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North Korea In the Land of the Single Tune

7 minute read
Pico Iyer/Pyongyang

As one of the most reclusive countries in the world, North Korea has long been closed to even the faintest whisper of an alien idea. Yet when a British passport holder recently went to the North Korean embassy in Beijing and expressed a desire to visit the Hermit Kingdom, he was warmly received. London does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, he was reminded, but he was more than welcome to come in. Not only would the authorities take care of his visa; they would also confirm plane tickets, provide him with a hotel and meals, set him up with a guide. And since so many countries regard a North Korean stamp as a stigma, they would give him a detachable visa that he could throw away as soon as he left.

One week later, on the aging Chosonminhang airlines plane into Pyongyang — the carrier runs only five flights a week, linking the capital to Moscow, Beijing, Khabarovsk and Sofia — the Briton was the only sightseer in evidence. Most of the passengers were North Koreans (easily identified by the badge depicting President Kim Il Sung that every North Korean must pin over his heart) and Japanese businessmen, apparently undeterred by the fact that North Korea is the only country that Japanese nationals are not permitted by their government to visit.

The fact that capitalist foreigners were visiting at all suggests that the world’s last great communist dinosaur is beginning to stir. As national alliances have been radically redrawn over the past year, the longest-running dictatorship in the world has found itself increasingly abandoned by the two patrons, Moscow and Beijing, that it has always managed to play off against each other. Pyongyang’s sense of vulnerability was only sharpened when the Soviets, who account for 50% of North Korea’s trade, established full diplomatic relations with South Korea in September. China, meanwhile, enjoys $3 billion a year of trade with Seoul, at least three times more than with its ostensible ally to the north.

With a 10% drop in foreign trade last year and an even more damaging cut to its almost bankrupt economy anticipated this year, North Korea is being forced to swallow its principles and make friends with the countries it has long loved to vilify. September saw the first high-level meeting between North and South Korea; a second round of talks was conducted last month. And just days before the Moscow-Seoul accord, Pyongyang asserted its eagerness to normalize diplomatic relations with Japan, its bitterest enemy of all since the brutal Japanese occupation of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

The man in the Pyongyang street, however, still proceeds as if no one has told him that the cold war is over. North Korea seems stuck in some vanished black-and-white era of dark, Soviet-made limousines and gray, featureless concrete blocks (when a visitor pulls out a camera, a local asks him, in astonishment, “Color?”). The dominant image of the capital is of neatly dressed people in groups walking soundlessly through silent avenues of empty high-rises.

Radios are fixed so they can receive only the one acceptable station, and a loudspeaker is installed in every home. The display case in a hotel bookstore features 114 different works, all by Kim Il Sung or his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Il. Martial music is piped in throughout the country, even in the bus taking passengers from airplane to terminal; by daybreak, when workers march to their jobs, a fast, furious female voice is already shouting exhortations from a hidden amplifier in the street.

In the midst of this rule-bound spartanism, every visiting foreigner is taken to see the showcases of “social construction”: the Tower of the Juche (self-reliance) Idea, embellished with carvings of the kimilsungia flower; a 70-ft. bronze statue of the Great Leader, before which women mutter prayers; an Arch of Triumph larger than Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. Subway stations are opulent, with fireworks-shaped chandeliers, granite pillars, 250-ft. mosaics, and marble passageways and platforms. Yet many of the imperial structures have a slightly wistful, wasteful air: the enormous 150,000-seat May First Stadium, built in the stillborn hope of a role as co-host of the 1988 Summer Olympics, for example; or the 20,000 new apartments along Kwangbok (liberation) Street that were built to accommodate foreigners but remain largely uninhabited.

For North Koreans, however, the ranks of modern towers are a source of pride, concrete proof of how much they have achieved since they began rebuilding their country from the rubble of the Korean War. “New York, Paris, are better than us, more beautiful,” concedes a government guide. “But 40 years ago, New York, Paris, were the same.” The nation “so rich in silver and in gold,” as its national anthem proclaims, has enough resources to build $500 million stadiums, but its citizens must get by on about $50 a month. “These people have hard currency — they are not so hopeless as ((the people in)) many other countries I deal with,” says a European who is in Pyongyang to reschedule a debt that has gone unpaid for 14 years. “But they just use it on monuments, more monuments — unusable things.”

The visitor to Pyongyang soon grows accustomed to seeing the world in a different light, as if gazing through the wrong end of a telescope. On North Korean maps, there is no Demilitarized Zone at the 38th parallel, no boundary between South and North; guidebooks, in quoting figures for the country, often cite the numbers for the two parts of Korea combined. In the 1,100-seat auditorium of the Children’s Palace, a 500-room extravaganza rich with 2 1/2- ton chandeliers and 50,000 tons of marble, groups of tiny revolutionaries put on a slick hour-long variety show, compulsively smiling while they deliver folk songs like Korea Is One.

Despite such reflexive gestures, however, and ritual references to “((South Korean President)) Roh Tae Woo and his cutthroats,” Pyongyang takes pains to absolve its southern brothers of most blame. The history books allude only to the “war between America and North Korea,” and the North Koreans constantly repeat that theirs is a “homogeneous nation,” though nothing could be further from the raucous vivacity of Seoul than Pyongyang’s unearthly quiet. Just three years ago, North Korean saboteurs bombed a Korean Air Lines plane in the hope of sabotaging the Seoul Olympics and killed 115 people; now, having seen unification come to Germany and even Yemen, Pyongyang is talking more than ever of a “confederal republic” with two regional governments overseen by a single central committee.

Meanwhile, an additional 50,000 apartments are being completed for Kim Il Sung’s 80th birthday in 1992. Many Korea watchers believe in that year, when Kim Jong Il turns 50, the father may hand power over to the son. Though citizens in Pyongyang still seem eager to attest to their devotion to their leaders, some of their enthusiasm may be quickened by the fact that theirs is one of the most militarized countries in the world (with nearly 900,000 troops among its 21 million people). According to the human-rights group Asia Watch, as many as 150,000 prisoners are kept in the equivalent of concentration camps.

$ For the moment, though, the long-xenophobic country prefers to stress its openness. In Beijing, ads in the China Daily have been singing, “You are welcome to visit Pyongyang.” Since April, charter flights have been scheduled to bring in tourists from Hong Kong. “Tell your friends,” a guide urges, “British, American, Japanese, that they are welcome to visit! Many Western enemies say our country is ‘closed,’ but anyone who is genuinely interested in Korea is welcome.” Maybe North Korea should tell the world of its new policy? “We tell,” he says, a little plaintively, “but they say, ‘Propaganda!’ “

Anyone who doubts that the hospitable intentions exist, at least on paper, need look no further than the tallest building in the skyline of Pyongyang, a 105-story pyramid under construction. The 1,000-ft. tower is apparently to house the Ryugyong Hotel, whose 3,000 rooms will be able to accommodate 5,000 tourists. That seems more than enough for the one tourist who comes flying in each day.

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