(NORTH KOREA’S) PYONGYANG: REFLECTIONS ON OUR LAST COLD WAR “ENEMY”
Roland G. Simbulan
(The following constitutes my reflections of a trip to North Korea, with an official Philippine Congressional delegation, after which, as a social scientist and social critic, I came home with more questions than answers about this controversial “Hermit Kingdom”. But we highly appreciate the warm hospitality and solidarity of our hosts in Pyongyang. Orthodox socialists may not like my critical reflections, but I hope they can learn from them. This article was originally published in the June 28, 2001 issue of the University of the Philippines’ publication, U.P. FORUM)
With the recent establishment of full diplomatic relations with North Korea last October 25, 2000, Filipinos can finally , have a better glimpse of our isolated Asian neighbor and one-time enemy. But I cannot but help mention that the Philippines finally formalized this long-overdue diplomatic initiative a day after U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded her unprecedented two-day visit to North Korea. Another “follow the leader act”, perhaps? In the early 1950s, the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK) was dispatched to fight side by side with the United States and South Korea against North Korea, a socialist country which was assisted by its ally, the People’s Republic of China(PRC).
Imagine if the Republic of the Philippines were sliced horizontally and divided into two hostile countries with different political and economic systems. Today, despite blood relatives residing on both sides, there is no visitation allowed between the two Koreas and, until recently, no postal and telecommunications link whatsoever. And, they were placed in a state of konfrontasi and on war footing against each other, though the country has one history, one culture and tradition, one currency (the Korean Won), and only one Korean language. This has been the situation for the past five decades in the Korean peninsula which is still divided into North and South Korea.
Surreal is the memoray that I have after a brief visit to Pyongyang, the capital city of what Western scholars have branded the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea, officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). That derogatory name by outsiders may soon be a thing of the past as the two Koreas and the two Kims ( South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean President Kim Jong IL ) initiated the historic inter-Korean summit meeting in Pyongyang a year ago (last June 2000). The two Koreas also did the unthinkable thing during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Their country delegations proudly marched under one flag during the opening ceremonies! North Korea has also recently joined the annual Association of South East Asian Nations Regional Forum(ARF).
Continuing Cold War Legacy
Korea today stands at the crossroads for the final break with the cold war system that has long divided the world, an era, which had been officially declared, ended in the early 1990s. The Korean peninsula remains today the only country still partitioned by the ideological divide and legacy of the Cold War. But the wall of confrontation and division may soon be broken down, eased recently with the June 2000 inter-Korean summit, and the Pyongyang visit last October 2000 of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The 38th parallel divides North and South Korea. It remains the relic and symbol of the cold war era and perhaps remains also as one of the most highly militarized zones in the world after the Cold War. But new thinking, hope, excitement and euphoria is touching most Koreans these days. It is an emotional feeling that only Koreans in the north and south, naturally will fully understand.
Most visitors to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, will be told that the Korean people ” will achieve national liberation, class liberation and human emancipation by themselves.” “What are the prospects for reunification of the Koreas”, I asked, to which I got a smiling nod.
Revolutionary change and revolutionary culture are themes that will be observed when one switches on TV and radio in Pyongyang. Carefully selected “politically correct” local and foreign programs, films as well as music to raise the level of culture and art will make one literally experience what a friend once told us that “taste cannot be democratized!” Foreign music for them, if it is not revolutionary, must be the classical music of Mozart, Strauss, Rachmaninoff or Beethoven, to which they are exposed. But this is a country where ordinary people including university graduates don’t know who the Beatles are or haven’t heard their music. They are so insulated that they have not even heard of the “bourgeois” music of the Carpenters or madonna. Welcome to the “Hermit Kingdom”. As one foreign observer wrote, “There is no place like it, and it may be the last of its kind on earth.”
But let us go back to the more surreal, which is the world I found as our Russian-made Aeroflot passenger jet, landed us in Pyongyang. My tour book says that Pyongyang was a very ancient city, in fact, the capital of the Choson Kingdom in the 3rd century, B.C.. On the way to the Koryu Hotel from the airport, I immediately noticed that there were two specially dotted yellow lines parallel to each other right smack in the middle of all of Pyongyang’s main roads which are wide, two lane avenues. I asked my guide and interpreter what those extra yellow parallel lines were for, becuse they were not the usual white lines that partition road lanes into half, and the answer was that those were for the car of “The Great Leader” and the “Dear Leader” when they travel.
Even as a socialist-academic, I find it hard to believe, but it is true, that North Korea is the only country in the world where people do not pay taxes which were abolished in 1972. Health care and education at all levels are free to all citizens of North Korea. Peasants live in four-storey Bliss-type state housing in the countryside. Industrial workers live in high-rise condominium buildings comparable to those in Ortigas complex of Makati, renting 2-3 bedroom apartments from the state for less than 1% of their monthly income.
Indeed, I was surprised to learn that despite the protracted economic embargo imposed by the U.S. and its allies against this socialist country, the socialist state has still been able to give priority to meeting the essential needs and basic services of the people. There has been little luxury consumption, or no local luxury production, as a rule.
Even during its leanest years, the DPRK has placed a high priority on meeting the people’s basic needs, and burdens seem to have been shared rather equally. Income disparities are reportedly on a scale of 1 to 4, which is very low, and wages are determined not by position, but by actual work. In addition to the extraordinarily low rents for state housing, education and medical care are free and clothing and food are inexpensive. For working mothers, babies and pre-school children are cared for in a system of nurseries and kindergarten fully subsidized by the state. These perhaps are the best defenses of DPRK’s socialist system which no amount of anti-socialist propaganda can dismantle.
Most men in Pyongyang wear light or dark grey suits while women either wear their peach or pink dresses or work clothes of light colored material. Children, mostly members of the Young Pioneers, wear their brightened red kerchiefs as they proudly trudge with martial cadence along Pyongyang’s avenues. This is a revolutionary country where morals are surprisingly generally conservative, for weapon still wear maxi-skirts or dresses with high socks!
But the streets of the capital are generally empty except when there are parades and grand celebrations. This is because no one loiters or laofs around in the streets, parks or public places. Everyone seems to be busy working in the factories, fields, sweeping the streets or studying indoors. This is because unemployment is unheard of and the crime rate is down to almost nil. There are also very few cars, except the distinctively black or dark blue Toyotas, Nissans, or Mercedes Benz sedans used as official cars by the government bureaucrats, top echelon of the military establishment or visiting dignitaries and members of the diplomatic corps. It is literally so clean and clear on the streets except for a few bicycles. I could swear that the concrete streets of Pyongyang are as clean as a hotel lobby.
There is no question that today, North Korea is in dire economic straits, because of the isolation imposed by the economic and trade embargo by the United States and its allies. Droughts and other natural calamities have hit the northern part of the Korean peninsula and food shortages and hunger have been reported by international aid agencies which have managed to overcome the economic embargo of the West. Pyongyang’s almost two million population has recently been plagued with power and energy failures due to shortages in oil and gas, though North Korea is supposed to have coal resources. This could have adverse effects on Pyongyang which is the largest North Korean city that is also a major industrial center producing iron, steel, machinery and textiles.
Tempered by Fire
Pyongyang, as observed by this author, has been rebuilt into a beautiful and modern city. It has very impressive, first class and European-styled infrastructure, even its own ‘Arc de Triomphe’ to commemorate the “victories of the Korean people”. It was once declared as a “dead city” by an American general right after the 1950-53 Korean War and as “a city which could never rise in a hundred years”, after the carpet-bombing by American planes. Employing the tactics of “scorched -earth policy”, the United States conducted indiscriminate bombing and shelling on the 78 cities and towns of North Korea. Its cities, especially Pyongyang, were razed to the ground, and most of the buildings were levelled. It is said that in 1952, 1,000 bombs were dropped per square kilometer in Pyongyang alone which covered 52 square kilometers. During the three years of the Korean War, the U.S. bombed Pyongyang on 1,431 occasions and dropped over 428,000 bombs or one bomb for every citizen.
Armed with the “Juche idea” (self-reliance philosophy), the DPRK has risen Phoenix-like from the ruins of the war and has become a showcase for socialist construction said to be at the speed of Chollima, the Korean legendary winged horse that is said to travel a thousand ri
(4,000 kms.) a day. Indeed, the entire nation and its people are single-mindedly and fully regimented toward socialist construction ( and war preparedness, if necessary). This was a phenomenon that I could not help but notice when I observed the precision-like discipline of the people who held and at a given signal turned their colored flashcards at Pyongyang’s colossal stadium to display revolutionary themes.
In essence, according to Li Mong Ho, chairperson of the DPRK Committee for Cultural Relations, the “Juche idea defines that the master of a country is its own people.” It is this principle that allowed North Korea to assert independence in political and economic affairs in dealing with both the former Soviet Union and China in the past. Unlike the south where more than 37,000 U.S. troops were stationed, there were no foreign troops or foreign bases allowed in the DPRK. Over the years, North Korea has played a skillful balancing act between the Soviet Union and China, maintaining relations with both while remaining independent.
In the post-Korean War period, North Korea’s land reform program was decisively implemented so that even the usually-hostile American anti-communist scholar like Robert Scalapino made the following observation about the country he has long been calling a ‘Stalinist totalitarianism’ or a re-creation of Orwell’s classic Animal Farm: “So far as the great majority of peasants ere concerned, the land reform was beneficial.” A CIA study reported in the mid-1980s: “Pyongyang’s self-reliance policy has put a premium on rural investment. Agriculture is quite heavily mechanized, fertilizer application is among the highest in the world and irrigation projects are extensive.”
Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, is a city with sprawling, well-planned parks,with the Taedong River gracefully running through the city’s very heart. Colossal fountains and marble monuments and sculptures decorate the city’s strategic places and parks. If you are an environmentalist, you’ll find solitude in this city-park free from pollution. This is so because the major transportation system is the subway which is 150 meters underground and whose station platforms are lighted with impressive chandeliers. Escalators lead passangers to platforms where, while waiting for your train, you can hear piped-in revolutionary music. These also serve as underground bomb shelters should war break out.
But let me forewarn you — this country is not a shopping paradise, or for mall goers — just a workers’ paradise in a revolutionary country. Ask for a good shopping area in Pyongyang and you will be directed to Number One Department Store near Kim IL Sung Square where you will find cheap but may I warn you — North Korean products from handicrafts, watches and ginseng wine. I bought an authentic North Korean wristwatch as pasalubong (arrival present) for my mother-in-law. I was so embarrassed when my mother in law told me that the watch I gave her broke down after a week! But at least, the determination is there to produce their own local products and to build their own industries. So, just buy the colored, round KIM IL Sung or KIM Jong IL pins, to be safe, as a souvenir, which your friends and relatives back home will surely appreciate. These portraits of the “great leaders” will surely not be defective.
North Korea may indeed be the most orthodox socialist state where, from its heavy industry to its agriculture, everything is 100% collectivized! And, the Department of Agrarian Reform(DAR) should hear this: in North Korea, agrarian reform was fully implemented and completed in just three weeks time. 11,500 rural committees composed of poor peasants were mobilized to confiscate and distribute more than one million hectares of land to over 726,000 peasant households who were then organized into cooperatives.
But the biggest letdown for me was the personality cult revolving around Kim IL Sung before and now, Kim Jong IL ( or Kim Chong IL in Korean) with men, women and children wearing pins with the images of their father-son leaders. Giant portraits of th late Kim IL Sung or Kim Jong IL are displayed everywhere instead of commercial billboard ads.
There is a Kim IL Sung University, a Kim IL Sung Avenue, a Kim IL Sung Square, etc. . A chair at the Kim Il Sung University Library where Kim IL Sung sat when he made a visit was decorated with trimmings with a marker, as if everything that he touched is made sacred. There are more than enough towering statues of Kim IL Sung all over Pyongyang.
I can respect and recognize this Asian leader’s achievements in providing leadership to both the successful anti-Japanese resistance movement and the post-war socialist reconstruction of Korea. he is their national hero and symbol of socialist construction. But the biggest turn off for me was the repetitious and monotonous use of lavish descriptions such as “the great leader, heroic and magnificent leader and, dear leader” to describe the current head of state who inherited the position from his father, Kim IL Sung. Kim Jong IL has not only succeeded to the position of his father Kim IL Sung as State President, Korean Workers’ Party General Secretary nd Chairman of National Defense. He has also succeeded the personality cult long enjoyed by his “Great and Magnificent” father. If there is such a thing as monarchical socialism, this is it!
Indeed, all evidences point to the fact that there is a megalomaniac personality cult surrounding Kim IL Sung in the DPRK. Through statues, monuments, and portraits, his image is displayed in schools, factories and homes all over the country. He is described in DPRK publications in words normally reserved for a deity or god. Nearly all achievements (except disasters or misfortunes) in the country have been attributed to the “wise leadership” of either Kim IL Sung or Kim Jong Il. While most people in North Korea do appear to have genuine, and as this author observed, even delirious affection for their wise, great and dear leaders, it is a contradiction for a country which claims to believe that ordinary people have the power to shape history to place such an emphasis on one person. Now, his son who succeeded him as head of state has also been given similar god-like projection.
Aspiring for National Reunification
On the other hand, there is no evidence to suggest that North Korea’s leaders make irrational decisions. It has in the past shown no abrupt swings in domestic and international policies. In fact, the country has been remarkably consistent — rhetorically and in practice — in its attacks against U.S. imperialism, and in following its puritanical objectives for socialist economic development, national independence and the reunification of the two Koreas.
The one million strong Korean People’s Liberation Army(KPLA) in a population of 23 million people makes this country one of the world’s most militarized economies and still one war-footing. 65% of this army are said to be deployed near and around Panmunjom, the symbol of continuing confrontation, that famous DMZ or demilitarized zone, a UN-controlled truce village where an armistice was signed in 1953 after the Korean War.
But the North Korean army is also engaged in infrastructure development and construction. It built the 8-kilometer long West Sea Bridge that connected the East and West seas using the Taedong and Kunya Rivers: 30,000 Korean People’s Liberation Army soldiers were mobilized for five years to build this bridge. The West Sea Bridge was designed and constructed wholly by the Korean People’s Liberation Army.
For a Filipino visitor in Pyongyang, there was an interesting detail in a peculiar museum where all state gifts given to the late revered leader Kim IL Sung are displayed. Large glass panels enclose and protect state gifts from Josef Stalin, MaoZedung, Jawaharlal Nehru, Marshall Tito, etc. in a colossal buildingon the outskirts of Pyongyang. And there it ws — the only gift from the Philippines for the great leader: a miniature bamboo house presented by the “Chairman, Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Philippines.”
But there is also a funny incident I would like to share. If you are a book collector as I am, or an avid reader of books, be ready for the surprise of your life. Ask a bookshop for their collection of books for sale in Pyongyang or even in the big hotels, and they will ask you, which one by Kim IL Sung or by Kim Jong IL? You will find works of these two translated in so many foreign languages, but they are actually the only known authors in Pyongyang or in North Korea! Not even the works of known Marxist theoreticians (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, etc.) are available. Kim IL Sungism, perhaps? And when I showed a little interest in the theoretical writings of “The Great Leader” by asking questions, I was gifted by my hosts with 35 volumes of KIM IL Sung’s complete writings from 1945 to 1988, to bring back home.
What really impresses me about North Koreans is their strong sense of patriotism and vigilance proudly rooted in their ancestors’ history and traditions. They are proud and confident that, as they enter the new millenium, they can finally reunify the two Korean states and peoples, with the perspective that the resolution of the current division is an internal afair for the Korean people. at least, this is the sentiment given to this author. It is my hope that the next time I get to visit Pyongyang, what I will be visiting will just be a northern city of one united Korea, distinguished as a geographic north Korean city, not a political entity separated from the southern cities of the peninsula. One nation, one people.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in Sept 26th 2005