Twenty-four hours after leaving Beijing, high-rise buildings religiously set in the landscape have been replaced by smaller ones, with crumble facades. We are half-way between Sinuiju, where we entered the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, official name of North Korea), and Pyongyang, its capital. The sleeper train, staggering along the empty roads, is carrying about seventy travellers.
Once at the arrival station, people gather in groups of twenty or thirty, already pleased to be on the Korean land. Two local guides take care of each of them, and foreigners are rigorously required to have their presence when out of their hotel. On the platform, natives are not surprised by this rush. Tourism is at its highest in the country, especially this month as it is its seventieth anniversary. Celebrations, which a thousand tourists or so will join, are expected to be epic: military parade, mass games with 100.000 performers, and fireworks to the country’s glory.
For the first time, tourists are allowed to stay at the Scientist Hotel, built in 2013 and usually welcoming scientists and foreign delegations. A picture of Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of the country, overlooks the reception room. Grandson of Kim Il-sung, founder of North Korea, he was officially given his power in 2012 and reigns with no mercy on one of the last communist countries in the world. His predecessor, his father Kim Jong-il, died one year earlier. From a leader to another, the cult of personality is fervently maintained.
However, Kim Jong-un does not appear on the pins North Korean must bear as soon as they are thirteen. Freely distributed by the government, the small metallic badges have sometimes a round shape, sometimes the shape of a flag floating in the air. Mostly on a red background, the face of Kim Il-sung, who passed away in 1994, is occasionally depicted alongside the face of his son. Stations, classrooms, public places and without a doubt people’s mind are also decorated with their portrait, constantly reminding the dynasty to everyone.
The most impressive work of art depicting the dead leaders is only accessible following some basic rules. On top of a hill, which dives in the Taedong river, two twenty meter tall bronze statues face the Monument to Party Founding, a spectacular ode to the Korean communism. Visitors are encouraged to let a bunch of flowers, buyable just before for five euros, at their feet. After bowing, they can put back sunglasses and hats, forbidden during the short ceremony. Other formalities: prohibition of mimicking the leaders’ posture; obligation of shooting the whole statues and not only part of them – which would be a sign of disrespect.
These minor restrictions are nothing compared to the – draconian – ones set to enter the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. The former presidential palace is now home of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s remains, giving its rank of one of the most sacred place in North Korea. If even jeans are not really welcomed, shorts and sandals are of course disqualifying. On the other hand, strictly no objects can go in there: in the entrance, a cloakroom can be used to let any belonging visitors could not let in the bus. The following minutes seem hours, as pilgrims have to stand still, two by two, on the moving walkways leading to the interesting rooms.
A very polished image
The first one is dominated by two statues, in front of which bowing is once again mandatory. The way to the next room, where the founder of DPRK lies, is lined with serious looking soldiers. Now four by four, visitors bow thrice: at his feet, to his right and to his left. His body, exposed and lit in a glass coffin, seems to be the only light source in a big dark room which ceiling is supported by high columns. The room is exactly the same as the one where rests his son, for who we will need to bow three more times.
While walking in this opulent place, magnificent, marbled and adorned with gold, the comparison with the immoderation of the buildings dating from the golden age of European monarchies comes naturally. The extension, in 2014, of the Victorious War Museum – gargantuan building welcoming only a few tourists now and then – is another example of the importance the government grants to the symbolic power of “sacred” places. Their splendour translates, as well as it supports, the ideological power of the State.
The wide avenues of Pyongyang are home of other efforts towards a better image, for a quite manhandled country on the international scene. As hairdressers, dozens of people mow, scissors in their hands, the lawn sometimes splitting roads from pedestrian ways. On the infamous Kim Il-sung square, hundreds of citizens scrub the ground with their hands or a brush. However, the white marks, indelible grid covering the seventy-five thousand square meters around, do not vanish and will be very useful tomorrow. They help soldiers to know their position during the demonstrative military parades, like the one that is highly likely to happen to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of DPRK, tomorrow.
Generally, the cleanliness level of Pyongyang would make a lot of western cities jealous. Quiet but living even in the evening, the capital, shared by three million inhabitants, offers a pleasant way of life. The dance of pedestrians and cyclists, altogether on the sidewalks, is surprising. Lots of people have a chat in parks or in front of small stalls, most of the time selling drinks and food. Public places, just like in Europe, are more crowded when the working day – of eight hours, except on Sunday, with a one hour break at lunch – is over.
Leaving aside the darkness on the road at night and the very low number of private cars, the sixteen metro stations and the packed buses definitely give to Pyongyang its look of a standard developed city. On the other hand, despite their soviet architecture, the tower blocks are less dreary than their European siblings: their vivid colours and their flourished balconies brighten up the urban landscape.
Show of force
Today is the 9th of September, climax of an already extraordinary trip, and the boulevards are cluttered. Military trucks from the Cold War era are parading on otherwise empty avenues. Obviously, they are way less impressive than the synchronous – and even mechanical – parade that took place this morning, under the eyes of marshal Kim Jong-un but unfortunately closed for tourists. If we were not supposed to see this afternoon parade neither, a last minute call received by our guide rings the bell: tourists are actually welcomed. After hurriedly leaving the restaurant – literally running – in the middle of our lunch, we arrive after the revelry already started.
Divided in two lines, khaki cars carry soldiers grouped by their grade. Sometimes very young, some other times hooded, occasionally armed, the only constant is their smile. The importance of the army in the society is underlined by the spectators’ joy, waving red flags, flowers and colourful balloons. The very few expressionless faces are drowned in an ocean of happy people, loudly celebrating. Several times, Koreans in joseon-ot, traditional dress, leave the crowd, run and give one of their flowers to a random soldier, sat in the back of his truck. They might actually imitate the foreign observers, improbably left to themselves by their guides and walking freely on the road. For such a controlled trip, being able to give a serviceperson a high-five sounds crazy. Also, in spite of normally being forbidden, taking pictures of soldiers is tolerated for a moment.
Including reserve personnel – 9.5 million, plus 1.1 active personnel -, almost half of the 25 million North Koreans are part of the army. This number, even though it is signifiant and striking, has to be put into perspective. Indeed, soldiers handle the security in airports as well as they build and refurbish buildings. For the last part, they live all together under the blue roofs characterising the camps they built on-site, before starting the actual job. Tonight, part of them will attend the next step of this seventieth anniversary show of force: the mass games.
In exchange for 100 euros, globe-trotters will be able to attend the event too. But patience is required before sitting in one of the 150,000 seats of the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium, the biggest in the world. The opening ceremony is organised in a very strict manner, given such a performance has not taken place since 2013. In the beginning of the afternoon, every single tourist is brought back to his hotel and has to wait for two hours.
With a group of three, we decide to walk around the hotel, without our guide. After only five minutes, we notice we are being followed: the person, wearing a suit despite the blazing sun, stops as we stop. He hangs up and comes to us, aware we have just spotted him. He is the manager of Korea International Travel Company (KITC), a state-run company organising all the trips in the country – directly or not, sometimes via other companies which, in the end, report to it. Even if our guide allowed us to wander close by, it turns out we are forbidden to walk alone, even just around.
For this event, it is the same story as inside the mausoleum: no objects can enter the place. In absence of camera, images will stay in tourists’ memories. At 4pm, with their pockets empty, with no water nor food, new groups are formed and board numbered buses. One hour later, dozens of vehicles carrying foreigners from all over the city park in order in front of a museum. They are emptied of their human flesh, therefore cooking on the burning asphalt for another hour, in order to be searched and inspected by soldiers. Before boarding again, passengers are also controlled. When arriving, once again an hour later, the apparent chaos is actually under control: coaches are parked in order again, letting just enough space in-between them to walk. After jostling a bit to enter the huge stadium, seven hours have passed since the trip back to the hotel.
Security measures can be immediately understood when the 100,000 spectators stand and turn at the presidential stand, where Kim Jong-un appears. The ovation is equal to the event: the marshal, as he is called here, almost never appears in public. He will see an inch-perfect show, named “Glorious country”, performed by thousands of gymnasts, dancers, acrobats, musicians and singers, always synchronised. Behind them, a whole stand is used by students, with colourful panels on their knees, making dynamic paintings like nowhere else on Earth. This video, even if showing only part of the fireworks and missing the dance of luminous drones, gives a preview of the production scale.
The performance will happen everyday, indefinitely for now. Even if native pay about 2,000 wons – 25 euro cents -, the stadium will never be as full as for the opening night. Among the five acts, they will be able to refresh their memory about their history: Korean war, country foundation, new challenges – around science, agriculture and development – and reunification are programmed. The last matter is especially important nowadays, as the North Korean leader and Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, meet more and more regularly. Hearing what our guides say, reunification is crucial. The government wants to look like it does everything it can so it happens. Often, the maps depict Korea as a whole – it is the case on the flyer with these mass games program.
President Kim Il-sung wrote about it and suggested the reunified country would be called Democratic People’s Republic of Koryo, Koryo being the original name of Korea. He wanted both of the political systems to coexist: one socialist, the other capitalist. In 2011, the Arch of Reunification was opened to commemorate his proposals – its official name, “Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Reunification”, underlines this fact. As high as 30 meters, it is the entrance of the highway to Kaesong, bordering South Korea. Only the very few cars can drive under the arch, heavy trucks having to take a small detour around it. This way, the road remains clean, ideal for the image.
In the end, as the Ryugyong hotel, a 330 meter tall empty shell which construction started in 1987, Pyongyang is like a shop window betrayed by what’s behind. The following days, in the North Hamgyong province, will confirm these observations. The plane from the sixties which brings us there sets the tone. The military airport of arrival, located in Orang, and the roads state leading to Chongjin, capital of the province, are another proof of how the efforts the government does to put up a good show mostly benefit Pyongyang, a dreamed showcase for North Korea.
Here are some more pictures shot in Pyongyang (hover them to have more details, or click them if you are on your phone):