North Korea – December 1997

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It was a journey the see the show before it closed- “to watch the sun go down on North Korea“.

For me, the trip began in 1996 when I arrived in Seoul, South Korea. The magnet bringing me there was a planned visit to Panmunjom- the truce village dividing the 2 Koreas. I was to be disappointed. Torrential rains flooded the border region and the visit was cancelled. Since I couldn’t look in, the best thing – I thought – was to go in. And, as news trickled through of a deteriorating situation, visiting there became more urgent. I got there in June 1997.

You don’t see beggars or bodies on the streets of Pyongyang. In fact, it looks like a bright Moscow during the better Communist years. Thousands of people walk the streets and fill the trams. The few cars are directed by clockwork impeccably dressed wardens. The city’s beautiful subway is probably second only to Moscow’s.

There are enough sights in and around Pyongyang to keep you busy for days. Pride of place goes to a 20-metre statue of the late Great Leader Kim IL Sung. (How long it will stand if and when the Koreas are united is an interesting question). As in Seoul, there’s a war museum but the slant on the Korean conflict is somewhat different. And there’s the Arch of Triumph- bigger than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The city, though, is dominated by the 110-storey pyramid of the Ryugyong Hotel. It has been “under construction” (i.e. at a standstill) for many years. Neither the engineers nor the finances are up to finishing it.

Everybody smiles at you in Pyongyang, particularly the children, but none of them is to be seen eating crisps or chocolate bars. In fact, there isn’t much food to be seen anywhere except for the foreign currency stores. If you’ve got Japanese relatives (as many have), you can buy plenty. Otherwise, you’re thrown back on whatever rations your community can organise. Officially, you may be told you’re getting a certain weight, say 750 grams of rice, but in your hands it feels more like 75. Hospitals have long ago discharged non-critical cases due to food shortages.

In June, when I was there, some of them were about to close down entirely and send the remaining patients home (probably to die).

Outside of Pyongyang, the fields were full of crops and, if they could all be harvested, there wouldn’t be a problem. Ominously, though, the June weather was dry and hot without much sign of a change. Fears of a drought loomed and, from what I’ve heard, the weather stayed dry.

Food aid, inadequate as it is, gets through but, to me, it doesn’t solve the deeper problem of a dreadful infrastructure. In all of North Korea, I don’t remember seeing one decent silo or food storage facility. Nor did I see one operational factory. Power cuts are regular. Basically, even if North Korea gets a good harvest, the rats and mildew will account for a lot of it. If there’s a surplus, storage is inadequate and there will be no fallback for the leaner years. Ironically, outside of Pyongyang, there are large air-conditioned buildings housing gifts to Kim IL Sung and the current leader Kim Jong IL. I couldn’t help but think of how much food those buildings could safely hold.

Certainly, I didn’t visit the remoter areas where conditions are worse but, yet, I was surprised not to see at least some starvation in Pyongyang. But the signs are there. The little singing girls whom I saw at the Children’s Palace and took to be about 9 years old turned out to have ages about 12. And, when I thought about it, I didn’t see one fat person in the whole country except, perhaps, for their leader.

We journeyed quite a bit in Korea- to the silent port of Nampo, to Mt Myohyang where 10 of us were the only guests in a massive hotel and, for me, the goal of the journey- Panmunjom.

The truce village is a few hours’ drive from Pyongyang. You travel any empty 4- lane highway, through farmland and then mountains. The last sign at the gate entering the demilitarised zone reads “SEOUL – 70 KM”

First stop in the DMZ is a shop where you can buy ludicrous anti-American propaganda. U.S. dollars are accepted in payment. I perused, but didn’t buy, a book of pictures. Typical was a photo of Americans rising from a table with the caption “U.S. imperialists hurry away from the meeting after their crimes have been exposed”.

Further on, there are a restaurant and buildings where the cease-fire agreement was signed in 1953. After a mile or so, it’s a few buildings, a line on the concrete and you’re face-to-face with the Americans and South Koreans. There is no communication between the sides – not even eye contact – but, while we sat in a room being lectured by an officer, American soldiers watched everything through the windows. (Maybe they liked the women in our group)

Once we left the room, the door on the North side was locked and the Americans escorted in a group from the South. Now it was the tum of the North Korean guards to stare in the windows.

Not widely known is the fact that some North Korean aid was trucked to South Korea through Panmunjom, after floods in the l980s. Now the Russians are encouraging North Korea to open the border again, so that they can trade overland from Siberia to the South.

Our final journey was by rail to Beijing. We passed through neat stations bearing the watchful portrait of Kim IL Sung. No traders plied the platforms. However, at last, we saw some economic activity – plenty of loaded freight cars as we headed north. Fields were full of crops. Across the enormous Yalu River, and we were in bustling China. The fairy tale was over.

I can’t predict the future but North Korea reminded me in some ways of China in 1979, when that country was opening to the world. In a university, I stumbled on a foreign lecturer of economics. Foreign contractors are improving some facilities, such as Pyongyang airport. Even the presence of tourists and particularly aid workers can only open minds to the fact that everything foreign isn’t bad.

North Koreans are among the friendliest people I have met. Their leaders have failed them, miserably. Nevertheless, with assistance, there is no reason why they should not be able to emulate other Asian nations (and, indeed, our own) to provide a better life for themselves.

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About this record

Written by Paul Holland

Published here 16 Feb 2023 and originally published December 1997

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