Letter from North Korea
By Natalie Bennett
It snowed this morning in Pyongyang, and the women who sweep the already pristine streets were out even earlier than usual, and for once with something.more than a faint speck of dust to shift with their twig brooms. Peering down from my 23rd floor window, the conformity of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea became even more obvious than usual . .It is seen not in dress — the men may tend to wear dark suits, but the women and children offer splashes of colour in these grey northern climes — but in behaviour. Even here, in the heart of the capital, the average rate of traffic flow would not be more than one or two vehicles a minute, but everyone, absolutely everyone, disappears into the grim, dark underpasses at each corner. The tracks in the snow clearly show that no one diverges even slighter from the approved path, although you could cross the street blindfolded in perfect safety.
Walking the streets as a foreigner of European appearance, I find a similar uniformity in the reaction to my presence. A path clears before me as I walk; the street cleaner’s broom pauses, the trolley bus queue contracts to make, space, the department store window-shoppers shrink away from.me. It as though I am an invisible force.’ Not one person catches my eye or acknowledges my presence by so much as a glance. This morning I smiled at a young girl cradled by an obviously proud grandma, but she refused to acknowledge my overture. I nodded my thanks to the street sweeper, but she would not look up. ln a total of three hours on the street, having escaped my guide, I succeeded in achieving only one response, from a group of around 40 ten-year-olds who appeared to have been temporarily abandoned by their teachers. They giggled hysterically at my greeting, and a few waved furtively as I walked away.
I had expected some curiosity and interest from the locals—alter all in midwinter I am one of probably less than 20 European foreigners in a city of 2 million people, but instead the overwhelming feeling was of fear and hostility. That may be because I could have been a hated American enemy, or any enemy, since the collapse of the Soviet Union has taken away the last of the country’s European friends. Another explanation .is offered by sources that suggest any unauthorised contact with a foreigner could land a local in a “re-education camp”.
The Korean war armistice may have been signed more than 40 years ago, but its battles, and the continuing cold war, are the defining story of the nation’s life. At the Film Production Studios they were shooting a scene for a new movie about the war. A young and pretty revolutionary soldier stood guard at an intersection, a bus of jolly singing soldiers drove by, then an American bomber flew over. The street was filled with panicking women, children and old men. The guard pulled out her machine gun and, firing from the hip, engaged the enemy. Somehow I am sure one shot was enough to bring the evil plane down.
FROM THE three-year-olds I saw singing songs in praise of Kirn Il Jong at the showcase nursery in Pyongyang, to their grandparents who survived the war, this society has known only one version of history, life and meaning. Even folk memories of great-grandparents — there must be a few who have survived — could only tell of a worse time, of more than 50 years of Japanese colonisation and oppression.
There is no alternative story to explain the past or the present. From the numerous monuments in Pyongyang, all accompanied by metre after metre of bronze statues of sturdy peasants and valiant soldiers, to the television with rapturous crowds again and again and again greeting Kim Il Jong or praising the virtues of his late father Kim Il Sung, it must be difficult to imagine any kind of alternative reality.
My presence in North Korea — together with the handful of UN experts and private business people all ensconced in an uncomfortable little community at the Koryo Hotel — indicates that the country is being forced to open ever so slightly to the rest of the world. Whether the society, and its political structures, will be able to cope with this contact, and gradually adapt to it, is one of the central questions of world politics today.
This article first appeared in the Guardian Weekly in February 11, 1998