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[Exclusive] Dong-A reporter gets inside look at North Korea

[Exclusive] Dong-A reporter gets inside look at North Korea

Posted October. 04, 2012 01:21,   


Editor`s note: The following is a report by a Dong-A Ilbo correspondent who recently visited the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and the Mount Kumgang resort area for six days. There, he saw the state of the Stalinist country`s changes and opening amid reports of North Korea offering tours via land or air routes and implementation of economic reforms.

Chinese media said Wednesday that more Chinese tourists from Liaoning and Dandong are going to the North`s Sinuiju area amid a nine-day national holiday in China.

○ Signs of change

I occasionally saw unexpected scenes when I stayed in North Korea. I saw female students wearing kill heels and those in miniskirts taking taxis in Pyongyang. My North Korean guide told me that such people could be seen pretty often these days.

About 10 tourist buses were parked in front of the Kumgangsan Hotel, where I stayed on the second day of my visit to the North. At least 300 tourists were there that day, including North Koreans and Westerners. A karaoke bar for foreigners was on the hotel`s first floor and another exclusively for North Koreans was on the 12th floor. The North Koreans I saw at the hotel were better dressed than most I saw elsewhere.

The hotel, which North Korea confiscated from South Korea’s Hyundai Group, was run directly by the North Korean government. “This hotel, which was built by South Korea’s Hyundai Group, was recently opened after being inoperable for more than two years due to the stop to tours to Mount Kumgang (amid frozen inter-Korean relations),” a North Korean guide said. He did not say the hotel was seized from Hyundai Group but introduced each and every facility built by the conglomerate. Other facilities such as tourist shops were closed.

A day before my return, I visited Kaesong and the truce village of Panmunjom, where there were about 40 Western European tourists. Guides speaking English and Chinese provided interpretation. Notably, the guides seated Westerners and Chinese face to face with each other at the table where truce talks for the 1950-1953 Korean War were held. As Western tourists were seated, the guides told them that this is "the losers’ seats (where U.N. troops sat).”

North Korea was obviously desperate to earn foreign currency by seizing South Korean assets and even opening up key security areas to foreign tourists. Yet it seemed that the North had a long way to go before attracting foreign tourists.

The disposable amenities at the hotel had only Korean words printed on them. Foreign guests had no idea what they could do with shampoo, on which only “hair liquid soap” in Korean was printed.

○ Poverty outside of tourist zones

I saw traditional poverty as soon as I got out of the tourist zones in Pyongyang or Mount Kumgang. It seemed to me that there were only half-built buildings in rural villages rather than houses. A few cars were on the road. Occasional military trucks were spewing out dark smoke as if they had been on fire because they were running on charcoal, not oil. On the side of the road, I saw a soldier who looked like a middle school student leading goats.

Though I was a Chinese national, not a South Korean, I was not allowed to contact local residents. I tried several times to buy a beverage at a store that had a signboard saying “soft drinks.” The store owner did not even reply to me, however, and my guide interrupted me soon.

Downtown Pyongyang as seen from my hotel was very dark. But the area around the Tower of the Juche (Self-reliance) Idea was bright even at 3 a.m. It seemed that Pyongyang left the lights on around the facilities that propagandize the ruling Kim family despite power shortages.

On the first day of my visit to Pyongyang, the minibus that took my group and I ran on the road from Sunan International Airport to downtown Pyongyang. Though the guide told us that we were running on a two-lane highway, I could not see the centerline.

About 20 minutes later, I could see signboards with slogans saying “Long live songun (military-first politics),” among others. Many soldiers were seen in downtown Pyongyang. Most men on the streets were tanned, skinny and about 160 centimeters (5-feet-3) tall.

We stayed at the Ryanggak International Hotel on the side of the Daedong River. Seventeen-inch cathode ray tube TVs were in the foreigner-only rooms. Work at many building construction sites had been suspended for 20 to 30 years. Just the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel and the high-rise apartments on Changchon Street reminded me that I was in the North’s capital. The tourists I traveled with said most areas in North Korea were worse off than those in pre-reform China.

○ Intensive idolization

When I visited a home at a cooperative farm as part of my itinerary, I happen to see a middle school girl doing her homework for summer vacation. She was working on why North Korean Workers` Party and people were longing to serve the late leader Kim Jong Il as the successor to Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.

The student wrote that the revolution was a long-term project that had to be carried on generation after generation, adding that Kim Jong Il was “perfectly equipped” with the quality and capabilities as the successor. She then answered questions on when and where the leadership succession was decided and how Kim Il Sung’s ideas were succeeded. When I told other Chinese tourists about her homework, their jaws dropped.

The idolization was apparently focused on Kim Jong Il, who died in December last year. The Kim Il Sung badge that North Koreans wear on one side of their chests had been replaced with the Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il badge. Slogans that had only Kim Il Sung’s name were replaced with those featuring both father and son. Large public buildings such as Pyongyang Station had the portraits of both men side by side with each other.

Idolization work for North Korea`s new leader Kim Jong Un was also in full swing. Buildings near subway stations in Pyongyang had slogans saying, “Long Live General Kim Jong Un, the Sun of a Military-First Korea.” North Korea had apparently made it official to praise Kim Jong Un as “the Sun of a Military-First Korea.” At the entrance of a kindergarten near Pyongyang, I also saw a slogan saying, “Thank You, Dear General Kim Jong Un."

While the guides were praising Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, they stopped talking when asked about Kim Jong Un. Perhaps this was because they were afraid of their new leader or considered him an unknown figure whose true identity had yet to be clarified.