DPRK: Interesting observations

Iason Athanasiadis, an Istanbul-based writer and photographer, recently visited the DPRK to see the Arirang performance.  He wrote about his trip in The National.  Below are some highlights:

Tourism:

Often referred to as the world’s final frontier, North Korea accepts just under 2000 Western tourists every year and offers residency to a handful of foreign businessmen. Barely 100 Western foreigners live in Pyongyang, including diplomats and businessmen.

Doing Business in Pyongyang:

Waiting to have my bags X-rayed I bumped into a European permanent resident, a cheerful trader who imported computer parts from China into North Korea. Once a month, he said, he travels to Shenyang to stock up on monitors, laptops and motherboards. In North Korea, he “donates or sells them at no profit”. His hope is that, when North Korea opens up, he will be well-positioned to profit handsomely from the new economy. Since he didn’t come across as a staunch advocate of Communist ideals, I assumed he was reaping some additional profit from his sojourn in Pyongyang, about which he remained modest.

He described Pyongyang as like any other large city, but with cleaner air. Entry into North Koreans’ houses is banned, as is leaving the city for the countryside without permission and an escort. Romantic relations with North Korean women are similarly prohibited. The only locals who would come to his parties are business associates. Looking through the windows, he talked about the small, unmarked jet parked in the runway that he thought contained American nuclear inspectors.

“They’re very intelligent, thinking people,” the European businessman said of the North Koreans. “They are all independent thinkers. But they’re also split personalities, they compartmentalise their thoughts. Even I’ve brainwashed myself when I’m here. I self-censor.”

Later, he sent me an e-mail quoting a Cold War-era Sting song titled Russians whose refrain runs “We share the same biology; Regardless of ideology.” “You give a smile, they give a smile and the world is in peace,” he wrote. “And I can tell you: the Koreans do love their children.”

Perspective:

The lack of perspective in their cloistered lives became clearer at night, when the guides invited me into the hotel bar to review the pictures I had taken during the day. How were these men, who had never set foot in the West, supposed to judge what did or did not depict North Korea in a negative light? Innocuous pictures – like one of men squatting on the pavement with a portrait of the Great Leader in the distant background – were deleted, while photos that showed what any outsider would immediately recognise as rampant poverty and societal breakdown barely caught their eye.

Pyongyang:

The night before the opening performance of the Games, I sat in my room, listening to the sounds of Pyongyang slumbering. The DPRK is subject to a permanent curfew. A central switch turns off lights inside apartments shortly after the day’s last radio broadcast. That night, the only light came from the May Day stadium, where last-moment preparations continued for Arirang’s opening night. The only sounds coming through the open window were of bricks tumbling on some distant construction site. Some lights winked in the dark buildings. A parade ground drill rhythm wafted from the stadium. Then, all sounds stopped, aside from the breeze, an occasional ship’s horn, and the repetitive monotone of metal striking metal, as if some lone Stakhanovite worker was still out in the darkness and the silence, fulfilling another quota-surpassing day. At 3am, long after all sound had subsided, an amplified voice started up, slicing the night with slogans.

You can read the full article here:
The mass ornament
Iasson Athanasiadis
The Naitonal
9/5/2008

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