DPRK: Doing the timewarp: Day 5
Trip Start Jul 11, 2006
47Trip End Mar 16, 2007
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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
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.