North Korea. A country that has the dubious distinction of being the third pillar of the Bush Axis of Evil and a leader who has been described as a tyrant, megalomaniac, mad and dangerous in equal measure. This was pretty much all I knew before I decided to go to the country to run the Pyongyang marathon on the 9 April 2017.
Having returned a couple of days ago it feels as if I now kind of get who and what North Korea is more than I ever did and also more than almost everyone cares to. The sloppy descriptions of the country and the leadership demonstrates a wilful desire by politicians and journalists to slurp up deliberately inaccurate propaganda and fail to spend a moment educating themselves about this fascinating country.
To understand, but not necessarily support, North Korea needs a brief understanding of the history of the nation. To fail to understand where the country has come from prevents us from learning what it is today. Within that history there are eight key factors that help make sense of their decisions and their behaviour and, for me, helped me grasp what I was witnessing. I don’t necessarily agree with what NK does, but I do now see why they do what they do.
1 – pre-19th century Korean rule. Back in the days of old, Korea was a country run by three dynasties. Each of these had rulers who were adored, revered and feared in equal measure. On top of that, the King was always seen akin to God where the spirit of a higher being flowed through the decisions they made on behalf of their people. In much the same way the Japanese behaved with the emperors, Korean leaders were untouchable and all knowing and had the power of life and death over everyone and everything. Alongside this Godlike belief in the rulers also came a superiority complex in the people. They weren’t hostile to foreigners but they never saw what value they added to a Korean people who already felt they were better than everyone else. This led, even 200 years ago, to Korea being described as the ‘hermit kingdom‘ since they had no desire to interact with the rest of the planet. Why should they if they were already the chosen ones.
2 – Japanese colonialism. For 35 years between 1910 and 1945 Korea was a colony of Japan. This wasn’t British empire style relatively benevolent colonialism but a barbaric brutal rule similar to the way Belgium treated the Congo. Thousands were murdered, millions displaced and shipped around the Japanese empire to provide forced labour and hundreds of thousands of Korean women were used as free prostitutes/comfort women for the Japanese military. To this day Japan has never really apologised for what they did to the Korean people.
3 – American involvement. Having liberated Korea after WW2, the US assigned two mid-ranking civil servants to sort out what was left. These two Washington pen-pushers decided that the number 38 looked good and drew a line across the country. Without any real agreement with other powers – especially the USSR – the line became the divide between North and South Korea. Having created the artificial divide, the US decided to install a hard right wing fascist military dictator as leader, and scores of Japanese collaborators as henchmen, to rule the South with the intention of eventually giving the country back to the Japanese to lord over once again once General Macarthur had got it back on its feet. This immediately and permanently divided the peninsula into the two Cold War camps.
4 – The Korean War. There is widescale debate about who started it, but we know that both sides were spoiling for a fight. Having pushed the Americans to the edge of the peninsula and defeat, the US fought the North Korean forces all the way back to the Chinese border, at which point Chairman Mao threw the weight of China behind North Korea to defeat the Americans. In the end that didn’t happen, but the troops did end up back where they started but not before the US had carpet bombed every single town with more than a few homes into oblivion. Two million North Koreans died in this barbaric war and it could have been more if the Generals had had their way as they, more than once, considered using multiple nukes to end the conflict.
5 – Religious figures. One of the key issues within the conflict was the American missionaries who had fanned out across the country proselytising the good of Jesus. However, according to widespread belief, that was a pretext and they were instead spending their time directing bombers to specific targets they saw and helping annihilate the North Korean population.
6 – The United Nations. The Korean War was never fought under an American flag but under a UN flag. This surprised me since the remit of the UN in places like Srebenica and Rwanda was peacekeeping, not providing cover for 21 nation states to undertake all out war against an individual country. But in the 50s the UN was a US plaything and they wanted to use the light blue flag of the UN as a cover for their war.
7 – Kim Il Sung. Unlike the South Korea leader, the first (and eternal) President of North Korea was a national hero who had fought the Japanese for 20 years and then led the North Koreans to become the first country to ever push American forces to a stalemate. His dedication to peaceful ways to reunite Korea, heroism, dedication and benevolence to his troops and his people instilled love and awe across both sides of the divided nation. And for many he still does.
8 – Juche. The experience of Kim Il Sung in fighting both the Japanese and US/UN powers led him to develop an ideology known as Juche which is deeply embedded in North Korean society to this day. Sure, communism plays a part in North Korean politics, as does nationalism, but Juche trumps all of this. In its most basic form this can be translated as ‘self reliance’. This self-reliance flows throughout the whole society from top to bottom. For a North Korean it means self sufficiency in food, clothing, shelter and water. Politically it means the country should never have to rely on another nation to defend it against an enemy and it means there is no desire to attack anyone else since they aren’t part of the Korean way. It is an all encompassing idea that could sit comfortably aside the Make America Great Again slogan for Juche is about keeping North Korea great using all the means at their disposal.
I know that has been long winded and I am sorry for that. But without these eight points the country simply cannot be understood and looks just plain weird. Once digested it helps explain why they are happy not to get involved in the world and have no interest in international politics and trade. It provides a context for how Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un can lead a nation for so long and why they are feted as icons and Gods. It allows a narrative as to why they despise Japan. Now banning bibles makes more sense as does why sanctions have absolutely no effect on the country. You can see how they have watched how America treated Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi and how they left both countries dealing with anarchy and fear they would be left to the same fate if the US attacked. They worry about a repeat of the American aggression that they suffered in the 50s – especially when every year they and the South Koreans undertake gargantuan military exercises on North Korea’s doorstep. Most importantly of all, it gives reason as to why they are desperate to own a nuke but will never fire it in an aggressive manoeuvre.
Having watched the news over the years I gained an impression of a country that was full of bleakness, despair, persecution, minders and repression. And to some extent that was my impression when I went as well – but the scene was far more complicated and nuanced than that.
I know I cannot give a well rounded impression of a country that takes its privacy so seriously. Instead I can give a random snapshot of what I observed in my limited time there and the what small glimpses into life I could gather.
As a tourist you have to always be accompanied by a guide (not a minder), your room is bugged but it is unlikely they have the staff to listen to your pointless conversations and you have to bow to the statues of Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il that are dotted about the country in a more than generous manner. Getting in to the country your electrical items are noted and your bags are sometime searched. But you keep your cameras and your iphones and your ipads. As long as you don’t take photos of the military then you won’t be asked to delete anything.
Kim Il Song is truly loved although it felt that the new leader, Kim Jong Un was still was a work in progress and still trying to demonstrate that he is a worthy inheritor of his grandfathers legacy. To do this the new leader mimics as much about his grandfather as possible – from the haircut to the clothes, the way he walks, points, smiles and laughs to the photo ops that are conducted – everything looks and feels like Kim Jong Un trying to prove he is Kim Il Song Jnr.
The people you interact with are respectful and polite albeit there isn’t much in the way of friendliness or warmth. Unlike Myanmar and Cuba there is little in the way of smiling or laughter. Older or disabled people aren’t a thing you see but the people you do see are incredibly impeccably dressed. People who aren’t used to foreigners are generally wary, but like kids around the world, younger people are less indoctrinated with prejudice and are happy to play or interact with you.
Pyongyang is a relatively inspiring city given all the ongoing sanctions and is completely spotless. Much of it feels and behaves like a Shanghai of the 1980’s. But many of the most impressive buildings are empty. The Ryugyong Hotel has been unfinished for 20 years and the apartments on Scientist Street are beautiful to look at but vacant. Power is sporadic as is lighting with streets remaining unlit at night. Museums and major public institutions are empty aside from the few Western tourists and a few actors pretending to be working there. In the Korean War museum, which must be the size of the Science Museum in London, there were just 30 of us walking round and the escalators, despite being four years old, looked like just a couple of hundred people had ever used them. Pyongyang, they claim, houses 2.5million people but it felt far, far less – more like half a million. The tube system is impressive and does work well but also doubles up as a bomb shelter. Every citizen has a patch of public land to tend at the side of the road – a pavement, grass verge, tree or bike lane – and they do so with care and pride that is genuine and not forced. They absolutely adore mass participation events from huge Korean style hoedowns to cheering a football match to watching a mass parade; from singing in karaoke to cheering marathon runners to taking part in leadership celebrations. That isn’t fake, they love it as it is an escapism from day-to-day life, a chance to get away from work for a few hours and a moment to chat up the opposite sex. There is a genuine desire for reunification of the two Koreas as long as it does not involve foreign powers getting involved and there is nothing but love shown towards the South Korean people and hatred towards the Japanese.
In six days of travel from south to north I saw just three petrol stations. There are no cars on the road because there is just no petrol. The rice fields now rely on human compost now that sanctions have hit the electricity supply and shut down the production of any fertiliser. There is food in the shops but there aren’t many shops. I saw no malnutrition despite the woolly UN report claim that millions were on the verge of starvation. Yet, food isn’t good and is extremely basic so there may well be sizeable pockets of hungry people in remote rural parts (although I fail to understand how the authors of the report could possibly make the claims they did as they would not have been allowed access to those very same areas). The military are by and large unarmed or use fake/toy guns to patrol with. Military checkpoints are staffed by well turned out but gunless privates. I suspect that many of the missiles on show in the parade at the weekend were good mockups as they produce excellent fakes of missiles (see below). The roads and rail systems are awful and there is little in the way of bitumen to repairs things again because of the sanctions. What repairs do go on involve local people burning old truck tyres to heat the tarmac up to the right temperature.
People who had been there and embedded themselves way more into North Korean life than I said that 30% of the Western propaganda was true, 30% of it was complete bullshit and 40% lurked in a grey area of sort of true and sort of exaggerated. My experiences corroborated that. So remember the story about the ’28 approved North Korean hairstyles’? It is complete and utter rubbish. But do North Koreans eat dog all the time? Yes and no. They eat it three times a year on special occasions (and tastes like beef brisket if you must know). Is North Korea a threat to the region? Absolutely not. Is America a threat to North Korea? Absolutely. Can you get arrested and put in prison for 15 years for stealing a poster? Yes….and no. Do North Koreans have mobile phones? Yes. Can they use them to call abroad? No. Can they use the internet? No, but they can use an intranet of approved sites. Are they free citizens? No – but then no individual in any country on earth is, their freedom is just further down the spectrum. Are they happy? Difficult to say – if you know no better than what you have – and they don’t know any better since there is no way to see or experience the outside world – then they can’t aspire to something they don’t know exists and can’t be unhappy if they don’t have it. Will they revolt against the system? Absolutely not. Will sanctions work? No – if you have nothing and you take something away you still have nothing. Will bombing work? Highly unlikely given the North Koreans have built everything important deep underground after the Americans bombed them back to the stone age last time around. Is there a million people in their army? Probably – but they don’t have the guns, ammo or vehicles to make them into a threat of any sort to the wider world. Will they attack Seoul? Very unlikely since they would see that as an attack on themselves.
It was weird in so many ways. But so many stories turned out to be either massive exaggerations or completely false and much of the ‘defensive’ work done by America and South Korea could actually be viewed as outright hostility and aggression against North Korea – not the other way round. In many ways it felt that the US and South Korea are playing into the North Korean hands. By being so aggressive it allows Kim Jong Un to prove to his people and the Chinese that they need to support his regime rather than seek alternatives.
The best way I could describe how it felt was that the country was a cross between The Truman Show and The Hunger Games. Many things felt like an act and much of the country was working to simply make the Capital and the people in Pyongyang better off or to defend the country against an American assault.
Yet most importantly for you, it is extremely safe to travel as long as you respect the rules of the country. What is more it is as easy to get a visa to as any other country. The Koreans you deal with want to show off their country, give you access to as much as possible and do everything they can to help you take back positive stories to the wider world. That allows you the chance to judge for yourself what the country is like for without visiting there is no real way to capture the complexity and weirdness that is North Korea. For there really is nothing like it on earth and no amount of reading will ever provide the same insight into such a wonderfully unusual and intriguing country.