North Korea might seem an odd choice for a travel destination but if you fancy something different and a destination to provoke some thinking you could do far worse. Besides I don’t get my kicks lying on a beach and the DPRK offers the ultimate digital detox: no mobiles, internet or social media. Having travelled widely in eastern Europe in the 1980s whilst studying international relations and politics, Korea has always had a particular fascination for me in the context of the Cold War and its aftermath. I’ve now been to the DPRK on two occasions, the first in October, 2005 and my most recent visit was in August, 2019.
On both occasions I travelled with Koryo Tours (link below) who I heartily recommend. This is the organisation who organised the trip that was the basis of the Michael Palin documentary in 2018.
The return visit was prompted by the fact that I already had plans to be in the Far East and curiosity got the better of me about how the country had changed. Back in 2005 the DPRK had felt such an anachronism that I was convinced it was near to collapse. Yet fourteen years have elapsed and it’s now eight years since Kim Jong Un assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
Having been before I had a good understanding of what it’s like to visit the country and the confidence not to be dissuaded by fears of safety. It’s definitely not a place to break the rules and there are strict regulations about photography, proselytising religion and being respectful to the DPRK leadership past and present. You certainly do not want to risk the consequences or the wrath of a zealous bureaucrat but by the same token, you’d have to do something pretty dumb to be in that situation. As a destination it is safe and secure with little prospect of theft or injury.
Every tour party is accompanied by a couple of guides from the Korean International Travel Company (KITC) and they accompany you from breakfast until night. At first it is a little strange to be shepherded and have limitations on solo wanderings but the reality is that you’d struggle as an independent tourist in the DPRK anyway. On the one hand they can be seen as people monitoring your movements and photography, on the other they can be seen as people who facilitate visits to places and get the permissions to pass through the military checkpoints on the main road arteries. The DPRK is by no means a normal place and whilst it’s not easy to get used to being shadowed, they had their benefits.
Our party was accompanied by a couple of guides whose professionalism and efforts could not be faulted. As individuals they were decent people who genuinely wanted you to enjoy the tour. After we’d said goodbye to our guides at Pyongyang Airport it felt weird not having them around, a state of mind that we jokingly referred to as Pyongyang Syndrome.
At no stage did our guides seek to convert us or remonstrate with different opinions. They were courteous and respectful. I spent a lot of time in conversation with the senior of the two and discussed everything from politics and international relations to children and careers. His loyalty to the regime was unshakeable but there was a logic to the manner he which he expressed commitment. His knowledge of world affairs was impressive yet despite being in his mid 40s had only once travelled outside North Korea and then, to spend a mere six days in Mongolia.
Just as a tourist derives only superficial understanding of what it must be like to live in the DPRK, it is truly difficult to explain what living in the capitalist world entails and to expect that it makes sense to a North Korean.
Without exception local people were very friendly but interactions tend to be basic, on a transactional basis with language a constraint to more in-depth conversation. At no stage did I feel hostile looks and it was made clear that whilst the DPRK state was in a state of tension with other governments, there was no resentment to citizens of other countries. Set aside the politics and the international relations, the North Koreans are people after all.
Of all the places I have visited, the DPRK has been the one where I have had a compulsive urge to photograph, a phenomenon seemingly shared with others who visit the country including the Chinese who represent the biggest number of visitors. In 2005 I had taken a considerable number of photographs which were uploaded on a blog that I published shortly after. This year I was keen to do likewise and this blog provides a selection of my latest photos – to access them follow the menu button above.
PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE DPRK
Photography in the DPRK reveals as much about the country and its people as the preconceptions and interests, as well as motives, of the photographer. What you choose to photograph is invariably driven by the visual contrasts with life in the west. After all, if life in the DPRK was much the same as at home why would tourists bother to take so many pictures? By most global standards, North Korea is a long way from classification as ordinary or normal and that is the fascination.
It feels as if photographs are a means to make sense of what you see. They allow you to share the experience with those at home given that words alone are unlikely to suffice. The DPRK provides a unique photographic challenge and hopefully my own photography skills improved from the experience.
The urban landscape of the DPRK, and that of Pyongyang, is distinct and the differences with most other countries are striking. Most notable is the state propaganda in the absence of commercial advertising and the lack of car ownership, both of which create a unique urban landscape. The streets are also remarkably clean and litter free. The architecture of Pyongyang is both dramatic and futuristic, what might be expected in a sci-fi film. In other cities and towns the buildings are typical of communist era countries and, in common with Pyongyang, there are wide avenues and extensive central squares albeit less impressive.
The visitor is struck by the number of pedestrians and bicycles on main roads and people squatting at the roadside. Outside of Pyongyang, the grinding material poverty of life in the DPRK is barely concealed and a reminder that this is a third world country. The countryside is quite often stunningly beautiful, in particular the mountains of the north and east of the country. Ugliness and beauty combine to make the DPRK extremely photogenic. (The tower blocks and architecture provided scope foe experimentation with Lensbaby kit – the split focus and blur effect is deliberate, honest!)
The DPRK provides reminders of my visits to eastern Europe in the mid 1980s, the socialist architecture and to some extent the iconography as well as the absence of commercial adverts. Pyongyang has much in common with east Berlin or Warsaw of 40 years ago, two other cities destroyed in war and rebuilt on communist lines.
The headlines of the western press lead us to believe that the North Koreans are robotic, brainwashed people who lack spontaneity. There is a temptation to consider the people as aliens of a hermit tribe, much as an explorer might consider Amazonian indians or aboriginal peoples. For the locals, western tourists are likely to be thought of as equally bizarre, characterised by unique dress codes, the incidence of obesity and a compulsive urge to photograph.
Not unreasonably the KITC guides requested that photography should not intrude on the lives of ordinary people. Whilst this impacted on opportunities for impromptu street photographs, I was able to take a lot of shots from our coach and this offered an alternative form of candid photography. (NB North Koreans like to take photographs too and plenty of people could be seen doing so with mobile phones.)
The photography restrictions placed on tourists are relatively straightforward. Other than the point about respecting the locals and not intimidating them with zoom lenses, the rules are that there should be no photographs of soldiers or of construction sites and that photos of statues of the country’s leaders should not be cropped.
Given the number of people in uniform as well as those on construction sites it represents a not insignificant limitation on potential subject matter for a photographer.
Similarly the strict rules on photography of the past leaders curtails the temptation for creativity. Nevertheless, it remains impossible for a photograph to do justice to the quasi-religion that surrounds the legend of the leaders and the omnipresent imagery of Kim Il Sung (the Great Leader) and Kim Jong Il (the Dear Leader).
The limitations are generally more relaxed than was the case in 2005 when restrictions existed on photography of railways or other forms of ‘strategic infrastructure’. Of itself this reveals a subtle shift in the manner in which North Korea accommodates visitors. Whereas previously it seemed that the KITC guides bombarded visitors with details of revolutionary accomplishments as well as blatant lies about the country’s achievements, in 2019 the mood was far more relaxed and there was little pretence.
Whilst there was some restriction on when or where it was possible to visit, I saw far more of everyday life in Pyongyang this time than had been the case in 2005. Previously the street walks and shop visits were brief but it seemed that the guides were now eager to let us see for ourselves the well-stocked supermarkets and department stores, as well as to mingle among the shoppers. My general impression was that the DPRK was far more self-confident and relaxed about foreign visitors than before. Defensiveness had given way to a far greater transparency and dare I say, more honesty.
I have been asked if anything of what I saw had been staged to give a false impression. Back in 2005 there were strong rumours that the Pyongyang underground tube system was not-functioning which supposedly explained why rides were limited to a couple of stops. All I can say is that it would have been a massive undertaking to have staged everything that I saw and I just don’t believe that it would have been possible to have organised such a deception act on such a scale. With the benefit of hindsight, I feel that the old underground myth was groundless but given a traditional secretive instinct within the DPRK it’s not difficult to see how such impressions arise.
Stereotypes dominate our perceptions of North Koreans as brainwashed people but this is unfair and gives no credit for the fact that they are individually unique human beings. I saw for myself spontaneous behaviour on the beach and in woodland picnics with people having fun and enjoying alcohol. It totally confounds the stereotype to witness impromptu group dancing and it seems that no picnic or visit to the beach is complete without a large PA unit to play background music for singing. The dancing is also notable for being inter-generational.
What then of the suggestion that North Koreas are brainwashed? In the sense that they are involuntarily fed some sort of psychedelic pill it seems nonsense. However, it is inevitable that if you feed people the same message on a continual basis, the cumulative effect is that it becomes lodged in the subconscious and influences how people derive meaning for their lives and that of their community. The same could be said from rote learning of religious scripts in other societies.
In the DPRK there are prescribed ways of behaviour and conduct but this phenomenon is not unique to the country. The propaganda and teachings give its people a form of religious guidance and dogmatic certainty, much in common with the islamic practice that I witnessed whilst working and living in Saudi Arabia not that long ago.
The state propaganda provides answers and instruction for its people rather than encouraging questions and in so doing it gives emphasis on the collective rather than individual interest. Above all it plays to a raw nationalism and sense of belonging. As for communist ideology, the references to socialism are now few and far between. Take for example that in 2005 pictures of Lenin and Marx towered down from Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang whereas in 2019 they are no longer to be seen and the iconography is entirely Korean. The DPRK regime is heavily nationalist in its emphasis and it could be said that there is a racial ingredient also.
DIFFERENT NORTH KOREAS
My visit was for just over one week, a large proportion of which was spent on a coach criss-crossing the country. Our party was afforded access to work places and centres of everyday recreation in addition to the more regular staples of a visit to the DPRK such as the De-Militarized Zone at Panmunjom and certain other Pyongyang landmarks. It’s dangerous to make conclusions based on such limited exposure to a country but nonetheless it makes a strong impact upon you.
Winston Churchill’s words about the USSR in 1939 could equally be applied to the DPRK: ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…’ However, I would go one further and say that it makes more sense to talk about riddles, mysteries and enigmas because at every turn you see contradictions and polar opposites. For instance not only is there a massive contrast between Pyongyang and the countryside but it is clear that within Pyongyang there are extremes. What then is the real North Korea?
Despite the profound difference between Pyongyang and other cities such as Kaesong on the west coast, or Wosan and Hamhung on the east, the notion of ‘Single Minded Unity’ proclaimed by our guides had more to it than empty rhetoric. Even the most cynical visitor to the DPRK is left with the recognition that there is considerable pride and national identity within North Korea that is closely intertwined with the various myths and legends surrounding the Kim dynasty. It therefore seems fanciful that the promises of western freedom and democracy would ever be sufficient alone to encourage regime change, or that it would be easy to liberate the people from the psychological blanket of the DPRK state. The chances of the Kim myth being abandoned any time soon is highly unlikely.
Mindful of what I had seen previously in the DPRK and from familiarity with the old DDR, what I found striking on my visit this year was the extent of change during the past 14 years in relation to commercial, market activity. Specifically, small scale initiatives complementing components of the planned economy. I suspect that what has happened in this period is not dissimilar to the thaw that began in China forty years ago.
Undoubtedly the commercial development will drive momentum for further change, a consequence of which will be growing contradictions between private and state capitalism necessitating the need for ongoing economic reform. An emerging generation of self-assured individuals seems likely to inherit a greater influence in the direction of the DPRK. The succession of power by a younger generation will thus be a deciding factor for the fate of North Korea and the spread of further change. If uncontrolled it could easily give rise to unintended consequences.
The economic picture is in many ways confusing. Whilst the country boasts full employment, that is distinct from people being fully employed. The number of people sat idle at the roadside and without urgency of movement betrays the level of economic activity within the DPRK which is consistent with reports about the extent of economic contraction in the country, exacerbated as a consequence of sanctions. The number of broken vehicles by the roadside is probably another good indicator of the impact of sanctions on the country and corresponding shortages.
From visits to a selection of industrial workplaces you cannot avoid having doubts about the working of the national economy. For instance, I witnessed random power shutdowns in both factories and shops as well as idle activity. You also see people involved in the most inane, back breaking tasks such as cutting grass with scissors or by hand which provokes obvious questions about labour efficiency and productivity. For people to be doing such work tells you that there cannot be demand for labour to fulfil higher value activity elsewhere. This was not a fully functioning economy by any stretch of the imagination.
Thereagain, you see evidence in Pyongyang of an emergent middle class with well-established consumer tastes. The widespread use of mobile phones also testifies to consumerism. In general, people in Pyongyang are better dressed than in 2005 and although the hair styles remain conventional, there is far more individualism in what people wear. In Pyongyang the fashion is hardly radical – with no denim in sight – and the clothing may be considered both cheap and conformist by western standards, but it’s come a long way.
Whereas in 2005 the way people dressed seemed behind the times, that is much less the case now and cheap clothing imports from China must have had something to do with it. Yet there remains one constant in the way people dress and North Koreans still wear badges on their left breast bearing the images of Kim Il Sung and/or Kim Jong Il.
Outside Pyongyang the clothing is far more utilitarian and basic. Footwear is another indicator of shopping choice and the prevalence of plimsolls and rubber boots in the countryside tells its own story. All of this points to income inequalities within the DPRK – Pyongyang was always considered a city of relative privilege and that is certainly the case now. It might be a long way off what you’d see in South Korea but it’s distinctly opulent in comparison to what you observe in the hinterland.
I wasn’t permitted to photograph in a certain top-end department store in the capital but what I witnessed was quite astounding in that I hadn’t expected to see premium brand camera and computer equipment on sale. Designer products – bags, sports gear, clothing etcetera – were also available as well as premium make-up which tells you that people have distinct tastes and awareness of western fashion. Indeed, female members in our group elicited attention from North Korean women interested in what they wore.
Even more notable was that in the midst of these luxuries was a display of CCTV equipment which raises questions. Was this being offered for sale to private individuals or to private entrepreneurs? Either way it suggests a demand to protect private property which implies the incidence of crime. For a state that had formerly proclaimed an end to private property and enterprise as well as abolishing bourgeois consumerism it is not insignificant.
The anecdotal evidence in Pyongyang is of a big leap in material well-being and you see this not just in the appearance of individuals on the street but from looking at how Pyongyang has changed. The development of new residential tower blocks is one such illustration of this although when you see the methods of construction you have to question the standards of building. (NB There seems complete disregard for safety on building sites with soldiers being deployed to do much of the work.)
The prevalence of solar panels and air conditioners speaks of new found wealth and likewise the exponential increase in the number of cars on the streets. Whilst traffic is relatively light by western standards, in 2005 it was rare to see cars on the road and there were certainly no traffic jams. Another indicator is the extent of night lights in Pyongyang with a far greater degree of illumination than in 2005 when much of the city was in darkness at night time. Mention could also be made of new tube trains and trolley buses.
The obvious question is how wealth is being generated in the DPRK if the economy really is collapsing. Likewise, you have to ask how the country has funded its nuclear programme and ambitious construction projects in Pyongyang but this leads to questions that I am unqualified to answer. On the face of it, things don’t add up. I wasn’t seeing wealth creation in old industries but maybe it is being derived through knowledge industries such as software development or applied IT. What is certain is that in Pyongyang a good number of people have latterly enjoyed boom conditions and an unprecedented lift to their circumstances.
The cynic could then ask the question why tourists were not invited to see new successful enterprises and why the DPRK was not enthusiastic to show them off. Ginseng is one product that is exploited and heavily traded – and we had a tour of a ginseng plant in Kaesong – but it cannot be the basis of an economic miracle.
The only conclusion I reach is that if wealth is not being generated by trade the likelihood is that the DPRK economy is being propped up by loans, extended credit, foreign investment / aid or remittances from North Koreans abroad. Who knows, maybe the state also relies on other forms of activity that are covert and illicit. The accounting in the DPRK will be driven first and foremost to earn foreign currency. Likewise, it will be skewed by the fact that the military and other state employees provide a pool of cheap, if not unpaid labour. It is therefore equally valid to ask not just how wealth is being generated but how it is distributed and this would go a long way to explain apparent concentrations of wealth and income inequality.
The most visible form of economic investment is in relation to tourism such as the newly developed ski resort that we visited at Masikryong and reported plans to develop Wonsan as a beach resort. Undoubtedly the DPRK has the benefit of stunning countryside but the condition of its roads is a massive handicap to realise the potential.
Western visitors remain relatively few in number and tourist activity is targeted at Chinese although we did see a handful of Russian visitors. Already there is evidence that local traders are responding to the opportunity with souvenir stalls commonplace at most tourist shops, albeit with limited and invariably kitsch offerings. Ginseng is a staple offering and the North Koreans are now a lot more attuned to pricing strategy than was the case in 2005, safe to say that they’ve quickly learned the basics of capitalism to maximise returns from tourists.
In contrast with 2005 it was striking to be able to purchase Coca-Cola in North Korea which is brought in from China (rather than formally distributed in the DPRK) – previously this was dismissed as the archetypal drink of capitalists and instead you could only buy a local substitute that tasted awful. We visited a pizza restaurant which also served as a wedding banquet hall. The standard of pizza was reasonable although let down by the quality of the cheese. Nevertheless, there was no shortage of imagination on the menu which includes chocolate and cabbage toppings. With a pizza restaurant and a burger outlet all that is missing is that other staple of western youth, denim jeans.
The encouragement of tourism could yet serve as a driver of change by encouraging ad hoc opportunities for trade and allowing further exposure of locals to foreigners. The numbers of Chinese visitors and their general attitude may also serve to foster ill-feeling towards China and promote a more positive impression of westerners.
Of course, tourism is a means by which the DPRK generates foreign exchange. Whilst I was in the country the USA announced changes to its own visa policy to discourage westerners from visiting North Korea but it is the Chinese upon whom the DPRK is becoming dependent as a means to develop its tourist industry. The number of Chinese visitors was significantly greater than had been the case in 2005 and it is reported that numbers increased this year after the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in June, 2019. My understanding is that the Chinese are considered a necessary evil but they are not necessarily considered desirable guests. Dependence upon the Chinese however will limit the potential of tourist development and position it firmly as a lower value offering.
The value of tourism is that it allows North Koreans to see westerners for themselves and, on occasions, to interact. In contrast to 2005, it was clear from peoples’ reactions that the sight of a foreigner on a Pyongyang street or in a Pyongyang supermarket was no longer an uncommon experience for local residents. Even displays of courtesy in a shop queue or on the pavement serve to break down barriers and stereotypes about the west that may have previously been promoted in the DPRK.
Tourists are taken to the places that the DPRK authorities want them to see and it goes without saying that you can hardly expect a visit to prisons or places of internment, the existence of which is variously stated in reports by the United Nations. Interestingly though, there has been a gradual relaxing of what was previously off-bounds. Those tours being offered by Koryo demonstrate that tourists are now allowed to see much more of the country than ever before. I also noted a number of occasions when I saw UNWFP jeeps on the roads, another illustration that even though the DPRK seeks isolation, it is no longer as unseen as it once was. (NB It was reported in September, 2019 that the DPRK is seeking to reduce the number of UN personnel in the country.)
There is no escaping mention or displays glorifying the Kim dynasty of which current leader, Kim Jong Un is the third generation. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung is deified and even in death is immortalised as the Eternal President. His father, Kim Jong Il is similarly revered. Their portraits are omni-present and I am told that there is only one town in the DPRK that does not have their statues (instead in Hoeryong there is a statue of Kim Jong Suk who was the wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il).
Dictatorships derive legitimacy from myths and legends. Whilst control is derived from an apparatus of terror or imprisonment this is rarely in isolation from psychological manipulation and an all-embracing ideology or script. This is unmistakably a totalitarian state and you are forever reminded of George Orwell’s dystopian ‘1984’ because it is the nearest reference point you can find even if there are subtle differences.
An underlying message fed to all tourists is that the DPRK did not start the Korean War and that it has remained under threat by America and ‘its puppets’ in south Korea ever since. Kim Il Sung is first and foremost credited with leading the country to liberation from the Japanese, defeating the USA in the Korean War (1950-53), overseeing the country’s reconstruction and preserving its independence. The narrative is about overcoming against all odds and poking the big guys in the eye.
From our own perspective it’s not difficult to pour scorn on the North Korean version of events but from the other side it is a powerful and emotive story. The DPRK was rebuilt from a blank canvas after the war such was the extent of destruction and the need for a complete rebuilding. Not surprisingly there is genuine pride among people about what has been achieved. You could find similar sentiment expressed by supporters of unfashionable, lowly football clubs whose achievements have defied expectation. It doesn’t matter whether a myth is true, only that people believe in it and there is genuine reverence for Kim Il Sung.
The Kim legend is being continually reworked and it was noticeable that statues of Kim Il Sung have been remodelled to present a slightly younger figure – of late middle age – to be in keeping with those of Kim Jong Il. Photos of Kim Il Sung have similarly been given a rebranding with a shift from a very stern, formal face to that of a benign, friendly uncle figure and this is not accidental. With all forms of propaganda in the DPRK it is very deliberate, managed with the same discipline and market awareness that you would expect from a brand manager in the west. (NB The photograph of the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the top of this section was taken in 2005.)
The legitimacy of Kim Jong Un is derived from the Kim Il Sung connection and it was notable at the museum celebrating victory in the Great Fatherland War (1950-53) where Kim Il Sung is talked of as the Marshall, the same title now adopted by Kim Jong Un. It is also fascinating that Kim Jong Un fashions his hair and clothing in the style of his grandfather.
Every tourist is requested to give respect to the leadership by visiting the Mansu Hill monument, the focal point of which has two 20 metre statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. In 2005 there was only a statue of Kim Il Sung. After the death of Kim Jong Il the monument was reworked and now incorporates the latter wearing his trademark anorak alongside a much younger looking Kim Il Sung.
Although Kim Jong Un enjoyed a pictorial tribute at the Mass Gymnastics display that I attended in Pyongyang, I did not see any statues or posters in his honour. Instead he tends to be prominent on the TV and local press including the Pyongyang Times newspaper (carefully folded to avoid insult to his image). Kim Jong Un has a big job to emulate his forebears although during the last eight years he has probably had more impact on the country than could be said of his father in the eight years before his death.
Meanwhile it seems that state propaganda is being carefully positioned such that there is a clear link between the two deceased leaders and Kim Jong Un, whilst hedging bets to ensure sufficient distance just in case the young Marshall dropped a clanger and contaminated the legend. Equally there may be a subtle shift to boost the popularity of him in different ways. The subtlety and sophistication of state propaganda is not to be underestimated and is every bit as flexible and focused as that of western corporates selling consumer goods.
What local people think of Kim Jong Un is anyone’s guess. My over-riding impression is that a sense of belonging and community weighs against frustration about corruption and human rights abuses. That will not always be the case but I didn’t get the feeling that this is a country at a tipping point where the majority of its citizens will actively resist the ruling regime. Indeed, few can probably imagine anything different having lived their lives in a state where practices that we consider unacceptable have been taken for granted and become the norm. After all, conservatism invariably comes from familiarity and a sense of certainty. There is also a good proportion of people who benefit from the current system and have a stake in it.
Neither is it immediately obvious how mass rebellion could occur even if North Koreans were so minded. In East Germany people said that when called upon, you fart for the benefit of those who appreciate the smell. The same could well be true in the DPRK where citizens have learned coping mechanisms. (In case of doubt on the part of the reader, let me emphasise that this is not to condone the practices of the regime.)
MISSILES ET AL
It felt ominous that just at the same moment as I stepped into the country, the DPRK leadership should decide to launch a series of projectiles over the Japan Sea. The launches coincided with the joint South Korea – US military exercises that North Korea considers provocative. By launching missiles the DPRK was effectively reminding the world that it wants attention and this action has previously been a good way of getting it. For the USA, the Korean Question must seem like an unwanted distraction and it now faces a choice in its policy response. At stake is the prospect of continuing tension or something more constructive. For Donald Trump his chance of a diplomatic breakthrough.
Unlike in 2005 there was no evidence of anti-USA rhetoric on TV news, billboards or at the Mass Games in Pyongyang. (The image above is of a street poster in 2005.) An interpretation is that North Korea is leaving the door open for US dialogue and I suspect that talks with President Trump will eventually progress. In 1971 Henry Kissinger surprised the world when he announced American-China rapprochement in the context of realpolitik with the USSR. On my part I wouldn’t rule out some form of arrangement between North Korea and the USA that allowed both parties to seek benefit at the expense of China, an opportunity that the United States may welcome. The DPRK has good relations with China but I should be very surprised if it sought reliance on its neighbour, welcoming instead the opportunity to assert its independence.
in 2005 I came away with the distinct impression that the DPRK was on a war footing both to mobilise and agitate its people to justify hardships. In 2019 this was much less overt and the subliminal narrative was instead about encouraging scientific education and development, almost as if the launch of missiles and acquisition of nuclear capability symbolised the magical ingredient, a means to transform the economy and achieve an end game utopia. Even the call for unity has become much less prominent and all told it reinforced my impression that the DPRK is seeking to portray itself as a far more self-confident rather than insecure state.
Quite how scientists alone can transform the DPRK is questionable but this is more about justification of state control and the leadership of the ruling Korean Workers Party. It has become a strong motivational message for parents and young people in the country, one that sustains the regime and defines a new myth for the Kim dynasty. In this way the missile programme is not just a statement to foreign powers but speaks to the country’s own people, the common theme of which to uphold the power of the regime.
The DPRK possesses sufficient military hardware to provide a deterrent against attack even before taking into account its missiles. (For instance there are reports of artillery weaponry in place to attack Seoul in the event of war.) The Korean People’s Army is thus considered the guarantee of DPRK independence.
On the part of the west, sanctions are something of a blunt instrument. Whilst increasing the pressure on the DPRK economy there is also the danger than the regime becomes far more desperate and risk-taking in its response. In turn this could normalise behaviours by North Korea that are increasingly confrontational.
It is in no-one’s interest for there to be a war on the Korean peninsula which would result in considerable destruction. The fanatism of many North Koreans would also make it difficult to conclude a peace but the risk is that brinkmanship could give rise to a conflict as a consequence of accident or misjudgement. The incentive for a diplomatic solution is therefore considerable even if it comes at the price of the USA having to hold its nose and accept that the regime remains in power.
For all its evils it seems inconceivable that the west could engineer regime change or that current methods of economic planning and organisation could be displaced in the short term. It means that Kim Jong Un is secure for the short to medium term at least and like him or not, the USA and South Korea has no option than to deal with him. (The mural below was photographed by myself in Koreatown, Los Angeles in May, 2019 and I wouldn’t bet against it happening.)
PREDICTING THE FUTURE
In 2005 I was not alone in believing that the DPRK would collapse sooner than later and I never expected the degree of progress since then as witnessed in August, 2019. Notwithstanding that sanctions will be hurting the economy I also believe that they are reinforcing national unity, providing the regime with a ready-made excuse for hardships and the fact that the country remains relatively impoverished.
What I saw in August, 2019 points to a country that whilst increasingly self-confident and assertive has a compelling need for further reform and modernisation. The Korean Question is seemingly intractable and whilst perpetuation of the status quo may suit each of the major players in the short term, this is not tenable indefinitely. In other words, just as the DPRK is at a crossroads so are international relations between the two Koreans states, the USA, China and Japan.
A few days spent in the DPRK is sufficient to conclude that the country faces a massive task to upgrade its infrastructure. The North Koreans pin their hopes on an end to sanctions – which provide a headline excuse for the country’s problems – but it would need more than their removal to resolve the structural difficulties of the economy presented by outdated processes, decrepit factories and a chronic state of under-investment. Nevertheless, it is also clear that economic opportunities exist from the opening-up of the country, a point that must have been recognised already by corporations and states who follow events in North Korea.
Whilst there is much to abhor about the ruling regime, it would be foolish to suggest that all North Koreans are entirely dissatisfied with their society. Like any other people around the globe they derive comfort from the certainty and familiarity in their lives although that is not to condone a rule of terror.
Just as I have seen massive changes compared to 2005, it seems a good bet that ordinary North Koreans would similarly testify to improvements. Construction in Pyongyang of new leisure facilities (such as the water park that we visited) or residential blocks serve as an affirmation of tangible progress. New model collective farms likewise. I could see for myself that people were better fed than in 2005 and shops were far better stocked. Whether the future pace of change is sufficient to satisfy the emergent middle class will surely determine the fate of the regime.
My belief is that the DPRK will become vulnerable at the point when it loses control of economic changes in the country. Ongoing reform will be vital in response to structural weaknesses in the economy but this will also expose further contradictions requiring even more change. The real weakness of the USSR for instance was during the course of glasnost rather than the period preceding.
Impatience with the pace and progress of reform could create political tensions in the regime, coinciding with a younger generation of people assuming positions of power. The DPRK might yet have its own Young Turk revolution driven by impatience for change in the next decade. In other words, if Kim Jong Un wants to earn his own opportunity to be deified with a 20 metre bronze statue overlooking Pyongyang he will have to successfully steer a difficult path but I wouldn’t bet against him exceeding the period of time his father was head of state (1994-2011).
The DDR state collapsed almost by accident when travel permits were relaxed but it’s hard to see how the DPRK regime would allow this and besides, internal travel restrictions would limit the possibility of a mass stampede. Furthermore, although a future famine might give people the incentive to flee the country, it is easier said than done for starving people to do so on foot.
What chance then that Korea might be unified in the absence of conflict or collapse of North Korea? The DPRK takes every opportunity to proclaim its support for the future unity of Korea although even Kim Il Sung was advocating a formula of two systems within the one nation long before his death in 1994. The example of Germany shows that whilst the country was unified in 1990, the process by which it came about is better described as a takeover. The policy of the DPRK has been steered by lessons from elsewhere, by awareness of what happened to Colonel Gadaffi in 2011 after he surrendered his missiles and the fate of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania in December, 1989. Neither will the fate of East Germany have gone unnoticed and in a similar situation South Korea’s economic superiority is bound to give it the ascendancy at the expense of the DPRK regime. So too, the North Korean population would be disadvantaged as the result of the collapse of the DPRK.
There is growing awareness in the DPRK of life in South Korea and in some ways this offers psychological escapism from the realities of day to day existence in the north. By the same token it would be surprising if North Koreans did not discover about the downsides of life in South Korea through unofficial channels (ie illegal DVDs or digital films). Ironically to discover in this way about homelessness, the scourge of drugs and street crime in western cities or the difficulty of northern refugees in the south serves only to validate state propaganda.
It is easy to see how North Koreans would be disoriented in a capitalist society with its own tyranny of consumer choice and bombardment of advertising proclaiming inconsistent messages. The loss of collective support on the one hand and the degree of individual competition on the other would make it very difficult for many North Koreans to cope. For the western visitor to the DPRK the modesty of dress (particularly on beaches) and the complete absence of sexualised imagery is striking and it would come as a dramatic shock to North Koreans transplanted into the west or as refugees in the south. The east Germans faced similar difficulties thirty years ago even though they were probably more familiar with life across the German border than their counterparts are nowadays in North Korea.
All of this raises major doubts about how the two Korean societies could ever be reunited and how many generations it would take to fully assimilate. A distinct North Korean culture makes assimilation in South Korea extremely difficult and this would be an even bigger challenge for lower level apparatchiks of the regime. For both Korean states, the notion of unity thus seems stronger as a spiritual construct. Both will understand the cost of unification and not just in monetary terms. Perverse as it might sound, for the South Koreans it might be preferable to underwrite North Korea and presumably the DPRK will refrain from making meaningful moves towards unification.
What seems certain is that the DPRK will continue to surprise and we can expect the course of Korean history to be anything but predictable. I am keen to return to the country in the near future and would encourage others to consider a visit to what is truly a fascinating place.
by John Dewhirst
Themed galleries will be uploaded to this blog on an ad hoc basis featuring photographs taken on my trips to the DPRK.
A good You Tube documentary on the workings of the DPRK economy
Perspectives on the ethics of tourism to the DPRK.