Thursday, March 31, 2005

MICF - Scott Brennan and Cal Wilson: Mitzi and Hammond Werlitzer's Triumphe De Force

Some characters can be great fun to play, and others can be long, hard comic slogs which require plenty of effort but deliver few genuine (rather than forced) comic moments. Mitzi and Hammond Werlitzer fall into the second category. Mitzi and Hammond are the end-of-their-long-innings vaudeville celebrities trying to squeeze every last moment out of their fifteen minutes of fame. The Wurlitzers are the creations of capable local actor/comedians Scott Brennan and Cal Wilson, and the two performers have an obvious love for the characters they’ve played. The two work fabulously well with each other, feeding off the energy of one another, which was necessary given the lukewarm response of the smallish-but-curious audience. The characters exist in their own showbizzy, parallel universe of dead lovers and stuffed cats, which only occasionally intersects with the real world. At the start, the premise has some promise, but it’s impossible to sustain for the full hour. Soon, the catchphrases and knee-slapping of the two becomes a tad grating, and the jokes start to wear thin. As strong improvisors, Brennan and Wilson seem constrained by their script, and inside you sense that the two want to break free of it and be another version of Dame Sybil Thorndyke, the British theatrical dame played by Canadian Sean Cullen, whose ridiculous storytelling is almost entirely improvised. Triumphe De Force is a brave and noble (not of the Ross variety) effort at character comedy, but falls short on laughs.

MICF - Rich Hall

In his earlier visits to Melbourne, Rich Hall was an angry, middle aged man, ranting and raving as he treaded the boards, spraying the audience with his fiery (and hilarious) anger as he dwelled on all the things that were wrong with the world. This year, though, Hall appears to have mellowed. Rather than genuine anger at the state of the planet, Hall is in a playful mood, happily riffing with the audience and even showing rare signs of charm, a trait usually completely devoid in the Hall persona. True, his past couple of shows in Melbourne have featured Hall’s alter-ego, Otis Lee Crenshaw, a character far more criminal than charming, but this year Crenshaw has been rested and Hall is back as himself. Hall has a largely structure-less show, happily meadering back and forth between the keyboard and the open mic, telling stories that may or may not ever reach a conclusion. There are a couple of moments at Hall at his razor-sharp best, when he transcends his own lethargy, such as a hilarious couple of jokes at the expense of a few public figures (think Wacko Jacko) as well as a rather cerebral tune on playing scrabble with a cheating lover (“you could have played HEART but it came out HATER…I don’t need these ACRIMONIES, so I’m moving to MICRONESIA”). Some songs may work, a couple completely and utterly bomb, but either way a charitable audience is happy to be in the company of a brilliant comic mind and a decent bloke.

Monday, March 28, 2005

MICF - Phil Nichol & Janice Phayre: Freedumb

Successful parody relies on the object that is being parodied being well-known. In other words, you need to understand what the ‘straight’ is before you can recognise (and laugh at it) being ‘twisted’. That’s where the fundamental flaw in Freedumb lies. Freedumb is a parody of a peace-loving activist DIY TV show. Got that? Nope, neither has anyone else. So with that as the starting point, the two performers delve into loosely-linked sketches gently mocking the activist mentality. Whilst there are still laughs to be had, it’s hard to fully engage with it. The cast of two, Phil Nichol and Janice Phayre, are clearly talented performers who sing, dance, act and puppeteer their way through the material. Nichol is particular is not new to Melbourne audiences, who might remember him as a member of Canadian musical trio Corky and the Juicepigs. Nichol is a natural improviser, and seems constrained by the need for a script. On several occasions, he breaks out of character, and despite being theatrically undisciplined, it produces some of the funniest moments. Most of the jokes that really hit the spot tend to be the crasser and cruder ones. No problem with that, although you sense that the political message of the show – which is supposed to set it apart from other shows – is largely lost.

MICF - Jesse Griffin: The Wilson Dixon Hour

Several years ago US comic Rich Hall created a character that would soon become more recognised than Hall himself - the vitriolic, prison-residing, artlessly-dressed Otis Lee Crenshaw, a product of the bible belt of America's deep south. From the same part of the physical and mental landscape comes Wilson Dixon. Dixon is a country musician from Cripple Creek, a simple man who doesn't have pretentions of high intellect and who struggles to comprehend why he hasn't shot to the same stardom as his old foe Billy Ray despite penning the equally noxious "Don't break my lungs". In true country-muso style, Dixon sits upon a stool on stage, strumming away at his guitar, bantering to himself about his life and loves, and occassionally reaching for his harmonica, for the sake of variety. The songs are sharp and clever, capturing the musical style of folksy country music whilst acidly lampooning the hillybilly perspective on the world. The 4 Noels have been a fixture at the Comedy Festival for half a decade, and this is the first solo effort by Jesse, one of their number. He copes exceptionally well in carrying the full burden of the show and doesn't seem at all phased by not having a performer to bounce off. Wilson Dixon is likely to be an enduring character, and will have catchy songs to sing for as long as there are stupid cliches and country hicks to misunderstand them.

MICF - Tim Minchin: Dark Side

There is something infectious (in a good way) about watching a comic who is enjoying themself. You can't help but be caught up in their world, see things through their eyes and understand not just their humour, but their philosophy. Tim Minchin is one of those comics. From the moment he entered the stage of the Kaleide Theatre, he was in complete control and seemed to love every moment of it. Minchin is a skilled communicator, demonstrating sophisticated, dextrous use of language in a way that would intimidate many a fine comic. He is a poet at heart, and expresses himself through poetry, song and spoken word, constantly finding the cleverest way to say what needs to be said. He is also a talented musician, hammering away at the grand piano in the centre of the stage like the keys were an extention of his agile fingers. Ever the allround entertainer, Minchin is as comfortable when things go to plan as he is improvising when things go slightly astray. Minchin has a mature take-it-or-leave-it attitude to his comedy - he is not out to make friends or seek popular appeal, simply to satisfy the comic desires of those who appreciate the richness of language in the same way he does. Tim Minchin is the thinking person's comic crumpet.

MICF - Trent Baumann: Late Night Birdman

With a gravity-defying mohawk, an ill-fitting suit and a nervy swagger, Birdman hits the stage to a bewildered audience. It takes a while to warm to Birdman, since the show defies easy categorisation and the audience is generally pretty clueless as to what to expect. One he settles into a rythym, the laughs slowly grow as the slightly silly grows into the rather absurd which soon evolves into the clinically insane. Late Night Birdman is one part monologue, one part social commentry, one part circus freak show, one part musical comedy, one part origami. Most probably, it is the only show at the festival that combines these five ingredients, plus an olive in the glass as per house rules at the ultra-chic Kitten Club. The act is fun rather than funny, with Birdman showing off his oddball selection of tricks (pouring tea through his nose, gargling the national anthem) whilst nervously uttering a lame pun here and there. To reach the stage of actually being amusing rather than just freaky, Birdman needs to improve his delivery and command the room's attention rather than meekly requesting it.

MICF - Jason Byrne

As we entered the bowels of the Victoria Hotel to see Jason Byrne, my companion and I debated the merits of a front row seat versus a spot way up the back, a decision forced upon us by our pre-show tardiness. In haste, we opted for a spot right up the front... and it was one of the better decisions we made for the evening. Byrne IS an audience participation comic. Most of his act is spent in a dizzying banter with the front three rows, which usually evolves into a rapid-fire monologue on Byrne's part in response to each utterance from his soon-adoring audience. The structure of Byrne's comedy is not at all complex - it lies in the silliness of ordinary people and ordinary communications, with a desperate Freudian yearning to relive his childhood thrown in. There are a few set pieces that Byrne embarks on, although it seems to be reluctantly on his part. If it were at all possible, you'd imagine that Byrne would love to spend his entire hour bouncing off the audience (intellectually, although probably physically as well) and completely disregard the prewritten stuff. A deceptively smart comic with boundless enthusiasm, Byrne and the first four rows are bound to be caked in sweat by the time we get to the last punchline.

MICF - Josh Zepps: The Howard Years

This year at the Comedy Festival is supposedly the rebirth of political satire - the subject which for years and years has been pushed aside and replaced with amusing observations about the parlous state of airline food and the inanities
of toilet seats. Perhaps it is a reflection on the current state of affairs
that performers and punters who would usually stick to safer ground feel a need
to let out a yelp at the people and institutions which fill the political landscape. In this case it's Josh Zepps doing the yelping, mocking the egos and
pomposity of our current crop of politicians and the media. To say that Zepps
hits the mark with his spot-on voices is to state the obvious, and it is the
strength of the writing that makes his impressions stand out. Zepps manages to
capture not just the voice but the entire persona and world-view of the pollies he portrays. A whiney Latham is bettered by a hungry Beazley, whilst a romantic dinner for two with Ruddock and Vanstone leaves the audience with the image of two of our most senior lawmakers in the throes of S & M passion - it's enough to make Gareth and Cheryl blush. A short, punchy show with some extremely strong sketches is let down by just the slightest hint of uncertainty from his two side-players.

MICF - Barry Castagnola: The Importance of Not Being Too Earnest

Barry is a child of the 80s... and proud of it. He doesn't just tell us about his love of all things from that era, instead he shows us. The stage is his bedroom, just as he left it and his mum maintained it, complete with his pre-adolescent diary and some daggy Christmas presents that should have been euthenised much much earlier (in the spirit of Easter, of course). The show is a light, breezy hour through which Barry shares some of his fond, and not so fond, childhood memories. True to the nature of someone brought up on Atari and Phil Collins, this is a multimedia extravaganza, with some creative use of still photos, video and even a crackerjack audio tape to close off the show. Whilst the show meanders on, it occassionally seems to lack direction and sees the performer head off on tangents that prove neither funny nor enlightening. Perhaps it was opening-weekend nerves, but Barry seemed to stumble across his words, hastily jumping to the next sentence before he'd finished the previous one. For children of the 80s, this show is like going to an 80s Theme Park ("Wobby's World", perhaps). For the rest, it's a tad
disappointing, although redeemed by an old audio clip played at the end which sheds a lot of light on the ways of the UK bobby.

MICF - The 3rd Degree: Eskimos with Polaroids

Way back before there was the D Generation running rampant on our TV screens there was a bunch of silly buggers at university, putting on revues, keeping themselves amused, and just generally taking the piss. It was only after proving themselves as student performers that they were allowed to graduate on to bigger and better things with an audience that didn't consist exlusively of drunk Arts students. That very stage is where the 3rd Degree are now. The cast of six put on a hyperventilatingly good performance of manic, subversive sketches which are just waiting to be discovered by talent-spotters. This time around the show is Eskimos With Polaroids, a title that refers to nothing more than a lame pun which opens the show (What does an eskimo get if he sits in the show for too long? Think about it.). Perhaps because it is a 'best-of' show, plucking the funniest sketches from a large selection of uni-revues, the sketches seem to hit the mark every time. Throughout the crazy hour, there is barely a laugh-free dull spot.

Time to take a breath

They're done, that's it!! After much thought, and effort, I've finally completed my series on North Korea. 16 posts, about 14,000 words, several dozen pictures... now I've just got to find someone to read the bloody thing. Still, for the sake of historical record and furthering debate on an important subject, I'm glad I did it.

Now, in one of the world's strangest transitions, I'm marching headlong into the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which started treading the boards around town last Thursday. My interest is not as a performer, alas, but as a far-too-dedicated punter. I'll be posting reviews of shows as I see them, interspersed with ordinary, run-of-the-mill posts, the kind of which I haven't really been doing since I left for the trip back in November.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Final thoughts

Having almost exhausted the possibilities for things to say about the detail of the DPRK trip, it's worth putting together a few final thoughts on the situation in North Korea, and have a crack at some analysis. It's okay, it'll only be a couple of paragraphs.

The regime in North Korea is going to be tough to dislodge. Kim Jong Il is firmly entrenched in power, and has created such a climate of fear that there are few who are prepared to challenge him. It is evident that Kim Jong Il enjoys tremendous popular support from his people, and regardless of how mischeivious the techniques have been to achieve this, people strongly identify with him and will not easily be persuaded to support an opposing force. If only there was an opposing force.

There is no organised opposition group whatsoever that could be identified. This is little wonder given that it is known amongst the population that the penalty for opposing KJI is to be banished to the political prisons which dot the northern part of the country, possibly along with successive generations of family members. All senior figures are therefore, publicly at least, highly supportive of the regime. It is possible that deep within the KPA or the KWP that there is a clique in opposition to the regime, but it will be near impossible for it to act on it's anti-KJI sentiments. Decades of glorification of the Kims as well as the threat of severe punishment has left civil society within DPRK non-existant.

As to the nuclear situation, things are no clearer having gone into DPRK than they were beforehand. Our guide confirmed the statement made by the government on Feb 10, which confirmed its nuclear status, but said little on the subject beyond that. There is plenty of conjecture on the subject, but it seems fair to assume that DPRK has nuclear capacity, or is not far away from acquiring it. Rather than possession nuclear weapons for the purpose of using them, the North Koreans are possessiong them to strengthen their bargaining position for any future negotiations. The more of a threat the DPRK is, the more it can demand diplomatically and financially from the rest of the world. The withdrawl of North Korea from the six-party talks last month will be temporary, since it doesn't serve the DPRK's interests to kill off the bargaining process which will eventually give it what it wants.

Ultimately, the Kim Jong Il regime is focussed on self-preservation. The suggestion has recently been aired that the rest of the world will has to make a choice - either push for the end of nuclear weapons in North Korea, or push for the removal of Kim Jong Il, but that achieving the daily double is unlikely, at least in the short term. Taking self-preservation sa the objective, the DPRKers may well cut a deal along the lines of "we'll give up our nukes, so long as you don't make us the next Iraq", hence ensuring that the regime will be around for a while yet.

Presuming that one day the North Korean regime collapses, the next question to be confronted is that of how to integrate two Koreas into one. The effort required to bring North Korea up to the first world living standards that are currently enjoyed in the south. The infrastructure in the North seems poor, and will need plenty of investment. Industry is very unsophisticated, and will need to improve. For reunification to succeed, the rest of the world will need to give a blank cheque to the new Korea if it is to be a success. A massive cost, but it will be worth every Won if it works.

One day Korea will be one, and the journey from Seoul to Pyongyang will be a languid day trip taken by families carrying picnic baskets filled with kimchi. For now, the Korean peninsula is at the front line of one of the most dangerous disputes the planet has known. Resolution is a long and tricky path, but can ultimately be achieved - what is needed is a two-step solution. The first objective needs to be one of containment, stripping DPRK of its nuclear weapons and reducing the immediate threat. The second step needs to happen some time later, with the ending of the Kim regime, either through voluntary reunification or the application of force, to acheive the same end. Either way, the days of KJI and his thugs are numbered, though the countdown has a while to go yet.

Pyongyang postcard

One last thing...

Three weeks after it was sent, my postcard from Pyongyang arrived at my home in Australia. Curious to see just how sensitive the North Korean satire-meter was, I wrote this mildly amusing piece of smartarsery on the back:

Looks like satire is okay.



I hope you are all well in the land of Oz. Here people are happy, food is plentiful, architecture is tasteful and I'm an alien. We've had great fun all day celebrating the birthday of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il who runs the joint. Lucky Kim!!


Lucky for me, it got through.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Flying in and training out

For the international traveller, there are limited options when it comes to getting in and getting out of North Korea. The trip direct from Seoul would be easy most of the way, except for the bit where you are guaranteed to be shot dead at the DMZ. Instead, the more conventional route is via Beijing, where most of the handful of international passanger flights into DPRK originate. There are also some flights from Shenyang in northern China, as well as Vladivostock in Russia. In the true spirit of market economics, the lack of demand for flights into DPRK has resulted in only a handful of them being offerred. The other travel option is the train, departing from Pyongyang and going on an epic 23 hour ride into Beijing. In my case, travel was going to be a combination of the two - a flight in from Beijing, and a train trip back there five days later.

Ticket to Pyongyang

With visa, passport and tickets in hand, the four in our group headed to Beijing airport ready for departure. Given the scarcity of flights on Koryo Air, the national airline of DPRK, KA uses the check-in facilities of Air China. Typical of all international flights, we went through the check in procedure, dealt with the painfully slow Chinese bureaucracy to have our passports stamped, and headed for the departure lounge. There was just a tad of excitement to be had out of staring up at the information board for our flight, and seeing the destination as Pyongyang. You can't help but have a feeling of superiority over the other departure-lounge dwellers when you stare up at the sign - whilst other travellers were bound for Osaka or Bangkok or Seoul, we were heading through a portal to another universe... well, Pyongyang at least.

Flight board at Beijing airport.

Despite the bad weather that day, our flight was running to schedule and we were soon called to board the plane. As us eager passangers were queuing up to get on board, we were all subtlely eyeing each other, curious to know who else would have a reason to travel to the same destination. Most of the travellers were professional types, suited up men and women who were travelling for business rather than leisure. Mostly European in appearance, they all seemed to be fairly seasoned visitors to North Korea. A few NKorean people were mixed in, looking well dressed and confident, sporting their KIS badge over their heart. Amongst the crowd was a handful of more suspicious looking people with a slightly Soviet look - sun glasses just a tad too dark, hair just a tad too greasy, suit just a couple of sizes too small - presumably heading to DPRK to, ah, do some business.

Soon we were aboard the Air Koryo flight. Super keen air hostesses greeted us and made us feel as welcome as possible, each of them sporting the identical international look of air hostesses, with just a tad too much make up, tight bun of hair at the back, impeccable uniforms, and a fixed smile that just won't budge - these were our North Korean Trolley Dollies (NKTD). What set the NKTDs apart from their colleagues around the world was the presence of the Kim Il Sung badges, no doubt an integral part of the uniform. The plane was a small, cramped vehicle that lacked some of the creature comforts of modern aircraft. My six-foot-three frame struggled to stand upright inside the plane, and was instead forced into an uncomfortable hunch whenever I need to stand. The seating was the standard three-on-either-side-of-the-aisle (a technical aviation term), with the usual tray tables but sadly no screen. The safety demonstration proceeded with the usual complete lack of interest from those of us on board, although given the past record of flights in North Korea, perhaps we should have been taking notes. Alas, smoking on Air Koryo is forbidden, suggesting there are some aspects of international law that the DPRK will respect.

Welcome to Air Koryo.

Early in the flight we were offered some reading material by our NKTD. To describe it as a 'selection' would be a tad generous, but the offerings consisted of a glossy NK propaganda magazine extolling the virtues of the DPRK is three different languages, as well as the latest copy of The Pyongyang Times. (For more of my take on media in DPRK head to this post.) Given the rather dreary offerings, conversation became a tempting proposition. After a few introductions, we found we were amongst some interesting characters - nearby was a staff member from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, one of the largest embassies in the capital. Another fellow traveller was a European making a film with the DPRK government, and had been to the country many times before. Upon telling these travellers that we were heading to North Korea as tourists, we were given a hearty laugh in response. When the laugh subsided, they turned and said "No, really, why are you going into North Korea?" If we didn't know it already, tourists were clearly a rarity.

Smiling face of KIS.

The way out of Pyongyang was a touch more adventurous than the trip in. After our five days in the Hermit Kingdom, we headed to Pyongyang central train station, a surpisingly busy place in a central part of the city. Entrance to the station required the flashing of the travel tickets, a mechanism no doubt to prevent the huddled masses from entering the confines of the station. After a quick visit to the snack store to stock up on surprisingly decent Chinese instant noodles prior to the long trip, we headed to the train platform. At this point, there were some almost-tearful farewells as we said goodbye to our two guides, who by this point in the trip had become friends. This was one of the most definative farewells that you can ever make - the chances of us ever getting in touch with Mr Ri or Miss Pak were about as slim as chances of anything could ever possibly be.

Final Farewell

The train trip from Pyongyang to Beijing is essentially two train trips - firstly, a trip from Pyongyang to the border, at which point our two train carriages were connected to a Chinese train heading from the Chinese border town of Dandong to take us all the way to the capital.

The conditions on the train trip from Pyongyang to the border were quite decent. Like the aeroplane, the train seemed to have a strong Soviet feel to it, and would have no doubt done many Vladivostok-to-Moscow trips before it was sent by the Politburo to the desperados in Pyongyang. The four in our tour group snugly filled a cabin on the train, which consisted of two bunks facing each other, in a design that is a fair bit more user-friendly than the six-to-a-cabin design of the Chinese trains. At our feet was a sliding door, whilst at our head was a decent-sized window, allowing us to take in endless quantities of bland country-side. For the next six hours, we travelled with the door shut and mentally unpacked everything that had happened in the past five days. There was a lot to unpack.

A quarter hour before we reached the border we passed by a series of bright green public housing style buildings looking ridiculously out of place in the barrenness of NK rural life. We had been told to look out for this very site by an experienced NK visitor. Welcome to Ryongchon, home of not very much except for a massive explosion on 22 April 2004, when a train carrying explosive chemicals and oils had contact with electrical wires and completely destroyed everyone's day. There is plenty of conjecture amongst NK watchers as to whether it was an attempted assasination of KJI or whether it genuinely was an accident - for more on that debate, head to this excellent site. Less than 12 months on, and the site looks remarkably clean and developed, and the signs of devastation have been completely erased.

New building at Ryongchon.

Finally, we reached the border and the train was at an indefinate halt. After an attempt to get off the train to wander around the station was quashed by a surly security guard, we waited on board for the DPRK immigration folks. Finally they reached our cabin, and inspected our passport and visa cards (which, much to our disappointment, they took from us, leaving us with no printed record of our trip) as well as the usual international arrival/exit form that are frequently filled in, and just as frequently ignored. Then the fun part started, as our friendly border security inspector went through each of our bags one by one, requesting they be opened so that that he could have a closer look. After seeing an long procession of underwear-and-socks-and-t-shirts-with-strange-coloured-stains, the security guard had satisfied his professional curiousity, and he moved on to the next cabin. It was not clear quite what we would be likely to be sneaking out of the country - given that there was no problem with videos and cameras, it surely couldn't be negative portrayals of the country. Drugs, nuclear material and pornography were all unlikely to be on our list of holiday souveniers, so the answer was not immediately clear.

Having been assured that there was a while to go until our train headed across the bridge for China, we headed off the train and checked out the bar we had been told was at the station on the NK side. True, in name there was a bar, but any notion of a cosy, friendly, inviting place for us to sample our final Taedonggang beer before departing was soon dispelled. The cold, desolate place looked like the bar at the end of the universe, and in many ways it was. After downing a quick pint, out of pity for the chain-smoking bartender rather than a genuine thirst to quench, we headed back for the train. This was done with the aid of a couple of security guards who warned us (in Korean) that the train was about to depart and we should get a move on. We entered the train just as it headed for Dandong. The prospect of being stuck in this border town for three days until the next train was not a tempting one, regardless of just how curious I was about the DPRK.

After crossing the giant bridge that links to two countries, we found ourselves in the relative glitz and glamour of Dandong. Though it is a fairly generic city, its bright lights and lively streets provided a stark contrast to the previous five days. Scary to say, but it was exciting to be in Dandong. An hour passed as we went through the formalities at Chinese immigration, and then the train headed onward to Beijing. On the way, we were approached by a cheerful man selling an odd collection of DPRK stamps, with an seemingly random selection of images of Kim Il Sung, Princess Diana, an echidna and the 1974 soccer World Cup. Speaking in Chinese to the one member of our tour group who spoke a smattering of the language, he explained that the previous night there had been a shooting at the border, with Chinese army security shooting dead seven North Koreans who were attempting to enter China illegally. At least that's what we thought he said, although couldn't verify it. A chilling thought if it's true.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Let the children play

North Korea has some of the world's best behaved kids. Whilst the rest of the world indulges the every whim and fantasy of their children, and as a result is populated by loud, obnoxious, precocious, adventurous, inquisitive children, things are rather different north of the 38th parallel. Children are amazingly docile and compliant, obediently following the instructions of their elders as if they know no other way. It is not uncommon in Pyongyang to see parents walking hand in hand with their young children, with the child walking in near perfect step right behind.

Pyongyang apartment.

Whilst on one hand these kids are well behaved, it seems on the other that they have had the creativity and spontaneity of childhood taken away from them. The unquestioning following of the instructions and behaviour of adults suggest that the children are aware of the consequences of misbehaviour in adulthood, and don't wish to dabble in it. There is a sense of defeat about children's behaviour - that they are subconsciously aware of the intransigence of the status quo, and have decided to meekly accept it. Watching children and adults queue for the Kimjongilia Flower Show was a demonstration of this - kids stood obediently in the long line waiting to enter, and were far more still and passive than their counterparts almost anywhere else in the world would be in the same situation.

Propaganda on the streets of Pyongyang.

As well as their passive nature, the children are also suffering from some forms of malnutrition. Whilst not as stark as rumours suggest it is in the countryside, children in Pyongyang do look quite thin and underfed. There were no obvious examples of poor medication, but there was a withered, gaunt look to many children that suggested they had done it tough. One health clinic we passed had a long queue of parents and children snaking outside it.

Health clinic in Pyongyang.

During our five days in the country, our group had little chance for close contact with children, and so most of the observations have been made at a distance. One chance we did have, though, says plenty about the DPRK mentality. We were taken on a special visit to the Number 1 Pyongyang School (or something like that), which is the premier high school in the capital. Along with a dozen or so other foreigners, who included a few other tourists, journalists and possibly aid workers, we were given some freedom to wander through an open day at the school put on for our amusement.

In one room a group of children were sitting at PCs designing simple web pages, which is a rather odd choice of activity given that modems are illegal in the country. The computers the students were using was of exceptionally high standard, with fast processors and Windows NT in use. The children seemed confident in using the PCs, although they were clearly just engaging in a meaningless repetitive activity for our amusement. One student was given the task of designing a web page which featured the beautiful if vacuous slogan "KOREA IS ONE" repeated ad nauseum. Another room featured a team of a dozen girls who were hard at work doing some intricate weaving. Under the watchful eye of their teacher, the students used coloured wool to follow the patten stenciled on a piece of fabric. In the case of both rooms, we spoke to the children in simple English and found them quite responsive, if a little apprehensive, about speaking in the language of the imperialists. A wander down a corridor to an unattended classroom found us in a science lab, with the most incredible - and occassionaly scarey - stuffed animals on display in a quantity that would make schools the world over jealous.

The climax to our visit to the school was in a surprisingly elaborate school theatre. For half an hour, two dozen children sung, danced and played music to demonstrate some traditional Korean art forms. The performances were truly stunning for a team of school children, and the equipment and costumes far beyond what was expected, including a Yamaha keyboard and a decent drum set. With painfully fixed smiles, the children kept the curious foreigners entertained for a while, and then at the end invited us to dance a traditional folk dance with them. As good as the performances were, one shudders to think of the heartache and pain that went into producing it. One of the more alert foreigners in the audiences quietly explained that he suspected that the children had been physically and emotionally beaten as part of the preparation, and that the old Soviet Union techniques for training top gymnasts had been used on this poor team of prepubescent children. Though it was impossible to verify the claim, the fine perfection of the performance suggested that the children were motivated by an extreme fear of the consequences of failure.

It seemed pretty clear that the school we had visited was not typical of high schools in North Korea, or even in Pyongyang. The facilities were excellent, the children looked healthy, and apart from shiveringly-cold corridors, there was little to set it apart from high schools all over the world. Like most things in Pyongyang, this was the place for the elites (or, in this case, the children of elites) and was no doubt the training ground for future Korean People's Army and Workers Party of Korea apparatchiks.

No children on the road to Kaesong

In perpetuating a totalitarian state for future generations, it is necessary to establish a character of complete and utter subservience. Only once the sparks of rebellion and individuality have been extinguished can the state be confident that people will accept the status quo and not seek to overturn it. For this reason amongst others, the North Korean regime looks set to continue its existance for some time to come. It seems like a long term strategy is in place to achieve this outcome, and from the inhibited, docile nature of the children in Pyongyang, it is looking remarkably successful.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Monuments of Pyongyang (Part 3)

Due to some rather poor planning (for that, read no planning) on my part, I've left myself with an oddball collection of bits and pieces to round off the 'Monuments of Pyongyang' section of the armchair tour. Whilst past posts have looked at the important, political, nationalist monuments, this post will carry with it rather less gravitas - except for the first part. The war museum is worthy of a fair bit of commentry, and from there it'll be the shooting range - rather appropriate, really - the Buddhist temple, the birthplace of the Great Leader himself, and more. The attractions of Pyongyang are a rather odd collection, and in many ways the old description of it being "Disneyland for Marxists" is probably a fair call.

To the North Koreans, the Korean War isn't the Korean War at all. Such a title is far too tame, too passive, too clinical to capture the true feelings toward the largely pointless battle from 1950 to 1953 which claimed so many lives yet saw the changing of hands of remarkably little land. Instead, the Korean War is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, and the museum devoting to chronicalling the events is the, um, Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Mueseum. The Museum itself is a fascinating place to visit, but it is particularly insightful after visiting the far more reserved complex in Seoul which provides a very different perspective on the conflict.


The NKorean take on the VFLWar is remarkably different from the conventional western (and indeed, Southern) understanding. Essentially, the North argue that the South, acting under instructions from US imperialists, started the Korean War. To support this rather unconventional case, the Museum presents a number of newspaper articles at letters from the senior players at the time, which spoke of the southern desire to claim the entire Korean peninsula, and their fierce opposition to Communism. There is no doubt that the Northern view of the war in heartfelt, and the body of evidence is substantial given that the claim is farcical. Typical of propaganda museums, the much more likely option - that of Northern agression with the aid of the trigger-happy Russians - is not at all canvassed. Then again, neither is the "North started it" theory aired in the South Korean museum.

They started it.

There is a vast collection of US arsenal, tanks and aircraft which the North Koreans proudly captured during the three year battle. One floor of the museum is dedicated to it, presumably demonstrating the military might of the North despite much of it coming their way thanks to the Russians who were keen for that one extra domino to fall in its favour. Another part of the museum features a 360 degree diarama portraying the horrors of the war, with representations of bloodied soldiers and civilians constructed through both paintings and realistic sculptures. The rotating platform is the middle is surprisingly sophisticated, and is clearly the favourite place in the museum for the throng of Koreans who visit the museum regularly to bask in North Korean military might. A strange little giftshop sits near the exit of the museum, where visitors can take home brochures and books as a memento of their visit. It's not like they're likely to forget the visit any time soon, but the brochure is a nice touch.

Group and guide outside the Victorious Motherland Liberation War Museum.

(Note the book in Aruna's hand: The US Imperialists Started the Korean War.)

For the most stunning view of Pyongyang, it is necessary to head up the painfully slow lift in the TV tower. A heavy layer of snow prevented our vehicle from getting too close to the tower, so we were forced to walk for several minutes before finally reaching the base of the tower. Once upstairs, we found ourselves in a surprisingly cosy classy restaurant, with an abundance of North Koreans. As we tucked into our kimchi and shabu-shabu (with real mushrooms!) we heard the lively chatter of the Pyongyang society elites who were enjoying part of the KJI birthday public holiday. From what we could tell, they were mostly party elites and their adult children, the sort of people who make Pyongyang atypical of DPRK. The view from the tower is truly stunning, allowing a 360 degree perspective on the entire city. It's not until you reach the viewing level of the Pyongyang TV Tower that you realise just how many different shades of grey the human eye can actually perceive.

Kim Il Sung leads the way.

Beside the Koryo Hotel in downtown Pyongyang is the Stamp Shop, which is frequented almost exclusively by tourists and hardcore philatelists. NKorean stamps have unfairly gained a reputation as being harsh, severe propaganda pieces completely lacking in tact, subtlety, diplomacy or a sense of humour. Alas, the reality (at least according to the evidence in the SS) is much different. The stamps were a surprisingly tame collection, with many of them dedicated to particularly sporting events, usually ones that had absolutely no NKorean involvement. Olympic Games and Soccer World Cups were recurring themes, featuring the typical action-shot imagery accompanied by a DPRK ensignia. Yes, there were plenty featuring the glories of KJI and KIS, but no more than Her Maj makes an appearance on stamps in the UK. Odd inclusions in the collection, such as a series dedicated to Princess Di after her wild night in Paris, are hard to forget.

One of the most majestic sights in Pyongyang is the war cemetery for heros of the DPRK. Most of the martyrs entombed at the site died in the Korean struggle against Japanese occupation prior to 1945, and are honoured with an immense, pristinely maintained cemetary. Numerous heroic deeds were shared with us by our guides, and the emotional intensity increased as we reached the most senior row of tombstones and busts, which featured the most important members of the DPRK regime from the 1950s onwards.

Remembering the dead.

For the first several decades of the country, all senior figures had to have proved their mettle in the earlier struggle against the Japanese. Alas, the Great Leader himself is not buried here - he has a mausoleum to himself at another site, which was unfortunately off limits on our visits. The fine Italian marble at the war cemetary gives a clue as to the value placed in the memories of the war dead.

At the peak of the war cemetery.

Not far from the giant KIS statue at Mansudae is the birthplace and childhood home of the Great Leader. As if the emphasise the humble means and upbringing of KIS, the home is little more than a basic Korean hut, partly decorated with props to bring the site to life. The wonderous stories of KIS in his younger days were trotted out, as well as glorification for both his parents (who were simple Pyongyang peasants when the gave birth to their bundle o' joy) and his wife. Whilst the site itself is not terribly interesting, the barely contained excitement of the throngs of visiting Koreans is nice to be a part of.

The Great Leader and his folks.

In the mid-1980s, the North Koreans fancied themselves as a chance to be the co-hosts of the Olympics, sharing the honours with their southern counterparts. To show they were capable and ready to go, a vast sports complex was constructed in the Mangyongdae district, just west of the Taedong River. Alas, the Games were not shared, and NKorea showed its displeasure in the usual way by blowing up a civilian Korean Air flight in 1987. The sporting complex remains, however, with an indoor swimming ppol, athletics gymnasium, handball centre, football stadium and of course Taekwon-do hall all neatly clustered together. Our encounter with sport, Pyongyang-style was in the shooting hall, where for one Euro we could fire three bullets out of either a pistol or a rifle. Though my experience of shooting halls outside DPRK is rather limited (ie, non-existant) the centre looked safe and clean, with surprisingly sophisticated looking computer screens, although clearly the air conditioning hadn't been switched on since Kim Jong Il was a young boy. Firing my three bullets, I scored a couple of eights and a nine, but missed out on the allusive bullseye.

There are few overt signs of organised religion in NKorea. It is so true that it has entered the realms of cliche to describe KIS and KJI as being the figureheads of a religious cult. They have supplanted the role of religion in a society that desperately needs to hope for something. In the minds of most ordinary NKoreans, the Kims are divine in their presense, and the DPRK are blessed to have them. Nonetheless, there are three churches operating in Pyongyang, as well as a Buddhist temple which we were able to visit. The temple is similar to Buddhist shrines all around Asia, with a dazzling array of colour and slightly trippy architecture. The monk who we met inside the temple explained that Buddhists have coped well in Pyongyang, and that the temple we were at had in fact been maintained and supported by the government.

Buddha lives on, in the most strange of places.

If ever Contiki tours decide that they're sick of taking drunk Australians around the breweries of Europe, and want a real cultural experience, then there is plenty for them to see in Pyongyang. Whilst the beer is not quite in the same league (although Taedonggang is a surprisingly tasty little drop), there are plenty of attractions to keep even the most jaded visitor enthralled. There is a sense that the city has all the things it needs to be a truly great city, but that these things are overwhelmed by the politics and opression of the place. It's hard to enjoy the scenery when everyone around you feels like a prisoner.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Monuments of Pyongyang (Part 2)

Though most of the fun in visiting Pyongyang comes from staring out the window of the bus between sites to capture a glimpse of the 'real' NK, there is plenty to be said for the sites themself. So much, indeed, that one post would be woefully inadequate to capture it all, and three will probably be needed.

One chapter in the rocky historical road of North Korea which inspires great pride in every North Korean is the caputuring of the USS Pueblo. In 1968, this US spy vessel was captured in North Korean waters trying to secretly find the magic Kimchi ingredient and other important DPRK national security secrets. Though the Korean War had been finished for fifteen years, there was still a painful standoff between the Americans and the North Koreans, and the issue was finely settled with a written apology from the Americans and a promise not to do it again, with the sailors on board (minus the one who'd been shot dead) repatriated to the States.

The USS Pueblo in the icy waters of the Taedong River.

Thesedays, the boat sits in the waters of the Taedong River, and carries important symbolic value for the DPRKers. American slipperiness, the untrustworthiness of foreigners, the military might of the DPRK are all captured within the slowly decaying metallic womb in the river. On board, an ageing Korean People's Army soldier took us to watch a propaganda DVD (on a Japanese DVD player, no less!) on the incident, narrated in accentless English by someone who was no doubt a friend of the revolution. A tour of the vessel then follows, and it is clear that it has been remarkably well maintained in the 37 years since its capture. Recording rooms, living space, surveillance areas, navigational equipment and all the fine details of a 1960s navy vessel are on display for all to see.

USS Pueblo and friends.

Facing on to Kim Il Sung Square is the Great People's Study Hall, fulfilling much the same role as a central library. Typical of most public buildings in DPRK, the lobby includes a commanding Kim Il Sung portrait, this time in the case of a massive mosaic dominating the vista as the Great People enter the Hall to Study. Through the central pillar of the building is one of the slowest, clunkiest lifts ever to be unleashed on the vertical-travelling public. A trip up two floors took the best part of a minute, and it was during this epic journey that we wrily observed that walking would be a much swifter option. Still, the length of the journey wasn't all bad - it gave me ample journey to ask whether the bored looking lift attendent really enjoyed her job. It had its ups and downs, I concluded.

On our guided tour we were taken to various rooms of interest inside this bustling place of study. There is a large lecture hall inside the Hall, with seating for several hundred and a vast stage area with a KIS and KJI portrait hanging loftily overhead. Interestingly the tables and chairs on the stage were arranged as if there was a panel discussing which had either taken place or was soon to take place, suggesting some possibility for public discourse. Slim, but it's something. Elsewhere in the building was a listening library, with a vast NKorean record collection as well as a surprisingly good collection of western classical music CDs. Some more modern sounds had crept into the collection as well, with the sultry sounds of Simply Red being pumped into one set of headphones.

Grand People's Study Hall.

In another room a foreign language class was taking place. Several dozen students were seated at desks, and were calling out in unison in what sounded like Russian and English in response to words being called out in Korean by the teacher at the front of the room. Two languages, and possibly a third, were being taught simultaneously in a very Korean twist on learning a foreign language. At each desk was a pair of headphones, whist a conventional blackboard sat at the front of the classroom. Moving to the information desk at the library, we were shown a small selection of the 30 million books which apparently reside in the library. A pair of books in English were shown to us, both of them modern computer programming books with a strong Windows theme. The inside cover revealed that the books had bene donated by a Californian charity keen to promote education in the developing world. No attempt was made to cover up the Americanness of the book.

It was also here that we had our only fleeting encounter with the internet, with a chat room as part of the DPRK internet linking up the bored and sexually frustrated youth of Pyongyang. There was plenty more about communications in DPRK in this earlier post. The balcony jutting out from the library provides a wonderful view of KIS Square as well as the rest of the city. Whilst soaking it up, we couldn't help but notice that it would provide an ideal snipers vantage point during the occassional public appearance of KJI on the platform below, overlooking the square. Sensing the direction that our conversation was headed, our guides quickly reassured us that the balcony was closed during any public appearances on the platform below. Phew.

The Mansudae Grand Monument is the holy shrine of the religion of Kimilsungism. At one end of this vast public space stands the commanding statue of Kim Il Sung, constructed on the occassion of the Great Leader's 70th birthday. KIS stands, with his legs slightly apart, shaking hands with the sky/hailing a taxi/guiding his people on the path to enlightenment. The story has it that when it was first constructed, the statue was lined with gold, but the Chinese, who even then were bankrolling the DPRK, objected to this show of largesse and demanded the gold be removed. The NKoreans, in complete contradiction of Juche philosophy, acquiesed.

Two Great Leaders.

In the large open area in front of him, a significant number of Koreans gather to remember the Great Leader. It is customary to present flowers to the statue, and there are no shortage of enterprising Koreans on hand to sell a 10-euro bunch of flowers to the group. At the suggestion of our guide, we stepped forward, placed the flowers at KIS's feet and then bowed in a few moments of humbled silence, before walking away. Around us, a large crowd of young families were showing their respect and placing flowers at the feet. Whilst not overcome with emotion, many were clearly affected by their presense at the sight, and an air of hushed respect pervaded the space.

Immediately behind KIS is a mural depicting Peaktusan, the mountain on the border with China that historically is the birthplace of the Korean people, and mythologically is the birthplace of KJI. To either side of the no-longer-gold-plaited statue are two lively depictions of the courageous Korean People's Army, in the struggle both against imperialism and for communism. As the mid-February snow settled atop this scene and the brisque wind passed through the crowd, it was clear that we were at a place of worship for any hardcore communist. It is not unusual, apparently for ordinary NKoreans to head past this site as part of their daily routine. As a means of perpetuating the glory of KIS, this site in Mansudae is clearly an effective tool.

The struggle for communism at Mansudae.

The idea of monument-as-propaganda is a recurring theme, and this becomes particuarly acute when the irrationallity surrounding K1 and K2 becomes involved. Whilst nations around the world may chose to remember fondly their past leaders, the North Koreans have taken such an act to a new extreme, with vast tracts of public space dedicated to distilling the essense of their historic leader. Perhaps there is something deeply psychological about the response of communist nations to their deceased leaders. Alongside the North Koreans, the Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese all have a fetish for glorifying the dead - and subconsciously keeping them alive in the mind of their followers. Unfortunately ordinary visitors are not easily able to complete the Communist Corpse Grand Slam (Lenin in Moscow, Mao in Beijing, Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, KIS in Pyongyang) since an invitation to visit KIS in is current embalmed home is strictly by invitation only. What a shame.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Monuments of Pyongyang (Part 1)

Whilst Pyongyang might be lacking in many things - decent aesthetics, vibrant nightlife, a sense of humour - one thing it can proudly boast about is its public monuments. A quick glance along the Pyongyang skyline reveals a number of curious icons - each honouring a person, war, idea, organisation or date - presented with the unfliching strength of conviction that no one could ever possibly have about the truth. Pyongyangers obviously take great pride in the monuments which make the city unique: despite a chilly February winter and a think-KJI's-haircut-but-in-white cover of snow, people were out in great numbers to loiter in the presense of architectual greatness. In the true spirit of DPRK, at most of the monuments visited our tour guide, or occassionally the guide from the particular monument, would share the most vital detail - the date when K1 or K2 visited the site, and the words of wisdom that he proferred upon seeing the site. That's all that really matters, isn't it?

Kim Il Sung looks out over Kim Il Sung Square.

There is a recurring motif which appears all over North Korea, but its most prominant incarnation is a bold statue by the banks of the Taedong River. A peasant's hammer, a farmer's sickle and the intellectual's paintbrush (or is it karaoke microphone?) all crossed to show the unity of the people's spirit... or something like that. The statue is an imposing structure, with the three figures leaning forward with their instuments in hand, as if they were captured approaching the finishing line of a bizarre relay race, perhaps a demonstration sport at the '88 Pyongyang Olympics which were not to be. It's hard not to feel some sort of kinship with the idea of solidarity when it's conveyed in such a powerful way. Below the statue kids played joyfully, no doubt subconsciously becoming aware of their future as good peasants, farmers and intellectuals.

The hammer, sickle and paintbrush as wielded by the children of the revolution.

Nearby is the Tower of the Juche Idea, a tall, narrow monument with a depiction of a flame on the top. Juche is the Korean philosophy of self-reliance which has been the guiding principle of NK since its foundation, and supposedly allows the individual to reach their full potential in the spirit of forging their own destiny. Whether the philosophy itself is a success is highly doubtful, but what's not at all doubtful is that as a philosophy it makes a damn fine statue. Full marks to the creative team who sought to embody the notion of Juche in architectual terms. Inside are panels contributed during the 1970s by DPRK's sympathisers around the world. As perhaps North Korea's greatest export (well, that and possibly high grade heroin) Juche has attracted the attention of many great minds around the world, who have formed themselves into Juche Study Groups and even proponents of that grand area of study: Kimilsungism. Many of the signs are in a variety of European langauges, and there is a predominance of groups from India and Africa amongst the plaques on the wall - colonialism clearly created some unusual global alliances.

Proud to be an Australian.

Elsewhere in town is the Arch of Triumph, which bears a fitting resemblence to its counterpart in the Democratic People's Republic of France. You'd be wrong to confuse the two, though, since the Pyongyang construction is three metres taller than its Parisian duplicate. The Triumph which has been Arched is not in fact triumph over the south in the Korean War, but is instead triumph over the hated Japanese, who controlled the entire Korean peninsula for a short but painful period in the first half of the twentieth century. Hatred of the Japanese is still strong in DPRK, and relations between the two are icy. Mind you, there have been many Japanese coming to Pyongyang over the years, although they generally come when kidnapped by DPRK spies and depart as a pile of bones decades later, if at all. Such anti-Japanese sentiment is not limited to the north, however, with many South Koreans also holding bitter memories of Japanese occupation.

Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang.

Those truly committed to the spirit of Korean communism often pay their respects at the monument for the founding of the Korean Workers Party. Formed immediately after North Korea itself popped out of the womb of the Second World War, the KWP has controlled NK politics in government in much the same way that its equivalents around the communist world have done. This rounded, concrete structure features messages of hope and solidarity etched into the stonework, and even features representations of South Koreans (or as NKers would say it, south Koreans) joining in the struggle for communism across the Korean peninsula. Clearly the artist had not guaged the attitude to communist solidarity amongst many Seoul-dwellers.

It's Party time.

From a young age, North Koreans are indoctrinated with a narrative of their own history which combines truths, half-truths, fabrications, wishful thinking and lies. Whilst this prosess is not at all unique to North Korea, and indeed happens in any society with an awareness of its own history, the NK version of its own story is strained in its truthtelling. In much of the telling there is a nub of truth, around which is constructed a highly subjective and partisan mythology. To maintain the credibility of this mythology, the monuments are necessary to act as tangible evidence of a truth that never was - 'a reminder of the greatness of the KWP', or 'a celebration of the rightness of Juche', despite that fact that such greatness and rightness never actually existed. So does the truth really matter, or have multiple retellings become more powerful that the fact itself?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A place to rest my head

I dream one day of visiting Pyongyang and staying in the wonderfully pyramidic Ryugyong Hotel. The outer shell of this hotel which dominates the Pyongyang skyline was built in the 1980s, and the interior was, well, never built. It seems possible that the project was commenced in a pique of optimism as North Korea put in a claim to share the 1988 Olympic Games with its southern brothers, but just as the offer was rejected - just like the bid to share the 2002 Soccer World Cup failed on the basis of North Korea's request to host the Opening Ceremony, Semi Finals and Final - the hotel was never completed. Nowadays, in stands pointing to the sky much the way that Kim Il Sung's statue does, both perhaps as a symbol of the excesses of North Korean enthusiasm.

The Ryugyong Hotel points to the sky.

Instead of the Ryugyong, like most foriegn visitors to Pyongyang I found myself staying at the Yanggakdo Hotel. The Yanggakdo Hotel is a slice of Cold War Bondesque paranoia writ large. The hotel is located on an island (Yanggakdo Island, strangely enough) in the Taedong River, just south of the city. Separated from the rest of Pyongyang by a commanding, majestic bridge, Yanggakdo Island is intended as an oasis of western affluence in a desert of North Korean Koreanness. On it is the Pyongyang driving range, the Pyongyang international cinema (which has, in the past, screened Bend it Like Beckham as part of the annual film festival) and the Yanggakdo Football Stadium. Though access to the island is not technically restricted, the only North Koreans who find their way onto the island are those involved in business with foreigners. Typical NKorean paranoia dictates that anyone else there without a good reason is most likely a spy, and given that teh North Korean justice system is not known for its commitment to due process, NKoreans stay away in droves.

The Yanggakdo Hotel is a surprisingly lively place, populated by a range of oddball characters, many of them up to no good, and oddball places for them to be odd and be no good. The lobby is a vast expanse of open-plan marble flooring, with imposing chandaliers hanging down from the ceiling. The reception desk mimicks that of every western hotel, although one suspects that there are all sorts of secrets lying within its drawers. The hotel reaches up to 45 floors, and a glass elevator smoothly glides upward to the sky. Clearly, many of the floors are without guests, and one suspects that it has been a while since those beds were occupied. Wandering around the 30th floor, where our group were staying, there seemed to be a discreetly hidden series of liftshafts, whose purpose remained unclear.

Pyongyang Central Time

The rooms were largely unremarkable as hotel rooms go. In ours, two single beds sat side by side, with a small bedside table between them. A desk in the corner, a bathroom with all the basic creature comforts, and a decent set of wardrobes filled the space. A little strangely, a lamp sat in the corner with no apparently off switch other than the main switch to power the whole room near the door. The room also boasted a TV, which intermittantly broadcast STAR sports from Hong Kong, CCTV from China, some Japanese TV, a Russian TV channel, Juche TV (of course), and strangely enough BBC. Admittedly, the BBC reception was non-existant for part of our stay, but at other times it was clear. On the night of 16 February, I sat watching BBC broadcast footage of the Kim Jong Il birthday celebrations from earlier that day, as well as some critical commentators from Seoul, all broadcast without interuption.

1 level below ground in the Yanggakdo is a rabbit-warren of paths and tunnels, which may - like the Pyongyang Metro - act as a safety bunker in case of attack. Wandering through these halls, you can find a small convenience store, a karaoke bar, a ten-pin bowling alley, a billiards hall and a travel agency. Though many of these places see few visitors, they are all attentively staffed by North Koreans who are eager to help, and are some of the few who work in jobs which expose them regularly to foreigners, and to foreign currency.

Ten-Pin Bowling in Pyongyang.

On our first night in Pyongyang, our group of six (four visitors plus our two guides) headed to the karaoke bar for a bit of bonding, Korean-style. Flicking through the bilingual catalogue, there were a number of dreary sounding North Korean songs (Anyone for Let's defend Socialism?) as well as a very tame collection of English songs (Edelweiss, My Love Wil Go On, etc). After hearing a wonderful rendition of Rod Stewart's Sailing from our talented guide Miss Pak, we all dived in to a rendition of Hotel California. As we got to the last paragraph, you couldn't help but wonder if the place that was sung about was a little closer to home:

Mirrors on the ceiling
Pink champagne on ice
And she said
We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device
And in the master's chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can't kill the beast
Last thing I remember
I was running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
Relax said the nightman
We are programed to recieve
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave

On a bus later in the trip, Miss Pak sings Rod Stewart.

Elsewhere in the hotel is a glitzier, more upmarket entertainment area. Facing each other one floor below ground was the Casino Pyongyang, a Macanese restaurant, a massage parlour and an Egyptian-themed karaoke disco (the last two blatantly doubling as brothels for tired Chinese businessmen). The Casino is a bizarre little place, with a single room with a handful of mah-jong and craps tables, as well as a bevvy of bored Chinese croupiers outnumbering gamblers ten to one. Technically, the Casino doesn't really exist, and the NK government puts up with it because it is such a handy source of hard currency. Increasingly, NK is being sold to wealthy Chinese as a gambling destination. The staff are all Chinese, and are not permitted to leave Yanggakdo Island. No wonder they look bored.

The Casino Pyongyang, which doesn't really exist.

Back on the ground floor of the hotel is a selection of equally bland and generic restaurants. Restaurant Number 1 and Restaurant Number 2 offer the sort of food you'd expect from restaurants with that level of imagination in their title, whilst there is also a Japanese and Korean restaurant. Whilst it is churlish to complain about the quality of food is a country riddled with starvation, it is safe to say that what the food lacks in taste it more than makes up for in quantity.

One night in a desperate search for the handful of foreigners living in Pyongyang, we headed to the second floor of the Koryo Hotel, closer to the centre of town. Spending an hour or two in the billiard hall, we came across a group of Russians who were in town for a dance and musical performance. (We were later to discover that they had been watched the previous evening by none other than The Dear Leader himself, and as we chatted footage of the standing ovation received by KJI was being broadcast on Juche TV. It would be the only time we would see recent images on him in our trip to DPRK.) Though more centrally located, the Koryo Hotel had all the (lack of) charm of our own hotel, and makes choosing between the two a rather unappetising proposition.

During our trip to Kaesong, we were lucky enough to stay at the cosy Kaesong Minsok Hotel (translated as 'Folk Hotel'). As a traditional yeogwan, the hotel offers low beds on the floor, with amazingly effective below-ground heating. The rooms are wonderfully quaint, with curtains, chairs and teapots all in the traditional Korean style, spoiled only by an television sitting in the corner. Seemingly, we were the only guests for the night, and so were given wonderful hospitality by the host who prepared a Korean dinner and left us to wander along the banks of the creek which meanders lazily through the hotel. As a cultural experience - unbeatable.

On the road to Kaesong
On the road to Kaesong.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Panmunjeom and the DMZ

The journey from Pyongyang to the Demilitaried Zone (DMZ) is a couple of hours by road, but the journey says much about the oddly confused rhetoric of North Korea. The drive is a majestic trip down the Reunification Highway - a six lane highway that runs from Pyongyang to the border, and then one day hopefully to Seoul, 60km further south. It's a top quality road, wide and smooth, with a crisp easy glide that makes time pass quickly. It's also a ghost road, with barely a handful of vehicles ever using it. One day it may become a major trade route, but as it is now it's a road that leads to a place that people don't really want to go to, and don't have the vehicles to get there even if they wanted to.

On the road to Seoul.

Along the way we passed through the Reunification Arch, with an oft-repeated symbol that may one day by the symbol of One Korea. We also passed through numerous well constructed tunnels which passed through the mountains that obscure the path. The engineering was surprisingly good, and we were informed along the way by our guide that the road had been built by the Korean People's Army, in one of their more useful projects.

Aint to mountain high enough...

After spending the night in the nearby town of Kaesong, we headed down to the DMZ bright and early on a Friday morning. First up was an NK observation post, patrolled by a small team of lazy but content soldiers, no doubt satisfied that this morning was going to be no different to the tens of thousands which preceded it, and there would be little to actually observe over the DMZ. Through half a dozen binoculars, would could see out to the concrete barrier constructed by the south to protect itself from northern tunnel diggers, as well as the SK flag fluttering in the sky. The scene appeared strangely peaceful, with few soldiers visable in front of us, and a wild collection of flora and fauna dominating the vista. Perhaps if we were keen on a bit of 'Extreme Bird Watching' then we would have been in our element. Otherwise, a little underwhelming. The solider guiding us around this site became increasingly playful, and after the usual respectful photos of him and the group, he played along as we each took turns wearing his KPA hat around and just generally saw the absurdity in this absurd place.

Now you've worn my hat, you think like me.

After stopping at the obligatory souvenier stand to buy a serve of Ginseng and propaganda, we moved into a room with a small relief map of the DMZ. Through a translator, the soldier on duty pointed out the various attractions contained within one of the most hotly contested 4km strips of land in the world. It was here that the recurring DMZ theme emerged - the Northerners believe they have been harshly dealt with by the Southerners, and if the south would only be reasonable, things would be okay.

Every step you take, I'll be watching you.

A basic security check later, we found ourselves inside the DMZ. Looking up, you notice the two prominant flags phallicly pointing skyward. Close to us was an enormous DPRK flag fluttering in the cool winter breeze, whilst a short distance ahead of us a large RoK flag also marked its territory. The flags appear remarkably close together, and it is jarring to think of just how trecherous a journey it is to go from one flag to the other.

Finally, we moved on to Panmunjeom, the front line between North and South Korea. Whilst this site is visited from the south by hundreds of tourists daily, those approaching from the northern side are just a trickle. Which is strange, really, given that car parking is much easier on the northern side. A series of small buildings are built across the DMZ, and we were free to wander within them. At the back of the mind is the thought that if we were to attempt to leave from a different door to the one we entered from, we would probably by shot. Nonetheless, inside we noted the SK tribute to its allies during the Korean War (a rather odd collection including Luxembourg, Thailand, Colombia, Ethiopia and Australia) that would seem tempting at an All You Can Eat bistro, but perhaps not so much in military combat.

Where the action is.

Outside the buildings, soldiers from both sides eye each other off disdainfully. On the southern side, the combined SK and US forces stand with weapons by the side, appearing bored and looking like they're on a permanent smoko. The northern soldiers, however, stand to attention and offer their most threatening menace. Given the monumental lack of action at the DMZ over time, the menace seems a little unnecessary. Given the proximity and the boredom, it seems likely that there is some small talk that goes on between soldiers across the divide, although there was none evident when we were there.

All quiet on the southern front.

Moving away from Panmunjeom, we visited other sites of historical interest in the DMZ. Included in it is the table over which negotiations occurred more than one hundred times during the Korean War. Interestingly, whilst the North always represented itself at these discussions, the South were representated by the UN, usually through the US military. One wonders whether the presense of non-Koreans at the negotiating table made the North psychologically less willing to compromise. We also visted the site where the armistice agreement was eventually signed in 1953. In the Northern telling of history, those pesky Southerners capitulated to the might of the North, and begged for mercy, which the North in its compassionate wisdom granted. Not negotiation, but capitulation, according to the North.

With this thought fresh in our minds, we headed back for Pyongyang, having completed our DMZ experience. Like most tourists in this part of the world, we'd only ever seen the DMZ from one side - although for very few is that side the north.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Media in DPRK

As our Air Koryo flight stabilised in the air a couple of minutes after its wobbly departure from Beijing, those of us on board were offered some reading material, to give us a taste of what was to come. As is my habit when travelling, I did my best to get hold of a local newspaper, which in this case was North Korea's English language newspaper - The Pyongyang Times. The front page story on this issue (No 7 (2,312), Saturday February 12, Juche 94 (2005)) read:

Greatest glory to Kim Jong Il
The Korean people will mark the birthday of leader Kim Jong Il on February 16 at a time when they are effecting a fresh surge to grandly celebrate the 60th anniversaries of the Workers' Party of Korea and the country's liberation (note the exceptionally good use of the apostrophe, which would make most native English speakers proud -AS).

His birth was a historic event in carrying forward the cause of the Korean revolution started on Mt Peaktu, the sacred mountain of the revolution and opening up a bright future for Korea.

Greeting the February holiday, the Korean people deeply reflect on how the lifeline of the Korean revolution has been defended and how a new era of national properity has been ushered in in the storms of history. And at the same time, they render their highest honour and heartist congratulations to the leader.

President Kim Il Sung said:
"For his leadership ability and character and for his loyalty, devotion and achievements, Comrade Kim Jong Il has earned the people's respect and love as well as high prestige as their leader." (Note that the bold is direct from TPT.)

All the news that's fat to print.

The rest of the article continued with similarly sychophantic, and probably largely unread, praise for the wonders of the Dear Leader. In the midst of the page is a picture of K2 looking sufficiently reverential in his pose. Despite his death 11 years ago, it is curious that KIS is still quoted in the article - in bold, no less - as if his words were uttered just yesterday. Such a deception is no coincidence. It's also noticable that TPT fails to mention the age that KJI is turning - 63 - a rather odd omission given the significance of the story. Is KJI a bit sensitive about his age, perhaps?

For the sake of the curious, other headlines in this particular edition of The Pyongyang Times included:

"Songung propels building of a thriving nation"
"Single-minded unity, DPRK's dynamic"
"Kim Jong Il congratulates pacesettings in Songum era"
"World leaders lavish high praise and respect on great man"

What ever happened to those old Soviet planes once the Cold War ended?

Despite it being a reasonably professional looking 8 page publication, our flight on Air Koryo was the only time we would receive a copy of this English language weekly. It is questionable just why the regime bothers publishing it, given that the handful of expats are about as likely to be seduced by its message as I am of becoming Miss North Korea 2005, and the local population are serviced by Korean language media. Even as a tool for communicating the regime's message to the outisde world it is a failure, given that the rest of the world turns to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) for such a service.


For locals, the only game in town when it comes to printed news is the Rodong Sinmun. Though there were few copies of this Korean-language propaganda rag in the hands of ordinary people, there were copies mounted on display boards in various prominent places. During a visit to the Pyongyang Metro, there were several people taking an interest in the newspaper on display in the station. It is hard to judge the fine detail of the Rodong Sinmun given that I don't read a word of Korean, but from the design it seemed to resemble the Chinese propaganda newspapers on the streets of Beijing - lots of smiling happy faces, bold headlines and plenty of text.

Electronic media is also very tightly resticted.


Possession of a radio in DPRK is severely limited, and before departing for Pyongyang I was advised not to bring one with me, since it faced confiscation. Much to my horror and chagrin, I had neglected to follow this instruction, and before long found myself with a radio in my hotel room. Absent-mindedly, I put the earphones in the appropriate orifice, and flicked on the switch. As I scanned the dial, there was a strange feeling of deja vu. Station after station on the FM band were broadcasting the same, shrill female voice reading what sounded like a fairy-tale or historical story. Alas, there is only one radio station in Pyongyang, and it broadcasts on multiple frequencies up and down the dial. The AM band is sadly barren.

A propaganda poster on the streets of Pyongyang.


Television in DPRK is surprisingly interesting, if you take the right frame of mind in to your viewing experience. There is one channel - Juche TV, complete with the flaming Juche Tower watermark in the top left hand corner - and it broadcasts through a large chunk of the day. At eight o'clock each evening, it features a news bulletin covering the events of the day. At the start of the bulletin there is a short announcement from a middle aged lady, dressed in traditional Korean garb, and standing in front of a plain bluescreen. Rousing herself into a considerable state of excitement, the name Kim Jong Il is regularly mentioned as she reaches a crescendo. After her announcement, her place would be taken by a soberly dressed 40-something man - the Dan Rather/Jeremy Paxman/Jim Waley of Pyongyang.

During my week in Pyongyang, the news bulletins mostly featured various activities related to the birthday of the Dear Leader. Story after story featured healthy-looking NKers engaging in healthy-looking activity, and they would occassionally be pulled aside by the reporter for a quick interview, usually conducted with many smilies and the vigourous passing of the microphone from interviewer to interviewee. At the end of each news bulletin, there would be a simple weather report, which featured a dozen cities and their high and low for the following day, along with a charming little illustration of just what 'hot' or 'cold' or 'nuclear thunderstorm' would look like.

Lucky for those of us in the tour group, we got a chance to experience Juche TV news first hand. Whilst browsing at the Kimjongilia Flower Festival, our group was approached by a camera crew and journalist, who were excited at the prospect of a group of foreigners at this very Korean celebration (given that 2-3 stories were filed each day of this week from the flower festival, the journalist's excitement is somewhat understandable). With Mr Ri, our guide, acting as a translator, we were given the instructions to smell the flowers whilst we were being filmed. Mustering all the enthusiasm we could, the four of us grossly overacted as we sniffed the flowers with all the might and vigour of a group who might have just discovered NK's secret cocaine stash. After much insincere admiration for the flowers before us, we were given a further instruction: talk. What do you want us to say, came our inevitable response. Just talk, it doesn't really matter what you say. With the wonders of redubbing and Korean subtitles, it was largely irrelevant what we had to say - by the time it hit the evening news bulletin, it would no doubt be overwhelmingly positive.

Hi Mum!

Later in the evening there are NK soap operas and films which are broadcast. With surprisingly sophisticated techniques, the rough NK equivalent of Days of Our Lives are beamed out to an appreciative audience. One night, whilst watching TV with some local ladies working in the hotel, it was clear that they were captivated by the on-screen action. Though some of the films and shows appeared to be quite dated, they nonetheless followed the western conventions of TV drama.

(It's worth noting that in the Yangakdo Hotel, we had access to a variety of Japenese, Chinese and Hong Kong stations, as well as BBC World, although given it's location this is exclusively the preserve of foreigners. There'll be more on this soon when I write a piece about the hotel.)


Internet access in DPRK is almost non-existant. Miss Pak, our cluey young guide explained that she had never used the internet, nor had any ordinary NKers. Possession of a modem is illegal in NK, you see. There is a basic NK intranet that exists, and whilst in the Great People's Study Hall, we saw a room full of young NKers using an online chat service. Alas, they are restricted to talking only to fellow North Koreans, and given the scarcity of computers in the country, that most likely meant that the other people they were chatting to were in the same room at the same time. Post-modernists would have a field day with that idea.

With no access at all to outside media, it is little wonder that so many North Korean people are enraptured with the current regime. There is a constant diet of positive stories, smiling happy people, unashamed spin and Orwellian silliness. For generations, people have grown up with the constant message that life is good, and they have internalised it. Given that critical opinion is completely absent from the news media, the notion seems to be incomprehensible to North Korean people. Complete control of the media is a large part of the Kims' strategy to retain a perpetual grip on power. And it works.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Happy birthday, Mr Kim

Upon arriving in Pyongyang, we were confronted by endless presentations of the same small symbol, which would feature on buildings, homes, posts, signs and just about every other space that wasn't yet occupied. '2.16' it read, usually in bold neon colours straight out of a kindergarten display board. Was the number maybe a bible reference? Or was it the desired height of a North Korean as decreed by the Great Leader? Or was it perhaps the number of nuclear weapons currently possessed by the DPRK? Instead it was none of these, but itstead was a reference to February 16, the birthday of Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.

Just what is 2.16?

2.16 is a two day national holiday in North Korea, celebrated by various public displays, rest from work, and the general giddy feeling that comes with being surrounded by the aura of KJI. Though there is some dispute about the location of his birth (the NKers insist that he was born in the country itself, whilst the rest of the world insists with some truth that he was born and spent his early years in Russia). Nonetheless, on Feb. 16 2005, KJI turned 63, and we were on hand to celebrate.

To mark the occassion, the Kimjongilia Flower Festival was held all week in a pavillion in central Pyongyang. The Kimjongilia is the national flower of North Korea, and most of the ones on display had a brilliant red colour to them, and looked a little rose-like, but without the prickly stems. Our first encounter with the festival was the enormous queue of people who lined up to enter. In an orderly manner, hundreds, potentially thousands, of people lined up in single file outside the entrance, and the queue turned several corners, passed through an underpass underneath a deserted road, and continued to wind out of site behind another building. Many of the people in the queue were soldiers in uniform (as a sidenote, there are few countries on earth which can boast that on days off from duty, its soldiers flock to a flower festival for entertainment). Others in the queue were excited primary school children, waiting in a surprisingly docile and patient way.

Just one rose amongst many thorns.

Once inside, we were free to wonder around the horse-shoe shaped display, on both the ground and first level. Each stand at the festival seemed to be sponsored by some government department, and featured an almost identical arrangement. A large collection of Kimjongilia were arranged in an elaborate floral pattern, whilst behind them a large illuminated picture showed a North Korean natural scene, and superimposed over or integrated within the picture would be a portrait of KIS, KJI, both and occassionally neither. Christmas-style fairy-lights were also regularly part of the display. Each display was staffed by professional-looking men and women, the latter of which were in brightly coloured traditional dresses, with of course the KIS badge taking pride of place.

Kimjongilia - such a romantic flower.

Other celebrations for the birthday of KJI included a dancing session in Kim Il Sung Square. What looked like 15,000 people gathered at three in the afternoon, dressed in suits and traditional clothing, to dance to traditional Korean music. With surprising synchronicity, the dancers went through a sequence of circle dances to the music, and it seemed oddly similar to many a daggy wedding, with everyone seemingly familiar with the steps and the music blaring at an uncomfortable volume. Despite our repeated requests, we weren't allowed to venture close to the dancers or to join in. We didn't have an invitation, you see.

It's just a jump to the left...

Also to mark the Dear Leader's birthday was a performance of the Pyongyang Military Circus. Performances of this fine performing troop are regular occassions, and other than the neon-coloured '2/16' sign atop the stage, it is doubtful that there was much different about this particular circus presentation. The performers were exceptionally skilled, and the usual array of jugglers, trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, and jump-ropers kept the youthful audience's attention. A remarkable trapeze act saw the performers thirty metres in the air, performing death-defying tricks before reaching a climax by falling the full thirty metres into a safety net. It was fascinating to see a short, largely mimed sketch, which featured an exadurated American (think of Shylock from the Merchent of Venice, although with far less subtlety) as the frequent butt of slapstick gags. At the end of the show, a giant projection of KJI appeared on the back wall, and the NK flag was marched through the circus ring. It truly was a cunning array of stunts.

A truly amazing performance.

One glaring ommission from the birthday celebrations was Kim Jong Il himself. The previous day we asked our tour guide whether we would have a chance to see KJI, and were told forcefully that we wouldn't be seen on the day. True to form, he was absent as all around him celebrated the birthday. Watching the news bulletin on the sole NK TV channel (Juche TV) that night, story after story featured luminaries singing his praises, but nigh a word from the man himself.

The only public appearance he made during our five days in DPRK was a night or two later, when we saw him receive a rousing ovation from the audience at the end of a performance by visiting Russian dancers, singers and musicians. Watching this all on Juche TV, the following evening, the footage seemed to be genuine, and the applause rousing. It does beg the question, however, why KJI would make an appearance before a group of visiting Russians, but fail to acknowledge his own people's best birthday wishes.

There have been theories circulating for some time that suggest KJI is either dead, or no longer in control of the country. This second theory would seem to have some truth given how infrequently public appearances are made, however the suggestion that he is dead is clearly untrue. Just what motivates him to appear or not appear at various events is a tricky question, but the answer may give a good clue as to just what is happening amongst the DPRK elites.

Any how Kim, happy birthday. Sorry I forgot to bring a present, but at least I made it to the party.