North Koreans exposed to foreign masses

Asia Times
Andrei Lankov

It was a fine night in Pyongyang in mid-October as I walked a deserted street under the unusually bright stars of the North Korean sky (no industry means no pollution), accompanied by a knowledgeable expert on North Korea.

“Well, I do not understand what the hell they are doing,” said the expert, a former student of mine. “You should not be here, frankly. And those South Koreans, they are even more dangerous. The commander-in-chief is making a mistake, but it will take months before they realize how destructive the impact of the Arirang Festival is for their regime.”

The North Korean capital from August to late October hosted the Arirang Mass Games, a pompous and kitschy Stalinist festival for which 50,000 participants (largely students) were trained for months. The festival was attended by an unprecedented number of foreigners and South Koreans.

Pyongyang’s international hotels, usually half-empty, were completely booked, and five or six flights left the city’s international airport every day. This might not appear a particularly large number, but in more ordinary times the airport, by far the least busy capital airport in East Asia, serves merely four to five flights a week.

There were many Westerners. But most unusual and striking, perhaps, was the powerful presence of South Koreans. For the first time since the division of the country in 1953, pretty much every South Korean who wished to do so could travel to Pyongyang for a short stay.

Seoul tourist companies widely advertised a two-day trip to Pyongyang for the equivalent of US$1,000. This is expensive for a two-day, one-night package. But in Seoul where the average monthly salary is about $2,500, it is certainly feasible. Hence, between 500 and 800 South Koreans flew to Pyongyang daily. In mid-November the South Korean unification minister proudly stated that “about 100,000” South Koreans visited the North this year, and it seems a large number consisted of short-time visitors to the Arirang festival.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il personally approved admission of the unprecedented numbers of foreigners. Nothing like this has been seen since the World Youth Festival of 1989, and even then no South Koreans (and only a few citizens of developed Western countries) were allowed in.

The reason for this openness is clear: tourists bring money. Obviously, earnings from the Arirang festival were very good, and Kim decided to use the opportunity to fill state coffers. The foreigners were allowed in without too many questions being asked, and the show was extended for a few additional weeks. It looked like easy money; the grandiose show would have taken place with or without fee-paying foreigners.

It is possible that Kim Jong-il was persuaded to open the doors so wide by officials who might have had hidden vested interest in the matter: the days of religious devotion to the official ideology are long gone, and bureaucrats are learning fast how to make their jobs profitable.

It seems, however, that in the long run opening the door will have serious political consequences. For me, on my first visit to Pyongyang in 20 years, it was quite clear that life in North Korea has changed, even if on the surface everything appeared almost the same as in 1985.

My first impression was that Pyongyang was frozen in time, remaining unchanged from the mid-1980s. Very few new buildings, all very moderate in size and design, have appeared over those two decades. Pyongyang still reminds me of a relatively poor Soviet provincial city of the 1970s and presents a striking contrast with booming Beijing, let alone Seoul.

Even the street crowd has not changed that much. Many people are still dressed in Mao jackets or worn military outfits, and there seems to be even less traffic than in 1985. The veteran expats say nowadays there are far more vehicles than in the late 1990s when the famine reached its height, but for me the reference point is 1985, not 1999. All visible changes were minor, such as the introduction of bikes, which until the 1990s were banned from the “revolutionary capital”.

The much-discussed private business was nowhere to be seen, since municipal authorities “cleaned” the city on the eve of the festival, driving away all private vendors along with their stalls and canteens. This was a part of the new political line of re-imposing state controls and cracking down on the non-official economy, but it also destroyed what might be the only serious visual difference between Pyongyang of 1985 and today. Markets continued their activity, but behind high walls and strictly off limits to foreign visitors (but not for expats).

At the same time, Pyongyang does not look destitute. It is a poor city, but not more so than many towns in the less-successful Chinese provinces. This confirms what defectors from North Korea often say. However, the defectors see this “moderate poverty” in an altogether different light, as “great prosperity”. As one recently said, “Pyongyang people are rich, this city lives very well, almost as good as some cities in [Chinese] Manchuria.”

The gap between privileged Pyongyang and countryside is wide. This was clear from a short countryside trip even though our destination was the city of Kaesong, a semi-privileged location. We traveled about a 100 kilometers on a relatively good highway that connects the two major cities, but encountered no more than two dozen vehicles. A couple of decades ago one could see mechanization in the fields, but now all work is done manually.

However, the impression that Pyongyang is “unchanged and unchangeable” is completely wrong. The material environment has not changed much, but the spirit is very different from what it was in 1985.

The most remarkable aspect was the relative freedom with which North Koreans talked to foreigners, particularly about their great interest in everything that happens outside the state borders. This does not necessarily mean that my North Korean interlocutors rushed to say something critical about the authorities – on the contrary, from time to time most of them murmured the ritual phrases about superhuman wisdom and omniscience of the commander-in-chief.

However, back in the 1980s no North Korean dared talk to a foreigner for more than a few minutes, and under no circumstances could the topics stray from the weather and, sometimes, the greatness of the leader. My impression of North Korea in 1984-85 when I lived there was that of a country where not everybody supported the government, but where everyone was scared to death to say otherwise. It would be an overstatement to say that nowadays the fear has gone, but it has certainly waned.

It was important that my interlocutors were ready to ask thorny questions about life in other countries and in particular about South Korea. They asked about salaries in Seoul, about changes in the former Soviet Union after the collapse of communism (“Are people better off or not?”), about the fate of East German bureaucrats after the German unification (“They went to prison, did they?”), and about the reasons for Chinese success.

Sometimes it seemed some of my interlocutors suspected that the South was well ahead of the North in terms of living standards. This suspicion is dangerous to the regime whose claims of legitimacy are based on its alleged ability to deliver better standards of living. The actual gap between the two Koreas is huge. Still, North Koreans are told they are lucky to live in the North, in the prosperous state of juche (self-reliance), and not in the South, which is a destitute colony of the US imperialists.

Since the 1980s, an increasing number of better-informed North Koreans are uncertain about these official claims. However, in the past it would have been unthinkable to ask a stranger such dangerous questions after just a few minutes of conversation. It was also risky to demonstrate interest in the outside world, but this seems not to be the case any more.

One of the most unexpected and important encounters occurred when I was visiting the Chinese embassy. A small crowd attracted my attention. People were carefully studying something inside a large window on the wall; some finished and went away, only to be replaced by others. Of course, I went closer, only to discover that the people’s attention was attracted by pictures hanging in the embassy’s “information window”. The pictures were large and colorful, but otherwise absolutely unremarkable. The photos and captions were no different from the stuff cultural attaches across the globe put on the walls of their embassies – the usual boring fare about growth of shrimp production, new computer classes and state-of-the-art chicken farms. However, in North Korea of 2005 such mundane matters attract a crowd. Those pictures gave a glimpse of outside life.

This small episode was a sign of what now is in the air in North Korea: people are eager to learn more about the outside world. They are less afraid to show their interest in what once was forbidden knowledge, and they are increasingly uncertain about the future.

It seems the arrival of the foreigners has provided North Koreans with far more food for thought. Among the visitors there were younger South Koreans influenced by the left-wing nationalism, which has become increasingly popular in Seoul. These visitors were sometimes willing to cheer the anti-US slogans, and this was discussed in the right-wing South Korean media as yet another sign of North Korea’s ideological penetration. However, it seems that the actual influence is going the other way.

Obviously, the decision to open the doors wide was made suddenly, so North Korean police and security were caught unprepared by the sudden influx of South Koreans. I witnessed the arrival of a new South Korean group to the Yanggak Hotel, and could not help but be impressed by the scene. Remarkable was the lack of the usual North Korean regimentation and the absence of segregation, which is the basic principle in handing all foreigners, especially South Koreans. The unruly and noisy South Korean tourists, fresh from the airport, virtually stormed into the hotel where many North Korean guests (obviously of high social-standing) were staying as well. The chaos created manifold opportunities for short-time encounters. Such encounters likely took place with the North Koreans learning a thing or two about the South.

Most of the South Korean tourists were in their 50s and 60s, obviously many had some personal connection to the North. (Between 1945 and 1953 about 10% of entire North Korean population fled south, and a much smaller but still significant number of leftist South Koreans escaped to Kim Il-sung’s would-be socialist paradise, leaving family members back home). Those of that era are most likely to look for contacts, and also are far more realistic than the young intellectuals who have been brainwashed by the leftist-nationalist ideologues.

The scale of the tourist mini-boom meant that for the first time in their lives many thousand of North Koreans could observe South Koreans closely, even often getting the opportunity to talk to them. This might have grave consequences to the regime. In past it was possible to explain away the good dress and fat complexion of the few South Korean visitors by insisting that they came from the elite. But now North Koreans saw the well-dressed, well-fed, self-assured South Koreans coming to the festival in droves, day after day, week after week? This was what drivers, guides, sales clerks and other North Koreans saw. It was what participants in the Arirang festival saw as well when they had a few minutes to look at the audience.

North Koreans could not help but conclude that the South has an unusually large supply of rich capitalists. And their presence at the Arirang games obviously means that South Koreans cannot be badly off: after all, the “running dogs of the US imperialism” are not supposed to come to such events.

Of course, most encounters were necessarily short, but dress and looks speak volumes and sometimes a few casual words are enough to change a North Korean’s world view dramatically. It is easy to imagine a South Korean woman in her 50s, whose husband is a skilled worker, complaining that her family has been unable to change a car for more than six years – and even easier to imagine the impact such a matter-of-fact remark would have on a North Korean to whom private cars are a symbol of ultimate luxury, something akin to the role of private jets in Americans.

Of course, the people who interacted with the South Koreans and foreigners overwhelmingly came from the elite. Good examples were our three interpreters – the granddaughter of the founding father of the political police, the granddaughter of a prominent negotiator who dealt with the Americans, and a daughter of an ambassador.

However, the arrival of so many South Koreans meant that a large number of less-privileged North Koreans also had access to the visitors, and at least overheard them talk. By North Korean standards a bus driver working for a tourist company holds a good job. Such a man (women are never allowed to drive in North Korea as it is believed to be dangerous for the public) is by no means a member of the inner circle of power, but he has friends and relatives with whom he can share his experience.

So, was my former student right? Was opening the door so wide to foreigners a mistake by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, a master of survival who felt the allure of easy money and forgot the number one rule of his own policy – “stability is more important than development”?

Or perhaps he was misled by some officials who pocketed some of the revenues? Only time will tell how dangerous the entire affair was for the regime, which survives on isolation and myth-making. It seems the first conclusions are an indication: North Korea decided in early November to close its borders to all tours from mid-December until probably mid-January.

One might assume that they will use this break from tourists to reeducate their tour drivers and explain to them that South Koreans only look rich while really they are poor. Will this work? I doubt it.


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