The first impression of Pyongyang is the airport. Sparse in some places, austere in others, it is set amidst rice fields against the backdrop of even greener mountains. Interestingly, some 80% of the country is mountainous; Pyongyang on the other hand means “flat land”. This is the Hermit Kingdom – the last remaining bastion of socialism which has hung onto the idealism of Marxist Leninism amidst strict sanctions and few friends.
The airport is filled with tourists. Koreans are not allowed to travel even within the country, and barring the diplomats no average Korean would have seen the outside world. Germans, Dutch, British, Swedish, Chinese, Russians, Spanish and a handful of other nationalities including Americans and Japanese visit the country in scores each year and bring the world to their doorstep.
The airport procedures are straightforward but full of standard protocols – checking the kind of books you carry; the kind of images or films you have on your phones and computers – religious proselytizing is strictly prohibited in the country. The 24km distance from the airport to the city, gives you the first impression of what is the rice bowl of the country. With the abundance in crops, you would hope no one in the country goes hungry.
When the country was divided, the South got the human resource; the North the natural resource like rare minerals, fishery and of course, agriculture. The people here do not like to be regarded as North Koreans or South Koreans; instead prefer to be regarded as DPRK. They still long for a unified Korea and believe they are “One Korea”.
Air Koryo, the national carrier of the DPRK flies to few destinations: China and Russia being the two key countries it still has ties to. The DPRK must find itself alone and on its own after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Western models of capitalism are seen as unworthy enticements that lead to grotesque social inequalities and moral corruption of the ugliest kind. Quite naturally, propaganda becomes the way to influence its people and urge them to stay true to the ideals of Marxism.
Militarism and labour is widely seen via propaganda posters; most anti-imperialistic sentiment is channeled towards the US, which the DPRK sees as the divisive power that led to the country being separated. Yet, I found the men incredibly small in stature; almost tiny, a far cry from the public sculptures with broad shouldered men and fury dripping from their eyes. Women were too docile, the children too obedient and the elderly too stooped and fragile to pick up a rifle. Interestingly, unlike South Korea, the North Korean men are not required to join the military. Barring the smoke that comes from their nostrils from the chain smoking, the men exhibit no anger or intimidation; just pain – from loss of being united with their brethren – the South Koreans. The show of militarism seems to be a defensive front, a provocation, a dog with a bark worse than its bite.
But don’t let that diminutive stature fool you into believing that the Koreans don’t feel a strong sense of pride towards their Fatherland. Indeed, when a country doesn’t look into the future and keep pace with it or allow its people to excel as individuals, it has but no choice to hang onto its past and feel a sense of collective pride towards the achievements of their ancestors. For example, the North Koreans talk about their independence from the Japanese and celebrate it as if they achieved it just yesterday. They owe their general sense of happiness and well being to their respected leaders: President Kim Il Sun, who is remembered for bravely fighting the Japanese for 20 years and finally claiming freedom in 1945, and General Kim Jong Il, who further strengthened the role of the military with an aim to make the country a formidable power.
Obedience, orderliness and obligation towards the authority is a common trait among the people.
As my bus pulled into the city, there were two thought I couldn’t shake off: one was just how privileged we are to have our independence, not just for our country but in the way we lead our lives and being encouraged to be individualistic – the power of one over power of none. And the second was – are the North Korean people happy in themselves? Do they feel oppressed? Is the love for their leaders real?
I was determined to find out.
Rice fields are abundant – with all the rice around, no one should go hungry, or so I hope
Cycles are the common mode of transport
Broad shoulders and strong, muscly arms – not quite the way men are in the DPRK
Soldier on a bicycle – diminutive and curious
Love and adulation for their leaders is ingrained in each Korean. Absolutely no dissent.
Militarism stoking their collective pride
Fathers of the nation: President Kim Il Sun and General Kim Jong Il. They are always seen as happy, never sombre
Women joined the military in the past though it seems that women now are quite content playing a subordinate role.
The two leaders surrounded in magnolias – the national flower of the DPRK
Taedong River, the largest river in the DPRK which flows through Pyongyang