Walking Beijing

Beijing – it may be the centre of the most powerful socialist country in human history, but it had always been a maze over the years I have lived and worked here. My little corner to the northwest felt like an oasis in the maze. To be sure, I regularly used the vast metro system to get around town. But on the metro one speeds along underground only to emerge at another point in the maze.

How to get to know it better? How to orient myself in order to make it truly home? To put it this way sounds like I had a plan to begin with. I did not. This particular justification emerged only on the third or fourth walk. The initial impetus to walk arose for other reasons.

(In sum, I went for 14 hikes over about 6 weeks, with some 250 kilometres or more covered. Each post contains the account of one walk.)

2 March 2019: Xinhua Bookshop

The first walk was modest indeed. I wanted to get hold of the official scholarly Chinese version of Marx and Engels’ works. Called the Makesi-Engesi Wenji, it had been published in 2009, revising in some parts the earlier collected works. I had the latter, but not the former.

Xinhua bookshop was about half an hour’s walk to the north. One simply walks up Suzhou Street and back, a walk I had done on quite a few occasions in the past.

Of course, at the bookshop I became lost among all the books. I looked for any new publications by Xi Jinping, at the many other items in the Chinese Marxist section. But the Wenji I could not find. An assistant pointed me to the many individual volumes of key works by Marx and Engels, but confirmed they did not stock the Wenji.

As we talked, another though hit me: did they have the fabled Cihai Dictionary, first published in 1915 with a number of editions since? It is the most comprehensive and thorough Chinese dictionary, and a scholarly must.

Yes indeed! On display in a locked cabinet were a few different formats: an elaborate multi-volume version; a more compact three-volume version; and a ‘shot-down’ and abridged single volume. I opted for the three-volume version, payed my 600 RMB for it, and lugged it home.

Heavy it was, so I shifted my hold many times. It also rubbed in odd places, after which hives appeared. The hives had been a problem for some months, appearing randomly in many places. Back in Australia, the doctors could make no sense of them, opting for a catch-all idiopathic. I knew they arose from anxious bouts, pressure on one spot and rubbing.


The Greening of Beijing

For the past two weeks I have walked well over 100 kilometres – in Beijing.

Until now I have regarded my little corner of the city as an oasis, outside of which is the massive maze of one of the largest cities in the history of human civilization. To be sure, I am accustomed to taking the world’s most extensive metro system to all corners of the city. But this practice makes no difference to the sense of living in a maze. One speeds along underground, emerging at one’s destination in another part of town.

Walking is completely different.

Initially, I simply set out to find a bicycle shop for local supplies for my new Brompton foldup bicycle. Before I knew it, I had checked my Baidu map (much better and more reliable than Google maps) to locate another bicycle shop. By the time I found it and returned home, I had walked in a south-westerly loop of about 10 kilometres.

I was hooked in a way that I had not expected. The next day I walked north to a church and bookshop, ambling back via another route. Soon enough I was off again, walking north again to find the old Summer Palace grounds, known in these parts as Yuanmingyuan. Having been inside before and knowing the ruins (a result of one of the European colonial rampages in the nineteenth century), I preferred to walk there and find another way home.

Now it was time for a serious hike. To the west of where I live begin the mountains that encircle Beijing. A favourite is Xiangshan, Fragrant Mountain, which I have climbed in the past. But now I decided I would walk to Xiangshan, a distance of some 14 kilometres. On the way I found the Beijing Green Belt, a carefully designed strip that runs along the western reaches of town. Soon enough I was striding along, absorbing the trees and the first blossoms of spring. Few were enjoying them at the time, for people were flocking to Xiangshan and its fabled spring blossoms. By the time I reached the village itself, at the foot of the mountain and outside the city, I was done, so I took the new metro back home.

More walks followed, to the massive Yuyuantan Park, south of where I live and full of people seeking spring flowers. But I was most thrilled by Xizhuyuan Park, or Black Bamboo Park. It had been a chance discovery on another walk, a green space that set a whole new standard for such spaces.

Originally it had been a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) minor palace area, but it had been closed for many a long year. What had they been doing in the meantime? It turns out that the Beijing City government had been working on a new plan for the greening of the city. Black Bamboo Park would be one of the model green spaces. It had opened only recently.

Inside I was amazed. The old buildings had been restored, but more importantly trees and birds and plants were everywhere.  As I walked along the lake, a ranger with much excitement pointed to the water. There was a turtle – an amphibian that is most sensitive to environmental conditions since it moves between water, land and air – enjoying the clean water of the lake.

After my first visit to this particular park, I was able to map out an ideal walk. Initially I would head west along Wanquanzhuang Road, deep in the outer regions of Beijing where few foreigners tread and where locals do their thing. Then I would pick up the western Green Belt, along the Nanchang River, which was yet another new development. The river itself had been cleaned up and its environs were full of trees, blossoms and recreational spaces. It led me to the Black Bamboo Park, where I once again relished the breakthroughs in green planning and implementation. For the final leg, I walked along some four kilometres of the major Zhongguancun Road, but I did so by walking through one green space after another.

By now I had walked in all directions of the compass, east, north, west and south. I had hiked into the centre of the city, to its outskirts and the mountains, to historic sites of colonial humiliation, and along the ever greater number of green spaces.

Above all, I was most struck by the greening of Beijing. Not so long ago Beijing was a leitmotiv of the worst of city living. Row upon row of high-rise building, with an air quality that had become proverbial. Indeed, some foreigners and Chinese people from other parts assume that Beijing is still like that.

Not any more: the city government has been fully aware that residents would no longer put up with such conditions, so it had set about for many a long year to clean up the city. Some of the strictest environmental laws in the world are enforced ever more strongly, but this is only a beginning. Whole new standards have been set for a greening of the city. The air quality would be tackled through many a policy that has seen it gradually improve year upon year. Green spaces would abound, with designer planning and implementation, as only the Chinese know how. And water quality would be at a level where sensitive animals would feel at home, whether turtles or the fabled ducks – not the type of Beijing Duck that you eat at a restaurant.

How is all this possible, especially in a city that had become a parable for environmental degradation?

Long-term planning is the answer. A stable government that is able to implement five-year plans. This is of course a communist local government that is committed to a green Beijing. Forget the ‘Greens’ of bourgeois democracies, with their liberal policies as a political football. Only a communist government committed to ‘ecological civilisation’ can achieve what I experience here in Beijing.

The Newcastle Rides

An unexpected (re-) discovery, during a summer of self-discovery. Too hot to ride long and hard; too dry to camp in a forest that could at any time ignite. What to do?

The previous summer I had done precisely that: ridden long and hard, and camped in places where I should not have done. Heat exhaustion was the result – due to a daily average of 40 degrees Celsius – and I was loathe to repeat the experience.

Yet ride I must: hours away, letting the mind tick over, the body doing what it loves to do. (Note: the following rides are very local to Newcastle. You will need to check maps to gain an idea of where I rode.)

6 February 2019: Glendale and Warners Bay Circuit

One morning in early February of 2019, I simply packed some daily necessities into the bicycle’s panniers and rode. A few days earlier, I had been enticed by a sign: on a regular route from one part of the city to another, pn a route I had done thousands of times, a sign pointed to somewhere I had not been.

To the sign I rode, along a route so familiar I had forgotten its features. In these parts, the old route is known as R4, running westward along creeks and quiet roads – through Newcastle West, Broadmeadow, Jesmond and Wallsend.

The new route was simply called ‘The Tramway Track’. By now the stiffness of limb and dullness of mind (from sitting too long on earlier days) had passed. The track immediately plunged into countryside, with hills and trees and an occasional field. A tram in these parts? Perhaps, for in earlier times the villages hereabouts clustered around coal mines. The mines are now closed, but the villages have remained, incorporated somewhat into the wider spread of Newcastle. Or perhaps it was originally a line build for coal wagons, subsequently used for a time by passenger service – until many such services were closed in the 1970s.

I could try to find out if I wished, but I preferred to let my mind run, speculate a little, concoct a story or two.

Some six or seven kilometres later the track came to an end, at Glendale. If once it was a village, now it was a major shopping centre in the west.

Turn around? I checked a map and realised that the route continued on-road a little before once again becoming a bicycle path. By Cockle Creek railway station it did precisely that. Cockle Creek: only on a passing train had I espied this small stop, wondering from time to time where exactly it might be. Now I knew. And here was the bicycle path I had also seen from the train, wondering where it went. Now I was to find out.

It veered away from the road, swung under a bridge and before long I found myself at Speers Point on the vast Lake Macquarie. Now I was on familiar territory: along the lake to Warners Bay, up Mount Hutton to Charlestown (on-road), over the top and down to Whitebridge – heading ever eastward.

A decade or so ago I had ridden this section somewhat regularly. For a time, it was a regular way to begin the ride to Sydney. But I discovered other routes and forgot about this one. Now I recalled those earlier times; the rotation of the peddles seems to trigger such memories in a way that is like no other. A teenage daughter interested in a boy somewhere near here; teaching her to drive on her way for a visit; a quiet cigarette secretly imbibed away from those who scolded me to stop; a father who was still alive; a new partner from across the seas, whom I was only beginning to get to know; the frenetic pace of those years … on the memories went.

Until I reached the much-ridden Fernleigh track. This too was a former railway line, built for coal and then with a passenger service included. It too was closed in the 1970s and then – some forty years later – turned into a glorious rail trail. I rode along the last eight kilometres to Adamstown, to follow back streets home.

Returning home, I was surprised to find I had ridden almost 50 kilometres. I was even more surprised at the thrill of discovery. Not earth-shaking, to be sure; small discoveries, but pleasures nonetheless. I felt no desire for work and much for heading out again.

8 February 2019: From Teralba Railway Station to the Hill

A couple of days later, I was on the train from Gosford. Family reasons had taken me there, but, as is my wont, I had my bicycle with me. On a whim, I jumped off at Teralba – yet another mining village on the western shores of Lake Macquarie. Here I had not ridden before, although I had walked once or twice on stages of the Great North Walk.

Yet, from a bicycle you see things differently. The Northern Hotel beckoned, inviting me to return and stay for a night – if only it had accommodation. The artists who seemed to enjoy the forgottenness of the place were more obvious, as were the many long-term residents of the caravan park.

I was peddling through, slowly, conscious of the fact that sitting at work for long hours is not so desirable. I had done enough of that in the 500,000 hours of my life thus far: other desires called me now, especially the desire to be out on a bicycle.

Soon enough, I was on a wide and still new path along western Lake Macquarie. Less popular than further east, the only traveller I met was a determined old man on an electric wheelchair. But I was keen to reverse the newly-discovered direction of the earlier ride. Now I knew I could make it through easily, from Speers Point, through Cockle Creek and Glendale to the Tramway Track.

Today, of course, was different. I pondered why I needed to be out, rediscovering the town in which I had lived for more than fifteen years. Why I had not eaten enough for lunch and why did the long climb of the Tramway Track seemed longer than before (well, I had cruised down it last time)? And why had the clouds had become dark and why did the air smell as though it was going to rain?

Soon enough, I began to race the clouds, watching their edge as they blew in the same direction I was headed. Would I stop at the shops on my way? As I emerged, a few spatters began to fall and I raced on.

Through Wallsend, skirting the university to which I was saying an overdue goodbye, threading my way through Jesmond Brush and Hamilton, I tackled the final hill to home with gusto.

As I wheeled the bike inside, the first real flashes of lightning hit and seriously large drops of rain began to fall. I may about ridden about 30 kilometres, but I was now into this brief spell of summer riding.

10 February 2019: Warners Bay and Belmont Circuit

Leaping out of bed a couple days later, I knew where I wanted to go: down to Warner’s Bay by another route and then to explore what had seemed forbidden until now – a route along the lake to Belmont.

Why forbidden? I had in mind a busy, winding road with much traffic. Or rather, it was a memory from more than a decade, when my youngest daughter and I had taken part in a ‘Loop the Lake’ ride. Then we had strength in numbers, but even so it felt like a hairy ride with traffic buzzing past.

Let’s see, I pondered, as I eagerly rolled out the Surly Long Haul Trucker (a bicycle, in case you were wondering).

Initially, I took one of those routes that were designed and laid out in the 1980s. Cyclists like to amble along, they had thought, peddle a kilometre or two and then head home. The track in question wound its way through parkland from Kotara to Charlestown. Or rather, it simply came to an end on a street with no character. Through riders? What are they.

But I knew the route from years ago and persisted until I reached the busy Charlestown Road. Peddle a long the footpath a little and then drop, drop, drop on Hillsborough Road. Some vague recollection niggled: this road is not the best for riding. Merely a recollection … let us see.

The massive roundabout on the Newcastle bypass was my answer. In theory, one would use the bicycle bridge over the roundabout. In theory … for you could use if crossing four lanes of busy traffic to the other side is your thing. I braved the roundabout.

Past the roundabout and the bicycle path simply gave out. Ah, too complicated, so let us end it here – road planners have their limits.

A mix of guesswork, the odd footpath, a back street or two, and eventually I was in Warners Bay for a late lunch.

Now the discoveries of this day began. The route south-east was nothing as I remembered it from more than a decade ago. Now the path wound on, along wetland bridges and paths hugging the shore. It went much further than I had anticipated, but eventually it too gave out, ending ignominiously in a car park.

The narrow, winding road it would be. But less than two kilometres later I spied a crooked sign, pointing to a bicycle path. Why not? It may be nothing, but then again it may be something.

This path, with its twists and turns, would take me all the way to Belmont. I relished the discovery, curious about local lives, swimming corners, the feel of the track. I pondered why I needed to be out, why I could no longer sit and work all day at the ubiquitous tool known as a computer.

Belmont at last and I knew where to go, for the Fernleigh Track at its full extent began close by. As I pedalled along this well-known route, with its long climb to Whitebridge and then drop to Adamstown, I thought about rail motors to country towns in my youth. One such rail motor ran the 100 kilometres or so between Tumbarumba and Wagga Wagga, providing for many years a much-needed connection for remote towns. But by the 1970s and due to the politico-economic clout of motor vehicle companies, these lines were shut down. So it was too with the railway line between Newcastle and Belmont.

But now I could ride the 16 kilometres or so of the Fernleigh Track on my own, away from the struggle of those curious and by now obsolete contraptions known as motor cars.

Before I knew it, the 50 kilometres of this day were done, with a satisfaction that is impossible to describe.

13 February 2019: Fassifern to Newcastle

Despite my grand plans, this was to be the last day of the Newcastle rides, at least for this summer. Many years ago and with a new partner from across the seas, we had taken the train to Fassifern and ridden along the rail-trail that followed the old route of the Fassifern-Toronto rail motor. It was always a short line, with two stops and barely more than 5 kilometres, but it went the way of so many such services.

Now a bicycle path took its place – a recurrent refrain in these accounts. I never thought I would be back here, but now I pedalled slowly, savouring memories and pondering how much had changed in a decade or more.

But also how much had stayed the same. As then, there were no other riders on the path. And as then, Toronto railway station remains as a landmark to a bygone age. These days it seems to be a haunt for those seeking a quiet setting for a drink and a chat, especially if one has nowhere to call home.

If I expected a new bicycle path between Toronto and Booragul, I was to be disappointed. But at least there was a decent shoulder on the road. That said, I had never been to the Booragul foreshore, so at the railway station I followed a couple of other cyclists and passed a church whose glory had been greater in the past.

The church set me pondering the parlous state of Christianity in ‘Western’ countries, which really seem to have lost their souls in such a way that they have lost the possibility of regaining them. Not merely Christianity, but any religion. I must admit I longed for the packed services at the Haidian Three-Self Patriotic Movement churhc, which I attend in Beijing. What secret do the Chinese have that the ‘West’ has lost? In a socialist state, with a strong communist party in power, and with a robust rule of law that promotes freedom of religion, churches, mosques and temples are full. Yet, in supposedly Christian countries the churches are empty. Who knows?

The quiet few kilometres along the foreshore of Lake Macquarie soon brought me to the wide and luxurious path by Teralba, where I had been a few days earlier, and then to Speers Point for my ride along a route that had become a new favourite. To Glendale I rode, via Cockle Creek, only to join the Tramway Track and then the ride home along the much-ridden ‘R6’, via Throsby Creek, the Newcastle foreshore and home.

That would be it for this summer. The planned full circuit of 70 kilometres would not happen this time, for other events in my life intervened. Nothing much – in retrospect – to excite one, but the experience generated a sense of discovery and self-discovery that surprised me. The full circuit would have to wait, for I had plans elsewhere, in China, Denmark and Germany, where I would ride many more kilometres.

Worshipping in Pyongyang

‘Do you believe in God?’ The minister asked. In fact, it was his first question, after the handshake.

‘Do you believe in God?’ He repeated. ‘In the DPRK you need to believe in God to worship in a church’.

I was a little taken aback, not so much because of such a question in the DPRK, but because this was the minister’s form of welcome. We had arrived only moments before, taken to the church for a worship service by our guides. Two women in traditional Korean dress smiled from the doorway, while the minister and an older man (who turned out to be his father), came down the stairs to welcome us before entering the church.

How did we end up in such a situation? This was my second visit to the DPRK (my partner’s first). We had opted for a tour with only the two of us. This would – we hoped – provide a more in-depth engagement on matters that interest us.

I had requested a visit to Chilgol Protestant Church, since I knew that when he was a child, Kim Il Sung used to attend the church with his parents. Originally a Presbyterian mission church from the nineteenth century, it had been destroyed during the Fatherland Liberation War, or Korean War (as with the rest of northern Korea and twenty percent of its population). As part of the reconstruction of the north, Kim Il Sung had suggested the church be rebuilt. Later, other churches were either rebuilt or built, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox. But it was to Chilgol church I wanted to go, as well as the memorial nearby to Kim Il Sung’s mother.

I expected perhaps a weekday visit, a brief tour and possibly a discussion with the minister and staff. But no, our guides arranged for us to attend a worship service on a Sunday morning. So it was that I stood there, at the foot of the stairs to the church’s front door, asked by the minister whether I believe in God. How did I respond?

‘That is a very direct question’, I said. ‘In Australia, we would rather say “do you go to church?” It means the same thing’.

The minister’s father smiled, understanding my point.

‘Yes, I do go to church’, I said, ‘in Australia and China’.

The father may have been satisfied, but the minister – a quiet man – was still not sure. Nonetheless, I was guided to a seat right at the front of the church. Behind me were three other visitors: my partner, who came in later after some hesitation; a younger man of Korean background; and an older Korean man who seemed to be from the south and took many pictures and videos.

Who was in the congregation? Mostly middle-aged worshippers, a mix of male and female, with some younger people. The choir of about 15 people sung powerfully and passionately, with a distinctly Korean style (so also the soloist). In all, there would have been 60-70 worshippers present. Were they all – as some have speculated without a shred of evidence – a ‘rent-a-crowd’ for the benefit of foreigners, with a sprinkling of government spies for good measure? I hesitate even raising this question, since it is simply ludicrous to suggest so.

The liturgy was clearly of the Reformed tradition, with which I am so familiar: prayers and hymns of approach, followed by confession of sins; Bible readings from the Old and New Testaments; a long sermon with careful interpretation of the text; a soloist after the sermon; prayers of supplication and collection (to which I contributed); final hymn and benediction. Although I cannot understand Korean, I could easily recognise the liturgy and its style. Indeed, the liturgy, the simple style of the church, a the reverence of the minister and the careful and calm approach to the sermon – all these reminded me of so many country churches in which my father had been minister and preached, coming as he did from the same Reformed tradition.

One moment will always remain with me, for the minister was at the beginning of the service not entirely sure of my motives for attending worship. As each hymn was announced, an attendant would make the sure the visitors had found the hymn in question (occasionally with an English version). We used the hymn book that had been published under the auspices of the Korean Christian Federation in 1983. The second hymn I recognised and sang lustily. As I did so, the minister looked over, realising I was quite familiar with this type of activity. He caught my eye and smiled ever so slightly. The recognition was clear. The announcements at the close of worship included a welcome for the visitors. It was said with genuine warmth.

After the benediction, the visitors were ushered out of the church. A handshake and farewell from the minister was followed by a number of other handshakes. The congregation remained in the church for further activities. Perhaps a Bible study, perhaps a parish meeting – I can only guess.

The question remains as to how all this is possible, especially in a country so systematically demonised. We must begin with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and state support for church buildings and ministerial staff. Of course, one must obey the laws of the land, which include the forbidding of proselytising and any breach of sovereignty. Foreigners are free to worship, as are Koreans. This includes Christianity, as well as Buddhism and the uniquely Korean religion, Chondoism.

Further, since the late 1970s, Christians, who had been worshipping informally but had developed a form of Christian socialism, began to worship openly again. Among Protestants, the Korean Christian Federation was reactivated (originally formed in 1948). Churches were rebuilt or built anew, a theological college opened, Bibles and hymn books were printed, and a religion department (within philosophy) was opened at Kim Il Sung University. Today, Protestants number over 12,000, with more than 30 ministers and 300 church officials. They been actively encouraged to worship openly, although some continue in informal house churches.

The Federation has been increasingly engaged internationally. A crucial period was during the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the Korean economy all but collapsed due to the end of support from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, along with devasting floods and hail storms. The Federation was instrumental, through the World Council of Churches, in securing significant food aid during the period. It became clear to the government and society at large that Christians in the north have the good of the country at heart.

All of this leads to the situation we have now, in which I and my partner were able to worship in Pyongyang in 2018. I hardly need to state the obvious: it was one of the most significant services I have ever attended.


Sanctions – What Sanctions?

‘No, impossible!’ She said with the sweetest voice.

I had pointed my camera at a shop shelf full of products and looked over at the attendant hopefully. It was not to be, so I put the camera away.

Why could I not take a photograph in a shop in Pyongyang? I wondered as I bought some water and walked away. You can take pictures of almost anything, except military personnel. So why not the shop?

Like other shops I visited, it was indeed full. It had products made in the DPRK, from China, Vietnam, Germany – you name it – except perhaps for the United States. A department store with two levels was full of people, buying food downstairs, and clothes, furniture (IKEA), appliances and sports equipment upstairs. A booth enabled one to exchange foreign currency, specifically Chinese Yuan, Euro and US dollars, into Won. If you had any left over at the end, you could change them back. Foreigners were not the only ones at the booth. In fact, when I went I was the only foreigner changing money.

What is going on the DPRK? Everywhere I turned were flat screen televisions, with music videos, news, soap operas playing. The modest hotel where we stayed had hair-dryer, fridge, scales, safe, alarm clock and whatnot. The brands were the ones you would see elsewhere. The streets were busy with traffic, some older but also quite a few new ones. The Koreans make their own cars, but there were plenty of foreign brands as well. The metro, trolley buses and trams have begun sporting newly designed and made vehicles. To be sure, the older ones still run, with clear vintage from Eastern European production during the era of the Communist Bloc (and well-made they were). But they are being replaced by new ones made in the DPRK.

Even more, Pyongyang is undergoing a building boom. A couple of years ago, everyone took a year off from their study and non-essential jobs to volunteer on building sites for a year. This was only part of  a longer boom that started a few years ago. Foreign architects have been working with Korean architects to design a new phase of unique architecture, which one simply cannot find anywhere else. Older buildings are being renovated, new ones are springing up.

Clearly, the DPRK economy and trade are doing rather well. Very few analysts have realised this, apart from the Chinese (for example, here, here and here). To be sure, some areas still need a lot of work after the ‘arduous march’ of the 1990s, when the economy almost fell apart, floods devastated the countryside and a fair amount of poverty returned. The railways and roads have been told they need to make do with the existing and ageing infrastructure, and many rural areas still use hand sowing and harvesting (although I also saw new machinery in parts). That will come, they plan, with Chinese and southern cooperation. Indeed, at the hotel where we stayed were a few foreigners like ourselves, but it was mostly used by visiting Chinese business people and Koreans.

Obviously, the much-hyped sanctions are not working very well. Northern Koreans have lived with sanctions for much of their 70 years as a state, so they know how to deal with them. But now is different. One reason is that channels for trade have been opened up and are running well indeed, but under the radar. Another reason is that countries like China, Russia and others have already made moves to work with the DPRK after Kim Jong Un’s clear international engagement. As is the Asian preference, when negotiating one builds trust by making reciprocal moves on the way forward. It does not do to demand everything and not budge.

But the third reason may be the strongest: sanctions are typically made in US dollars. This works if the preferred currency for international transactions and reserves are held in US dollars. However, with the United States wildly slapping sanctions all over the world, more and more countries and entities are dispensing with the US dollar. For example, last year only 39 percent of international transactions used the US dollar, while 37 percent used the Euro and 3 percent the Chinese Renminbi. Soon, the US dollar will slip even lower, especially when more and more people see that currency as toxic. I suggest that this situation is a major factor in the ineffectiveness of the sanctions on the DPRK.

While they do not like to use the terminology, the DPRK is clearly developing its own version of the ‘Reform and Opening Up’. In China they celebrated 40 years of the Reform and Opening Up in 2018. The DPRK has seen how beneficial such a process can be, although they prefer the terminology of ‘changes’. But at heart lies the socialist ideal of improving the socio-economic lives of everyone – as is stated in the DPRK constitution.

So why was I not permitted to photograph a shop full of products? The answer should be obvious: they did not want a non-Chinese foreigner plastering photographs all over the internet to show how ineffective the sanctions really are.

Pyongyang: A New Socialist City

Pyongyang is like no other city on earth.

But you need to go there to feel what it is really like.

First impressions: you might look at one or two individual buildings and wonder at their architectural style. Here you do not have the fashions of the ‘West’, in which buildings look striking for a while, only to appear worn and clumsy soon afterwards. Nor do you have many ‘Asian’ influences that feature elsewhere in this part of the world.

If you look carefully, a few buildings from the 1950s and even 1960s evince a Soviet-era style, influenced by Stalin-baroque. The best quality materials, careful design and a permanent grandeur – these and more are features of such a style.

But they are relatively few, for the DPRK has followed its own patterns of architecture, increasingly conscious of a distinct tradition that has a consistent distinct feature: again and again, the buildings are focused on facilities and opportunities for the people. I have never seen so many concert halls and theatres, for all manner of public events. So also the multitude of specialised sports facilities, catering to a tradition in which physical exercise is central to one’s wellbeing. To be sure, there are the expected museums – of art, the anti-imperial struggles and the lives of the Kim family – but these too are places where one always finds people.

Deeper reflection: perhaps night is the best time to see the city in a different way. Now the lines of connectivity emerge. Turn this way and you see the light show on the pyramid-like Ryugyong Hotel; turn that way and you see how they point you across the river to the Juche Tower and the statue of two men and women holding up the symbols of the Workers Party – hammer, writing brush and sickle. Turn again and again and you see how one building after another has been located in careful relation to the others: the children’s playground with its carnival features; Mangyongdae Children’s Palace; the Grand People’s Study Hall; Mirae Scientists Street; the collection of residential high-rises that weave and rise – in purples, greens, blues and reds. A setting sun catches on another set of apartment blocks on the other side of the road from the circus building and you realise that each block has been located to do precisely that: reflect light in ever changing patterns. The examples could be multiplied again and again.

Some would call this ‘town planning’, but that is a weak term for what continues to happen in Pyongyang. It is a wholesale reorganisation, if not a completely new production of space itself.

How did such a city arise? In some sense, the Fatherland Liberation War (also known as the Korean War) did Pyongyang a favour. I mean not the massive slaughter perpetrated by the United States in what can only be described as war crimes. No, I mean that the city – indeed the whole country – was completely destroyed. After the armistice was signed and the United States reluctantly settled for occupying the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, the people of the north set about the massive task of building anew.

The model city of Pyongyang is the result.

As I write, the city is undergoing another building boom, a visible sign of the economic boom of the last five years or so. The new phase was kick-started by a year devoted to building. All able-bodied people not involved in agriculture or defence took a year away from study and work to focus their energies on building sites. Old buildings that had fallen into disrepair during the 1990s continue to be renovated and a spate of new constructions are under way.

At the other end of the scale, a foreign architect or two has been busily at work with local architects in developing new and distinct building styles. As Calvin Chua, a leading architect from Singapore who has been working on Pyongyang since 2013 observes, he may come up with a list of suggestions, but the local architects take up his ideas and develop them in their own way and in light of the tradition they have developed. He admires their skill, experience and unique creativity.

All of this has produced an absolutely unique city. It can disorient a visitor accustomed to other cities and their traditional or bustling spaces. It can make one wonder at how such a unique place could indeed be built.

Earlier, I used the term ‘feel’ for gaining a sense of what the city is like. I do not mean an emotional perception or even a gut feeling, but a feel for the very different production of space. One needs to take in the whole rather than individual units. If you do so, you begin to understand that the nature of the space has changed. Space is not a given, in which human beings find their place, but space is produced in different ways by the acts of human beings and their socio-economic systems. Thus, space has been produced in Pyongyang like no other place on earth.

Let me put it this way: during the communist era in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, they began feeling their way forward for a new and socialist production of space. For example, you can still find this effort in parts of East Berlin (the former capital of the German Democratic Republic). Karl Marx Allé is perhaps the best example, with its magnificent Stalin baroque devoted to flats for workers. But you can also find it in the outskirts of Halle, or in the centre of Baia Mare in Romania, or indeed in Minsk, which was flattened during the Second World War. Keep looking and you will find more and more such examples.

Nonetheless, these were initial and partial efforts and the sense of a newly produced space is fleeting – especially today as efforts to obliterate them in terms of a capitalist production of space continue.

By contrast, in Pyongyang they have been producing a new sense of space for 65 years, beginning with nothing and building anew. In many respects, it is what eastern European and Soviet cities tried to be: a new socialist city.

As Long as We Have Our Marshal

‘As Long as we have our Marshal’, she said.

We had been discussing the extraordinary developments regarding Korean reunification. Not in the south, but in Pyongyang.

Even though reunification has long been DPRK policy, which would be undertaken peacefully, without foreign interference, and with a federal system that recognises the two different systems in north and south, it remained mostly an aspiration – apart from a few brief periods.

Now concrete progress was being made, with north and south making small steps that were building into a major leap. The governments of both parts had made the calculation – like other Asian nations – that United States influence was waning and that they had to solve their own problems.

For a young person like our guide, all of this was welcome but unsettling. She had been brought up with a solid education and a culture of struggle for the construction of socialism. Her country had seen much suffering, inflicted by two imperialisms – that of Japan and of the United States. She had grown up with the strong sense that her people were tough and determined, against formidable enemies that could at any time launch yet another war of massive destruction. Vigilance and preparation were the norm, even as people went about their everyday lives.

Who would not welcome a change? Who would also not be apprehensive as to what it might entail?

That evening, we had been discussing many matters: Marxism, the Workers’ Party (which she aspired to join), her family, education, the booming economy and the changes it had seen, visitors from the south, a sharp upturn in tourists, especially from China. Above all, we discussed reunification.

What would it mean? She wondered. Would the life she had come to know end?

Her secure basis in all these changes: ‘As long as we have our marshal’.

Marshal Kim Jong Un – the one who had kick-started the recent reunification process with his New Year speech of 2018.

Why the marshal? Simply put, he is the one who holds the whole system together.

But how to make sense of this reality?

The DPRK is a socialist state with a hereditary leadership, the only one in the world to do so. This is a feature that many foreigners – especially Marxists who are by and large in favour of what the DPRK is doing – find most difficult to understand. President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshal Kim Jong Un in succession provide the inescapable cohesion of the whole project.

‘As long as we have our marshal, everything will be fine’. The vast majority genuinely hold to this position. The respect and veneration given takes place every day. For example, at the Palace of the Sun (mausoleum), one shows absolute respect, bowing low at three points of each leader’s preserved body (not the head). Or whenever one comes before a statue, one bows low in respect. Images of the leaders are not to be reproduced for commercial purposes, and one always uses their titles when speaking of them.

How to understand this reality? We cannot bracket it out and mock it, for that is to misunderstand the country and its system. One could draw on different frameworks in an effort understand: the respect for the Thai king; absolute monarchy in Europe; the old Korean imperial tradition; the socialist ‘cult of the personality’; the well-worn trope of a quasi-religion in place of old-style religion. Ultimately, all of them are unhelpful for understanding the role of the leadership in the DPRK.

One angle is to draw on the strong notion and practice of inheritance in the DPRK, for which there are comprehensive laws. I mean not the inheritance of property, but the family tradition. Marshal Kim Jong Un inherits the family tradition of being a revolutionary leader. Let me add one further ingredient: it has become clear by now that the revolutionary leader is crucial not merely for the success of the revolution, but even more so for the construction of socialism. This complex process of veneration first developed with Lenin, but has been repeated in each effort to construct socialism. Lenin died only a few years after the October Revolution, but he lived on in so many ways. Leaders like Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung were fortunate enough to live long after the revolution, leaving their imprint on the new societies they led. In many respects, the leader embodied the revolution, so much so that the body itself was preserved and continues to be venerated (I, for one, have paid my respects to Lenin, Mao, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il).

If we connect this history of veneration of the revolutionary leader with the strong emphasis on inheritance in the DPRK, we are led to the following conclusion: Kim Jong Un today inherits the role of revolutionary leader from his father and grandfather. They might live on in people’s hearts, but Kim Jong Un is alive today. Thus, he is not merely the descendent; he is the revolutionary leader. He embodies the socialist project of the DPRK today.

Hence, ‘As long as we have our marshal’.