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How Should the West Handle North Korea?

The Kim Cult

Current North Korean national legend is very easily summarised. The Koryo Dynasty, between 918 and 1392, unified the peninsula. This was followed by what is called “feudal rule” until 1910, which was ended only by Japanese occupation. The Great Leader Kim Il Sung was born in 1912 (this is effectively year zero, the date that starts the Juche calendar, making 2016 103; you see both dates everywhere). He began fighting against the Japanese in the 1920s until he successfully overthrew them in 1945, when he set up the Workers’ Party of Korea. As the country was divided by Soviet-American deadlock along the 38th parallel, he became Prime Minister of the socialist north. He then defended the DPRK from US invasion in 1950 before defeating them in 1953. And history seems to more or less stop there.

There are two guiding philosophies. The Juche Idea, which is a code of self-reliance (for the country not for individuals of course). And the Songun Policy, which means “army-first”.

After Kim Il Sun’s death he was succeeded in 1994 by his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, who in turn was followed in 2011 by his son, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. (The public is not told when he was born, how he was educated or where he lives, though they do know he smokes.) The three Kim’s are revered as gods and the deceased pair in particular are mythologised obsessively.

The most obvious expression of this is the giant identical portraits, with their benign countenances, outside every public building across the country (each home also has to display the same two photos inside), the colossal mosaics at the side of roads everywhere, and the gargantuan statues in public squares and the foyers of everything from factories to swimming pools.

The biggest statues, at 20m tall, are the Mansudae Grand Monument in the centre of Pyongyang. There is a runway leading up to them from the River Taedong about a kilometre away. To the left there is a huge monument to war against Japan; to the right one against America. (This is very close to the iconic Chollima Monument, which symbolises the advance of the socialist society.)

People come from all over the country to pay homage here (everyone has to bow before these and many, many other statues and pictures). As we arrived, hundreds of villagers were waiting their turn. They were obviously not familiar with foreigners because as we walked past them every pair of eyes followed us every step of the way. We then watched them lay the national flower – the magnolia, which is often seen surrounding mosaics of the leaders – and line up to bow. It is a shocking sight (though it is equally shocking how quickly you get used to it). We had to do the same.

On the western outskirts of the city, we are shown the Mangyongdae “native house”. This perfectly preserved village dwelling, alone in the forest now that every other building has been cleared, is supposedly where Kim Il Sung was born and raised until the age of 14 when he went off to fight the Japanese.

The other end of this story is told at one of the most awe-inspiring tourist attractions on the planet: the Kumsusan Mausoleum. The residence of Kim Il Sung during his lifetime, a 30 minute drive north west of Pyongyang, has been turned into the tombs of Lenin plus Mao multiplied by Gracelands then subtracted from however you used to think the world works, and is now the vast vault where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie embalmed in glass coffins.

It is open to foreigners only on Sundays when locals have to wait until we have all entered. For men, it is compulsory to wear closed shoes, trousers (not jeans) and a shirt collar (a tie is merely desirable); for women, shoulders and knees have to be smartly covered. We walk in crocodile formation, headed by our more than usually jumpy guides, one tour group at a time, through the machine that cleans our shoes and the wind tunnel that blows dust from our clothes. Then we are not allowed to walk at all as it is thought disrespectful. Instead, we have to stand on a series of travelators and escalators that transport us at least 1,000 metres past hundreds of titanic portraits of the two leaders (typically with one of them pointing to the far distance while lackeys appear to take down their every word in open notebooks), past dozens of female sentinels (all in their mid 20s, with identical uniforms, identical physiques and even identical haircuts), while we listen to music (we are told that the two songs on an infinite loop are Kim Il Sung Will Always Be With Us and Kim Jong Il Will Always Be With Us).

We are deposited in a massive marble gallery, which leads to another, and another, all adorned with the same kinds of photos and sentries. There is another wind tunnel. Then we finally enter the chamber smothered in red neon light that contains at its centre the glass coffin within which Kim Il Sung is displayed. One group at a time, we file towards the feet and bow, walk clockwise to the left hand side and bow again, then walk around the head to the right hand side and bow yet again. When we exit we are confronted by several halls containing Kim Il Sung’s train, cars and other possessions. On another floor, the exact same rooms are replicated for an identical experience at the tomb of Kim Jong Il.

The whole route takes about 3 hours to complete and as the foreign tourists exit on the moving-walkways, swapping notes on the astonishing experience we have just had, on the opposite travelators come the locals: deathly silent, rock still, zombified. The men in white shirts and red ties, the women in gorgeous balloon dresses, they have come to mourn.

The Party Line

We were told that every home has a radio concreted into the walls that comes on automatically each morning and evening to blast out music, news and propaganda that cannot be turned off. Revolutionary songs, often allegedly composed by Kim Il Sung or his father, are blared from official vans that drive around the streets, as well as piped into public squares, hotel lobbies and even train carriages on the underground system. Instead of advertising hoardings there are socialist realism posters all over the place.

There is what seems to be a fully functioning underground system, at least the parts that we saw. There are 17 stations along two lines in the west of the city. We travelled four stops through typically named stations. Starting at Glory, then Torch, Victory and Reunification, coming out at Triumph. The platforms are packed with commuters reading the day’s newspapers pinned up on display boards.

The very few cars on the roads are controlled by a series of “traffic ladies”: all are young, unmarried, dressed in matronly uniforms, and waving bright orange sticks. They are stationed at every junction in the city centre, robotically turning their feet and their heads to see in all directions, viscously whistling at anyone going a bit fast, and saluting at official party cars (about one in three; virtually all the others are taxis; old-fashioned bicycles and battery-powered cycles are more affordable and popular). Pedestrians have to use zebra crossings or risk losing their jobs.

Running parallel to the River Taedong all the way down to the Grand Theatre in the south west is the broad boulevard of Victory Street. We walked down it – one of the few places we were allowed to get out of the minibus except when visiting a specific building – and saw smoky bars packed with local men, along with a home ware shop and a hairdressers. This is also where soldiers goosestep and weapons parade on ceremonial occasions.

It cuts through one end of Kim Il Sung Square, the main plaza, surrounded by ministerial buildings and the National Art Gallery (this is notable because the paintings are presented with two dates: when they were painted; and when they were first seen by one of the leaders). Here we saw hundreds of people practicing their performances – singing, drumming and flag-waving – for the Liberation Day celebrations on 15 August. This included a number called Home Sickness, which was by all accounts Kim Il Sung’s, and therefore the nation’s, favourite (a song written, obviously, by Kim Il Sung himself).

Opposite Kim Il Sung Square on the other side of the river is the 170m tall Juche Idea Tower. There is a great view from the top, not least of the May Day Stadium, on a northerly island, with pushing 200,000 seats the largest sports arena in the world. This is the home of the Mass Games, when hundreds of thousands of citizens, after practicing for months, perform synchronised gymnastics and ballet to tell epic stories. It used to be held every August to October, but has not occurred since 2013. Instead, for Liberation Day and other public holidays, there is Mass Dancing, a smaller affair held in front of the singers in public squares. Also on the east side is the enormous party monument, a sculpture featuring the hands of a worker, a peasant and an intellectual.

At these and other sights, your tour guides hand you over to female “local guides”, all dressed alike (in traditional costume, which interestingly is the exact same dress you see at tourist sites in South Korea), with the same hairstyles (these vary in the South), whose job is to constantly reinforce the party line about the leaders and the socialist revolution as well as the imperialist aggressors from the United States and Japan and the puppet regime in Seoul. Nowhere does this happen more professionally than at the no-expense-spared Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, built in 2013 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

It is more than a hundred metres from the entrance gate to the Victory Statue – it goes without saying that this is mammoth – flanked by captured US military hardware on one side (including the USS Pueblo, the only American commissioned vessel currently held captive anywhere in the world, having been seized for spying in a major Cold War incident in 1968) and North Korean army stuff on the other. Inside, an absorbing 20 minute video tells a tale of how the Americans invaded in 1950, then Kim Il Sung fought them off before a strategic retreat led to the peace treaty of 1953. The whole museum builds to a superb giant rotating drum with a 360 degree panorama of one great battle scene: a painting in the round, foregrounded with full-scale military mannequins and real tanks, overlaid with a dramatic sound and video performance. You then exit through the gift shop, though the gifts are largely restricted to the 50 volume complete works of Kim Il Sung.

There are two war cemeteries worth visiting. The one for the martyrs who fought America is in the north of the city right next to the road to the airport. The one for those who died fighting Japan, apparently including Kim Il Sung’s mother and brother, is out by the Kumsusan Mausoleum, near the zoo.

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