I look out of my hotel window in the early morning and see a Turner sunset with two tall Dickensian chimneys, a yellow golden sun, the indistinct nearby river and a bleak landscape in a misty, disfiguring white haze. It is The Fighting Temeraire with pollution. It is Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.
We are driven south in our coach on long, long, decidedly dodgy potholed-pitted roads to the DMZ – the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea. The countryside is eerily empty as we pass through it, as if all human life has been hoovered up by some giant alien vacuum cleaner.
I would like to come back here with a farmer who could explain what I am seeing. The barren brown supposedly agricultural land looks barren to me, as if the regime has over-farmed it or something, but I am no expert. To my inexpert eye, something has gone very wrong; no-one is farming the occasionally slightly-ploughed fields for mile after tens of miles.
If your land is devastated, you would normally invite in specialists with expert advice but North Korea is no normal country and has, I suspect, screwed itself.
On the one hand, they have lived in self-imposed isolation for decades. On the other hand, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung thought up his superficially-attractive philosophy of The Juche Idea.
This basically means the country and everyone in it should be self-reliant. But, this being North Korea – a land which is not of Planet Earth – the Juche Idea is counterbalanced (or negated) by the idea that the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and subsequently his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and now the grandson the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un go round the country giving on-the-spot advice.
This is a paranoid country with a population indoctrinated since birth into worshipping – and that is not too strong a word – the ruling family. Nothing will happen until the current Leader comes to a factory or a field or a region and says, “I think we should produce more cabbages/paperclips/babies.” Once that is said, a plaque goes up commemorating the visit and (certainly in Kim Il-sung’s day) the fact that the Great/Dear/Supreme Leader gave on-the-spot advice.
How the advised people are going to produce more cabbages or paperclips, of course, is up to them. I imagine they can cope with the details of complying with any advice to have more babies.
But, for whatever reason, the countryside on the long, rough road to the DMZ at Panmunjom looks devastated. And this is dangerous.
North Korea had actual famine in the 1990s and currently the proud, independent nation which follows the Juche Idea of self-reliance and accepts no help from others, gets food aid from its arch-enemy the United States in return for (in theory) not furthering its nuclear ambitions and arsenal.
But picture a country with no real knowledge of how diplomacy, international relations or the outside world actually works. Picture this country with a devastated farming industry, a situation so desperate that they have to go ask their arch nemesis for help. This is a country whose leaders, if they have their noses tweaked or their pride dented even slightly more or unintentionally more, will react with sudden, unpredictable behaviour which is totally OTT. If they think they are being treated like children, they will react like children with no concept of any rules or what is a normal or balanced response.
On our way to Panmunjom, at about 10.30am, we are told that, this morning at 8.00am, North Korea successfully launched its rocket – the one the West thinks is a test for an ICBM – carrying what our young female guide called “our satellite number 3”.
At Panmunjom, next to a small block of gents and ladies toilets, up a slight slope, I see a tall man with his back to me facing a tree. It is evident he is pissing on the tree. A guard spots him. Two soldiers bring him back from the tree. Two non-uniformed men are called. They look shocked. The man’s Western tour guide is called. Much worried discussion ensues. The man looks slightly triumphant. They are standing perhaps 20 feet away from me. It seems, from talking to other people, that the man is an American.
In certain circumstances, it is possible to agree with the North Korean view that the Americans are, en masse, barking at the moon.
Eventually, as we are taken down to the actual border itself, the man seems to be let off with a severe reprimand. But I would pay to be a fly-on-the-wall when he tries to leave the country and the border guards go through his belongings.
At the border, things have changed slightly since I was here in 1986, but only slightly.
There are still three blue huts where peace negotiations have taken place since the early 1950s. In the middle of a central table in the middle hut, negotiations took/take place. The border runs through the middle of the table; the North Koreans sit on one side; the South Koreans/Americans sit on the other side. The huts are painted by the Americans. They are blue because that is the United Nations colour but, since I was here last, it is a slightly darker blue. Perhaps this has been dragging on for so long that they have forgotten why the huts are blue.
When I was here in 1986, opposite a large stone North Korean building, stood a small South Korean pagoda on the upper of level of which stood an American G.I. with what, I presumed, was a directional microphone. Today, the pagoda has been moved to the left (as seen from the North Korea side) and a large building erected to rival the North Korean building.
When I was here last time, the two sides had just finished a ‘flag war’. One side erected a giant flag pole with a giant national flag flying from it. The other side erected a taller pole with a bigger flag. The first side then erected an even bigger pole with an even bigger flag. And so on. And so on. Looking at the poles today, the North Koreans won the flag war.
Party people (a phrase which has different meanings in Manchester and North Korea) wear small flag badges with the Great Leader Kim Il-sung or, less often, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s face on them. The soldier designated to tell us the ‘truth’ at Panmunjom has a badge with two heads on it – both the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. This has more prestige and is, we are told, specially awarded.
I notice that our two North Korean guides wear single-head badges, but our driver wears a double-head badge.
We overnight at a hotel in the nearby town of Kaesong. The hotel has no hot water or electricity.
North Korea launched a satellite this morning, but the country’s agriculture system is medieval. They are proud yet have to accept food aid from their arch enemy America. On a hill overlooking the town of Kaesong is a gigantic bronze-coloured statue of Kim Il-sung. It is floodlit at night. But even the hotel which aims to impress foreigners has no hot water or electricity.
The older male North Korean guide tells me it is too cold in his room to sleep.
Earlier, when it was still daylight, he took us to a roundabout at a road junction to get a better view of the town. Before we crossed the wide road, he warned us: “Take care crossing the street because of the traffic.”
There was no traffic.
Giggles were stifled in the group.
You do not laugh at or with North Korea. This is a land without a comedy club and without a sense of humour.
Humour is a dangerous thing.
But the country has something else which, I think, will eat away at it.
Children sometimes wave at our coach as it passes by. This never happened in 1986. Coaches and people who were visibly foreigners were ignored.
Children who wave at coaches containing people who smile and wave back at them will grow up into adults still willing to believe all Western foreigners are devils. But imperceptible cracks will be inbuilt in their indoctrination. It is the start of a slippery slope.
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