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North Korea (Part II)

Postado dia 23 de abril de 2016

We were received at the Pyongyang train station by 3 guides – 2 ladies who greeted us warmly and spoke good English and Chinese, and a man who apparently speaks Spanish but did not say a word. My friends and I exchanged gaze and knew that he is a minder as there is no need for a Spanish speaker among us.

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Throughout the trip we nicknamed him “Spyder” as we believed him to be a spy to monitor our movements and actions.

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The hotel

We then headed to Yanggakdo International Hotel, the only hotel in North Korea where all the tourists were staying. It looked like just any other 4 star hotel… until we were told the rules.

We were not allowed to leave the hotel without permission as there were soldiers patrolling around the hotel. There were also no internet cafés and we can only send emails through the receptionist who would type and send the email on our behalf. The scenery from our hotel room after sunset was also pitch dark due to electricity shortage. Of course our guides conveniently blame it on the Americans for their plight. A river separates the hotel from apparent residential buildings. Despite appearing to be lit every night, we can hardly see any movements in those apartments. Perhaps they were just a show for tourists and nobody really lives in them? Can’t help thinking of the Jim Carrey movie “Truman Show”.

View from hotel room

View from hotel room

The next day we started our travel itinerary by visiting the Kim Il Sung statue at Mansudei. We were told to go there to pay our respects to the great leader and founder of North Korea on May 1 Labour Day. According to communists, Labour Day is extremely important. Before we left the hotel, we were repeated reminded not to take photos during bus journeys and only allowed to take photos when we arrived and after we were told. I suppose they do not want us to show undesirable images that we saw along the way? Throughout the entire trip, Spyder did not say a word but sat at the back of the bus observing us.

Statue of Kim Il Sung at Mansudei

Statue of Kim Il Sung at Mansudei

Soldiers at the square paying respect to the statue

Soldiers at the square paying respect to the statue

When we were there we saw many North Korean soldiers as well. We were told that all North Korean men had to undergo 10 years of military training in preparation of an impending war with US and South Korea. We were then instructed to lay the flowers and lined up neatly in rows before bowing to the bronze statue.

I heard a story after the trip that the statue used to be made of gold. During a trip of the late China leader Deng Xi-ping, he was given an evening tour around Mansudei by Kim Jong Il. He was obviously proud to showcase the grand statue of his father and the grandeur of Mansudei with all its spotlights. However, Deng commented, “How can you build such a big statue in gold and afford to have the spotlights on every night while your country is living in poverty and people suffering from power shortage?” After the incident, the statue was changed to bronze.

Juche tower – the intelect, peasant and the worker

Juche tower – the intelect, peasant and the worker

In the background we also saw the statue of the Chollima, a mythical horse which legend has it that it can gallops hundreds of miles every day. The Chollima symbol was then used to epitomises the Stakhanovite spirit of the North Koreans and to encourage them via propaganda to work hard and increase industrial productivity.

Throughout the trip we were told about the great philosophy of the late leader Kim Il Sung. How he was born on Baekdu mountain when a rainbow appeared. Of course, we tried not to laugh and dismissed it all as propaganda. I wonder if the guides were so brainwashed that they really believe it.

We visited to Juche Tower, one of the few areas still lit at night in the pitch darkness. We were explained that Juche means self sufficient. How the philosophy steered the people to rely only on themselves to progress and work towards success without depending on any other countries for assistance. I remembered asking one of the guide what she thought about her country and democratic countries such as China, Singapore and Britain. Her reply was simple. She claimed that North Koreans were happy and indebted to their Leader. Everybody lived in harmony and did not suffer from the problems associated with the widening gap of the rich and the poor that democratic countries have.

The view from my hotel room. You can see a pyramid shaped building on the right that did not finish constructing. Apparently it was built in anticipation that South Korea will invite North Korea to co-host the 1988 Olympics. It was meant to surpass Singapore’s Westin Stamford as the then-world tallest hotel building which was built by a South Korea company. The invitation to jointly bid for the Olympics eventually did not happen. Due to shortage of funds, the North Koreans did not complete the construction.

View from hotel

View from hotel

Traffic warden in place of traffic lights

Traffic warden in place of traffic lights

Our guides told us that they did a study and found out that car accidents were reduced after they replaced traffic lights with these attractive female attendants. I believe it was more because of excess of manpower and power shortage to have traffic lights. Roads were also 5 lanes wide despite the lack of cars. We were told that the roads will be used as airplane runways when war breaks out. You may be wondering, why is there always a mention of war. This is because North and South Korea are technically still at war and only maintaining a ceasefire right now. Throughout the years since the ceasefire from the Korean War in 1953, there have been a number of incidents between North and South Korea (http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-08-20/brief-history-border-conflict-between-north-and-south-korea) such as the North Korean boats crossing maritime border into South Korean waters in the Yellow Sea and engage South Korean patrol ships during the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. About 30 North Koreans and four South Koreans are killed; sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by a North Korean Torpedo in 2010 killing 46 sailors.

The library building

The library building

The library

The library

A North Korean librarian

A North Korean librarian

We also went to the Great People’s Study House, a library built for the people. Quite a grand library but without much people. Again we felt it was a facade, like a show.The guides introduced us to a “professor” and claimed that he knew everything and has an answer to all our questions.

I hope you enjoy just like me, this experience of going to a very different country. Next Saturday I am going to show you how is the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

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