Early wake up call, electric shocks from the lift and then breakfast as usual. Today we are heading to Nampo on the west coast of North Korea to see the West Sea Barrage, a dam project intended to raise the level of the Taedong river improving irrigation and allowing for larger shipping. In reality it ended up submerging valuable farmland leading to famine across the country which is speculated to have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. This is not acknowledge within North Korea and the barrage is still celebrated as a triumph of construction by the country. If you’re interested in a detailed history of North Korea, and how it came to be, the best book I have found by far is Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. The quality, and quantity, of information available within is second to none.
Before heading onto the highway to Nampo we stopped by the Public Library just off Kim Il-sung square to see some of the classes there and take in the views from the roof. We were shown to a counter with a little conveyor belt that protruded from wall behind, they claimed that they stocked almost every book in existence, a member of our group quickly asked whether or not they stocked George Orwell’s 1984, they said that they did although we weren’t actually shown any books except for a couple that were already on the counter.
Next we were taken up a lift, with a smartly dressed lady attending it, and shown around several study rooms and class rooms. First was a large room filled with a grid of desks all pointing to the front where a pair of portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il took pride of place on the wall. We were then told the story of how Kim Il-sung visited this building and sat at one of the desks and exclaimed that it was not comfortable to work at. He then personally set about the creation of a desk with an adjustable top allowing the user to study in comfort. I’d heard this story before visiting as many people write about it due to the grandiose way that such a mundane invention is treated.
Next was a room with half the desks containing a television with VCR and the other half large stereos. We were told that this room is for studying foreign music/audio recordings as well as foreign TV/Film for the purpose of improving ones language skills. I noted that this room was completely empty whilst the preceding study room had been half full. Whether this implies anything or not I am not sure. At the back of this room I noticed an unattended computer, on a slightly geeky tangent I’d read before that North Korea had developed their own variant of the Linux operating system called Red Star OS. Keen to see if they were using it or not I twitched the mouse when the guide was explaining something to wake the machine up, only to be greeted with a Windows XP login screen.
On our way to see some classes in action someone pointed out an interesting painting on the wall showing what appeared to be Kim Il-sung and a woman armed with pistols, our guide told us this is how Kim Il-sung met his first wife, the mother of Kim Jong-il. He was bravely fighting on the front lines, during the guerilla war to liberate Korea from the Japanese, and failed to notice a Japanese soldier who was about to shoot him, Kim Jong-suk stepped in and shot the soldier saving Kim Il-sung. Classic love story.
We quietly stepped in to the back of an English lesson. Each member of the class was in a glass walled desk, possibly to prevent copying, and there were TV screens suspended from the ceiling. Members of the class were called up in turn to stand beneath the front most screen and were given a microphone. A verb would appear on the screen and they would have to say all the tenses as quickly as possible. For example the screen would say “Play” and the student would say “Played. Plays. Play.”. None of us were able to keep up with the pace despite being native English speakers.
On the way out of the class an Austrian member of the group asked if there was a German class, the guide said yes, he asked if we could see the class, she said no. We were then shown up to a balcony on the roof with a grand view out over Kim Il-sung square with the Juche tower visible faintly through the cold mist on the opposite bank of the Taedong river. After taking a few pictures, and the video below, we went back out through the library and into our minibus to head to Nampo.
It was another long journey with the same format as the others. Drive through the reasonably busy streets of Pyongyang and then hit a checkpoint with an empty motorway on the other side, handover our documents, and then drive uninterrupted down a straight river of tarmac for 2 hours or so. We didn’t get to see much of the city of Nampo, just quickly driving through the centre of it, as the guides were keen for us to see the Barrage.
We drove along the barrage to an island that sits in the middle, on top of which is a small building that acts as a lighthouse and a museum to the construction of the barrage. We parked up outside then went into the building and into a room with several rows of armchairs and a TV at the front, the portraits of the leaders were at the back of the room this time. We were shown a video showing the process of the dams construction from an initial concept, to rooms of engineers drawing and then on to legions of workers pouring concrete with footage of glorious celebrations upon completion. The film finished up with various impressive facts and figures about the barrage that I won’t write out here.
To be frank it was all quite inspiring, but at the same time you have the lingering knowledge that the ecological impact of this dam is indirectly responsible for the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people (The direct cause being the governments unwillingness to acknowledge the problem and accept foreign aid at the time).
Once video-time was over we stepped outside to get some photos of the barrage from the high vantage point of the island, our English guide mentioned at this point that the North Koreans had done a trial run of a river cruise that ran from Pyongyang to the Barrage with a set of Chinese tourists, but it had proved unpopular due to the condition of the boat.
We hopped back in the van to head to Pyongyang, stopping at a model collective farm along the way. The farm consisted of a central square surround by what appeared to be an admin building, a set of poly-tunnels and some accommodation buildings. Ms Kang knocked out the door of the admin building to no avail. Eventually a woman came out, they had a quick exchange, and then we walked off round the corner to see a statue of Kim Il-sung along with the founders of the farm.
Normally every tour group is required to see the large statue of Kim Il-sung in the centre of Pyongyang and place flowers at its base and then bow. We were excluded from this as the statue was under renovation for the upcoming 100th anniversary of his birth and they were keen for us to not see any construction. Although the statue at the farm was much smaller we were still watched intently as we bowed to ensure we took the gesture seriously. We were given a few minutes for pictures and then we were loaded into the van and off we went, without seeing the farm.
Back in Pyongyang we went for lunch. The restaurant had been split up into private rooms and to make the best use of the available space some of these rooms did not share an outside wall with the building, and thus did not have windows. The power was running when we arrived so we were escorted to our seats, poured drinks, and then our hosts left, but within the minutes the power cut plunging the room into total darkness. We’d all gotten quite used to this by now and all started giggling. The staff only realised our predicament when they opened the door to bring in our food and quickly rushed to set up candles. A candlelit lunch is something I think very few people have experienced outside of the polar circles!
Next would be a whistle stop tour to a couple of the monuments around Pyongyang and then onto the USS Pueblo. The first monument was the Juche Tower, a large concrete spike with a glass flame at the top that pays tribute to North Korea’s brand of Self-Sufficient Communism. After this was the Monument to the party founding, three sets of arms holding a hammer, sickle and paintbrush. The hammer and sickle represent the usual proletariat and peasantry but the inclusion of the paintbrush is to represent the intellectual, noteworthy when you consider the attitude during the Chinese Communist revolution towards those deemed too intelligent.
The USS Pueblo was part of the trip I was particularly looking forward to. It is the only US Navy ship that is held captive by a foreign power. It is a US spy ship that was picking up communications outside of North Korea’s territorial waters, however, the Koreans claimed it had strayed into their water allowing them to capture it. The crew were held captive and their commander, Lloyd M. Bucher, coerced into writing a false confession under the threat of executing his men in front of him. Despite making the world aware of the nature of his confession the North Koreans still used it to claim that the US has been spying illegally.
When we arrived at the ship we were introduced to the man who would be showing us around the boat, he was one of the men involved in the capture itself. Following the event he, and the others present, had received great honours and become celebrities of sorts within North Korea. We were first shown a video depicting the events surrounding the capture from the Norths point of view, emphasising that boat was in fact in their waters and that the confession was signed legitimately. The video went on to say that President Lyndon B. Johnson was considered a laughing stock throughout the remainder of his career due to the event, which is also untrue.
After the video the guide gave us a refreshingly factual tour of the ship, with non of the typical exaggerations and bias present throughout the rest of the trip, simply pointing out where people had been and that when he walked into the communications room the Americans were destroying all the equipment and information they had collected. He also relayed an anecdote about how he had to attempt to communicate with the captain of the ship about how many men were on board, and of what ranks, through sign language and drawings on paper. After the tour was concluded he was very keen to shake all our hands and for us all to take a group photo with him on the deck of the ship.
We had a few hours back at the hotel to kill before we went back out for dinner so I took the opportunity to write all my postcards and then attempt to make a phone call back to my parents at home, partly for the novelty of the call, and partly to put them at ease. After handing my postcards in at the DHL counter in the lobby (that’s right DHL operate in North Korea!) I asked to use the phone to call the UK, handed over my 2 euros for a 1 minute phone call and picked up the phone which promptly went to voice mail. I left a message.
On the way to dinner we drove back past the Juche tower and noticed that despite the city being in darkness the tower was still illuminated and the glass flame on top glowing bright red. I think some priorities could do with being re-arranged. The meal was fairly standard compared to the others but there was one notable event. Half way through the meal the power flickered back on and several staff from the restaurant ran into our room, they placed a DVD into the karaoke machine in the corner and a TV show came on. The language was Korean but the actors were wearing western style clothes and few even wore branded sportswear, we realised it must be a South Korean soap opera. Now I’d read in books like Nothing to Envy that these programs were smuggled in and watched in secrecy but this was out in the open, our tour guides in the same room didn’t bat an eyelid and they tend to be quite strict and loyal to the regime (at least on the surface). After a few minutes the power dropped back out and the various staff left the room again.
Once back at the hotel 3 of us decided we’d spend our last night in North Korea having some drinks up in the revolving restaurant on top of the hotel. Out of the five revolving restaurants I’d been to in my life none of them actually revolved and I was hoping to get a good story out of the one in North Korea being the only to work. Alas it did not. We asked what beers they had and fortunately they had a beer I’d read about called Taedonggang, I was keen to try it as the brewery had actually been in England. It was bought by the North Korean government, dismantled, and shipped to Pyongyang. It was surprisingly good and very good value at less than a pound for a litre bottle.
In the lift earlier that day I’d bumped into a Norwegian man who was travelling there on his own, with two tour guides, and had said that if he fancied something to do that evening we’d be up in the restaurant that night. He joined us with his two tour guides and all had a discussion about why we’d come to visit North Korea. After a while we started to chat more with his guides, one of whom mentioned that he had been fairly highly ranked in Army before becoming a Tour guide, implying that it is a very good job to have (The salary for a guide is 50 euros a month but tips must add at least a few hundred to that). After we’d cleared a dozen odd large bottles of beer we paid the bill (around £10) and headed back down to the bowling alley in the basement.
Between the 4 of us and our guides we filled up all the alleys and got some more drinks in, the guides obviously played here a lot as they thrashed the lot of us. As mentioned before, on occasion the cradle that descends to lift any standing pins would regularly knock them over instead and the computer would then register a strike. As a joke, and due to the drinks, we thought it would be a great idea to dub this a “Kim Jong-strike” after Kim Jong-il’s legendary reputation as an outstanding sportsman (11 holes in one in his first, and only, round of golf). Thankfully either the guides and staff ignored this or didn’t understand the joke.
When it came time to pay up we hadn’t realised that the games were charged individually, rather than per player, and that we would be picking up the bill for the guides. This meant we’d racked up a bill of about £50 for bowling in about 30 minutes, reluctantly we paid and headed back up to the lobby. Whilst waiting at the elevators we noticed one of the members of our group with our tour guide and a few large men in suits. Considering it was around 1 am, and that we’d been drinking, we didn’t initially consider the implication of what was happening. I asked what he’d been up to and he replied that he’d just been having coffee with these men. I didn’t think much of it and headed up to bed, although I’d later find the situation was far more serious…
To be continued.
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