life travel

North Korea, July 2013: Day 2

Narelle tells me about Koreans sympathetic to the North who are living in Japan, with no passport, but with special schools and a direct boat to NK.

First stop is the Grand People’s Study House, where they have 30 million books.

The newspaper building has pictures of the deceased Kim’s on it – free press!

Our guide tells us about working hours in North Korea. Everyone is employed by the government. They work six days a week, from 9am until 6pm, with one hour for lunch from 1pm until 2pm. School starts at 8. Rush hour is from 730am to 830am. People rely on public transport, which is 5 Korean won per ride.

We buy flowers to put on the statue of the Kims. Not everyone has to do this, but they are just 10 or 20 RMB, so about half of us do.

Narelle (much more well researched than me) points out the Hotel of Doom (also known as the Ryugyong Hotel) – a tall pyramid rising in the skyline. Apparently bears resemblance to the ministry of truth building in 1984. At one point, it was the set to be the world’s tallest hotel. I am very taken with it’s appearance and weird story, would love to see it and go inside. This is extremely unlikely to happen.

We arrive at the Grand People’s Study House, there is a large marble (?) statue of Kim Il-Sung in the entrance, and behind him a beautiful picture, which is in fact a mosaic. The Study House is 100,000 square metres, and contains 30 million books. It is open from 8am-6pm, and apparently 6000 people visit every day. Based on the number of people who we see there, 6000 seems like an unlikely number! We are told it is quiet because of the coming victory day holiday.

We see some computers – they are for the computer catalogue, and can be consulted to find the books available in the study house.

There is an exhibition for Victory Day (July 27), including the hovercraft photo that was found to be doctored, and another one of fighter jets that also looks like it benefited from some copying and pasting.

We learn about the three pillars of North Korea – the worker, the farmer, and the intellectual.

Display of the book fetching process from a librarian, she selects the book and it comes out on a conveyer belt. Of course, we don’t know what book she actually selected! One of them is about Object-Orientated programming – this makes me and Arya pretty happy!

The People’s Study House is the social educational centre for the country, and every day hosts lectures and seminars and workshops. Unfortunately, there are no lectures today because people are practising for the festival. They send the lectures through media – TV – so that everyone can attend, they just need to apply in advance. Everyone can come to study and read books, most of the services are free.

The largest lecture theatre seats 800. Slogan: Let us make the whole society. I don’t understand what this means…

We come to the foreign language lecture area – this is by far the busiest place that we see. A woman is teaching English and is repeating “The greatest holiday” in a way that forcibly reminds me of evangelical preaching. The language courses are six months long, and languages that can be studied are: Chinese, Japanese, Russian, German and English.

There is also a room full of stereos, old style enormous boxes. An old song is playing, sounds somewhat country – “I’m free as a breeze…”

Talking to our male (2nd) guide, he tells me his second daughter is a programmer. I think this is really cool.

On the bus to our next destination, our guide tells us about fruit and vegetables – essentially, about rationing. People get a monthly allowance of fruit, vegetables and rice. Sometimes also meat and fish. It’s very cheap – almost free. Some stores have state prices (rations), other stores have regular prices. The government also gives people flats (“In DPRK, don’t buy house”), free of charge – inhabitants just have to pay for water and electricity.

There is a long Korean tradition that “boy and girl” don’t live together before marriage, once married they live together, but with parents. Once they have a child, they can live independently, or if they remain living with the parents, once the parents die they will get the house (or apartment).

There are some nice flats for sportsmen, artists, and musicians.

We drive past the Russian embassy, and the Chinese embassy, and also the People’s Palace for Culture which is a venue where you can sometimes see performances. The Pyongyang indoor stadium, which is the largest stadium in the DPRK. All sports games are available there, and also an ice rink. There is an outdoor ice rink; skating is very popular amongst the kids.

We visit a bookshop which is a rich source of North Korean Propaganda, I look through a biography of Kim Il-sung, his father was fighting against the occupation. There are many stories about his brilliance from an early age, which frankly aren’t that compelling to me – he noticed two lumps of clay joined together make one, and similarly for water. He helped another child who fell in a childhood tricycle race. Another book I saw was titled “Korean Unification – a Burning Question”.

We move on to the art gallery, there are some beautiful works but more is available to buy than to look at, and the rooms for viewing are crowded with pictures – it’s like no other art gallery I’ve ever been to! There is a “famous painter” on display too, working. The guide speaks excellent French, and so we chat together in French. I buy a black and white picture of something that looks like a nuclear bunker. It’s actually the ice rink.

On our way back to the hotel for (lukewarm, unappealing) lunch, we pass the train station. It was build in 1956 and all trains go out from there, including to Beijing and Moscow.

Our first stop in the afternoon is to the Maternity hospital. Most people arrived on an earlier flight and have already seen it, but we have to go again. Our Western guide suggests that we won’t have to go, but he is wrong. We are to do a quick tour, and offered the choice of babies or machines. Of course I vote for machines, as do most of the rest of the group (all male, bar me and one other woman), except one guy – who has the best manners of us all, I guess – who says we should see both of them but quickly. He doesn’t want to offend.

The Maternity hospital opened in 1980, and has 6000 square metres over 13 floors. 1500 beds; 450 in obstetrics, 350 gynaecological, 500 babies, and 400 outpatients can have exams daily. It was visited many times by Kim Il-sung, who made the suggestion of adding a dental section. I guess it is possible you might want your teeth seen to whilst giving birth…?

In North Korea, women get 5 months of maternity leave (note – this is much better than in the US).

Triplets are very revered (I look this up after, and discover not so much revered, as feared), so the ones that were there were displayed to us – they had their own room. We saw so many babies all bundled up in plastic boxes. I only saw two move. This was my first (and last) time to visit a hospital and look at random babies, so I have no idea whether this is normal.

My mom (a doctor) in one of our talks about “why would you want to go to North Korea?” talked about the visit to the hospital in the Panorama Documentary where they say (apparently – I can’t verify this as it won’t work in Australia). “Where are all the patients?” “They are all better, we sent them home”. This she found somewhat freaky, so I was on the look out for patients, and we did see one on our way around. It’s eerily quiet for a hospital, though. The emergency room in the US, Canada, Australia I found to be much busier. Even when I ended up in hospital in China, which was comparatively super-quiet it was much busier than this one. We went past a lab where people were peering into microscopes, but one of the other women on the tour works in a lab, she told me later that the chemicals smell for days, and also the microscopes weren’t turned on (no light).

For our last stop on the tour, we are taken into a room and our guide announces, “And here are some patients”. I guess they heard about the documentary then… and don’t at all understand why Westerners found it odd. You don’t expect to be taken into someone’s room and shown a patient! You expect to see them moving around the hospital as their needs are seen to. It was a really uncomfortable moment, about 8 of us shown into a room, 6 of us men. We turn around and awkwardly leave. I’m not sure what we are supposed to say or do here?

New factoid: Kim Jong-il afraid of flying, and took the train everywhere.

We head to the Film Studio (fascinating article about film studies in NK) which apparently Kim Il-Sung visited 36 times. As we enter, there is a statue of him with the cast of the film “The Flower Girl“. The film studio is 1 million square metres, of which 750,000 square metres is film set. There is an old Korean street, a Chinese street, a South Korean street, and a European street. This was all built in the 80s, and hundreds of films have been made since then.

We tour the streets, which are – as with almost everything we see – deserted. There is a place to try on costumes though, so some people get quite into that. I’m finding the heat brutal though (we have been told to dress nicely for one of the stops we will be making today), and have no desire to wear more clothing! After, we stop at a little cafe where we can get soda and ice lollies, and we watch a film shown on the TV. I don’t understand much of what is going on, but it seems that the americans are the bad guys.

Eventually we end up at the statues of Kim Jong-il and Kilm Il-sung. We’ve been supposedly heading there next all day, but at every point it has been deemed too busy. It’s a popular place to visit currently because Victory day is coming up. We have to “dress nicely” as a sign of respect, and when we “pay homage” (bow) we take off our sunglasses. When taking pictures, we are instructed to take pictures of the whole body. The flowers we bought much earlier in the day have been stuck in the bus, and are looking distinctly worse for wear, not that they were that appealing to start with. But it is the thought that counts, right? Especially when they are for a statue of a diseased leader.

The sight seeing portion of our day is over, and we move on to a brewery where we have a “great opportunity to try Korean micro-brewery”. There are three kinds of beer available today – dark, brown, and light. It is not possible to get a lycheetini, so I drink Sprite instead.

Whilst we are there, we get an important cultural lesson on how to chat up women. How to say hello, ask for beer, and tell them they are pretty.

Everyone DPRK person we see is wearing some kind of badge, always red, with pictures of the Kims on them. Our guide explains to us that everyone belongs to an organisation, depending on their age or job. Children get a children’s badge and a red tie at the age of 9 (every school child we see is dressed in blue and white, with a red tie). At 14, they join another union, the Kim Il-sung socialist union. At this ceremony, they take off the red scarf and get the badge of the present son. At a certain age they can then join the workers class union, women join the women’s union. There is also the farmers union. At the top, you get to join the Workers Party of Korea. People wear the badge of the party, and there are different colours and designs. They are now starting to produce Kim Il-sung badges. If the badge gets damaged or lost, you report it to the organisation to get a new one.

Dinner is our last stop of the day. The duck is pretty nice, but there is a dead, or nearly dead fly on the vegetables. It’s hard to be vegetarian here.

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