Friday 29 April 2016

Back home after not going to North Korea

I got back to Bucharest last night after two weeks not visiting North Korea. Today I feel bliss that thanks to the rain I can have a long weekend at home with books, rather than go to the seaside. One more outing for this thought from Logan Pearsall Smith
'Thank heavens, the sun has gone in and I don't have to go out and enjoy it.'
I had been supposed to go to North Korea with four pals, but the political situation in North Korea became a little too exciting. I felt the time was not right. But I had bought a ticket to Peking via Istanbul and Kiev, so I spent some days in Peking and flew to South Korea for three days. A good decision, because I would never have chosen to go to China, a place I once glimpsed, and disliked, in a stopover. I still don't like it very much but it is very important indeed. And I met two very interesting and civilised foreigners, both historians, who live there, speak Chinese and explained the country.

I had dinner last night with Marc, one of the four who was just back from North Korea. I was disappointed that I did not get to that room on the border where a North and South Korean soldier eyeball each other. He said he was too.  

A lot in North Korea was as I guessed it would be. It has all been written about by bloggers, but nothing compares with seeing for oneself, which Marc has done and I have not. Pyongyang was impressive and in many ways normal, although the roads were almost empty of traffic. He could talk to people freely, except almost none spoke English. The beer was good. He only saw two old tractors in the countryside. I pointed out that from 1996 to about 2004 I never saw a single tractor in Romania, only ploughs.

He was not afraid while in North Korea, but knew he had to be always on guard. The beautiful and charming twenty-four year old girl who was his guide would, he knew, have killed him without a moment's compunction if ordered to do so. He was in a bubble, but nevertheless found the place fascinating. He warmly recommended that I go and I may well. 

What was the best moment? Oddly, visiting the very odd mausolea of the two deceased Kims. He made it sound like Evelyn Waugh's satire about American funeral directors, The Loved One.
Ian Coles took this shot

Another of the four, Ian Coles, described on Facebook the trip to pay their respects to the Kims thus.
My visit to Kumsusan Palace of the Sun was by far the most surreal and weirdest experience of my life. It is the mausoleum of North Korea's past two leaders and a shrine to which thousands of citizens flock daily. Protocol required us to be smartly dressed in business attire, remove all metal objects from our person, parade in single file, adopt a stoical, reverential attitude and converse only in whispers for the duration of the visit. Having been transported along a mile-long travelator at a funereal speed and over a series of underfoot brushes which cleaned the base of our shoes, we passed through airport style metal detectors and a high pressure air blasting cubicle before emerging into each of the two chambers containing the embalmed bodies of the leaders. We were required to bow three times in front of each leader. Anti-rooms contained hundreds of medals and gifts bestowed upon these leaders by visiting dignitaries in years gone by.

Ian added

Food and drink in North Korea for locals largely features rice, vegetables, fish accompanied by the local fire-water, makgeolli, a rice-wine (and featured below). Our food was generally good and always included kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish, and local beer. Of course we were also offered the local speciality, spicy dog soup ( my lips are sealed ). Sadly North Koreans have been recently told by their government to prepare for famine and economic hardship, using language such as “the road to revolution is long and arduous”. The last famine in the 1990s killed more than a million people ( 5% of current population ). As recently as end of March the state run newspaper editorial featured the following : "We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again".

A third of the band, Tony Fekete, wrote this.
It is an experience like nowhere on earth. Everybody is very friendly and willing to talk but this is an absolute totalitarian state with a ruined economy. We saw few factories, and construction work and agriculture is mainly done manually with virtually no machinery. The Government invests a lot in building an educated and trained elite. Fantastic buildings devoted to Science and unsparing support for gifted children. Through these achievements they believe North Korea will be taken seriously.
China and South Korea don't want this country to fail. Change will occur, but gradually with an easing of the Fantasy film personality cult. With sanctions, tourism is increasingly important and therefore not dangerous. A visit is unforgettable-Kim Il Sung's mausoleum, Panmunjon, the metro system and my first taste of spicy dog soup!


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