Pyongyang Trip Report
20 October 2005
by: Peter Beck, North East Asia Director, International Crisis Group

Overview: I led a group of five reporters and photographers to North Korea from 14-18 October (for photos of our trip, copy & paste)
While we did not have any formal meetings and were subjected to a full range of grotesque monuments and memorials, the visit afforded my first glimpse of Pyongyang and even a few unsupervised interviews with North Koreans, two foreign ambassadors, and officials from the World Food Program. It was both the most fascinating and frustrating trip I have ever made as we were constantly battling with our minders to interact with ordinary North Koreans. On the bright side, I could have a full range of discussions with our four minders. No subject or opinion was off limits, and they were all ears for what I had to say. Pyongyang appears to be politically stable and the economy is showing signs of stirring.

Stalinism on Steroids: If nothing else, viewing the Arirang synchronized mass games, which prompted the invitation and involve 100,000 performers and card turners, and the obligatory statues and exhibitions brought home the fact that the North Korean regime has raised Stalinism to a level that would make even Mao’s Gang of Four blush. A visit to the Children’s Palace confirmed that indoctrination begins almost the moment a child leaves the crib. It is unclear to what extent the public believes their “eternal president,” Kim Il-sung, is the god that he is depicted to be, but at least one of our minders was a true believer. She flew into a rage when a member of our group refused to put flowers at the foot of Kim’s statue. Murals and red slogans are everywhere. My favorite was, “We are happy.” Yet, the city did not seem as oppressive or unhappy as I had expected. The military presence in the city appeared light, and it was easy to make North Koreans laugh by announcing that I was an “American Imperialist.” This does not appear to be a regime on the verge of collapse anytime soon.

The Economy Stirs: Our minders refused to take us to even the showcase Tongil (Unification) Market or the Gaeseong Industrial Complex--the very symbols of the slow turn to market forces and foreign investment, and did their best to keep us away from the kiosks that have sprung up on many street corners over the past few years, but sneaking out of the hotel one evening, I was able to chat with the operators of two kiosks and buy some food and drinks from them. A glass of delicious berry juice was just under two cents (W50 at the current unofficial exchange rate of W2700/$), while a red bean bun was ten cents. The kiosks have provided jobs particularly for women laid off during the collapse of the industrial sector in the 1990s. One older woman told me she was forced to come out of retirement and open a kiosk a few months ago to help her husband make ends meet, but she also told me with great pride about her daughter performing in the mass games. During a 200-mile trek into the countryside to view some of the 200,000 gifts daddy and junior have received (the world’s greatest memorial to kitsch and the future site of the mother of all garage sales), after much pleading we were allowed to interview farmers and “volunteers” from the city brought in to help with the harvest. The farmers were anticipating a much better harvest than last year and blamed their past hardships on “American imperialists.” Farmers were dressed better than their Chinese counterparts, but there were few signs of machinery in use, other than a sound truck blaring a patriotic songs about a tireless worker.

Even though it was Sunday, smoke was spewing from several factories. There were no blackouts during our visit and the massive apartment blocks were reasonably lit. The economy appears to have at least stabilized. There were also signs of a widening gap between the rich and the average North Korea, dilapidated trams were generally packed an many Koreans could be seen walking great distances, while Mercedes and late-model VW Passats could also be seen on nearly empty streets. On a few corners, I could see women squatting and selling cigarettes from small satchels on the pavement. It reminded me of my first visit to China in the mid-1980s.

China Syndrome: Products from China were abundant at the one department store we were allowed to visit, although it was a store that only foreigners and wealthy Koreans could afford to shop. A foreigner residing in Pyongyang has observed a flood of Chinese goods into the border town of Shineuiju, with prices very close to those in the Chinese City of Dandong across the river. These same goods undergo a 300% markup when sold in Pyongyang. In addition to transportation costs, a range of officials and soldiers must be bribed along the way. This same foreigner regularly sees dozens of Chinese businessmen in Pyongyang. Our host, Choi Jong-hun of the Committee for Cultural Cooperation, complained bitterly about the American crackdown on banks in Macao doing business with North Korea. “This shows the contradictory nature of the Bush Administration’s North Korea policy. One moment they are negotiating with us, the next we are subjected to this.” One foreign resident on 16 October suggested Choi’s frustrations were well-founded. The North Korean financial system may have experienced a shock in late September due to the crackdown. During a visit to a film studio, our host animator Choe Hae-ok, proudly told of the first China-North Korea jointly financed movie that was in the process of being released throughout Asia. Each side had invested $400,000 in the production. Along with South Korea, China has emerged as a critical lifeline for North Korea. Only time will tell if the tentative reforms and opening will take hold.

See Beck's Nov. 2004 Article

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