Seventy Years: On Visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Seventy years: this is how long the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has lasted. Or almost. Seventy years ago the north was liberated from Japanese occupation, and by 2018 the republic itself will have been in existence for the same amount of time. By 2020 it will equal the longest period of any socialist state, for the Soviet Union imploded after 72 years. Indeed, the DPRK is now the oldest surviving socialist state in world, being a year older than the People’s Republic of China.

Against all odds, against ever-present predictions and expectations of its imminent collapse, against caricatures of the arbitrariness of its nominal leader, the DPRK has survived. How has a relatively small socialist country managed to do so? In order to begin finding out how I finally managed to visit the place in 2015.

Visitors Welcome

I joined a tour with venerable elder of tour organisers, Koryo Tours, based in Beijing and with a rich history. When they began more than twenty years ago, they were the only organisers taking foreigners into the north and have developed an extraordinary range of options for travellers – including cycling, hiking, skiing, train and even architecture tours. Now there are perhaps a dozen operators, although each of them has to work with the Korean International Tourism Company when in the DPRK. The Koryo office is Beijing sets the tone. Located in an old Chinese home near Sanlitun, it evokes what may be called communist chic. Part Eastern Europe, part Soviet Union, and part North Korea, such chic appeals to those seeking a communist experience. Propaganda posters festoon the walls, Korean communist items are for sale, Koryo staff members work busily at their desks and one feels partly transported to the country itself. In one sense, I felt that the survival of the DPRK was not only part of Koryo Tours’ raison d’être, but that Koryo itself was integral to the survival of the DPRK.

How so? When they began, only a handful of people visited the north. But now the numbers are around 30,000 and growing. Two thirds of these are Chinese (judging by the sheer number of Chinese visitors), but the remainder are from elsewhere in the world. The DPRK is keen for even more people to visit, ever expanding its services. And the reason is simply that they want more and more people to see their country, to understand their perspective on the world and to let others know.

Visitors to the DPRK come for many reasons: the allure of out-of-the-way places or even communist chic, of which the DPRK has much; a social democratic agenda that wishes to see the ‘evil’ at first hand; thrill-seeking or perhaps a desire to visit as may countries in the world as possible; an adolescent desire to see what prohibitions one may flout; socialists keen to see what old-style socialism is really like; technical workers, teachers and conference attendees; and even supporters of the DPRK.

Preconceptions Overturned

Some tried to come with an open mind, but that effort proved futile. I had arrived with the assumption that few people visit the DPRK and that none of its citizens are permitted to travel. I was stunned to find our hotel full of travellers, with tour buses often lined up outside. At the Demilitarised Zone near Kaesong we were lucky to be the first of an almost endless stream of groups. Intrigued, I asked one of our guides: how many visitors do you have each year? He spoke of about 10,000 Westerners. What about the many Chinese visitors I had seen. They now number about 20,000 per annum.

Well and good. But what about Koreans wishing to travel abroad? Surely Koreans in the north are not allowed to leave the country, for one hears regular stories of ‘defectors’ who seek to ‘escape’. Once again I was surprised. At Pyongyang railway station, where we waited to board our train to Beijing, most of those of the platform were actually people from the DPRK. To be sure, some were travelling within the country, but many crossed the border into China. And each day flights leave Pyongyang for Beijing, full of mostly Koreans travelling abroad or returning home. Of course, those permitted to travel, mostly for work or study, do so with clearance from the government. But I reminded myself that I too need to request permission before I travel overseas.

Some of us arrived with the assumption that life was lived in black-and-white or perhaps in sepia tones, or that people lived glum lives, without smiling or laughing or enjoying themselves. Again, perceptions were overturned: in the DPRK they do know how to enjoy themselves, whether at the beer halls, or at the playgrounds and amusement parks, or at the many gymnastic, circus, musical and even mass games events. Even so, it was clear that they do not need such an event or location to enjoy life.

A third expectation overturned concerns reunification. Some – myself included – had arrived assuming that the north was hard-wired against reunification of the Korean Peninsula. The south may be in favour, but definitely not the north. The reality turned out to be somewhat different. The policy of the north has actually been focused on reunification since the early days of Kim Il-Sung. Landmark statements in 1972 and then again in 1973 and 1980 indicate clearly the desire for reunification. The policy is that reunification should be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. By contrast, ever since the rule in the late 1940s by the anti-communist strongman in the south, Syngman Rhee, the south has been wary, if not openly hostile, to reunification. The exception was the brief period of 2000-2008, when Kim Dae-Jung of the south agreed to negotiations, meeting on a number of occasions with northern leaders. This resulted in the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006. Too soon did such an initiative come to an end, when the new southern president, Lee Myung-bak, took a right-wing hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now.

Responding Rationally

Let me return to the question of survival, for well-nigh seventy years. How to account for this survival? One might focus on the ability to recover from continual provocations and a series of near-disasters, such as the Japanese occupation, the belligerent establishment of South Korea against the wishes of the majority of Koreans, the Korean War and the economic crisis and food shortages of the 1990s with the implosion of the Soviet Union. One might assert – as is so often the case with foreign assessments – that the DPRK survives through systematic repression and surveillance of its citizens. Or one might assume that the ‘regime’ teeters on the brink, stumbling along and somehow managing to keep its balance.

By contrast, I suggest that the north actually operates by means of a rational response to an irrational situation. Obviously, this approach runs counter to the dominant international narrative: the ‘regime’ is run by an idiosyncratic, arbitrary and capricious leader (one of the Kims) whose actions can only be described as irrational. Instead, the DPRK operates in a largely rational manner. Let me give two examples.

First, a significant number, if not the majority, of Koreans are integrated within the system. The country functions in terms of a complex series of well-articulated steps determined by loyalty and responsibility. The higher the level, the greater the responsibility and involvement. People gain such responsibility by showing fidelity and working for the cause, but – crucially – this fidelity is not merely a matter of the individual. Instead, it is established over generations, with the loyalty of whole families determining the responsibility granted to individuals from that family. The overt signals of such responsibility are the modest pins worn on shirts or dresses. One such pin bears the images of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, each smiling on the backdrop of a DPRK flag. Another, higher-level pin has the image of Kim Il-Sung in a small circle. The reason for such a system is that the more who are integrated in this fashion, the more they have a vested interest in ensuring that the system continues. Not only is this a feature of any communist government past or present, but it is also a feature any system and its ideology.

Second, the everyday running of the country is not undertaken by the ‘supreme leader’. The leader functions as a spiritual figurehead, constantly touring the country, visiting farms, factories, schools and homes. He may be surrounded by smiling aides, notebooks in hand to record every word said, but he has little to do with governing and the affairs of everyday administration. Instead, these tasks are undertaken by the parliament, with its three political parties representing workers, farmers and intellectuals. Here policies are promoted, decisions made and implemented, difficult situations addressed and resolved as best they can be in light of resources and current realities. Carrying out the various policies and decisions is the task of the administrators, particularly those who have exhibited generations-long fidelity and responsibility.

We have become accustomed to a mind-set that communist governments run out of steam after seventy or so years, based on the experiences of the Soviet Union. It may well be that the DPRK too will succumb in such a fashion. But my suspicion is that the DPRK – a small country that must negotiate the irrational and unpredictable geopolitical developments as rationally as it can – will probably survive well into the future.

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