In February 2014, I traveled to several cities in North
Korea with the Pyongyang Project, a group based in Canada that organizes tours
of North Korea and works to help North Korean students study abroad in China
and the United Kingdom. We spent four days in Pyongyang, one day in Kaesong and
a half-day in Pyongsong. While there, we
were able to witness celebrations held for the Day of the Shining Star, the
anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s birth.
On February 15th, the eve of Kim Jong Il’s
birthday, many people visited Mansudae, an area where large bronze statues of Kim
Il Sung and Kim Jong Il overlook the city. Each group would go up to the
statues to lay bouquets of flowers and bow.
As I got my first look at the city from the windows of
our tour bus, I was struck by how little traditional Korean architecture
remained. Not that Seoul has retained much more of its ancient
architecture, but the juxtaposition of a few ancient gates with the omnipresent and severe Soviet-era
buildings made for a striking image.
I also had to get used to the propaganda and slogans that
could be seen on every billboard and building in place of advertisements. These bold messages encouraged citizens to
follow the wise leadership of the Marshal Kim Jong Eun toward victory, and to live
according to the revolutionary Mt. Baekdu spirit, or, in this case, “If the American Imperialists Attack, Let’s Wipe Them Off the Face of the Earth!”
Outside of the city, the apartment blocks are not painted, and some don’t even have windows. Many buildings appear to be under
construction but the cranes operating them have rusted over. Pyongyang is very
clean. We never even saw a trashcan. Despite this cleanliness, however, the city
still looks like it is crumbling to pieces.
On the Day of the Shining Star on February 16th, hundreds
of visitors arrived to pay their respects to Kim Jong Il who lies in state at the
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. To mark the occasion many army units were transported
in via bus from the provinces to take in the sights of the capital.
As it was a public holiday, there were many people out
and about. Cars, buses, trolleys and new taxis could be seen on the streets,
though traffic is rarely congested. Most intersections do not have lights and
are overseen instead by the highly-trained, almost robotic men and women in
Citizens enjoy a game of outdoor volleyball on their
Pyongyang’s metro system was quite busy that day, as
trains were filled with people headed downtown for the afternoon mass dances.
Everyone used transport cards at the somewhat modern-looking turnstiles, but
the trains themselves were quite old. Their doors opened mechanically and the
interior was dimly lit. Nationalistic songs blared through the speakers. Similar
to public transportation all over the world, no one spoke much or made eye
On public holidays, hundreds of people gather to participate
in mass dances that take place in public squares throughout the country. This time, too, young adults dressed in their finest chosunbok (traditional Korean attire)
and suits, often adding a heavy winter coat for an extra layer. The mass dances may
sound bizarre, but in reality it was quite fun. It reminded me of an
English-Scottish folk ball I attended once, although the music here was a
particular brand of North Korean pop music that praises the leaders. It sounded harsh and militaristic even when performed
with a synthesizer and a drum kit.
Most of the dancers formed circles, and everyone had a
partner they remained with for the duration of the dance. Though most pairs
were male-female, often women danced with women, and I did see a few instances
of men dancing with men. I was told that the mass dances are not a bad time to
meet potential love interests!
The dances themselves were quite easy to pick up.
After a few minutes of watching, I felt the urge to join, so my friends and I
ran in and joined one of the circles. The Koreans looked at us with varying
levels of surprise and were good humored about it. After stumbling around with my friend for a
few songs, I worked up the courage to dance with a Korean girl, who was very
helpful in directing my steps for the last few songs. I’ll admit it – I had a
lot of fun!
A Korean woman dressed in formal chosunbok uses a cell phone. Mobile technology is now ubiquitous in
Pyongyang. Citizens may access the strictly-controlled intranet via their smart
phones, which are either produced domestically
or imported from China. However, the greatest advantage of cell phone
technology is the ability to store multiple numbers for multiple uses.
Nobody, not even our guides, could deny that North
Korea has an energy problem. The lights at our hotel and restaurants shut off
without warning at least half a dozen times during our trip. Nobody even
blinked. The first time this happened was during
dinner, and we promptly took out our cell phones so that we could see our food.
Our servers continued to bring out dishes as if nothing was amiss. Those of us
who enjoy photographing our food simply had to turn on the flash.
We began to notice that a large contingent of elderly
men and women were staying with us at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. It did
not take us long to figure out that these men and women were about to participate in the separated family reunions scheduled for February 20th-25th.
We saw them every day but we were not allowed to interact with them. They were all taken to the Mt. Kumgang Resort in
VIP limousines and buses on February 19th.