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27 Aug 2014 Last updated
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Behind North Korea's Iron Curtain

North Korea is a society still anchored to an iron-strong pseudo-socialist ideal. Posing as a Red Cross doctor and accompanied by two guides who rarely left his side, an italian journalist visited the ultra-secretive country and witnessed a people stifled by their totalitarian government, while trying to survive famine and poverty.

By Sergio Ramazzotti
Added 13:35 | 28 May 2013
  • The Grand People’s Study House looms in the distance in Pyongyang.

    Source:Sergio Ramazzotti Image 1 of 5
  • Dancers in Kim Il-jung Square, Pyongyang.

    Source:Sergio Ramazzotti Image 2 of 5
  • Paying respect to Dear Leader.

    Source:Sergio Ramazzotti Image 3 of 5
  • Bronze statues in Kaesong commemorate martyrs of the revolution.

    Source:Sergio Ramazzotti Image 4 of 5
  • Guards patrol the border with South Korea at Panmunjom.

    Source:Sergio Ramazzotti Image 5 of 5

This is a report from Utopia. I travelled for ten days around North Korea, disguised as a doctor on holiday. I was accompanied by a man and a woman, who had the job - entrusted to them by the state - of showing me whatever was deemed important to give me the proper impression, and more importantly to keep me away from what I wasn’t supposed to see (a task they approached with tremendous zeal). The words that follow are the results of my efforts, often in vain, to see it anyway.

Pyongyang, Day 1

North Korea makes its concept of trust obvious from the start. It greets all visitors with an X-ray, a metal detector scan, and a search. At Pyongyang airport, a policeman passed my bag through an X-ray machine and confiscated my mobile phone, in exchange for which I got a receipt with a red star on it. The policeman smiled and told me: “It will be given back to you on departure. But don’t worry: you wouldn’t be able to use it anyway. There is no network here.”

At the exit I was met by the two people who would not leave me alone again until the end of my trip. They introduced themselves as Mr Li and Miss Li. They were quick to point out that they were not related, but were quite alarming in their uniformity, from the cut of their white shirts and their caps, right down to the lapel badges with the face of the father of the nation, Kim Il-sung, pinned onto their chests. Miss Li’s role was to act as my interpreter and guide, while Mr Li was there “to oversee the correct execution of the programme.” The inevitable employee from the Ministry of the Interior chose a more unsubtle cover – he was the driver of the car that would take me on this tour.

Rather than go straight to the hotel, we stopped first at a triumphal arch in the centre of Pyongyang. On a public square not far away, groups of children were being trained for a choreographic dance, directed by the militaristic commands of an instructor. “Can I photograph them?” I asked. “Absolutely not,” said Miss Li. “It is forbidden, because they are not yet perfect.” “What are they practising for?” I asked. “For the April celebrations, when the Great Leader will be 97 years old. It will be an extraordinary event, without precedent.” “But didn’t Kim Il-sung die fifteen years ago?” “Yes, but he is still the president, and we celebrate his birthday.”

Then Miss Li looked at her watch and said: “It is time to go.” The programme, which had been drawn up in detail, hour by hour for the entire ten days, now required us to visit the Juche Tower (pronounced ‘joo-chay’), a terrifying 170-metre-high stalagmite topped with a scarlet glass flame.

The Juche Ideology - the idea that man is the only arbiter of his own destiny - is the base of a cosmological system devised by Kim Il-sung based on Marxism-Leninism, and the tower that celebrates this is a beautiful example of how ideas sometimes get backed up by facts. Twenty-five thousand tons of stone form a solid support. Around this is a system of lighting out of all proportion to the country’s electrical generating potential. “Is the tower illuminated at night?” I asked Miss Li. “Sometimes. It causes drops in power. But when it is lit the flame seems real.”

In the late afternoon, as often happens here, lead-coloured clouds gathered in the sky. “We hope it will rain,” Miss Li explained. “It has not rained for a month, and is already the worst drought of the last thousand years.” “Thousand?” I asked. “That is what the newspapers said. The harvest will be a bad one.” Miss Li conveniently ignored the fact that last year the harvest was also bad, and that in the last few years it is estimated as many as two million of her compatriots may have died of starvation.

According to a UN FAO analysis, the only positive news is that the situation is bound to improve, since most of weak people have already died, leaving only the strong ones, those able to cope better with famine. But even for these survivors, the distribution of food via rationing (on average, two hundred grammes of rice or cereal per day) is carried out in direct proportion to the degree of loyalty shown to the party: one blemish on someone’s revolutionary record – let’s say, a denunciation because one morning they go out without the badge of the Great Leader pinned to their chest - and the portions might be reduced by a third.

At the end of a six-lane boulevard was another concrete monstrosity, an immense pyramid where the tourists of the future might one day stay when they visit the city. The Ryugyong is intended to be the largest hotel in the world, 305 metres high with 105 floors, and is a cross between the Matterhorn and a spaceship from Star Wars. But the site has been abandoned for a decade. “They need foreign investors,” explained Miss Li, but it was not clear where these might come from.

My hotel, the Yanggakdo, was not much smaller, with 48 floors. Mr Li registered us and returned with three room keys. “This is yours,” he said to me. “And who are the other two for?” “For me and Miss Li. They are the rooms beside yours.” “But aren’t you going to sleep at home?” “No, we want to stay close. In case you need anything in the night.” How caring of them.

Pyongyang, Day 2

Miss Li came to pick me up after breakfast, and we set off in the direction of the house where the Great Leader Kim Il-sung was born. On the streets of Pyongyang it was rush hour (which meant, for an average junction, about thirty vehicles passing per hour).

Kim Il-sung’s birthplace, on Mangyongdae Hill, was suitably impoverished: a brushed earth courtyard containing two huts, a stable, and a granary. The floors and walls were smooth and freshly painted in a vivid yellow ochre colour; the wooden handles of tools were polished and waxed and everything was immaculate and laid out as if in an operating theatre. Under the icy stare of policemen-come-mummies, pilgrims filed in two-by-two and made a quick circuit of the courtyard.

At the base of the hill, in Mansudae park, Miss Li said, with well-practised rhetoric: “Shall we buy a bunch of flowers for the Great Leader?” An old woman with watery eyes approached us and handed me a small bunch of magnolias. “They are five dollars,” said Miss Li. Five dollars, at the official exchange rate, is one twentieth of the monthly salary of a doctor.

At the top of the hill the sun was almost blotted out by the bronze hulk of the Great Leader, standing seventy metres high. I ventured into the immensity of the square and placed the flowers in front of a four-metre-long bronze shoe. “If you want to take a photo of the statue,” she murmurred, “I recommend you are careful not to cut off any part of the body.”

Monte Myohyang, Day 3

The International Friendship Exhibition Hall is buried in the forest like an enchanted castle. It contains all 214,093 gifts received by Kim Il-sung during the course of his political career.

This icy crypt was guarded by two men in white spats armed with chrome-plated Kalashnikovs, and a four-ton bronze door I was invited to open personally in order to try out its smoothness, on condition I wore a woollen glove so as not to mark the handle. Beyond this was an immense grey marble hall, the floor of which resembled a skating rink, and could only be trodden on after I put on the required felt overshoes. Nobody, they say, has ever successfully seen all the gifts. “In the past year alone another 2,400 gifts have arrived,” proclaimed our guide with pride. “They are a treasure of the Korean people.”

Of the innumerable objects on display, we were able to appreciate, among other things, a mahogany elephant (from President Mobutu of Zaire), a plastic gondola with the words “a memory of Venice” (from the president of the Soviet Union’s Institute of Automation – a blatant bit of gift recycling), and the skin of a bear killed personally by President Ceaucescu of Romania; At one point Miss Li, afraid the treasure of the Korean people might seem like a white elephant, asked me: “What do you think of its value? Are there any really precious objects?”

For supper, Mr Li had organised a barbecue on the hotel terrace. Away from prying eyes, Mr and Miss Li permitted themselves to sit at the same table as me, and they finally relaxed. Miss Li had put on some shocking-pink lipstick for the occasion, and loosened her regulation bow tie. Mr Li and the driver wore singlets.

After supper, my dining companions bombarded me with questions. They wanted to know what my taxes were like, how many rooms my apartment had, and if anyone could drive a car. Miss Li and I talked about love. “My husband has never told me he loves me,” she said. Asked why she married him, she replied, “Because if you are not married the government will not give you an apartment.”

Pyongyang, Day 4

We spent several hours at the cemetery for the martyrs of the revolution, another sea of bronze and granite that covers an entire hill. The memorial was teeming with enthusiastic students, and the usual tender music spilled from loudspeakers hidden in a small stand of conifers.

Pyongyang is a weak and feeble city. It is most famous today for having no traffic lights: evidently it is more economic to place an actual person at every junction. At least this time I was allowed to walk around on foot.

“Now we will follow Liberation Avenue,” announced Miss Li. “It is the widest in Pyongyang: one hundred metres.” In the middle of this pride of the revolution, twenty trams sat motionless one behind the other, waiting for the electricity to return.”

Pyongyang, Day 5

Today we took the road to Kaesong (160 km away), a road “which one day will lead to Seoul,” said Miss Li. Kaesong, eight kilometers from the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas, was a pleasant town, with a 500-year-old historic quarter, full of huts with slate roofs and sliding doors made from cherry wood. In the cobbled alleyways, skinny dirty children stared at me with wide eyes, then ran away in terror.

“The people here are strange even to us,” said Miss Li. “If they saw you walking around alone they would probably call the police: they would think you were an American spy.”

In the hotel I sat on the floor, on a bamboo mat, and after supper a waitress served me tea in silence, according to an ancient ritual. Everything was perfect: even the power didn’t go off until after I had drunk the last drop.

Kaesong, Day 6

The city got moving at seven, when loudspeakers on the rooftops of the larger buildings urged the drowsy population to wake up: “Work! Produce more!” The few shops there were open, but only in order to aerate the empty shelves. A man dressed in military attire limped along the deserted road beside a wagon hauled by an emaciated ox. Army trucks laden with students headed towards the schools.

We followed the road to the border post at Panmunjom, threading through emerald green paddy fields that swarmed with people busy sowing. “We guides also have to work in the fields from time to time,” said Miss Li. “But it is a tremendously hard job. And because of that a peasant earns twice as much as me.”

As our car headed south, Miss Li lost some of her composure, and she softly recited the slogans on the signs planted in the paddy fields: “We do not renounce reunification”; “We are joined together with a single heart”; “United we stand, divided we fall”. Reuniting the two Koreas under one flag is an obsession of the north just as much as the south. The problem lies not so much in identifying the best solution (two presidents, and a federation with two governments), but in how to convince the United States that the time has come to withdraw its 38,000 soldiers.

Wonsan, Day 7

Wonsan was a beautiful seaside locality on the east coast. Before supper, I asked Miss Li if it was possible to buy a badge with the Great Leader’s face on it, like the ones every citizen had to wear every day of their life. “It is not so simple,” she answered, horrified. “In order to be able to wear the badge you must demonstrate total devotion to the Great Leader.” According to Miss Li this means I would have to, “respect him more than your mother.”

Wonsan, Day 8

We visited the Chonsamri (“Paradise”) collective farm, undoubtedly the best in Korea, because I was allowed to explore on foot. The local guide was a peasant who had put on a jogori for the occasion, the traditional billowing dress that transforms every woman into a delight; she showed us the stone stele with engraved verses urging on the peasants; the rice fields; the cinema of the workers’ club; the kindergarten; and the apartments where 1,700 people live. Not a single leaf was out of place. The ‘official highlight’ of the visit was a plum tree that had been admired by the Great Leader in person in 1961. “An excellent plant,” he had said. “It will bear eight hundred fruit.” Some days later, when the plums were harvested and counted they found that there were exactly eight hundred. On hearing this story, Mr and Miss Li were unable to hold back their laughter - but only much later, in the car, when no one else could hear us.

Pyongyang, Day 9

They had arranged for me to visit the Grand People’s Study House, a colossal complex built in ancient style on Kim Il-sung Square, and the vast dimensions of which redefine the concept of architectonic space. The great house is a library that sprawls over 100,000 square metres. It houses 29 million volumes – 1.2 for every North Korean citizen, including those locked up in labour camps for displaying disloyalty to the regime, those who may have died as I was drafting these pages, and the refugees who flee across the Chinese border in desperation.

The pride of the library was the mechanized book delivery system, which picks them up from the warehouse and speeds them here aboard a miniature train. At a counter I tried the system out on a foreign writer, by asking it for some famous titles from classic literature. The best the computer succeeded in finding was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Without malice, I asked the employee for a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Pyongyang, Day 10

Mr and Miss Li accompanied me to the station, where they made sure I boarded the direct train to Beijing. The goodbyes could not have been more touching: when we embraced each other, a terrible shyness prevented them hugging me. But Miss Li also, very furtively, slipped a small bundle of paper into my hand.
As the train made its way towards the border at Dandong, I opened the package and inside I found a badge with Kim Il-sung’s face on it. I toyed with it for a while, as I thought about the filthy children with their swollen bellies in the alleys of old Kaesong, some of whom have had feet amputated because they walked to school through the snow for weeks on end without shoes.

Then I thought about the hospital gleam of the museum of gifts to Kim Il-sung, the millions of dollars spent on military technology, and the fact that the far from small amount of money I had paid for this trip went directly – as I was told in confidence by the director of the travel agency - into a dollar account in a private bank in Basel.

Then, before that the train arrived at the border, I lowered the window and gave the badge back to the paddy fields.

By Sergio Ramazzotti

By Sergio Ramazzotti