DPRK: Doing the timewarp: Day 5

Trip Start Jul 11, 2006
Trip End Mar 16, 2007

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Flag of Korea Dem Peoples Rep  ,
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

The 23-hour train journey the majority of the DPRK tour-goers opted to take to return to Beijing gave us ample opportunity to reflect on our experiences sight-seeing within this highly idiosyncratic corner of the world, a country that is the now last active frontier of a Cold War most of us thought ended long ago.

The collapse of communism from the start of the 90s onwards has hit North Korea hard. China and, in particular, Russia were not just key allies in what was a global ideological struggle but they also provided much of the foundation upon which North Korea's economy was based. This is exemplified in the form of my favourite building in Pyongyang, the amazing Ryugyong Hotel, a veritable mountain of a building - literally, it was designed to look like a pyramidal, stylised mountain range from every angle.

The Ryugyong was intended to be Pyongyang's finest and most prominent building, a 105 floor, 3,000 room hotel to rival any else in the world, at the same time demonstrating the DPRK's financial muscle as well as its engineering prowess. Construction of the Ryugyong started in 1987 but quickly fell behind schedule and eventually came to a stuttering halt in 1989 within days of the Berlin Wall's collapse. According to our guides, the Ryugyong was actually being heavily subsidised both directly and indirectly by Russia whose economic attention from 1989 onwards became diverted to more pressing matters at home. Construction did start again, in a limited capacity, and continued until 1992 when the North Korean government decided to abandon further work due to lack of funds. Despite nearly five years' work, only the outside was ever worked on and a crane still sits at the peak of the building, untouched now for some 14 years. At just under 1,100 ft tall, it completely dominates the Pyongyang skyline and dwarfs even the largest of the state's monuments to its two leaders and their totalitarian ideology, a true monument to North Korean hubris and folly.

North Korea exists, like an alternate reality in a bad sci-fi TV series, stuck in a twisted version of the past and its leaders seem unwilling to let it escape from this time period. Visiting it is very much like going back in time. I observed children playing medieval hoop and stick games, but squealing delight whilst doing so; traffic police standing in the centre of intersections, impeccably dressed and moving, with robotic precision and speed, to efficiently control approaching traffic; crowds patiently waiting for the opening of one of Pyongyang's 4 department stores (imaginatively named Department Store 1, Department Store 2 etc..); a procession of empty-seeming trucks making their slow way down one of the main roads in Pyongyang with nationalistic music blaring out at distortion-causing volume; one of our guides revealing that she had heard of the Beatles but never heard their music, listing, instead, Greensleaves and Oh Danny Boy as two of the most popular "Western" songs in modern-day North Korea.

It is a country whose people, with no access to internet or mobile phones, strictly censored access to TV, radio and film media and harsh restrictions on travel within their own country, simply don't know what they are missing and appear to have chosen to accept this fate unlike the people of central and eastern Europe. There was not one sign of dissent, doubt or regret at this status quo expressed by any of the North Koreans we met and our guides towed the party line without fail. Of course, we do not know what happens to political (or other) dissenters although, revealingly, one of our guides did admit that criminals are not sent to prisons as we would recognise them but to mining and other hard labour installations well away from the general population.

Despite the contentedness of the people, North Korea is undoubtedly a tragedy. It is a tragedy of its own making that, based on current events, also looks like getting worse before it can get any better. Re-unification at some stage is an inevitability: North Koreans expressed, i was surprised to find, a desire for it as fervent and genuine as any of the South Koreans. Let us hope it happens without further bloodshed.
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