most people walk or cycle, or take the tram or bus. The number of cycles was quite astonishing.
A visit to Mansudae Grand Monument is obligatory. In a square the size of a football pitch there stands the shimmering bronze statue of the Great Leader, rising tens of metres high. Anyone visiting the statue – not just important Koreans or foreigners – must observe a very strict ritual. The faceless local shops do not usually have goods on display in their windows, but the little flower shop near the statue is a riot of colour, with bouquets and bunches of flowers set out gaudily. For 5 euros you can, indeed you must, purchase a bouquet and, with a reverential bow, lay it at the foot of the pedestal.
Pyongyang – In the bookshop for foreign visitors you can find plenty of literature in English and Russian about North Korea, the Kims and their doctrine
The square is usually empty, but on national holidays such as 15 August, the Day of Independence from Japan, the square is filled with thousands of people taking part in parades. The city prepares for months in advance for these spectacles. Workers decorate the streets and pavements while street orchestras play. The Party bosses believe that live ‘music while you work’ lightens the work load and improves productivity. Rehearsals are held near one of the city’s major memorials, and only the most worthy get to attend.
The most interesting part of the trip for the foreign visitor is probably the time spent travelling around in the tourist bus. Looking through the window at people going about their daily business, you are free to imagine the life of the ordinary. You have to ask permission to take photographs of people and you are not permitted to speak to passers-by. “It’s not that we don’t want you to,” Park explains. “It’s for your own safety. Ordinary people may lose their cool and not behave properly, since they think every foreigner is an American — an enemy of our country.”
Lee and Park take great care of our group. “After your evening meal,” they inform us, “the hotel can offer you the use of its night club, karaoke and swimming pool. You can also ask for a massage.” By the evening, when your mind is whirling with impressions and information provided by the guides, and your stomach is full of good food, all you really want to do is to go for a gentle stroll. But you can’t go for a walk unescorted. So you retire to your room, open the window, and drink in the view of the North Korean capital bathed in the light of the setting sun.
From the 38th floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel you see the whole city laid out before you as though in the palm of your hand. The sky is dressed in hues of pink and red, blue and violet. But your feeling of being at peace with the world is suddenly disturbed by an inexplicable sense of alarm. Before you lies a capital with millions of inhabitants and almost the entire city is cloaked in silence. It is hardly late in the evening, yet there is no sense of the usual hum of city life. Everything seems to have died suddenly.
How do ordinary Koreans live, what their homes are like, what they do in the evenings and what is on their tables? Their homes are somehow too far removed from the hotel, which is located in an island. All you can make out is a light bulb without a shade and the occasional blue gleam of a TV screen.
Paumunion – 38th parallel
The red flame at the top of the Idea of Juche Tower is in its turn extinguished. The tenets of Juche philosophy, on which Kim Il Sung’s doctrine is based, accompany the Korean people even in their sleep. Man creates and decides everything and is the only being on earth able to change the world thanks to his unique inborn qualities of chajusong: creativity and consciousness, the desire to live independently and build his own future.
We are breakfasted and in the bus by 7.30am. First stop is the Metro, followed by a visit to the Triumphal Arch. Everything is done in double quick time, as usual. We then transfer to Kaesong along Reunification Highway. Unfortunately, on our way to Kaesong, the weather deteriorates. The rain pours down, and the tarmac of the desolate streets and the concrete slabs of the buildings look even greyer and sadder.
Kaesong, the old capital, lies a couple of hours drive to the south. The four-lane highway is even more deserted than the city streets. We see only a few cars and the occasional convoy of military trucks. Huge columns, 15 metres high, sprout up from time to time along the verge. “These are the guardian angels of our homeland,” Park tells us, without the slightest hint of irony. It turns out that they are part of Korea’s strategic defences: in the event of attack from the south, these concrete monoliths would be collapse onto the highway and would slow down the progress of hostile troops.
Our time in Kaesong was scheduled to the minute. We were put up in a pleasant hotel in the old Korean style with a good and varied menu. To our surprise we were allowed out and could take a half-kilometre walk along the city’s main street, although there were a few conditions: no lagging or straying, no talking with the locals and cameras to be kept in their cases.
The climax of our trip to Kaesong was a visit to Panmunjon, only 20 km away and located on the infamous 38th parallel, where the Demarcation Line and Demilitarized Zone separate Korea into North and South. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a strip of land 4 km wide and 240 km long, stretching from coast to coast. At the border itself we were given a few minutes for photographs. It was most important not to stray across the line marked on the tarmac. Looking at the tense faces of the North and South Korean soldiers standing immobile on either side of the border you could sense that their composure was only superficial. Under the surface you could feel the strain in the atmosphere and the mutual intolerance.
Our next stop was Myohyang, a city 150 km to the north of Pyongyang. The lush green of the surrounding hills and the dense clusters of yellow flowers along the roadside looked rurally idyllic. The fairytale did not last for long. Visiting the International Friendship Exhibition was like having a cold shower. The two enormous buildings house all the gifts presented to the two dictators by heads of state around the world: the elder Kim received more than 70,000 gifts, and younger around 40,000. Three years after the death of eternal president Kim Il Sung, his eldest son Kim Jong Il was appointed General Secretary of the Workers Party and Commander-in-Chief of the Korean People’s Army, and given the title of Dear Leader (his father’s official title is Great Leader). He rules the country to this day and is still receiving presents.
Local white-gloved guides open the doors and allow tourists through into these temples of self-exaltation. You have to wear the soft overshoes provided and leave your cameras in the cloakroom. And of course, you have to comport yourself with due respect. A guide leads the ‘guests’ along corridors faced with panels of rare marble and lit with expensive chandeliers, and, just like a footman in an old palace, opens the doors to the innumerable halls with a flourish and closes them gently behind. The variety of gifts is truly amazing. Huge vases and statues, trinkets and knicknacks in all kinds of materials and styles, precious stones, interior furnishings, furniture, televisions, computers, cars and even railway carriages.
After that, we had one more night in the hushed dark capital, and early in the morning we were back on the plane to Beijing - back to the future. Here, in modern China, we could only wonder at where we had been, what we had seen, what we had actually understood. Perhaps it was all a dream … But no, it was a reality, with Park and Lee working and living in it. Perhaps even as we were talking about them, they were meeting a new group of tourists, or simply at home with their families, having their evening meal by the dim glow of an unshaded light bulb. We praise their overt professionalism, but their private lives, like those of millions of other North Koreans, remain a secret.