(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WeSpeakNews and by the Huffington Post)
I left my Beijing hotel early this morning for a flight to North Korea and got caught in a traffic jam on one of the Chinese capital’s ring roads.
When I was in Beijing in 1984, the city had crowded streams of bicycles. Now it is all cars in wide multi-lane carriageways and flyovers in high-rise skyscraper surroundings which look like something from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
At Beijing Airport, we get on an ancient Tupolev aircraft – very noisy – staffed by ultra-neat North Korean air stewardesses, each in prim red jacket, white shirt and dark blue scarf – the colours of the national flag.
When I entered the aircraft’s cabin, there was an overwhelming smell of air freshener. About 45 minutes into the flight, it became obvious why. The smell of air freshener had disappeared and the natural odour of the aircraft had reasserted itself: a rather unsettling smell of petrol fumes. It is difficult to say which was more unsettling: the smell of petrol or the saccharine-drenched music coming out of the aircraft’s not-very-good speakers. It was like easy listening to Nelson Riddle music in a flying petrol station.
But the North Koreans were trying their best. And that is all anyone can do.
When I was in China in the mid-1980s, some of their new hotels were run as joint ventures with Swiss companies on ten-year contracts. At the end of that time, everything would to revert to the Chinese. So they had ten years learning what specific items and what standards were expected by Western tourists. The North Koreans, in self-imposed exile from the rest of the world for generations, have no idea what goes on beyond their borders and little idea of what travellers expect.
When our group arrived in Pyongyang (you can only travel to North Korea in supervised groups, only rarely as a supervised individual), the people who had paid extra for single rooms (including me) found that there were no single rooms available and we had all been bumped down to a less-good hotel. But the North Koreans were trying their best.
There are so many people in North Korea for the celebrations of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday that, surreally, Pyongyang has a shortage of hotel rooms. The British tour company Regent Holidays, which normally takes only occasional single groups into the country currently has four groups in simultaneously for the celebrations; a Swedish company has brought a total of 200 people in several groups.
Each group allowed into the country has to have two North Korean ‘guides’ and a driver constantly with them. This is not only so that the untrusted foreigners are carefully supervised, watched and reported-on by the two guides, but so that each guide can keep a careful watch on the other guide. When I was here in 1986, it slowly became obvious that the bus driver out-ranked the two guides and was himself there to watch and report-on them.
North Korea is not a country where paranoia is under-stated.
But people are people. Insecure, internally modest. No-one chooses which country they are born into. People are people. There is nature v nurture but neither is 100% of anyone. People are people.
Our group of 16 individuals is supervised by two individual North Korean guides: one an experienced older man, the other a relatively inexperienced younger girl.
If the two guides and the driver all keeping a wary watch on each Western tourist and on each other seems oppressive, think of the individual psychology. With this level of paranoia, there is a personal insecurity which is occasionally visible in the eyes of the guides and most of the North Koreans we encounter (except, oddly, the driver). What if they do something wrong? What – even worse – if they do not do something wrong but someone higher than them in the paranoia chain mistakenly thinks that they have done something wrong? This is not a forgiving country. They have been at war with the Americans and the South Koreans since 1950.
The Korean War ended in 1953. But only in theory. In March 2010, a North Korean miniature submarine torpedoed and sank the South Korean ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. In November 2010, the North Korean army bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong with around 170 artillery shells, hitting both military and civilian targets, killing 4 people and injuring 19.
In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the basic necessities of the state of Oceania is that it has to be constantly at war with one of the two other great super-states. A very real external threat is vital to hold the country together. Oceania and North Korea seem to be interchangeable in this respect.
In the fields of North Korea – glimpsed through bus windows on very uneven roads – people are rarely cultivating the barren-looking land. When they do, they almost never have mechanised help; they rarely even have oxen and hand ploughs. They seem to till the soil with their hands. Individuals sitting in brown earth fields.
This is not a 21st century state. This is not a 20th century state. This is like England under the rule of Richard III. We are talking here about medieval countryside scenes.
But, in the capital Pyongyang, the monuments have got even bigger than they were in 1986. Wide avenues, imposing monuments, monolithic buildings
There is a new road with unnecessarily massive monumental buildings for different sports. A giant basketball building. A giant table tennis building. A whole street of buildings for different sports. Gigantic buildings with massive car parks. In a city with very few cars.
There are new tower blocks of apartments. Everything looks stylish on the outside. Our decidedly underwhelming hotel has underfloor heating (which cannot be turned off) but currently has no hot running water.
And, towering over everything, is a giant pyramidal building, massively out-of-proportion to everything else. It is an unfinished 1o5-storey hotel – the Ryugyong Hotel – which the North Koreans started to construct in 1987 – exactly 25 years ago – but never completed. It looks perfect on the outside but it is a showy facade, like a simile for North Korea itself.
The giant 330-metre tall building was due to open in 1989 with either 3,000 or 7,665 rooms (facts are variable in North Korea). For several years after it failed to open, North Korea denied the building existed, despite the fact it dominated the skyline. Now, 25 years after work started on the structure, it is the elephant in the room; never mentioned but ever present.
“It is an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete rising 300 metres into the air, containing over 3000 rooms above ground.”
That is not a description of the gigantic grey pyramidal would-be hotel which dominates the Pyongyang skyline.
It is George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
But it will do.
It will do.
Welcome to North Korea.
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