A few days in the life of Pyongyang
It’s a city like no other, a showcase community for an outcast regime. Under North Korea’s restrictive ‘songbun’ caste system, life in the capital is reserved for the nation’s most loyal and dependable citizens and for this privileged set, there are city centre apartments, spacious playgrounds and access to food.
Their world is a small one – few people are allowed to leave the city – but it is definitely monumental. Opulent constructions in honour of the ruling Kim family dominate this unique urban landscape.
We experienced Pyongyang in a variety of ways. The window of our vintage coach provided a crucial viewpoint – but we also discovered the city through conversations with our state ‘minders’ and in a host of other less predictable ways.
I took notes as we went along and I thought I’d offer up a few observations, taken from the battered pages of my notebook.
They serve only, I think, as a way to raise questions – questions for which I do not possess answers – but I’d welcome your thoughts.
I expected a city flooded in light, a glittering shrine to North Korea’s ruling elite. When the sun goes down however, the majority of Pyongyang’s two million citizens live in the dark.
The suburbs are all but invisible, while closer to the centre, pale light leaks from a few narrow windows. The outline of the city’s hulking monuments are partially visible but the only thing that shines out through the inky blackness are the portraits – the oversize pictures of the country’s previous two leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, which dot various walls and billboards.
The streets were deserted and deathly quiet – but there was one exception. At midnight, I heard the quivering sound of patriotic music, bounding off the concrete walls of Pyongyang’s tall buildings. I think these songs were broadcast from loud-speakers on a van or a truck, because the source of this eeriness seemed to move slowly and deliberately through the city.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided each media team with two minders and they were our main source of information about North Korea. Inevitably perhaps, this was a difficult relationship.
We were invited to North Korea to tell stories the authorities want told and it is the minder’s job to make sure that happens. They were outgoing and articulate, answering my questions and helping my colleague, Matt Jasper, to get the best camera positions.
But they are also controlling. “Please come, please come, we’re getting behind,” they’d natter, tapping me on the shoulder. “Stay with the group, stay with the group,” they’d command. I got the feeling that accidental conversations with ordinary North Koreans were to be avoided at all costs.
In previous blogs, I have named my minders ‘numbers one and two.’ I’ve done this because I don’t wish to publicise their names – it wasn’t my intention to make them sound like robots, because they’re not. I liked them both.
They asked me about my home and family and I was more than happy to respond. I really wanted to get to know them better. But their answers to my questions were sketchy.
Minder number two said she had lived in the UK for several years, in a village across from Canary Wharf. Her parents worked in insurance, she said. It didn’t ring true. I wondered whether their interest in me was genuine, or whether I was providing material for a government file.
We got around in a convoy of coffee-coloured coaches and they provided our main vantage point on the city. We were escorted by motorcycle outriders who stopped what little traffic there was in Pyongyang so our journeys were depressingly swift. Still, they presented us with a rich urban canvas at which to stare – and those on the outside, on the pavements and the rickety looking buses, stared back.
Buildings closest to the main thoroughfares were painted in white or colourful shades of pink and green. Behind them however, most apartment blocks were a dingy brown and looked in a state of poor repair.
I frequently saw women, on all fours, working on the grass verges which met the road. They used large tweezers to remove the weeds and over-size combs to extract twigs and bits of rubbish. My guess is that local residents are given a separate patch to look after – and look after them they did. These bits of road-side green were golf-course perfect.
Behind the apartment blocks however, I could see stalks of corn and common vegetables planted in rows and there were plenty of greenhouses too, with tomato plants and flowers. In fact it looked like a significant part of the city was being used to produce food.
We saw the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un three times on our visit and every we time we saw him, he was accompanied by the Chinese vice-president, Li Yuan Chao.
I saw enough to know that Mr Li was an important guest, a very important guest. He was always seated to the left of Kim Jong-un and they enjoyed a multitude of interactions. Vice-President Li expressed frequent delight and even astonishment as the man on his right was greeted in spontaneous-seeming hysteria by the citizens of Pyongyang.
We later noticed a Chinese foreign affairs ministry statement which said Kim Jong-un had expressed ‘support’ for China’s attempts to restart six-party talks aimed at ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons – and I think it all boils down to this.
The regime can’t survive without China – it provides the leadership with economic aid and diplomatic cover. Behind the smiles then it seems the VP was naming China’s price – and ultimately, North Korea’s twenty-something leader will have to pay it.
… and a few things that are harder to explain …
We were kept in an overgrown 43-floor hotel, built on an island in the middle of Pyongyang’s Taedong River. As hostelries go, it was utterly charmless but it did provide decent views over the city. In the distance we could see an old factory that appeared to have been shut down.
Giant portraits of the great leaders dominated its central courtyard. At the base of the great picture frame, people had left dried fish as an offering. I have no idea why. I saw people leaving flowers in homage at the foot of similar portraits in other parts of town. But why dried fish?
We were lucky enough to be invited to the ‘mass games’, an orchestrated performance in the city’s May Day stadium which felt a bit like an Olympic Games opening ceremony.
We sat in a section alongside hundreds of three and four star generals. Their uniforms and their medals were impressive but their shoes were certainly not. Nobody had laces.
Instead every single general’s shoes I saw featured imitation, plastic laces. As far as I could tell, there were only three different models available and curiously for military men, the shoes weren’t shiny. Instead, they looked scuffed and battered and old. Like the fake laces, I think their footwear was plastic too.
The long walk home
After a well-attended fireworks display at a brand new war museum, our minders told us we’d have to walk some distance through the city, to find the coffee-coloured coaches. It was our first and only accidental interaction with Pyongyang’s rank and file.
Better yet, I lost our minders in the crowds as I trudged in the direction of the buses. The thing that struck me was the lack of sound.
After a 45-minute fireworks extravaganza, you would have expected happy chatter in the streets but I couldn’t hear a thing – no laughter, no talking, just the sound of shoes shuffling.
Earnest looking people looked me in the eye. I think they were curious, wondering where my minders were perhaps, but no one stopped or said ‘hello’. Instead, they dropped their head and kept moving on.