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A journey into the land that time forgot

17 September 2003
The Times

(c) 2003 Times Newspapers Limited. All rights reserved

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Frequent power cuts bring darkness, but they also mean a respite from spying, Oliver August writes from Pyongyang

DURING lunch at one of the few hotels reserved for foreigners in North Korea's capital, I jokingly complained to a friend that there was no complimentary shampoo in the rooms. A few hours later we found bottles placed neatly by the rooms' showers.

These are the sort of tricks that one expects from the security apparatus of a totalitarian regime. You could see the wires connecting the microphone poorly concealed behind a wall panel in the hotel restaurant. Presumably they wanted us to know that they listened to everything we said.

North Korea is commonly described as the world's last Stalinist country, a "hermit kingdom" closed to outsiders, a giant gulag of 20 million people. But even these labels do not do justice to the bizarre picture that emerges from a rare eight days of travelling inside it.

Surveillance of visitors is constant. Tour routes are tightly restricted to hide the severe lack of sustenance that is said to have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the past decade. But the intellectual starvation of an entire society is harder to disguise. Five decades of relentless brainwashing and oppression has visibly extinguished part of the inmates' humanity.

Many North Koreans seem to have "unlearnt" basic instincts, such as curiosity. One morning I escaped my minders, using a pair of inline skates that I had taken with me. For an hour I zipped solo through the streets of Pyongyang. Not one ordinary North Korean took note of me.
In any other remote country, people would have waved or frowned or at least stared if they saw a white man using such an unusual form of of transport. Instead, people averted their gaze.

Unauthorised contact with a foreigner is a crime. Merely taking an interest in my presence might get them reported by a neighbour during weekly "criticism sessions", where citizens denounce each other in front of a committee of the ruling Korean Workers' Party. For many this is the first step to a labour camp.

The Government furthers the mass lobotomy by blocking access to unfiltered information. A country that is capable of developing complex nuclear and long-range missile technologies has no mobile phone network, no internet access and no international telephone lines outside government buildings. There is only one television channel, which broadcasts nothing but propaganda. Televisions are, in any case, frequently out of use because of power cuts.

The result is a people living in total isolation. This must be the last country on earth where David Beckham's name means nothing. An aid worker distributing emergency food rations recalls asking a North Korean family how many other countries they thought there were in the world. The family conferred. "Five or six," they eventually replied in a formal and antiquated tone.

The Korean used by people north of the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) is 50 years out of date. South Korean speech is rich in slang and neologisms, while their compatriots across the 38th parallel speak the vernacular of their grandfathers.

With no public exchange of ideas, North Korean society has become devoid of anything new, fanciful or out of the ordinary. In the four cities I visited, I tried to discern new fashions. It seemed inconceivable that humans could live without being inspired by or responding to new influences.

The only trend I found was the rising popularity of sunglasses, preferably large ones with very dark lenses, favoured by young men. The fad was apparently inspired by Kim Jong Il, the country's leader and a film buff, who sports such glasses in official photographs.

But this fashion seemed to be more of an outgrowth of North Korea's cult of personality than an example of a thriving human spirit.

The streets are mostly ruled by a code of uniformity and people wear either Mao-style tunics introduced by Mr Kim's father, the nation's founder, or a pin on their lapels showing his face.

The arts are equally stunted and suffused with ideology. All literature and filmed entertainment carries an identical political message. One day my minders took me to a performance at the Children's Palaces. Hundreds of under-ten-year-olds sang folk songs and danced in military formations. The screen behind them showed footage from tank exercises, naval combat scenes and missile launch sequences.

This was considered light entertainment.

The many public monuments depict either the country's founder and his son, or generic workers and soldiers. No citizen is allowed any prominence. On television, people are rarely shown except in groups, and applause is hardly ever directed at an individual.

The culture of conformity is meant to ensure the regime's survival. The only permitted exception is Pyongyang's female traffic police. Stern-looking women in short blue skirts, swinging white batons and blowing whistles, they direct cars.

Their schoolmistress sex appeal is probably lost on a people bullied for decades.

Private lives appear as stunted as the society as a whole. Pre-marital sex is said to be non-existent. The streets may be litter-free -there is nothing to throw away -but they are utterly joyless. There are no shopping malls or advertising boards, no lights or neon or colour of any sort except for propaganda banners.

There are no playgrounds at the bottom of the drab Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks.

In a city full of stone monuments dedicated to the political leadership, the biggest monument is an unintended one to the regime's failure -an unfinished 105-floor hotel that towers over the city like a concrete skeleton.

There are many other signs of failure. After years of power cuts, there is almost no industrial activity in North Korea: a country once more industrialised than South Korea, which now has the world's eleventh-largest economy. Chimneys are smokeless, factory gates locked and the few lorries on the roads are usually empty and broken down. Namp'o, near Pyongyang, must be the world's only major port without shipping containers.

Devoid of power, nutrition and industry, the mountainous central area of North Korea looks more like the remote Tibetan plateau than any other region. Its highways are deserted, except for government-owned Mercedes. In no other country could one travel on the major cross-country dual-carriageway between the two biggest cities and not pass a car for 100 miles.

The longer I stayed in this bleak country -leashed to my minders -the more frustrated I became. Most shameful was the feeding game that they played with foreigners. To counter the image of a starving country, we were always given more food than we could possibly eat: a meal had at least seven courses. If you came close to finishing, they would double the portions the next day.

But there were details betraying real scarcity. The feasts were elaborate, but toothpicks seemed to be rationed to one per person.

Despite everything, there was still the occasional person prepared to risk showing an interest in the outside world. One day, a man asked me if I had any spare books. "I want to know about foreign countries," he said. I gave him The World of Suzie Wong, the novel about a prostitute in post-war Hong Kong; it was hardly appropriate, but nicely subversive.

He said that he had studied in China at the time of the Tiananmen Square student protest. He said of the spring of 1989: "It was very exciting. We were free then, for a short period."

A few days later in Wonsan, a port city five hours by car from Pyongyang, I sat on the pier at sunset. During daylight I was to all intents and purposes invisible to the North Koreans around me. They avoided all eye contact; some crossed the road to avoid passing me.
But as darkness fell their reactions were transformed. Within minutes people started to act as they would elsewhere in the world. Some came close and stared.

Others tried a few words of English. I also noticed couples furtively holding hands: committing the grave crime of showing public affection for someone other than their leaders.

Earlier, I had pitied the North Koreans for the absolute darkness that descended every night due to the lack of electricity. There were no street lamps and almost no indoor lights.

Now I realised that the dark was their salvation. Neighbours could no longer spy on them. It was in the dark that the human spirit survived for the day when North Korea will be free.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2003

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