North Korea

Lead curtain: an overview of everyday life in North Korea

(Excerpt from a special report Published by GQ Brasil in April 2014)

Throwing dense clouds of smoke and soot into the air, the train leaves behind the modern buildings and busy streets of Dadong, China, to traverse the iron bridge over the choppy Yalu River toward Sinuiju, North Korea. Across the river, the first facilities on sight are of a forsaken amusement park with a rusty Ferris Wheel and a pile of twisted iron tubes that resemble a roller coaster. Not far away, rising above the trees, emerge the chimneys of an old soviet style factory where brand new refrigerators are made exactly the same way they were manufactured fifty years ago. Along the way, groups of men and women repair the rails under the sun, equipped only with mallets. Some are wearing large round straw hats and some have clothing parts wrapped around their heads. The rice fields around are plowed with the same traditional oxen driven plough used in the Middle Ages. At an old small station, the train comes to a halt and North Korean soldiers bearing rifles enter the wagons.

While one soldier collects our passports, others inspect every single suitcase and bag we are carrying. When they open an old lady’s backpack, they find a thick book with a golden cross printed on its black hardcover. It takes them a few minutes to realize it is a Bible in Chinese. At the end, she is allowed to bring the sacred book with her. However, she cannot show it to any North Korean and must bring it back with her when she leaves the country. A fellow countryman caught holding or hiding a bible could be sent to one of the many forced labor camps spread throughout the country. It is also forbidden to carry history books, South Korean magazines, cameras with GPS, radio receivers or flags from either the United States or South Korea. When they give the passports back to us, three hours later, the train leaves toward Pyongyang, the capital of the “Hermit Kingdom”.

Last year, the 31-years-old North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, took some actions that shocked the International Community and isolated their nation even further. First, they tested a smaller, lighter and more powerful nuclear bomb and threatened to launch it against the West Coast of the US. Then, they asked all the foreign ambassadors to leave the country because they would not be able to provide security for all of them. They also launched six missiles toward the Japan Sea and convicted a US citizen to 15 years of forced labor for taken pictures of starving children in the countryside. Moreover, at the end of 2013, Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and second in the nation’s hierarchy.

In February 2014, after interviewing 240 refugees of the regime, the United Nations ranked North Korea at the top of the list of human rights violating countries. In 400 pages, there are reports about systematic torture, deliberate starvation, and massacres at levels close to the Nazi genocide. Oblivious to all of this, Kim Jong-un lead the communist party to a massive victory in the legislative elections last month, with 100% of the votes for the national parliament on a heavily state-controlled process. Did anyone from inside North Korea raise any suspicious on the results? Of course not!

The tense environment created over the last couple years had an impact on the number of foreign tourists in North Korea. From 2012 to 2013, the number of visitors declined from 5 thousand per year to 1,5 thousand. According to Chinese authorized tourist agencies, the decline was caused by restrictions on the areas open to visitors. Nowadays, there are only two itineraries allowed for foreigners, one in Pyongyang and another in the Northern part of the country.

Being a journalist entering the country as a tourist and trying to go unnoticed as the only westerner on a Chinese tour group, makes all of these information pops into my mind. And it gives me the creeps. I know that I can get into real trouble if someone finds out that I was sent there to write a story for a magazine.

The train arrives in Pyongyang and the passenger handling starts. A girl gets out carrying musical instruments, a brand new baby stroller, one box of fresh fruits and another full of industrialized food. If she had to buy those same goods in North Korea, she would have to face the high black market prices. An old man, with gray hair and sunburnt skin, unloads several packages rolled in black plastic garbage bags.

“Clothes for selling,” says the guide, “This man goes to China every week for work and brings goods to sell when he comes back. He makes a lot more money doing this than working for the government.”
The entry of Chinese goods is a reflex of the local economy, which is one of the world’s most closed – almost 90% of the North Korean foreign trade are with China (US$ 6,45 billion in 2013). However, the days of prosperity – first with the Soviet Union and later with China – are numbered.

“China is no longer the strong ally it had been over the past years,” says Wang Dong, Professor of the Beijing University and one of the most respected Chinese experts on the relation between the two countries. “The government and the people of China are disgruntled with Pyongyang’s conduct, especially with the acts of defiance toward South Korea and the United States. The signs of detachment were clear when China supported the new sanctions of the United Nations on North Korea, something unheard of in the relations between the two countries,” he states.

Also, the country still undergoes a fierce embargo from the U.S.: in response to the news of North Korea producing nuclear weapons in 2006 and 2009, Barack Obama forbade any importation of goods, services or technologies from Kim Jong-un’s regime.

On a bus ‘made in China’, we leave the train station straight to Mansudae – Mansu Hill –, where we are told to lay flowers and bow at the feet of the statues of Kim Il-sung (officially revered as “Sun of Mankind”) and Kim Jong-il (The Dear Leader), respectively grandfather and father of Kim Jong-un, the actual ‘Supreme Leader’. When speaking about the former leaders, all citizens must mandatorily address them by these treatments.

While crossing the poorly maintained roads on the way to the hotel, I see far more cars than I expected. According to Roberto Colin, Brazilian Ambassador in North Korea since 2012, the increasing number of cars on the streets of the city discloses the discrepancy between Pyongyang and the rest of the country. Almost 97% of the North Korean vehicles are in the capital city. He also says that Electricity is rather precarious. Every day, when the sun sets, the power supply goes down in the whole country. However, as North Korea’s showcase, some buildings in Pyongyang keep the electricity.

Later on, we arrive at the Yanggakdo Hotel, the only one that can host foreigners in Pyongyang. This place’s under-the-table name is Alcatraz, because it is located on a small island and whose premises no one is allowed to leave without an official local guide. At the lobby, the only computer where foreigners can access the Internet is not working, making almost impossible to send emails and post on Facebook or Twitter. Isolation! On a rotating restaurant at the top of the 47-story building hotel, I engage a conversation with some Chinese that are traveling with the same group as me.

“As you can see, there is no freedom here. You look at the people on the streets and they don’t look happy,” says Jing Ming Jie, a 58-years-old entrepreneur. “Thirty years ago, China was also like this”, he concludes while we watch the city plunge into deep darkness when the sun sets.
Only a few buildings beyond ours keep the lights on. Something unthinkable in Seoul, the capital of the South Korea, where the streets keep dazzling at night with the brilliance of illuminated advertising panels.

The division into North and South Korea happened after the II World War, when the United States and the Soviet Union made a pact to divide the Korean Peninsula alongside the parallel 38. Kim Il-sung, who spent most of his youth in Russia, was brought to power on the North – officially known as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Declaring himself the ruler of the whole Peninsula, he invaded the South on June 25, 1950 and started the Korean War. Supported by China and the Soviets, he took possession of the greater part of the Peninsula. Still, the North was almost annihilated when the US joined the South. In three years of conflicts, 54,000 US soldiers died together with more than 2 million Korean soldiers. Furthermore, about 1,5 million civilians were injured, killed or reported missing. The armistice signed on July 27, 1953 ceased the conflicts and re-established the borders. However, both countries remain officially at war. Since then, there is no communication between the South and the North, either by telephone, fax, Internet or mail.

On the second day of the trip, we leave at 8 a.m. to the Friendship International Museum, in Myohyangsan. Next to me, seats Paek Chol Nom, North Korean tourist guide who lived in Cuba for eight years and speaks Spanish. He is glad I can speak it as well, so nobody understand a single word of our conversation and he can freely talk about anything and everything.

Son of a retired general of the Korean People’s Army, he sees himself as a fortunate citizen.

“Only a few fellow countrymen have the opportunity to study abroad,” he says.

Chol Nom also speaks Chinese, which helps him keep this job with a monthly pay of U$ 60, a fortune if compared to the U$ 10 that most of the North Korean workers get paid. Pregnant with their second child, his wife is a music teacher at the Kim Il-sun University and earns U$ 75 per month. As soon as the child is born, the family is going to move into a three-bedroom apartment. The houses, which legally belong to the government, are allocated among the population according to their social standing. This, of course, does not prevent illegal negotiations. According to him, people often move to less comfortable places in exchange for money.

Chol Nom has dreams, like everybody else. He doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life accompanying foreign tourists. He wants to help his family to have a better life. He wants his children to have more chances in this world. The only possible ways for that, he says, is to start a business trading Chinese and Cuban products.

“I have many contacts is this two countries and I know a lot of people in the government because of my father,” he says, looking abstracted to the rice fields along the road. These connections could allow him to obtain the necessary documents to become an entrepreneur in North Korea. Ordinary people, with no contacts in the government, have to spend their whole life as low-salary employees or walk through the slippery paths of the black market.

The road leading to Myohyangsan, wide and deserted, shows signs of neglect and is yet another legacy from the times when North Korea was a developed country, richer than the South. With the falling of the Soviet Union at the early 1990’s, the nation lost its major commercial and military ally. Without the money previously and regularly received from the Socialist empire, Kim Il-sung ceased investments in infrastructure and the food production plummeted. The famine that followed is estimated to have gotten nearly two million people killed, almost 10% of the county’s population. According to some historians, until nowadays, it is rather impossible to precise the number of victims of North Korea’s Great Famine, as well as the country’s overall population.

With the increase of commercial transactions with China in the new millennium, North Korea has finally stabilized the internal food supply.
“China offers only the minimum required for the North Korean regime not to collapse,” says professor Wang Dong.

Still, thousands of people illegally cross the border to China every year in search of better living conditions. Their final destination is usually South Korea, where most of them have relatives they have not seen in decades. But only a few reach the South. In 2012, merely 1,217 were successful, a number 50% lower than the previous year. Many of the fugitives are captured and brought to detention camps – where there are between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners in degrading conditions, according to the UN. Others are simply shot dead by border guards and never get the chance to have a glimpse of freedom.

The bus arrives at the International Friendship Museum, a mausoleum built in 1978 to display the gifts sent to the North Korean leaders by famous figures from all over the world. It is a mandatory stop for tourists. Literally. Everyone intending to visit the country must spend two hours at the wide corridors of this luxury building that holds 122,250 gifts from 184 countries. This, of course, shows how much the “Dear Leaders” are “respected and loved”. Knowing I was Brazilian, the guide made sure to show me a soccer ball signed by “The King Pelé”.

Back to Pyongyang, we are brought to a school where children are presenting a show with songs exalting their leaders. In an inner courtyard, little clusters of students gather in their uniforms; blue trousers for boys and blue skirts for girls, white shirts and a red handkerchief around the neck. Seating on the floor, some are talking and laughing. Further back, some practice marching steps with broad straight arm movements. Rather suspicious, some stop whatever they are doing and stare at me. Others just run and hide.

“Here is where they learn to use computers and access the Internet,” says the guide, and opens the door of a room with twenty-five modern desktops and a projector.

Since they are born, the children of North Korea learn the Juche philosophy, an alienating doctrine created by the grandfather of the current leader and which basic concept is “self-reliance spirit”. It is a paradoxical ideology – a mixture of religion, legislation and military strategies – that claims an individual is “the master of his destiny”, since under the command of a “talented leader”. As it forecasts the self-sufficiency of the industry and the agriculture, it is one of the main reasons for North Korea isolation. The abundant propaganda is part of the ideology, with the ubiquity of statues, outdoors and pictures of the “Great Leaders” and their teachings.

On the Juche books, children learn that Kim Il-sung is a divine being and that a radiant star and a double rainbow marked the birth of Kim Jong-Il, his son. Since they are born, North Koreans are also taught they need to cry in the presence of the leaders. The scenes of their public appearances are remarkable events. On an attempt to please their parents and the Party, one child always wants to weep louder than the others. For them, it is like they are in the presence of a god.
With the blocking of information from outside, the alienation continues. Even so, at least on this matter, the isolation seems to be succumbing.

“The devotion to the young Kim Jong-un is shallower than it was to his father and grandfather,” guarantees Reverend Tim Peters, founder of the NGO Helping Hands Korea and who has been working with North Korean refugees for sixteen years. “The people are starting to understand that they are not divine. They just don’t manifest it because they are afraid of retaliation,” he says.

After the school show, we board the bus again to visit the subway. There, we are clearly forbidden from talking to any of the 500 thousand North Koreans that use this way of transportation daily. Taking photographs, on the other side, is encouraged to show the world their “modern transportation system”. Escalators take the passengers 100 meters deep, where old trains from Eastern Germany wait at this platform adorned with colorful lights and carved tall columns. I feel like I am entering a Russian movie from the 1960’s. Unfortunately, our ride stops at the next station, where the bus is waiting to take us back to “Alcatraz”.

On the morning of the third day, we follow toward the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a land strip 250 km long and 4 km wide created by the armistice in 1953 to divide the two Koreas. Despite the name, it is one of the most heavily militarized areas in the world. In the Panmunjeon village, where the Joint Security Area (JSA) is located, there are seven buildings used in the negotiations between the two countries. Each of these buildings has a line inside meaning each country owns half of it.
The guards from the North and the South, which live few meters from each other and speak the same language, cannot talk to each other. A misinterpreted gesture can cause a diplomatic issue that could start a war. From where I stand, I can see two Swedish soldiers walking on the South Korean side and staring at us. “Don’t make anything that can offend them,” asks the guide.

North Korea claims to have the sixth largest army in the world, with 1,1 million soldiers. However, refugees say that weapons, tanks, ships and missiles are obsolete. We will never know.

After lunch, on our way back to Pyongyang, we stop by at the old town of Kaesong, an ancient city that had served as the capital of the Korean Empire in different eras. Outside the Koryo Museum, where we learned a little about the Peninsula’s History, I join a group of local teenagers that are playing volleyball. Chol Nom, the guide, does not approve it and tries to get me out of there. But, after a while, he gives in and joins us. Other Chinese tourists gather around us and some also try to play.

Although, before long, it is time to get on the bus again and leave to the train station. Our trip to the Hermit Kingdom is coming to an end.
Our train stands still at the border for another two hours. The lady who has entered the country with a Bible in Chinese needs to show she is carrying the book with her. All the others need to show we are neither carrying Korean money nor forbidden products. In my suitcase, some packs of cigars – even tough I don’t smoke –, postcards and ginger candies.

Back to Dadong, China, I watch the long line of trucks waiting to cross the border with all kinds of goods. It is estimated that 80% of the trade between North Korea and other countries cross that same bridge my train has just passed. At night, a local merchant takes me to a point where the strands of the river that divides the two countries are closer and say, “It’s through here where the smugglers enter North Korea with illegal products and where refugees get to cross to China.” At that point behind the Hushan Park, where it stands the northern part of the Great Wall, the river is only ten meters wide.

According to refugees, bootleggers on rowboats use that area to enter North Korea with luxury goods whose importation is forbidden by the regime – at least for the average population –, like watches, wine, computers, TVs and sound systems.

“The products follow in boxes, always at night when there is no moon. Some also bribe the guards to enter with security,” says the merchant, who does not want to have his name revealed.

Because of the embargos, the isolation of the country and the internal low supply on the formal market, Pyongyang’s elite, generally members of the Party and of the government, are the ones to keep the black market alive.

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