Train out of Pyongyang

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Nervously we sat, not daring to leave our train cabin. A border guard was searching through our bags and asking questions. But this was no ordinary border and this was no ordinary border guard, for we were attempting to leave the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Would everything be checked in minute detail? Would most of our purchases be confiscated and photographs deleted?

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We were on the T28 train, from Pyongyang to Beijing, about to pass over the border crossing, from Sinuiju across the river Dandong in China. More of that in a moment. I had been in the DPRK for only four days, although it felt like four months. Our small group had seen key sites in Pyongyang, rattled along a bumpy road to Kaesong in order to experience country life and see the Demilitarised Zone, and given a full dose of the DPRK’s perspective on the world. We were a sceptical liberals, social democrats, curious seekers for a real communist experience, and some older travellers with a wiser view of the world. Oh yes, a few communists were among us, keen to see old style communism still in action.

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But the rail journey was a real highlight, albeit for a handful of us brave enough to travel in such a fashion. Soon enough I realised that the rest, who had opted to fly out, had really missed an extraordinary opportunity. At Pyongyang station, I was astounded at the platform: not at the architecture or layout, but at the sheer number of northern Koreans. Were they seeing off visitors, I wondered? Were they here for the sight of foreigners in their ‘closed’ country? No, they were heading out of the country for work, study, sport and what have you. I should not have been amazed by now, but old preconceptions linger. Yet each day, the T28 train leaves Pyongyang for the 24-hour journey to Beijing, full of northern Koreans, while the T27 does the journey the other way, bringing Koreans back to their country. So much for the ‘closed’ borders.

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Some wore the badges of rank in the government. These were lapels pinned to one’s shirt or top. In some cases, both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il appeared on the background of a DPRK flag. In other cases, it was a single image of Kim Jong-Il in a small circle. The Russians once called them the nomenklatura – those who had shown their loyalty to the government over generations and were thereby given extra privileges. I could not help thinking of the Christian church during the Middle Ages – the last time another ideology was dominant in states. And I could not help appreciating the need to ensure that significant numbers have an investment in keeping the show on the road. They have done so now for almost 70 years.

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Departing Pyongyang Station, we trundled along at a perfect pace for rail travel – about 50 kilometres per hour. Our eyes looked outward, watching the countryside roll slowly by. The train passes northward from Pyongyang, in between towering and mountain ranges capped with snow even in early summer. The narrow valley was full of crops in every conceivable corner that was remotely level – even between the railway lines. Not to be outdone by the rugged landscape, farmers also grew hardy crops on hillsides. Arable land is valuable indeed, dotted as it was with groups of soldiers and farmers working the fields. Some mechanisation was evident, but the methods – especially for the rice paddies – still used traditional hand methods.

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Time passed, we talked, found our own spaces, and continued to peer out of the windows. And then it struck me: the land and its villages were incredibly clean and tidy. In Pyongyang and the other towns, I had seen many groups taking care of their collective public space, ensuring that the city remained spotless. But the countryside too was clean. Not a stray piece of paper or can or wrapper was to be seen. Did people reuse everything? I wondered. Is this a cultural tradition or perhaps due to the simpleness of life?

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By now I began to feel the pangs of hunger, as did my fellow travellers. I asked a conductor in broken Chinese: is there a dining car? Apparently not, even though the brochure boasted of such a car. My companions looked askance and tightened their belts. Until I mentioned that I had some food. Ever a cautious traveller, I had stocked up with various goods on the platform at Pyongyang: water, rice crackers, fresh vegetables and fruits. My stock became the lost dining car, supplying the five of us with necessary sustenance. Yet my stocks were not designed to last the whole journey and soon ran out. To our relief, at dusk and in China, many carriages were added – including a resplendent dining car with somewhat inflated prices. All of us made our way there, to stock up with freshly cooked food and Chinese beer.

Yet before we could get to China, we had that border crossing to negotiate, on empty stomachs.

Back to our friend, the khaki-clad border guard: he questioned me about my mobile phone, since he did not quite seem to believe that all I had was an old Nokia. ‘No smart phone?’ he said. ‘No, this is it’, I said. All of the books I had bought – mostly authored by Kim Il-Sung – drew scant attention. Not so a book carried by one of my travel companions. ‘What is about?’ He asked. ‘Who is that?’ He said, pointing to the cover. It happened to be a book about a Chinese philosopher and not a foreign book about the DPRK (of which they are wary).

Another companion had a large and prominent camera, to which our guard was drawn. He sat down and skimmed through the pictures. She was nervous indeed, for she had photographed pretty much everything in town and country. The guard spun expertly through the hundreds of photos and stopped at one. It was of two women in the countryside, topless and washing clothes. Our guard laughed! Yes, he laughed and said, ‘You can’t keep that one’. My companion laughed with him, apologised and deleted the photograph. But that was it. The rest were perfectly fine.

The examination turned out to be cursory and focused. We soon realised that our anxiety was generated by stories we had heard about leaving the DPRK. Everything would be checked in careful detail, we had been told by earlier venturers. Art work would be confiscated, most photographs deleted; even socks would be turned inside out to find anything prohibited. Not so, it turned out. The guards were polite and efficient, doing a job. The art work I had purchased was not even checked, my camera was given a quick glance and not examined, and my socks remained in my bag, along with everything else.

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And so we passed into China. Immediately, the contrast was obvious. How can one socialist country be so different from another? From quiet order we passed to typically noisy Chinese chaos. From painful politeness, we were immersed in Chinese openness. From simplicity we passed to complexity, from relative poverty and smallness, to relative wealth and sheer vastness.

We had little time to experience the contrast, for it was dark by the time we left Dandong, after yet another and even more cursory border check. So we settled into our bunks. ‘Soft sleepers’ they are called by local standards. If you have ever slept on a real Chinese or Korean bed, they were indeed soft. For many of us, they seemed hard enough. But that did not prevent my companions from snoring the night away. Nor did it prevent me.

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Too soon Beijing arrived, my second home. Out the front of the bustling Beijing Central Station, we parted with a shake and a thanks. As is the way with travel companions thrown together for a few days, only one of them contacted me by email afterwards. Her email was laden with photographs – the ones that the border guard had waved through with a well-practised glance.

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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.

The Origins of the DPRK: From Division to Reunification

The propaganda on which we were raised had it that the Second World War came to an end through the decisive action of the United States in dropping a couple of atomic bombs on Japan. Then, US troops immediately moved to the Korean Peninsula to ensure that the freedom-loving Koreans were not subjected to the totalitarian rule of evil communists. They were not entirely successful, because the north had been overrun by the Soviet Red Army, which brutally imposed collectivisation and socialist methods on the north. They then appointed a puppet as leader, Kim Il-sung. A few years later, the United States and troops from other nations such as Australia defended the southerners from aforesaid evil communists when the latter tried to take over the whole peninsula during the Korean War. Since then, the people of the south have earnestly wanted reunification, but the totalitarian ‘regime’ of the north has simply not been interested.

Needless to say, this account is more than a little biased, so let me see if I can provide some correctives.

To begin with, as war historians have long pointed out (see, for instance, Geoffrey Roberts), Japan began suing for surrender as soon it became clear that its colonisation of Korea and parts of China would soon be over. This occupation had been in trouble for some time, with Chinese and Korean fighters – led by the communists – undermining the occupying forces. But the decisive moment came when the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrived, fresh from the capture of Berlin and after having spent more than two weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway line. As Japanese troops were routed, Japan began suing for peace.

Somewhat alarmed, the United States hastily decided to drop an atomic bomb. This was entirely unnecessary for ending the war, since the Japanese were about to surrender. But the United States had its eyes on the post-war situation, using the two bombs to show the world, and especially the Soviet Union, its new firepower. In this light, the use of the bombs actually constitutes a war crime. Not satisfied, United States troops made haste to land on the Korean Peninsula and push as far north as possible.

At this point, the situation began to resemble Germany after the Second World War. In the north were Korean communists, led by Kim Il-sung, supported by Chinese units and the Red Army. In the south were American troops, which established the Allied Military Government. Now it becomes interesting. In theory, the Soviets and the Americans were allies, but they did not behave so. Kim Il-sung proposed that the Korean people should decide on the post-war situation in Korea. This entailed the removal of foreign forces from north and south. Negotiations over this process went on for three years.

Or rather, people tried to negotiate. The American military governor in the south, Lieutenant General Hodge, refused to meet with delegations. Syngman Rhee, a staunch anti-communist strongman, was appointed as provisional leader. Under his direction and with American support, a series of uprising in the south were brutally crushed. In autumn of 1946, workers and peasants rose up against the American occupation; from April 1948 until 1953 islanders from Jeju rebelled; in October 1948 regiments in the southern Korean army rose up in the Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion; in December 1949, Mungyeong citizens and their families were massacred since they were suspected of being communist sympathisers. In suppressing these socialist movements, swathes of villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

These repressions were all part of the mechanisms for establishing a separate state in the south. Indeed, it was declared in August 1948, with Syngman Rhee as president. In response, the north found itself needing to declare the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The comparison with East and West Germany is striking. There too, the Anglo-American forces stalled on negotiations for a united Germany, which was pushed by the eastern Germans, as well as Stalin and Molotov. There too, plans began in 1948 for a separate state in the western parts, which was foreshadowed by a new currency. There too the West German state was declared first, in September 1949. And there too the east had no option but to respond with its own state. Throughout, the aim was to keep Germany separated, despite the will of most of the people.

In light of all this, what has happened to the desire for Korean unification? It has been consistent policy of the Democratic Republic of Korea since its earliest days. But on what terms? A northern takeover of the south? Not at all. The policy is that reunification would be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. This position was made explicit in the Communiqué of 1972, after the leaders of both countries had secretly met. In 1973 and again in 1980, Kim Il-sung reiterated this position, proposing a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

However, the most significant movement happened after the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of 2000, between Kim Jong-il of the north and Kim Dae-jung of the south. Given that reunification has been a core northern policy, the change was obviously in the south. Here more progressive governments became open to the idea and agreed to the declaration. The change began with Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of 1998. The result was 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.

But as is the way with the vagaries and uncertainties of bourgeois democracies, the south changed its tune in 2008 with the new president, Lee Myung-bak. His right-wing policies led to a 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.

The north Koreans I encountered view that time as one of hope disappointed, although they ardently hope for an eventual reunification along federated lines.

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Images, Statues and the Representation of Revolutionary Leaders

Having visited a number of socialist countries – both former and present – I have begun to notice a few differences. It may be called socialism with ‘national’ characteristics. I do not mean the big-picture issues of governance, economics, social organisation and ideology. No, I refer to more everyday matters, especially the practices and naming and representation.

On one of my first visits to Eastern Europe and Russia, I was drawn to a flea market outside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Eastern Orthodox) in Sofia, Bulgaria. Amongst the usual junk stood a gleaming bust of Lenin. ‘Fifty euro’ said the weathered man behind the pile of old goods on the table. I made a half-hearted effort at bargaining, but he could tell I was not skilled and that I really wanted the statue. He would not budge – and soon enough had fifty euro in his fist. But I had the statue, made before 1989. It sits at home, the far-seeing eyes and chin of history still trying to discern the future. Beside him stand a number of comrades who have joined him over the years. These days in Eastern Europe you can find statues and busts aplenty, as the old factories have begun to pump them out for tourists seeking communist chic – Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev. Every flea market across Eastern Europe has them, but they do not quite have the same claim as my original Lenin bust.

Since then, I have encountered the comrades on many occasions in that part of the world. Turn a corner in a metro station in Red Petrograd and there is Lenin, casting his eye over proceedings. Walk through the Square of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and there are Marx and Engels, with children playing at their feet and a majestic bronze statue of Lenin pointing across the square. Explore Stalin’s Seven Sisters in Moscow and be overwhelmed by the symbols and insignia of Soviet presence. Take a road trip in a beaten up Volvo across Bulgaria – with a chain-smoking opera diva as a driver – and see new statues of Dimitrov, the communist hero, or even plaster casts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Dimitrov sitting around a table at a coffee shop. Cycle along the Spree River in East Germany and, in village after village, encounter a Friedrich Engels Strasse, or perhaps a Karl Marx Allee, or even a Karl Liebknecht Weg.


The governments may no longer be communist, but the presence is palpable. What about China, where the government is very much the communist party? Any preconception that no-one talks about Marxism or even Mao Zedong is soon dispelled. On a visit to Mao’s birthplace in Shaoshan in Hunan Province, I could have acquired a three-metre statue and taken it home with me (I settled for one of ten centimetres – easier to pack). At the ‘red tourism’ site of the Yan’an Soviet in Shaanxi Province, I haggled over a green t-shirt with Mao’s image and a slogan emblazoned across the front. After paying my respects at the mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, I somehow acquired a pocket watch, silk painting and Beijing Opera style stage set, all with images and writings by the good chairman. In Nanjing, a paper cutter made me a glorious image with Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao all in a line – Maenlestamao, they call it. And in Hunan Province, I marvelled at all the taxis and cars with statues of Mao on the dashboard. He is there to ensure that the driver remains safe on the road.

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Yet I struggled to find a single town, road, street or even tiny lane named after one of the revolutionary leaders. Puzzled, I asked someone. ‘Chairman Mao expressly forbade us to do so’, she said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well, he did not want us to get too carried away with worshipping him and the others. But there is also a Chinese tradition: you do not use the names of the dead – for children but also for streets and towns. The dead keep their own names’. Perhaps the closest the Chinese come to such a practice is the common saying, ‘Let’s meet at Mao’s statue at nine o’clock’. Of course, this can be said only in China.

Only recently have I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or ‘North Korea’ as it is known informally elsewhere (the people there do not like the name). Keen to acquire a statue, t-shirt or perhaps another item with an image of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, I began browsing the various shops and markets we visited. I soon found I could buy books written by them and about them, with photographs and paintings inside the books. But statues for sale were nowhere to be seen. They have plenty of t-shirts, but only with flags of the DPRK, place names, messages of welcome or even a representation of the Pyongyang metro. Yet none with either or both of the Kims. As for place names, forget it. They might have Pulgunbyol (Red Star), Kaeson (Triumphant Return), Samhung (Three Origins) and Rakwon (Paradise), but not Kim senior or junior. I asked whether it was possible to get hold of some images. ‘We do not do that here’, I was told, ‘since we regard them as almost sacred’. ‘But what about the shirt pins I have seen? I said. ‘Some have both of the leaders, others have one’. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘they are marks of merit and trustworthiness for those who have shown long-term loyalty. You cannot but them; only the government can give them to you’.

In the cities and towns were statues aplenty, colossal ones of almost Pharaonic proportions. Here we offered flowers and bowed to show our respects in the Korean way. We could take images on our cameras, of either the two Kims who had died, or even of Kim Jong-Un who was still very much alive. Even then, we were advised: ‘Please take whole photographs and not parts of the statue, since that is disrespectful’.

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In Russia and Eastern Europe recalling and respecting revolutionary heroes meant: representations yes, place names yes; in China: representations yes, place names no; in the DPRK: representations no, place names no. From naming everything to naming nothing, from an endless supply of images and statues for purchase to none at all, at a cultural level ‘socialism with national characteristics’ has taken very different forms. I am not sure who shows the greatest respect, since for me the ability to have fun with the revolution is the way of showing the greatest respect. But perhaps this is itself another particular characteristic.

Communist Mystery: The Secret Appeal of the DPRK

Many are the reasons as to why one would want to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For some it is way off the ‘beaten track’. The fact that many people think you cannot travel to the place at all reinforces this sense. For some it provides a window into what the communist countries of Eastern Europe might have been like before 1989. Indeed, the tourist companies trade on this desire, offering Soviet architecture tours or plane tours in which you fly with Air Koryo’s fleet of Tupolevs. For some it is an effort at reinforcing their own ‘world’, to remind themselves of how ‘bad’ socialism really is and why capitalism is far ‘better’. For some it is a genuine desire to see what this form of socialism looks like, even to the point of sympathising with the sheer effort of maintaining the system. For these people, it is extraordinary that the DPRK has survived for almost seventy years.

For some, however, it is the appeal of what I would like to call ‘communist mystery’. By this I mean the profound sense that the DPRK is keeping much hidden from public scrutiny. More than once has the ancient foreigner’s title of Korea as the ‘hermit kingdom’ been used for the north. Indeed, whole projects exist – sponsored by the limited ‘intelligence’ services of countries such the United States – to try and find out what is happening in the DPRK. Most of that is pure speculation, since they really cannot find out all that much. Foreign journalists are forbidden to enter the country and one is not permitted to take in any GPS device. Add to this the fact that the telephone networks do not connect internationally, and that there is a separate phone network for foreigners who visit the country. The two networks do not connect with one another. And the DPRK’s computer systems also remain internal, without connection (mostly) to the wider internet. A visitor is therefore ‘off the grid’ when visiting the place.

This mystery, of course, generates a desire by some visitors to act as pseudo-journalists, attempting to find out about what is being kept hidden. It may take the form of trying to photograph items they think they are not supposed to photograph, or of ducking off from a tour group for a few minutes to see what might be seen. But let me give two examples.

When travelling the metro system, one is told not to photograph the metro tunnels. You may photograph anything else – people, metro cars, the glorious artwork in the stations, one another – but not the tunnels. So of course one or two try to photograph the tunnels. Who knows, they may hold some secret weapon stash, or some underground laboratories, or whatever. But as soon as the photographs are taken, a platform attendant immediately walks up, calls to a guide and demands that the photograph be deleted. This only exacerbates the mystery. I happened to be standing next to one such culprit when the deletion took place. The photograph merely contained a black space, with nothing to see. But the fact that you could not take a photograph of black space meant that it much conceal something.

The other example is the fabled ‘fifth floor’ of the Yonggakdo Hotel, one of the hotels where many visitors stay. The lifts skip by the fifth floor, jumping from four to six. And if one has bothered to check the internet, then stories abound of the mysteries of the fifth floor (check google or youtube). Many are speculations: here the guides are kept under guard so as not to be corrupted by foreigners; here is equipment to spy on visitors; here is a crack military squad ready to deal with any problem. To add to the mystery, occasionally a guard may appear and sternly demand that you depart. In our group, a few tried to get to the fifth floor by the stairs. One or two even managed a photograph. What did they reveal? Some pipes, perhaps a door or a wall or a corridor. And of course rooms with doors. Nothing else.

That is the point: nothing is there. The Koreans are very good at creating the impression that something is there, hidden from prying eyes. I suspect that they have created such zones precisely to maintain the mystery, for it appeals immensely to some foreigners, especially of the bleeding heart liberal type. Nothing actually exists in the metro tunnels except tracks for the trains. And nothing is to be found on the fifth floor of the hotel, except rooms and a possible guard to tell you not to enter. After all, if there really was something to hide, why have stairs with a door that opens on the fifth floor, or why have a ‘secret lift’ that visitors can actually use to get close to the fifth floor?

Let the mystery continue, for it keeps some visitors coming.

Closed Borders: Visiting and Leaving the DPRK

If you believe the steady stream of items propagated by the corporate media and government agencies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ with closed borders. People are not allowed to enter and its citizens are not permitted leave. If someone does happen to try and leave the ‘hermit kingdom’, he or she is dubbed a ‘defector’. Conversely, anyone who wishes to enter the DPRK is also a ‘defector’ – a recent example being the Chondoist leader, Ryu Mi Yong, who opted to leave South Korea and move to the north to join the bulk of her fellow Chondoists.

I must admit that I entered the DPRK with such a mindset. The warnings from governments like those of Australian, the United States and Canada did not help. They either warn against all travel or strongly advise you to reconsider your travel plans and go somewhere else. I believed that I could visit only with an officially sanctioned tour company (Koryo) and I had read that at most 2,000 foreigners visit the country every year. The very fact that I was able to visit amongst others should already have alerted me to a somewhat different situation, but such is the strength of preconceptions that it did not. Even more, the fact that the flight into the DPRK – a glorious Tupolev 204 – was filled mostly with citizens of the DPRK should have set me thinking. Yet again, it did not.

Only after arriving and spending a few days there did reality set in. Our hotel, Yanggakdo, was quite full, with tour buses clustered outside on any given day. People were constantly arriving and leaving, many of them Chinese but also a good number of people from other countries. For some reason, it seemed to me that Australians were everywhere. I had come with the assumption that we would be largely on our own. Clearly this was not the case. Even at the Demilitarised Zone close by Kaesong, there were buses aplenty, so much so that we were lucky in being the first in a long line of groups visiting the area.

I had to find out more. In one of my many discussions with the older tour guide, I asked. ‘How many visitors come to North Korea each year?’

He thought for a moment and said, ’10,000 or so’.

That made far more sense. Not a huge number by some standards, but way more than anyone would expect.

‘But is this the only hotel where visitors can stay? I said.

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘here are many places throughout the country where you can stay’.

‘So where could I travel?’ I said.

‘Most places’, he said. ‘You can travel in the far north, stay in the countryside, do some volunteer work on farms’.

Later I began to ponder the possibility of spending some more time in the place. I asked about foreigners working in the DPRK.

‘We have a quite a number at different levels’, said another guide.

‘What about universities?’ I said.

‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘foreigners come and teach at some of them. Many come as volunteers through UNESCO, and there is also the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology’.

‘Is that the one funded by Christian groups, with classes taught in English?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘and it teaches students about many facets of international education’.

‘Would I be able to spend some time at one of the universities?’ I asked.

‘What do you teach?’ he asked.

‘Marxism and philosophy’, I said.

He smiled. ‘Very interesting. I will see what I can do.’

I gave him my email address.

But what about Koreans travelling, working and studying internationally? I was admittedly quite astounded to find out how many from the DPRK do exactly that. Most go to China, but some travel further afield. Indeed, the week before, when I was in Harbin in the north-east of China, I had encountered students from the DPRK studying there. And this was only one example. To be sure, they need clearance from a government agency to do so. But I was reminded of the fact that I too need to request permission to travel overseas, albeit from my university rather than the government.

Even with this knowledge, on the day of our departure, I was still amazed at how many Koreans were boarding the train out of Pyongyang. On the platform were a few foreigners, but most were from the DPRK. Each day the train leaves for Beijing, carrying locals to various destinations outside the country.

Closed borders? If so, the gate is not securely fastened.



Brazen American Imperialist Aggressors

img_7352-2-320x237‘Brazen American imperialist aggressors’ – this is perhaps my favourite phrase from my first visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It appeared in a video shown at the museum of the Korean War. The video set out an alternative narrative, producing select pieces of evidence to show that the occupying US forces in the south had instigated the Korean War. Of course, each side in a conflict has its own narrative. The catch is that the US version has dominated accounts for the last 60 years, while that of the DPRK has not had the same privilege.

I was with a group of 20 people, all of us visiting the DPRK for the first time. They came from various countries in Europe, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In fact, one third of the group were Australians. Koryo Tours, based in Beijing, organised the tour, in conjunction with the Korean International Tourism Company based in the DPRK. We had one guide from Koryo and three from the Korean company. More details of that in another story, but I was struck by how many visitors come to the DPRK. Asking further, I was told by one of the guides with whom I had many discussions that more than 10,000 non-Chinese foreigners visit the north every year. Even more, many Koreans from the north travel internationally, mainly for study and business.

Our itinerary was packed from dawn to after dusk, with many sites visited in Pyongyang and then a trip along a bumpy road to Kaesong and the demilitarised zone between north and south. On the way, we often heard variations on my favourite phrase: ‘American imperialists’; ‘US aggressors’; ‘American colonisers’; ‘US occupation’. Some of the group became a little weary of the constant reiteration, preferring not to be reminded of the 70,000 US soldiers in the south, let alone the massive amount of military hardware and thousands of nuclear weapons.


But the demilitarised zone itself was a real eye-opener. We were shown the place where the armistice was signed in 1953, the villages and farmers who live in the zone, and then taken to the 38th parallel. Here the feel was quite relaxed, with a smiling soldier telling us about the current situation and openly flirting with some of the women. We were free to photograph and joke.


Looking out over the temporary border, we saw ten DPRK soldiers standing guard on one side. No foreign soldiers were present. However, on the other side only a couple of South Korean soldiers could be seen. The rest were clearly American soldiers. One soldier photographed us with a powerful lens as we photographed them all. But then, a small tour group from the other side appeared. They were led not by civilians, not by South Koreans, but by yet more swaggering US soldiers. Indeed, there were almost as many American GIs as there were people in the group.


The response in our group was palpable. They were clearly annoyed at the presence of so many American soldiers. Many spoke of the swagger, the arrogance of telling others what to do, the intervention in other countries. It seemed as though they had realised that the brazen imperialist aggressors were indeed present.