Pyongyang Makes an Appearance

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov
6/17/2007

Keeping up appearances: this is how the official North Korean policy in regard to the city of Pyongyang, the cradle of revolution, can be best summed up. Being a Pyongyang dweller is a great privilege in itself. Until things began to fall apart in the mid-1990s, this meant that your food rations would consist largely of rice (not barley and corn, as in the countryside) and that your children would be entitled to a small glass of milk in school. But you also had to follow the rules, and participate in the grandiose symbolic performance that Pyongyang actually was _ and to an extent still is.

Many laws which dealt with the daily life of Pyongyang’s residents essentially served the purposes of presentation. Take, for example, the case of Pyongyang bikes. East Asia has a well-deserved reputation as a cyclists’ paradise. Nonetheless, North Korea used to be different. Until the early 1990s bicycles were outlawed in Pyongyang. Obviously, the North Korean authorities saw bicycles as decisively low-tech _ and hence inappropriate for the “capital of revolution.’’

Foreigners were not exempt from this charade. When in the mid-1970s a visiting Norwegian diplomat brought his bike to Pyongyang, he stirred up a diplomatic controversy. After painful negotiations he was granted permission to ride his bike… on weekends only.

Another example is a strict dress code imposed on the female dwellers of Pyongyang and some other cities. Women are not supposed to wear trousers outside their work. Actually, police turn a blind eye to such inappropriately dressed women in winter. Older halmoni also can walk in trousers with impunity _ at least if they do not stray outside their neighborhood. But for other women in summer time, skirts are obligatory, and until the late 1990s an attempt to walk the street in trousers would result in a fine and a probable report to police.

There are other restrictions as well: a certain tradition or institution may not be outlawed but should not be mentioned in the press. A phenomenon could exist in the real world, but it is not permitted to enter the world carefully constructed by Pyongyang propaganda.

My favorite example is the pram. North Korean women carry their children like women in East Asia have done for centuries: on their backs. This is probably a very good way: at least, Russian Koreans, arguably the most de-Koreanized of all overseas Korean communities, still sometimes follow this custom after some 150 years of their life in Russia. Perhaps, it makes sense: a baby feels so comfortable on a mother’s back!

But the North Korean authorities decided that this age-old habit of carrying children on the back should not be too widely advertised. Hence, you cannot find pictures of women carrying kids on their back. Instead, on the glossy pages of the North Korean propaganda monthlies, readers frequently encounter pictures of impossibly happy mothers who are moving their children about in prams. In real life one has to spend several weeks in Pyongyang before chancing on a pram-pushing lady. The politically incorrect tradition of carrying children on the back should not be mentioned in official publications or depicted in visual arts (unless they employed as a reference to the bad old days before the coming of the Kim dynasty).

Nowadays, the rules have been somewhat relaxed, but back in the 1970s or 1980s a foreigner took some risk by taking a picture of a mother with a baby on her back. There were chances that, if spotted, the film would be removed from the camera and exposed to the light.

The same fate could easily befall somebody who dared take pictures of Korean women moving heavy loads on their heads. Such scenes are increasingly rare in Seoul these days, but in Pyongyang this is still a commonplace sight. Nonetheless, in the ideal world of the official propaganda, Korean women do not carry large weight in such an archaic way, and no media is allowed to break the censorship of such subversive information.

Actually, I think that there are good reasons why the North Korean officials are afraid of such scenes. They likely know little about Edward Said’s writings on “Orientalism’’: after all, Leninist regimes were always very suspicious about non-Leninist brands of leftist ideology, so people like Gramsci, Althusser, or Said were never much loved in Moscow, Beijing, or Pyongyang. But they obviously grasped some of Said’s “Orientalist’’ ideas instinctively. For most Western readers, pictures of women with children on their backs or of old ladies moving heavy loads on the top of their heads do hint at “exoticism’’ and also, by implication, “underdevelopment’’. And the North Korean state does not want to present itself as underdeveloped.

But all these efforts to impress the world appear quite strange when we remember how small the target audience actually was. North Koreans knew the truth anyway, and foreigners in Pyongyang were very few in number. In most cases their positions and experiences made them very skeptical of all these propaganda exercises. But the North Korean officials tried hard nonetheless.

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