Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Prisoners in Camp Kim

Strange, secretive, and desperately poor, North Korea tests the limits of social control.

PYONGYANG—Here is the locked ward of the political asylum, the place where politics has actually become an official state religion, and power is worshipped, directly and literally, in the form of a colossal bronze idol to which the people come and bow with every sign of reverence. Nothing in the modern world compares with North Korea, though it gives us some clue about how life must have been under the pharaohs, in Imperial Japan before Hiroshima, or in the obliterated years—conveniently erased from memory by blushing fellow travelers—when Josef Stalin was revered as a human god.

Pyongyang is the most carefully planned and also the most mysterious city on the planet. You cannot, unless you escape from the warders who accompany foreigners everywhere in North Korea, walk inquisitively along its surprisingly green and spacious streets. If you did, you would rapidly be apprehended and returned, amid fierce reprimands, to your tour bus or to the special hotel on an island in the Taedong River, where outsiders are comfortably but irksomely confined when they are not on supervised expeditions. But you can glimpse the shady, fenced-off streets where the elite live, close to the Russian Embassy from which subsidies used to pour in Soviet days.

You can gaze on the gargantuan housing estates, made up of scores of apartment blocks, a great festival of concrete outdoing even Soviet Moscow in its gigantism. You may admire the Juche Tower, which symbolizes North Korea’s supposed self-reliance. The tower is a column three feet taller than the Washington Monument, weirdly topped by a great simulated red flame, like a much larger version of the World War I Memorial in Kansas City, but only when there is enough power to keep it aglow. That is not always. Voltage is a problem in Pyongyang. The streetlamps are never switched on, and there is a strange interval between sundown and total darkness, before the lights start to come on in the windows of all the apartments. There is also a wonderful quiet, since Pyongyang has hardly any motor traffic by day and even less at night. Human voices can be heard from astonishing distances, as if you were in a tranquil lakeside resort rather than in the center of a grandiose metropolis. The electric current in homes and offices seems suspiciously feeble and shuts down abruptly when the government thinks bedtime has arrived. The authorities also have views on when you ought to wake up. A siren rouses the sluggards at 7 each morning, though light sleepers will already have been alerted to the approach of the working day by ghostly plinking, plonking music drifting from loudspeakers at 5 and 6 o’clock. The sensation of living in an enormous institution, part boarding school, part concentration camp, is greatly enhanced by the sound of these mass alarms.

I wondered what they reminded me of until it came to me that they resembled the Muslim call to prayer, wavering and throbbing across Islamic cities for the pre-dawn prayers. For while visitors may see this place as a prison, many of its inmates show every sign of regarding it as a shrine to the human god whose image they all wear on their clothes and whose various names cannot be pronounced without reverence: the Great Leader, Gen. Kim Il Sung. It is Kim, not Marx or Lenin, who is honored everywhere. In fact, the Communist nature of the regime is hardly ever stated, except in the hammer, sickle, and writing brush of the Korean Workers’ Party symbol.

If you are very lucky and honored, you may penetrate the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. This was the home of the Great Leader when he was ordinarily alive, kept going in his later years by a special diet of extra-long dog penises. Today, it is his mausoleum, where he lives forever in the extraordinary fashion devised for him by whoever actually controls this country. This is no mere Lenin’s Tomb but a temple of awe, where devotees must have the dust blasted from their clothes and shoes before approaching the sacred body and bowing deeply.

I was not considered worthy to go there, but was allowed to lay flowers at, and bow to, the bronze image of Kim that gleams on a hill above the city—and used to gleam a great deal more before the gold leaf that once adorned it was stripped off. It is widely believed that the extravagant coating was removed in one night after the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping remarked dryly that if North Korea could afford such a display, it surely did not really need the Chinese economic aid for which it was asking. As for the bow, I performed a perfunctory Episcopalian nod, inoffensive, polite, but far from effusive. One of the many advantages of an Anglican upbringing is that one has gestures for all occasions, including obeisance to the bronze images of unhinged tyrants—though I found myself strangely disturbed by and ashamed of this particular breach of the Commandments for some time afterward. As I laid the equally obligatory and hideous flowers, I silently assured myself that I was doing so in memory of Kim’s many victims. You may classify this as cowardice, and I will not necessarily disagree, but it seemed that I had accepted that I would have to kowtow to this cult the moment I decided to enter North Korea. What is more, I sensed that my guides and guards genuinely revered this thing and that it would be plain bad manners to refuse.

Brooding over this morbid, idolatrous cityscape is a great pyramid, a thousand feet high. But this majestic structure is also a ruin, a grand project that was never finished and now never will be. Visitors are discouraged from asking about it. Guides prefer not to mention it, and more recent official publications do not contain pictures of it, though older ones do. It’s by far the tallest tower in Pyongyang, but its windows show no lamps by night, and it has no aircraft warning lights (a lower skyscraper does), so that if there ever were any air traffic over Pyongyang (there isn’t), it would pose a grave danger to night-flyers. It is, by coincidence, almost exactly the height and shape of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, though its purpose was more innocent—it was to be a hotel, taller than any other in the region. But something mysterious went wrong with the construction, and so it slowly crumbles, mocking with its hundreds of glassless windows the tongue that commanded its construction and the mind that conceived it. Nothing short of a nuclear explosion could remove it, but it is hard to believe that a nation that cannot even finish a grand hotel can really construct a workable atom bomb, as it claims to have done.

The main feeling the visitor has in Pyongyang is one of pity at the pathos of the place—its hopeless, helpless overestimate of its own power and importance, the deluded ignorance of millions of people carefully protected from any inrush of truth about themselves, their country, and their rulers. Every radio and TV set has been carefully neutered, its tuning dial soldered so that it can receive only the transmissions of the North Korean state. There is no access to the Internet except for a tiny, select few. Cell phones are confiscated from visitors upon arrival, though the very senior elite are believed to possess and use them. The newspapers are comically constipated accounts of speeches by the Dear Leader, long-ago angling contests, and uninteresting visits by junior dignitaries from countries ruled by dubious governments, which you would struggle to find on a map.

It may well be even worse than it looks. Pyongyang is a show city, inhabited by a favored layer of privileged and chosen people, who know that misbehavior of any kind could lead to exile to places we cannot even imagine. I have seen the miserable coal towns of China, which are open to visitors and have at least been touched by the prosperity flowing through the People’s Republic. They look like 19th-century pit villages in Britain. But even I cannot conceive of the dreariness and overpowering gloom of their North Korean equivalents, hidden away in the northern mountains, which no Westerner ever sees.

As for the chain of concentration camps, to which three generations of offending families are dispatched, it is more or less impossible to remain comfortable in our homes while we know that these zones of deliberate inhumanity and intentional despair exist as we live our happy lives. To make life bearable, we force ourselves to forget. But they do exist and are likely to continue to do so for some time to come.

I can only tell of what I saw, though for a moment here I should like to quote from Bradley Martin’s indispensable book about North Korea, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. On a visit in 1992, Martin was taken on an obviously staged tour of the country, on a special train that did not halt in towns or cities, its Western passengers stopped by armed guards from exploring on their own. Then, peering out of the window, he saw “a trainload of North Koreans passing us in the opposite direction. They were a ghastly sight. Their clothing was ragged and filthy, their faces darkened with what I presumed to be either mud or skin discolorations resulting from pellagra. There was no glass in the windows of their train. At that moment I figured I must have glimpsed accidentally what it was the authorities with their elaborate scheduling and preparations tried so hard to prevent visitors from seeing.”

And they do try. My group was mostly made up of journalists posing so unconvincingly as tourists that I am sure someone in the state apparatus knew perfectly well what we were up to. For me, the main restraint on slipping my leash was that if I did, I would bring trouble on my guards and on my fellow journalists. I considered a breakaway. I had brought a flashlight to cope with the unlit streets and uncovered manholes of Pyongyang. I had excellent and detailed maps of the city. By careful observation and subtle questioning of our custodians, I had discovered how to buy and use a ticket on the Pyongyang subway, about which I had become a theoretical expert after much diligent study. I had even obtained what I think was North Korean money —though it is rumored that there are at least three currencies, only one of them actually used by normal citizens, which beats Cuba’s mere two. My escape was intended to take place at the Arirang Games, a monstrous celebration of synchronized, disciplined Kim-worship, in which thousands of schoolchildren make elaborate giant pictures of stirring scenes by holding up placards in unison, and regiments of dancers and soldiers parade and twirl in devotional ballets about the Great Leader and the might of the Democratic People’s Republic, as an enormous cardboard sun rises over the stadium. (“Kim Il Sung” can be translated “becoming the sun.”) Full use is made of attractive young women in sharply tailored military uniforms, a strange speciality of North Korean propaganda that perhaps has something to do with the Happy Corps and the Satisfaction Corps, units of pretty girls allegedly recruited to serve the baser wants of the Dear and Great Leaders. It is both grotesque and captivating, and the flesh crawls at the thought of how the participants are trained to perform these feats. Sadly for my escape scheme, the audience that night was considerably smaller than the cast, and the swirling crowds in which I had hoped to be “accidentally” separated from my escorts were far too thin to do this convincingly—especially since they seemed to have guessed my purpose and were keeping a close watch.

What might I have seen if I had escaped? My guess is that, in the brief period before I was detected and returned to my guardians—for a Westerner in North Korea is as startling a sight as a giraffe at the North Pole and is likely to be reported immediately as a spy—I would have discovered quite a lot of drunkenness, which, to be fair, is a problem in South Korea as well. On one privileged occasion, I managed to persuade one of the guides to accompany me for a walk along a main street in the suburbs. He forbade me to go into any of the shops, which sold bizarre combinations of goods—motorbikes, furniture, breakfast cereal, and instant coffee being on display in one. We came across a surprisingly ordinary Asian scene, of wrinkled, grizzled men in shabby work clothes squatting on the sidewalk round a game of cards. And then we came to a bar. My companion had been anxious up to this point, but now he became positively alarmed and moved between me and the door to make sure I couldn’t approach any closer.

Later on the trip, we arrived at a restaurant that had—as usual—been cleared of everyone else for our visit. As we clambered out of our minibus, my eye was drawn to a picturesque group of children all staring through some railings. Then I saw what they were staring at: a man, prone on the scrubby grass, possibly dead, more likely dead drunk. I couldn’t stop myself from asking our minders, “Why is that man lying on the ground?” though I knew it was a silly question, that they were not going to answer it, and that it was bad form on my part to have noticed the tableau at all. But I received an answer anyway. Whatever he was doing there, he wasn’t supposed to be doing it, and I wasn’t supposed to see it. Within 30 seconds, a group of nearby citizens had formed a human screen, loyally shielding the sight from us. The fate of the horizontal man himself, like so much else in North Korea, will remain forever unknown.

It is astonishing how much is secret. Could we visit Pyongyang’s bowling alley, an establishment whose very existence was so unlikely that it was bound to be interesting? No. Could we visit the railway station? No. Could we travel more than one stop on the much trumpeted subway, wrongly claimed to be grander than the one in Moscow? No.

Our visit to the subway was at least more open than those provided for some past visitors, who recorded that all the other passengers were mysteriously well-dressed and formed the impression that an entire section of the line had been cleared of citizens and populated instead with actors, purely for their benefit. We were shepherded down the escalators among real people, though some of them were singing a song in praise of the Dear Leader, and were then required to wait till a carriage was emptied for our use. Normal people, insofar as there are any such creatures in North Korea, surged past on the platform, staring with suspicion and wonder at the imperialist spies and Yankee wolves in human form but keeping a safe distance. After one stop and a glimpse of the tasteless decorations, mixing Stalinist ponderousness with a sort of kitschy, plastic levity, we were urged off the train and up into the outside world again.

Taking cruel advantage of what I assumed was the naïveté of our guide, I offered to buy her an ice cream from a stall at the top of the stairs, using my North Korean coin. She declined but obviously felt she had lost face. So taking even more advantage, I asked her to translate for me at a small snack bar, where I asked the prices of various sandwiches and drinks on display. She was about to tell me when both her senior colleagues converged on us, wearing forbidding expressions and ordering her urgently to stop. The price of a cheese sandwich in Pyongyang remains secret, as the authorities wish it to be.

More unintentional revelations came my way during our journeys out of Pyongyang. One of these took place during Chuseok, an ancient festival something like our All Hallows, in which ancestors are revered, special feasts are consumed (including a cake in the shape of the crescent moon), and graves visited. It was the first time I had seen anything wholly genuine and spontaneous here. As we drove out of Pyongyang, we passed crammed buses and bicycles bearing entire families (father pedaling, mother perched behind, tiny child in the basket) heading for the countryside in a great surge of voluntary movement. Once out of the city—which, being comprehensively planned and controlled, ends abruptly without suburban sprawl—it was possible to see the people, brightly dressed for the holiday, picnicking among the hilltop graves of their forebears. I can only imagine that ancestor worship is tolerated both because it would be very hard to prohibit and because it chimes with the cult of the deceased Great Leader.

And I must mention here something rather unexpected: much of North Korea is very lovely and unspoiled. In the early fall light, its landscapes are particularly poignant, with the willow-fringed rice fields and peasants in their faded garments and with their timeless, hollow faces, carrying sheaves homeward. Men in straw hats fish patiently by the rivers and canals. Others, bearing hoes or shovels, trudge by the roadside. These vistas look very much like the sepia illustrations of Asian life in the outdated imperial encyclopaedias with which I spent many a rapt, fireside afternoon in my distant childhood.

The main roads themselves, which are often used by foreigners, are probably deeply misleading, since the authorities will have carefully cleared away anything embarrassing or ugly. But someone in some bureaucratic department has struck a quiet blow for unregulated beauty. The verges of the major highways are planted with millions of fall flowers, not in ordered parades but in a natural-seeming chaos that entirely contradicts the spirit of the state.

Other things are also unintentionally revealed even in this regimented and stage-managed place. I am prepared to believe that North Korea has a nuclear weapon, though I think the evidence is inconclusive and the country certainly does not possess an accurate, reliable rocket with which to deliver such a warhead. But its military power in general is decrepit. I saw many soldiers, though we were forbidden to photograph them. I suspect this is because they are undersized, shabbily dressed, and their weapons are ancient and probably useless. One infantryman, who halted us at a checkpoint on the way to the frontier, carried a rifle whose unvarnished wooden stock was split. The metal parts were worn and old. I should not have wanted to fire such a gun, for fear that it would blow up in my face, and I doubt if it had been used for many years.

The general state of the country is similarly impoverished and worn out. On a compulsory trip to a museum containing foreign gifts to the Dear and Great Leaders, our minibus broke down. The cause was a leaking fuel tank, which the driver tried to repair with a blob of chewing gum before driving at flank speed in the hope of reaching our destination before we ran out of gas. But we didn’t make it. Our chief guide first tried to get help by flagging down a black SUV probably belonging to a senior party official. The SUV almost ran him over, and its occupant refused to help. Then our supervisor borrowed a bicycle, returning at length with another bus, which shortly afterward broke down, fortunately within sight of a foreigners hotel where we could be kept until rescued. All this involved equipment and places specifically prepared and reserved for foreigners and paid for with real hard currency. Even on the routes permitted to us, I saw hardly any tractors working in the fields. The few trains I observed were moving very slowly and—though the lines were electrified—were hauled by diesel locomotives, suggesting that the power was not flowing. One morning we were delayed past our usual strict departure time at our Pyongyang hotel, and the electricity was suddenly switched off, presumably until our equally predictable return.

North Korea is so insolvent that it cannot even afford to be bankrupt. Since the Cold War ended, the Soviet subsidies that kept it alive have vanished. Rául Castro’s Cuba looks like an economic miracle compared with this. The country has no source of energy apart from its coalmines, and it is hard to believe that these are efficiently worked or that the power stations they serve are in good order. The pitiful state of the infrastructure has been revealed in the recent talks on the decommissioning of the Yongbyong nuclear facility, during which Pyongyang has been almost hysterically insistent on promised deliveries of fuel oil and on the unfreezing of mysterious bank accounts in Macau, probably used by the elite to purchase luxuries for themselves.

It is impossible to say if there is still actual famine. Even the privileged inhabitants of Pyongyang are invariably slender and hollow-cheeked, though it is believed that the elite reserves most foreign food aid for itself and its loyal servants. Several Western charities have withdrawn from the country because they had no control over how their aid was distributed and feared they were being used to shore up an unequal and rotten system. The only evidence that things may be improving is that the food offered to us as outsiders was relatively plentiful. Earlier visitors have recounted how even they, in possession of hard currency, were left hungry.

I would not ask anyone to draw strategic conclusions from any of this. I saw mainly what I was supposed to see. In theory, even the failures could have been part of an elaborate deception, though I do not think so. North Korea has been convincingly accused of involvement in illegal drug running, of counterfeiting dollars, and of money laundering. These are the actions of a pariah state but also of one that is desperate, resorting to extortion because it has no other way of surviving but dares not dissolve itself.

Long nurtured hopes of reunification with the South have evaporated since the rejoining of East and West Germany turned out to be so difficult and expensive, and the economic chasm between the two Germanies was nothing compared to the gulf between the two Koreas. One is a surging 21st-century industrial power; the other is forcibly detained in the early 1950s, in the Concrete Age of Soviet Planning, long abandoned even in the country that gave it birth. If the border were opened overnight and the truth revealed, as many as 23 million refugees would probably head south as fast as they could—with incalculable consequences.

And then there is the general problem with despots, created by our pious insistence on frogmarching them, in chains, in front of righteous tribunals. What tyrant, seeing the imprisonment of Milosevic, the hanging of Saddam, and the harassment of Pinochet and Honecker, would be stupid enough to abandon his sovereign immunity and volunteer for the cells? And there is another danger: who, aware of the shooting of Nicolae and Elena Ceasescu, would relax his repressive machine for a second or show any sign of weakness. As it is, Kim Jong Il, now 65 and in poor health, has no incentive to dismantle his kingdom of lies and repression, though it is hard to see how it could survive his death for long.

North Korea is a small, isolated, stagnant pond left over from the flood of Marxism-Leninism, which long ago receded. But it has nowhere to drain away. Far too many people, not all of them in Pyongyang, have an interest in keeping it as it is. It still has the capacity to do terrible things but mainly to its own citizens. A serious policy would aim to find a way to help it escape from the political and economic trap in which it finds itself. Threats, name-calling, and the pretence that this shambles of a country is a serious world power are unlikely to achieve this. It is more to be pitied than to be feared.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday and blogs at https://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk.



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