North Korea, July 2013: Day 3

Day 3 of our trip is a national holiday for “Victory Day“, which marks the end of the war against the Japanese in 1953. We are spending another day taking a city tour – the plan is that we will see the home of the President Kim Il-sung, the Arch of Triumph, the Revolutionary Mountains Cemetery, an Exhibition of Special Flowers, and the National Symphony Orchestra.

Most people are off work for the national holiday. According to our guide, they may have a mass meeting in their company to celebrate the victory of the War from 1950-1953. They may give a performance, enjoy themselves together, and then go home to spend time with their family. They may go to a park or river with BBQ (bulgogi), where they can dance and sing.

Our first stop is the house where Kim Il-sung was born (where his grandparents lived and worked as farmers). He left for China at the age of 14, saying that he was not coming back until Korea was free. When Japan occupied Korea, farmers were very poor and had little land.

In 1946, the Kim Government managed democratic reforms with three principles – free confiscation of land from the Japanese, turned out by land owners. Free delivery to the farmers, no compensation. And a third principle involving the amount of land. (See this article that explains it more thoroughly). This took 20 days, and over 1 million hectares of land that were owned or rented out by Japanese or pro-Japanese were freely taken and freely delivered. This affected around 700 households. The people were so grateful that they all respect Kim Il-sung as the great leader of their nation.

The house we see is original one where Kim Il-sung was born and spent his childhood. From the oldest time it has been a place for people to enjoy beautiful scenery. Rich people like to buy land there for the graves of their ancestors, so there are many graves around. Rich men would also buy a grave keeper for their ancestors grave, so many people – poor people – worked here as grave keepers in houses they would build for themselves. The birthplace of Kim Il-sung was built by a grave keeper, but they were so poor that the landlord and the (great?) grandfather of the President took it over in 1842. In 1912, Kim Il-sung was born. The family lived there for 100 years. We are shown the farming implements, that were apparently used by the grandparents of Kim Il-sung, some of the tools they made themselves.

Kim Il-sung left home at 14, led the revolution for 20 years, and then came home. Some key quotes from our guide: “Miserable life of the Korean people being exploited by the Japanese.” “Easy to lose a country, so hard to gain it, at a cost of life.” Kim’s parents were also devoted to the country (well of course), and died young. His wife was also apparently a guerrilla – the wikipedia article about her is fascinating.

On our way back into the city, we pass the Palace for Young Children which is where children can go for extra-curricula activities. Narelle asks if we can visit, but the excuse is that it is closed (or, more exactly, “you are not going there in our trip”). In the DPRK, there is 1 year of kindergarten, 4 years of primary school, 6 years of secondary – from the age of 6 to 16 education is free. The school year is split into two semesters, April-July. August is the summer break and September is the start of the second semester. Students have a weeks vacation in January. Primary school classes last 45 minutes, with 10 minutes in between. Middle school is the same. University lectures last 90 minutes. After middle school, students have choices – university, military, or industry (factories).

As well as the ordinary middle school, there is also a special middle school for gifted pupils. Each district is divided into units, and each unit has primary and middle school in their area (unit). The good students are chosen to go to the special middle schools, and top students are chosen to go on to university. Several steps of passing through final exams (entrance exams) for university. It is hard and long to get a university education. Education is free and compulsory until the age of 16, university is free but not compulsory. During exam time, it is very competitive, and parents will make their children study all day. Each family has 1 to 2 children, although this is not limited. As society develops, people’s expectations are higher – more and more parents want their kids to go to university, hence, they are more competitive.

After university, students get a job. Government officials look for the top students at the top university, then companies, then factories. Students apply for jobs, have interviews and examinations, test include foreign languages, then they get a job. Everyone works for the government, as there are no private shops or restaurant. People get an apartment, salary, and “daily food” from the government.

In 2012, the DPRK government revised the constitution to change the school system. Now there would be 12 years free compulsory education – one year pre-school, 5 years primary, 3 years junior-middle, 3 years senior-middle.

We pass the April 25th Culture House – April 25th was the foundation of the People’s Army.

The cemetery we visit opened in 1985, which marked the 50th anniversary. There are 148 revolutionaries, including 12 women. Everyone got a big medal.

We watch the military parade on a TV in a bowling alley (weird). The sheer volume of stuff and people is pretty impressive. There is a flag with Kim’s face on it, and furious waving from soldiers in trucks driving by. The camera keeps focusing on the new Kim (Kim Jong-un), standing next to the Chinese Vice President. Kim always looks uncomfortable, I see him scratching his nose twice – it must be hard to live up to the god-like status of his father and grandfather. There’s a lot of religion in the west, and Kim Il-sung was a man, although now elevated to god-like status. Is that really so different? Is it worse?

The soldiers walk with a high-kicking step, perfectly in time. The parade is, in it’s way, and incredible display of military strength. But does military strength in 2013 actually come from weapons and computers behind desks?

We see old-style cannons, some huge guns with so many shells. Mounted on the back of what looks like a regular truck, but towed by something that looks like a red tractor? Also, tanks and helicopters.

The planes drive everyone outside, and we sit and wait for a really long time. There’s sometimes yelling that we can hear – even though we are several blocks from where the Main Event is happening, and some planes fly over, which is kinda cool. I’m not hugely into Military machinery or planes, so I don’t really get how big a deal it is that we are so close by. We are close enough that when some fireworks are let off (in the day time!) some of the parachutes with flags on them float down nearby. Not close enough to really see what they are, though.

New factoid: women in North Korea weren’t allowed to ride a bike until two years ago, as it was considered dangerous and unladylike.

There are little stands set up on the street we’re on, where more locals have gathered along with other groups from our tour. I pick up some ice cream, using RMB as of course I don’t have any North Korean money. I want two (me and a friend) and give them 10 RMB (about 1.63 USD), but this is way too much money and as they can’t give me change (foreigners can’t have local currency) and won’t just keep the change (as I am happy with), I am given two more ice creams and sent on my way. As it is so hot, it’s easy to find someone else who wants one!

Finally, the vehicles from the parade start coming by and everyone rushes to gather around the intersection. We see vans full of soldiers, tanks, tractors, driving by. There is no cordon or anything, I could touch them, if it wasn’t for the soldiers who stop us from going into the road and keep pushing us back. The air is filthy, and it’s crazy and chaotic but also incredible – despite the solder standing a couple of feet from me, it’s the least constrained I have been so far. Most of the soldiers wave furiously and look so proud and happy.

It’s incredibly hot, though, and air quality is pretty poor – these tanks are not fuel efficient, you can feel the heat and the dirt from the exhaust hit you. I’m incredibly thirsty, and eventually my conviction that I’m about to get heat-stroke drives me inside a building that I think is a hotel, but is actually (or so I’m told later) a Japanese shopping mall. It’s a beautiful building, feeling modern, new and ostentatious, rather than just ostentatious, which is what our hotel feels like – grand, but shabby. This place is new, and clean. I go in and ask for a drink, but am directed into a small store selling luxury goods, including Maybelline! As well as designer handbags, and gold watches. Once I have clarified that I want a drink, I am ushered upstairs to a bar where I saw my first credit card machine, and obtained 7up and water. I tried to pay by credit card for fun, but they wouldn’t take it and so instead I paid in RMB. There was much distress about and confusion about their inability to give me change, which eventually I resolved by getting an extra bottle of water. Eventually the poor girl says “I would give you change but I have none”. Of course I really don’t care! But I do not have much success convincing them of that. Eventually as I’m now confident that I am over-, rather than under-paying I just leave. They clearly think I am mad. I, meanwhile, am saddened by the fact that in one of the fanciest and grandest places I have ever been in, where I feel horribly under-dressed and grimy, about one AUD could cause that much stress to another human being. My idea of the poverty there is shaped by these interactions – everything looks fine, everyone looks OK (of course, only the most loyal, politically reliable, and healthiest citizens are allowed to live in they live in Pyongyang), but their reaction to me overpaying by so little is illuminating.

I head outside, exhilarated from my brief escape in time to catch some large things that look like rockets go by. I think these are the nuclear weapons. Parade over, we head back to the bus, and people are buzzing. We are the first Westerners to ever see that much.

Lunch is hotpot.

In the afternoon, we head to the Symphony. The music is rousing, militant, and it’s an incredible performance. I really enjoy it, I’m mesmerised by the violinists and cellists – everything, body, bow, moves in time. At one point the orchestra sang – I have never seen such a thing before. By my count, the orchestra features 8 women (I don’t know how many musicians total, but women are very much in the minority.

North Koreans get 15 days vacation a year, and our tour guide tells us they can go abroad if they want to. She hasn’t gone herself, so can’t (won’t?) answer my questions about visas. People used to go to other socialist countries in Europe (I guess before all those pesky human rights improvements came about) – including, I later discover, our other (older, male) tour guide. We are told that Pyongyang University is the “number one university for foreign studies” – in North Korea, not the world, I imagine… although I am consistently impressed by the English of the people we encounter.

The subway in Pyongyang, like many things we encounter, is apparently record holding – the world’s deepest subway at 150m deep (this is not corroborated by the Wikipedia page – which says 110m and others deeper), and could double as a nuclear bunker. Each station is decorated to show the meaning of their name. The first station name means “first station” (extra points for originality with that naming) and is decorated to mean the countries future – prosperous day after day. Second station is the biggest and most beautiful, we will also go to the 6th station.

I think if you wanted to escape your guides (and I kinda do – I would love to see the Hotel of Doom) this, the subway, would be the place to do it. You would have to know where you were going though, but it would be so easy to sneak on to a train going in the other direction. I’m told by our Western guide that unescorted Westerners would apparently immediately be picked up by the police – I’m not sure this is true though. People don’t really seem to be empowered to make decisions here. If you just keep moving, maybe noone will feel like they have the authority to stop you. Narelle told me about the journalist who ran from the hotel we are staying in, to the Hotel of Doom in the middle of the night.

Our male guide has heard of Google, although he doesn’t really understand what we do (I guess “organising the world’s information does not seem like as big of a problem in NK). He asks me how it is different from other “working with computers”. I try and explain data-centreas, and having everything available everywhere (not just on one computer) and talk about services being free – again, perhaps not a compelling argument in a place where the government provides everything. I show him a search from a cached web page on my phone.

I ask him if a tour guide is considered to be a “good” job – he tells me it is a “middle job”, good jobs are doctors, and working for the government. I think it is a lucrative job though, as well as the tip we will give them at the end of the week we were instructed to bring a gift of something Western that won’t easily be obtained here. These gifts are then sold on the black market (I wonder if they go for above, or below, their market value?)

People in Pyongyang in general look really happy and prosperous, and nicely dressed  – in the Western style, although you rarely see women wearing trousers and never jeans. I feel perpetually scruffy. Is it just Pyongyang where people seem to have a good quality of life? In the stories that get told – internally, externally, in the Western media… what is true?

Everywhere we go looks very grand, by Pyongyang is a pretty city with lots of parks and greenery. I’d love to be able to just walk around, instead of this frantic tour where we bus between everything and it all feels quite rushed.

We have a delicious dinner of potato, omelette, dumplings, and bulgogi. For the first time since leaving China, I’m not hungry.

Tomorrow we have an early start, and our guide tells us she has a taser in case we are late. I think she is joking? These kind of jokes about violence are somewhat less funny in a police state.

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