Leaving North Korea, the ancient red rattler train approaching the China border, you prepare for the ritual to which you have become accustomed in the past week; the unexplained delay, the mix of boredom, and slight tension, and the bag search. Across the Yalu River, which divides the two countries, there’s the gleaming city of Dandong, hundreds of skyscrapers built on commerce and smuggling, all in the past two decades.
Over this side, mudflats, a few ploughed furrows, a concrete railway building with peeling yellow paint, an approved portrait of Kim Il-sung over the doorway, and beyond, an amusement park, with a few low-key rides — a red and yellow rocketship, a merry-go-round — all rain-soaked and long-closed. After an hour or so of waiting, the inspection begins, a khaki’d officer in one of the NK army’s distinctive oversized caps moving down the aisle. All digital cameras have been taken, for the examination of photos therein — some will later find selected shots or their whole reel missing — and now luggage is being gone through item by item.
Feeling round my three black T-shirts and bags of North Korean sweets, the officer suddenly stops, and pulls something out with a few accusing remarks. What is this? It’s a DVD, a North Korean one, a “best of” from the dozens of films produced in the ’80s and ’90s, when dear leader Kim Jong-il decided that the country needed a national film industry (Loves of a Traffic Warden is a favourite). That is put to one side — and then returned when the tour guide points to the DPRK seal on the back.
The inspection continues and there’s another cry — he’s really found something this time. Out come the half-dozen copies of the Pyongyang Post, an English language propaganda sheet (Kim Jong-Il Gives Field Guidance At Tractor Factory No.4) sold in the foyer of the Yanggakgdo Hotel, the vast ’80s pile where all foreigners are corralled during their stay. The officer was outraged, but it was impossible to tell why. Was it because they were scrunched up, the Dear Leader’s image thus dishonoured? Or, it suddenly occurred to me, because this tired, thin beleagured provincial officer was not even aware that the Pyongyang Post existed?
Few Western tourists come via the Chinese route. Why would he ever have seen a copy of a propaganda sheet no-one read anyway? “This serious,” he muttered. “This serious.” Eventually it was sorted out via a train of translation, and a sharp ticking off, of the officer by the tour guide, suggesting where the real power lay. But it was a privilege in a way to experience what must be the ultimate totalitarian moment — when a regime has passed so far through the looking glass that the very act of taking its own propaganda cannot be regarded as anything other than subversion.
With the death of Kim Jong-il — the announcement coinciding with the annual period when the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea is closed to all tourists, suggesting that the stroke-prone, Cognac-loving President has been on ice for weeks or months — North Korea has resumed the role it has played for two decades, as Stalinist hermit kingdom, sole total “other” to a globalised world, dystopian science-fiction, political fetish object.
Visiting it, a side trip on a longer China sojourn, I strained not merely to find something new to say, but something new to see, some perception that had not been cross-hatched by a thousand “last frontier” travel articles, featuring dark cities, pretty traffic officers, empty streets and megalomaniacal statuary. Paradoxically this closed, secret state has been better publicised than hundreds of open places that no one cares about. You go to understand, or so you tell yourself, via an exploration of the social grotesque; initially the absurdity is uppermost, and then a desperation so obvious that no amount of propaganda can disguise it.
So, yeah, inevitably, a whole lot of what comes out about the place is true. Pyong-yang, a city of a million people, is an ageing city of rumbling eight-storey apartment blocks, interspersed with a few steel and glass buildings of more recent construction; along the broad boulevards, the cars that sweep through are black and grey official numbers; everyone else walks, bikes or rides the wheezing trams. During the day, there is no indoor lighting so the foyers are dark, and the back walls often mirrored. There are small parks dotted here and there, with more of the small amusement park rides, or statues of cartoon animals — a bear in boxing gloves, a kangaroo in a bathing suit — to amuse the children, and a large poster in the schmick socialist realist style.
The city is a privileged place, focused on administrative and political work, and half the population is in a uniform or another — not merely the greens of the army, but different shade — grey, brown, black — for management, clerical etc. It’s all of the same cut, a sort of safari-suit style, hanging loose on frames as — you stop thinking this as soon as you do — downtown LA. There’s no advertising, and the shops sell one thing each, marked with a simple logo for food, drink, electronics etc. It was mid-summer, so there were pavement stalls — official, nest — selling ice-creams from beneath blue awnings.
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Between seeing the “juche” tower — a 100-metre-plus eternal flame to Kim il-Sung’s world leadership and the childrens’ homework palace, we had been, advertently or otherwise allowed to wander free for 20 minutes, a tour group of 30, all but four of us Chinese. We looked around, poked our head in dark shops, which were quiet but by no means one-can-on-the-shelf Sovietism, tried to buy pancakes from the stalls, with Chinese yuan, tourists not being permitted to hold North Korean money. The girls serving were hardly the terrified, xenophobic, kimbots of legend — they shook their head and indicated that sorry, they couldn’t take Chinese money.
Yet even this measure of moderate normality could be held up to scrutiny; we had after all spent eight hours travelling 200 miles by train from the border, crawling through a country that, after the middle kingdom, seemed all but empty — villages and towns having been located away from the tracks. Work parties that you did see, were either sitting on a bank watching the train go by, or following behind skin-and-bone ox teams; the only car seen on the road was a white and blue 4×4 belonging to the UN World Food Program. Villages were, well, they weren’t — whatever had once been there had been replaced by apartment blocks, often clumped together directly in fields.No shops there, or much sense of a civic society above the level of a barracks, and lacking even the rural compensation of having shaped one’s environment to some degree. After that, one could see how the Party can sell the capital as the “greatest city in the world” to anyone who visits to pay respect at the numerous shrines, or attend the favoured Arirang games, the truly astonishing human pixels shows where thousands of shivering teenagers restage the celestial founding of Korea, in stadium size dioramas, and why the tourist hotel — located on an island in the middle of Pyongyang’s river — with its basement arcade featuring a bowling alley, casino, swimming pool and three restaurants (Nos 1,2 and 3) could offer all that one could ever dream of.
Was it like this, in the depths of the Cold War visiting the East? No, of course not. For various reasons, not least sheer scale, information could not be kept out of the Eastern bloc. People knew there was not merely rock music and jeans over the side, but salami and aspirin, available without queuing or bartering, and much more besides. After Stalin, and with some exceptions — most of them like Ceauescu based on Kim il-Sung’s model — no attempt was made to fuse the person of the leader to the system, within a sealed culture.
The North Koreans have now had 50-60 years of this in earnest, and its basic agricultural failures have ensured that this represents the vast majority of living memory; anyone under 40 has known not a skerrick of anything else. When Kim il-Sung ‘died’ in 1994 — he is still President, like in the Shoppies — the world noted the public outpouring of grief and wondered how it could be possible. No amount of brute force could compel the displays of grief, no amount of bayonets can summon the tears of rural visitors before the Great Leader’s gold monument; yet this was the man that was starving them through his addled ideas of “juche” “army-led politics”, and elite corruption.
The same question was asked this week — how could this grief be real? Those experts who came out of the London or DC think tanks to announce that it was pure fear had no idea what they were talking about, or what the were up against.
For North Korea is not one system but two — an economic one, which is a disaster, and a cultural system, which reproduces itself flawlessly as any system does, by giving a closed account of meaning and purpose to life. Barbara Demy’s Nothing To Envy, an extensive reconstruction of North Korean life from interviews with escapees and exiles, leaves no doubt about this — most escapees say that it took them years, and the death of loved ones from starvation, and the general collapse of all economic life in the mid-’90s, for the scales to fall from their eyes — and that for many family and friends, it never did.
They could not think around the idea that the Kims — in the faceo of continuous American sabotage — were working hard to give them security and freedom. Comparisons between the state and the family are to be avoided in general, but they seem necessary here — the Kims have created a Stalino-Freudian nightmare in which the absence of achievement is taken as proof of love — “see how difficult it is to get anything done? Do you see now how hard the dear leader is working for you? And what a worm you are to be so ungrateful?”. It is not Lenin but Melanie Klein who appears to be the presiding spirit, of a whole state that devotes its monopoly on violence to the production of gratitude, and rules through guilt.
One doesn’t expect much of mainstream culture in terms of sociological thinking, but you would expect that someone seeing the public mourning for one distant life-giving figure people never knew, such as Steve Jobs, would twig to an identical process occurring in a totalitarian state, and that such idolatry show the two sides to be twin expressions of modernity, and the manner by which the state produces the society that consents to it.
The difference being of course that in the rest of the world it works, except where it doesn’t. The famines of North Korea come about through state policies — but so too do those of Niger, Haiti and a doze other places within North Korea’s other, the world system. Local systems of production drawn into the global market with the promise of greater yields and comparitive advantage gladden the hearts of Chris Berg and other neoliberals “dizzy with success” at the market’s advance, and capable of writing up millions of excess deaths as the result as off the balance sheet.
Their steely enthusiasm for history’s sole path would remind them of another era, and another time, if history was anything they knew about. North Korea is the anomalous, absurd remnant of that system, and its continued use by China as a bulwark is nothing compared to its utility for the West as an excuse to turn away from its own failures and depredations. The world’s first gulag Disneyland, so tied in knots that it cannot distribute external propaganda — because anyone who would willingly take it must, by definition, be an object of suspicion — is also a graveyard of modernity, its tallest towers all topped by revolving restaurants, the accordion its national instrument (“the workers piano”), its greatest tourist attraction a 700-room mausoleum containing every gift Kim il-Sun ever received.
Anyone who has been there will hope to Christ that some process, any process, from the great Kim Jong-un liberalisation to a military coup against the family, will loosen the stays sufficiently so that people might be able to feed themselves, and then something more. But there is a lot of ruined modernity around, and I suspect, in years to come, attention will turn elsewhere, as the question of how to make modernity work becomes a lot more generalised. Now, sing: “Ronery, I am so ronery …”