Often-gloomy North Korea shows a sunnier side

Herald Tribune
Choe Sang-Hun

Here in the North Korean capital, where ubiquitous slogans posted on deserted boulevards and carved into mammoth towers give the city the look of an off-season theme park dedicated to a bygone ideology, one message is conspicuously absent these days.
There is no mural showing muscular North Korean soldiers stabbing American troops with bayonets, as there once was. No longer is there a billboard depicting a North Korean missile slamming into Capitol Hill in Washington. And there are no shrill slogans exhorting North Koreans to prepare for “a final battle with American imperialist aggressors,” as they did in the past.
“It is true that we have removed anti-American slogans,” said Hong Sung Chul, one of the North Korean officials who recently escorted a group of South Koreans on a tour of the North. “We hope the Americans reciprocate our good will.”
Hong said the removal of anti-American slogans was part of North Korea’s effort to cultivate a favorable atmosphere amid six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. A new round of negotiations is scheduled for November.
But it is still a toss-up as to whether the banished imagery was part of an official campaign to recast the most enduring feature of North Korean psyche, the fear and loathing of Americans, or just a publicity effort for visitors.
Either way, the revamping of propaganda in North Korea’s showpiece capital was as much a sign of change here as the busloads of foreign tourists rushing through the once-forbidden city. These modest indicators offer a glimpse into a country that is gradually regaining confidence after years of famine and after tentatively increasing its contacts with the outside world.
Pyongyang is not a mirror of the rest of the country. The government stocks the city with politically reliable citizens and keeps its living standard much higher than elsewhere. But in the sales pitches and bargaining of store clerks and the relaxed manner of Communist minders escorting visitors, eager to polish their government’s image, a new measure of optimism was palpable among the country’s elite.
The government minders, part tour guides and part public relations officers for the regime, talked about the importance of rebuilding the North Korean economy and attracting foreign investment with the same rehearsed spontaneity that North Koreans once recited anti-American diatribes.
As North Korea prepared to celebrate Monday the 60th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, throngs of students and citizens have been mobilized daily to rehearse for a massive outdoor rally. Streets were festooned with red-and-yellow party flags emblazoned with the images of a hammer, sickle and calligrapher’s brush.
For almost two months, the authorities have also brought thousands of people into Pyongyang in North Korea’s version of a pilgrimage to Mecca. Here, the faithful were treated with an “Arirang” extravaganza, the closest thing to an Olympic opening ceremony in North Korea, but one with a decidedly totalitarian flavor.
In an unusual gesture of openness, the North Koreans this year opened the show to outsiders, accepting hundreds of them daily, mostly from South Korea, in a scheme driven not simply by a desire to educate outsiders on North Korean socialism, but also by commercialism.
For these outsiders, the trip was an occasion to witness the country’s cautious and clumsy steps into the outside world even as the North is still burdened with the ideas of an outmoded era. Unwittingly or not, North Korea, by opening itself to well-fed South Koreans wielding digital cameras and bursting with U.S. dollars, was casting itself as one of the world’s weirdest tourist destinations.
In between visits to Communist monuments, tourists were ushered into souvenir shops where smiling beauties sold everything from mushrooms to “adder liquor,” a leaky bottle of fiery alcohol with a dead snake in it. The women extolled the concoction’s purported effectiveness as an aphrodisiac and only accepted euros and U.S. dollars.
The South Korean tourists spent profusely, buying goods whose main attraction was neither quality nor prices, but rather the flimsy packaging and outdated design: perfect I-have-been-there mementos from the world’s last remaining “socialist paradise.”
North Korea demands that all visitors start their trip to Pyongyang by bowing before the 23-meter-tall, or 75-foot-high, brass statue of Kim Il Sung, the first ruler of North Korea.
On a recent trip, however, South Korean tourists stood upright before the statue, some with hands in pockets, some clicking digital cameras, as an official solemnly bid them to bow. If North Korean minders were enraged, they did not show it.
But questioning revealed the minders’ unique take on their country’s problems with the outside world.
“People in South Korea and the rest of the world don’t understand us,” complained Hong. “We know some countries ridicule us for our economic difficulties. We want to rebuild our economy fast. How good will it be if we can use the money spent for our nuclear weapons to buy rice for our people. But we can’t.
“We saw what the Americans did to Iraq,” Hong continued. “What option would a small country like us have but to build nuclear weapons when a big bully is determined to strangle us and gang up on us?”
Park Man Gil, a North Korean official, stressed his country’s desire for greater contact with its neighbor. “We want more economic cooperation with South Korea,” he said.
The North’s desire to make connection to the outside world was confirmed – vigorously, in fact – by a South Korean executive.
“You always hear two voices here. On one hand, they lash out at the United States; on the other hand, they are conciliatory,” said Park Sang Kwon, president of Pyeonghwa Motors of South Korea, which runs an auto-assembly factory in North Korea. “As a person who has dealt with the North Koreans more often than any other from the outside, I can say with certainty that the North Koreans really want to be accepted by, and live with, the Americans.”


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