Articles from the October 1997 Unification News
Visiting Beijing and Pyongyang
by Nicholas Bikkal-Tokyo
I recently returned from a most interesting vacation: a week touring Beijing, China and Pyongyang, North Korea. While exotic over there it's a matter of course for me; as Etsuko would say "becoming" me.
It was my second visit to Beijing. The first one was just under 12 years ago. What I saw this trip was externally not so changed, just more commercial. The psyche of the people seems to have taken a major turn for the better. People are smiling, and in the streets one sees many little ma and pa shops. Prices are still low. Three of us toured Beijing in a taxi for about 35 minutes and the bill came to $7 for the three of us. This nation has changed from being a communist country to being a very poor third world country. They are starting at the bottom. As you see and experience in many poor countries there are now many (and that's saying a lot) poor beggars roaming the streets peddling postcards, or anything that will make them a yuan or two. Many are poor and dirty.
The city is beginning to show signs of foreign trust and investment. I myself stayed in what was arguably the best hotel in Beijing, a luxury class hotel on one of the main streets. The new privately owned buildings ranged from the Swiss'tel to foreign banks, etc. They are big and beautiful. A nice feature about this city is the mixture of old Oriental architecture blended in with the modern Western. Both are a joy to see. However, for a city the size of Beijing the number of modern, big structures is very small compared to what lies just a few blocks away. In some areas it's like Madrid was some 30+ years ago: poor, dusty, narrow streets and homes with only crude brick wall finish. Some areas are clear shanty towns. Yes, there is new money but it will take generations before this city becomes a dreamland.
Like it was in my previous trip Beijing was again in the midst of celebrations. In both occasions it was by mere coincidence, it just happened to come out that way. People were in the streets, this time, in (what we would consider) regular street clothes, not expensive, but somewhat stylish. Many had cameras. Men wore less Mao uniforms and more smiles. In the streets there were people cutting hair in the open air, selling fruit, and anything else they could imagine and afford on just a little capital investment. Also shops on the main streets were filled with consumer goods. Although very poor, a welcome sight compared to almost 12 years ago. There is now a little money starting to go around. One must now also beware of pickpockets and other undesirables.
Pyongyang and North Korea was a different story. Anyone who had in any way experienced a communist nation in the past saw a lot more than one now sees in North Korea. Possibly the first and most shocking impression is the total lack of commercial ads. NOT ONE. This includes posters, billboards, ads on the streets or anywhere else whether it be a Coke, Nissan, IBM, Samsung, etc. The other side of this coin is that there is no consumerism. If we can't see the promo it's because there is nothing to promote and sell. Anything not strictly focused on the revolution is prohibited. There is no private business, not even a ma and pa shop. The whole country and society is strictly geared to the person adoration of Kim Il Sung, the "Beloved Leader", and now Kim Jung Il, the "Dear Leader". There is a total stripping away of all thought that is not vertically and directly connected to the two leaders. It has now been several generations that the revolution has been going on that most have no knowledge or little memory of anything else. (This is far worse than China was in my previous trip when some consumerism existed.)
Are they really educated to hate Americans, and are they geared up for militarism? I believe yes. The tour guide at one point did talk about the evils of America. There is also little love for Japan. At one point I got up in the tour and spoke clearly to the guides and the tour members about this contention and told everyone that there is less hate and more good will than they thought, we would otherwise not be there. This cleared the air and the rest of the tour went quite smoothly, with no more negative talk. This earned me alone a Kim Il Sing badge. These badges cannot be bought, as one can buy hundreds of others in stores for foreigners. Although I had asked for it in beginning the request was swept away as unacceptable. It was at this point that they decided to give me a Kim Il Sung badge. It was given, however, with clear instructions that it was to be warn on the left lapel, over the heart!
Public transportation was another interesting story. Many walked to work. Some took whatever available bus, or in Pyongyang also subway, there was. Most often, however, people rode in the back of trucks, especially in the rural areas. There are cars seen in North Korea. These are from many nations. Possibly the drivers have no idea where they come from. Many are clearly Japanese. Japan is one of a small number of nations with the steering wheel on the right. The North Korean community in Japan is large and it's well know a lot of Japanese * end up in North Korea, funneled by these people. Vehicles are seldom new, with the exception of Mercedes Benz. All vehicles are almost always driven and ridden by people in uniform. The only other people using cars are the largely invisible diplomatic community.
The main industry in North Korea by far is farming. Any other industry, and this includes military of course, is revolution bent. Again, there is nothing that doesn't directly support the Kims' character adoration or Juche, the North Korean self reliance ideology. There are cement factories and most else is food industry, but not luxury level. What we, foreign tourists ate and drank were imported goods from South East Asian nations, usually lesser copies of brand name goods made elsewhere.
Homes are another sorrowful sight, There are many buildings which from afar look quite good. However, when looked at more closely are run down. (Something I also saw in China) There is no maintenance of buildings and structures not directly elevating the Kims. Many windows are broken, the finish is chipping away, and in the more rural areas one often did not see electric wiring running to buildings. Heating comes from picked wood. I would really doubt there was and central heating in many homes. I did not see the areas where the famine is taking place. Clearly it is a problem of distribution as well. Whereas they are now in the midst of harvesting I could see the crops are not thick or large. Everyone is involved in the harvest. Our guides had to go cut rice before going on our tour, and I saw many young teenagers with sickle in hand harvesting after school in the afternoons. There are rivers and lakes filled with water. Again, I found little government interest to invest in people to a large degree. Resources are limited. I saw they don't even make things attractive for foreigners to have something good to say other than their revolutionary statues.
One source of man made beauty are public buildings and monuments dedicated to Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jung Il, and Juche. These are well maintained, beautifully finished, invariably very large, and usually with large grounds surrounding them. Some buildings, however look like something you'd find in Star Wars or other Science Fiction movie, with odd shapes. There is a building triangular shaped that is now being finished.
To the structures dedicated to the revolution add all the posters and billboards that are seen. When walking into our hotel there is a large wall sized mural picturing the two Kims walking down a Pyongyang bridge. This single minded focus on the two and the revolution is pervasive throughout the country. There are several statues dedicated to the signature of the senior Kim.
There are some nicely finished highways, well paved. However, they are most empty. A few of the uniformed driven cars run down them, and otherwise only sightseeing buses. What are their purpose? Military is all I can think of. You can sit for long periods along the side of one of these connecting Pyongyang and the DMZ and not have but a car or two come down them.
Who walks the streets? Only the people who have been granted permission to do so. Also there are few cars in the streets, just as the highway heading south. I said permission needed to be granted to walk in the streets during the day. Whereas people walk to work, during the day few are seen walking, driving or roaming around. I asked to be allowed to walk home from a tourist store about a kilometer from our hotel, clearly visible from where we were. I was not allowed. We are to stay in a single group, and not to be broken down into smaller ones. I didn't push it too much.
We went to the DMZ on the first day. It was a long waiting game at first. Other (Chinese), a group of Japan North Korean high school students and other locals were already ahead of us. We were given the gruesome story of how the US-led allies are the cause of the Korean peninsula division, and how the US is the big evil to be destroyed. Their literature, available for purchase, tells the whole story with pictures and newspaper clippings. We visited the buildings where negotiations were held with the South, and where armistice was signed. We saw the South's side of the DMZ, only a stone's throw away. One of the prefab buildings we were in literally went as far as the 38th parallel line itself. South Korean soldiers with binoculars on the other side kept a watchful eye on us as we visited, part of the continual cat and mouse the two sides are constantly playing. After the tourists walk away the security guards on both sides leave their positions facing each other standing at attention and go back to their office rooms. Usually they wear no guns, they only stand at attention facing each other. Here I did not feel as much tension as I had when visiting Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin some 30 years ago.
There was little direct communication with locals. I could ask few relevant, if probably embarrassing, questions, but there was no real need to ask for details of their life when we could easily see it and imagine the rest. I was not in a confrontational mood. There life is so simple and clear that one needs to ask no questions. There is a purpose in life which is clearly defined and no one nor nothing strays from it.
As there exists in China there are the friendship stores where foreigners shop and spend their money. At several points during the trip the guides stopped to allow us to buy North Korean made goods. They need every foreign currency they can get. Also, as in China, these are the only visible department stores as we have in the West. All the others are small one room deep, at times wide, stores. On shelves there are few goods, often (alcohol?) drinks. I did not get to see a market, however. I would not expect to see high quality products. I didn't see high quality in China when I was there in the past, and would expect to see less now in North Korea.
How could I go into North Korea? US citizens are allowed in. It does not mean it's easy to do so. Because I am spouse of a Japanese, and I also reside in Japan I was accepted into North Korea at the Pyongyang airport. The police verified the above by asking me directly. I may have otherwise been sent back to Beijing or imprisoned, who knows? (Just joking) The only other way is to be part of a relief organization
Is there hope for North Korea? Yes, it lies in understanding the people and government and working with them. Slowly, ever so slowly they are making their move. Today's official inauguration of Kim Jung Il's new taking of power of two other positions he had not officially held is the start of something new. We'll see.
Download entire book in ZIP format
Table of Contents