|The Straits Times, Singapore, Saturday Special section, Sep 13, 2008|
|A FLEETING GLIMPSE OF RECLUSIVE NORTH KOREA|
|By Sim Chi Yin, China Correspondent|
'Beautiful? How can they be beautiful? There are no trees. With their sanctions, the Americans forced our people to chop down all the trees for fuel,' Mr Kim retorted, silencing me.
I did wonder about the bald mounds of brown earth I saw through the oval-shaped windows on our hour-long plane ride from Beijing. They provided the only form of in-flight entertainment on the rumbling Soviet-era Air Koryo aircraft, as stern air stewardesses served us a six-course meal of fish fillet and cold pork cuts.
But it is just so difficult to know the right answers about this country.
Now, just as the country marks its 60th anniversary this week - and with reports on the ailing health of its leader Kim Jong Il filtering out - Pyongyang is reassembling the key Yongbyon nuclear plant. This comes barely months after it signalled its commitment to denuclearisation by dramatically blowing up the facility's cooling towers in front of TV cameras in late June.
In the popular imagination, the secretive, isolated country of 24 million is known largely as a nuclear threat or for its famines.
Yet, on a short and chaperoned five-day visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Koreans prefer their country to be known, what I saw was a people who were not just automatons and a society that was neither starved nor sterile.
But what could a visiting foreigner really see of this secretive country, the last bastion of the Cold War? What could I make of this self-styled 'paradise on earth' largely isolated for 60 years - and counting?
ON A crisp, clear morning in Pyongyang, I took in the seductive, almost soporific calm that shrouded the city.
Like neat grey milk cartons, concrete apartment blocks line the streets. If they looked somewhat grim, they were also without exception free of litter and graffiti.
A thin girl skips on the steps of a building. A man does push-ups on the pavement. A group of men fishes in a stream off the main Taedong River that runs through Pyongyang while a few people play chess nearby.
On a bridge, a woman rides pillion on a bicycle, her arm snugly around the man's slender waist.
Down a driveway from the grand Mansudae Hall - the country's parliament house - well-dressed children climb a tree.
How very 'normal', I thought to myself. That impression was to be voiced repeatedly by the rest of our delegation of Singapore officials, businessmen and journalists - almost as if we could not believe our eyes.
Still, Pyongyang is known to be a 'showcase city' for visitors' consumption and where politically approved citizens live.
It is easy to forget this is a country where the average monthly income is said to be US$2 to US$3 (S$2.89 to S$4.34), enough for just about 4kg of rice - before the recent skyrocketing of food prices due to shortages.
From what we could see driving by, shops seemed well-stocked behind their glass windows. One had a giant paper cut-out of what looked like a Tabasco bottle in a showcase.
Emerging from underground subway stations, men and women - mostly lean and unhurried - wear boxy, brown two-piece suits, similar to the gear North Korean paramount leader Kim Jong Il is seen in on the rare occasions he surfaces in the international media.
Pinned on the top left of every person's chest, without fail, is a one-cent-sized badge bearing the image of either the nation's late 'Great Leader' and founding father Kim Il Sung or his son, 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong Il, against a bright red background.
There are other reminders that we are in a time warp of a Socialist state - one which has not officially ended the brutal war it fought against South Korea from 1950 to 1953.
Around the capital, concrete billboards stand, with Socialist Realist art work exhorting: 'Let us reunify our country in our generation', 'Let us all become patriots of the Korean Workers' Party'.
On the city's main square, schoolchildren practise calisthenics en masse. A portrait of Kim Il Sung hangs on one side of the square beneath a giant DPRK flag, facing smaller ones of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx.
Beside a padi field on the outskirts of town, a giant board shows Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il standing knee-deep in golden fields of rice ripe for harvest, beaming and chests swollen with confidence.
That perhaps encapsulates the thrust of the official ideology of juche. Its claim to superiority is based on the promise to deliver prosperity and a good life to all Koreans, as leading scholar of North Korea Andrei Lankov notes in his writings.
To foreign eyes, there is cruel irony in that depiction of plenty in this country with a chronic food shortage. But it is difficult to know if those who live in this self-proclaimed paradise see reassuring hope in those images or are numb to them.
A crippling famine between 1996 and 1999 killed up to one million people (about 5 per cent of the population). Some scholars have recently sounded the alarm that another famine might be looming. In July, the United Nations World Food Programme said North Korea was facing its worst levels of hunger since the late 1990s.
As with many other things about this controversial pariah state, the causes of its repeated bouts of food shortages are fiercely debated, with Pyongyang blaming floods and outside observers fingering the North Korean leadership for bad decisions.
An Asian businessman who has travelled to North Korea over the past 10 years shares some of the North Koreans' sense of victimhood. 'Many outsiders and Westerners blame the government for the famine. That's all crap,' he says.
It is really because North Korea has very little arable land - just 14 per cent by some estimates - and poor weather, he maintains.
Scholars, however, note that similar conditions in neighbouring South Korea (19 per cent arable land) and China (13 per cent arable land) do not yield the same tragic results. What Pyongyang needs to do for a long-term solution, argue economists, is to restart industry, and export minerals and manufactured goods, then import grain - just as Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo do.
(The latest brewing emergency has its roots in the government's decision to ban private trade in grains in 2005, criminalising the main way locals had been using to get food, say United States-based economists Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland in a paper published in May.)
Whatever the case may be, in Pyongyang, no sign of this food crisis was visible.
Still, we hardly saw any fat people. And at a mere 1.52m, I found myself - for a change - not dwarfed by the line of North Korean women waiting to pay respects at the Kim Il Sung mausoleum.
If there was a famine coming, our hosts were determined not to let it show. At meals, we were plied with dish after dish of kimchi, rice cakes, steak and cold cuts of meat.
We never had to eat the biscuits we had packed along in our suitcases.
THE central story Pyongyang has fed its citizens since the 1950s is that life in their utopia is better than in South Korea.
Propaganda material and school textbooks depict the South as an impoverished land of terror and hunger - a 'living hell'. Indeed, the leadership's legitimacy is based on the claim that living standards in the North are among the highest in the world, notes Dr Lankov, an associate professor at the Kookmin University in Seoul.
As defenders of the regime tell it, up to the 1980s, the North - propped up by aid from its Socialist big brothers the Soviet Union and China - was economically ahead of the South. (According to this narrative, the breakdown of the command economy and the United States sanctions to censure Pyongyang over its nuclear programme have since crippled the economy.)
That is cited as cause for optimism that the North's economy will roar ahead again, should its neighbours succeed in their ongoing efforts to persuade it to open up.
The scholarly take is that yes, the South was initially very poor, given that some 80 per cent of all of the peninsula's industry was located in the North when the two Koreas were split across the 38th parallel in 1953. But most scholars estimate that the South then overtook the North by around 1965 or 1970.
By the 1980s, the difference between the two Koreas 'was huge, like between Vietnam and Japan nowadays', Dr Lankov who first visited North Korea then, told The Straits Times.
By the time famine gripped the North around 1996, the difference in per capita gross domestic product was at least 1:10. Today, the per capita gross national income in the South is about 17 times that in the North.
That living, breathing example of what North Korea can be but is not provides a potent foil that worries Pyongyang, noted Dr Lankov.
The regime fears that the reality of the rich and free country that shares its language and culture just south of the border would be too much for regular North Koreans to bear, he said.
Neither China nor Vietnam, two Socialist states that successfully reformed their economies without losing political control in the 1980s, had to contend with such a prospect.
'The North Korean elites know that the greatest threats they face are internal, not external, and that resisting reform is the most effective way to control the population,' Dr Lankov wrote in a journal article this year.
Quite naturally then, Pyongyang still slaps anachronistically strict controls on communication and restricts travel.
There has been a mobile phone network in the country since around 2001 and the top crust of society could afford to use it, but in 2004 those privileges were withdrawn for 'national security' reasons.
Like all foreign visitors, we were stripped of our mobile phones on arrival at the airport. (They were returned to us in a sealed envelope only as we left and crossed the border to the Chinese city of Dandong.) We were allowed to rent a local mobile phone but soon gave up because a few minutes of talk-time cost ¥20 (S$40).
The e-mail addicts among us went cold turkey. It is not that North Korea is lagging technologically. It installed a fibre-optic cable network and a nationwide intranet system in 2000, complete with its own browser, e-mail, search engines and chat rooms.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il even famously asked then-US secretary of State Madeleine Albright for her e-mail address on her visit to Pyongyang in October 2000.
But while foreign businesses in the capital are able to get online, the World Wide Web is locked away from most locals. They also do not have access to foreign publications.
A privileged few, like our guide from the Public Information Committee, clearly were familiar with the international media though. The 30-year-old, who spoke almost perfect English with a Canadian accent, accompanied us to most of our press events and interviews, including those with Foreign Minister George Yeo. One afternoon, he proclaimed: 'Your foreign minister speaks like Time and Newsweek magazines.'
In our hotel rooms, we could watch BBC news and clay court tennis on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, alongside what locals probably only have: channels showing peasants stoically trudging through snow or Mr Kim Jong Il inspecting a pharmaceutical factory and workers raising their fists to punch the air after making yet another breakthrough in the lab.
But for all of Pyongyang's curbs, cracks in its giant firewall have emerged in the past decade.
With more foreigners travelling to Pyongyang and, more importantly, since North Koreans have been doing (officially sanctioned) business with China in recent years, the sights and sounds of the outside world have filtered in. Harsh travel rules that prevented residents from travelling even to other parts of the country are also said to have been, in practice, relaxed since around 1997.
Quietly, soap operas and pop music from South Korea and China are all the rage in North Korea. Our guide admits as much when he confesses to a penchant for 'Chinese pop songs'. Cheap DVD players and VCRs have made their way south from north-eastern China.
The real impact of this creeping picture of the outside world - especially the scenes depicting daily life in South Korea - on regular North Koreans is impossible to gauge.
But this was clearly not a sterile, Stalinist society in stasis. Whether the regime welcomes it or not, change is in the air.
Pyongyang residents now line up to play the newly popular sport of tennis at the few courts around the city. Right across from our hotel was an L-shaped row of kiosks selling sausages, ice cream and cans of Heineken beer. A bottle of mineral water carried a price tag of 700 won, or almost $7 at the official exchange rate.
We were told we could not use hard currency on the streets, but late one night, a young woman who spoke no English handed us four 500ml bottles of mineral water in exchange for US$1 (S$1.50).
Up to the 1990s, the North Korean economy was a strictly controlled one, even if it had clearly evolved from the ultra-orthodox command system of the 1960s. The famine from 1996 on and the breakdown of the state's food ration system quietly spurred the growth of private enterprise at the grassroots. But at the time, markets were deemed an embarrassment to be banished to the fringes of the capital.
At the bustling Tongil (Unification) Market, we were taken to see - but not allowed to photograph - row upon row of stalls set up in a hangar-like building. Local women hawked meat, fruits, vegetables, packed food, and made-in-China tracksuits, shoes and 'Tissot' watches.
It is where the local fashion-conscious goes to shop. A teenager in calf-high, shocking blue boots - who will blend into the streets of Seoul - took her time with a glittery selection of sequinned hair clips.
Evidently, it was also a place for North Korean men to show their chivalry. 'Buy your lady a handkerchief,' a smiling, matronly saleswoman urged our guide, Mr Kim, jerking her head at a piece of lacy pink fabric as I walked next to him down an aisle.
BEYOND snatches like that, there was little opportunity to interact with locals.The only ordinary folk I could speak with, in a smattering of English and Mandarin, and with the help of hand signs, were staff members at our hotel.
In closed societies like North Korea's, journalists are always careful about talking to the locals - for fear that it might bring them trouble. But at least some of them here seemed eager to speak to foreigners - like young people elsewhere in Asia. The friendly waitress at the lobby cafe microwaved some jam buns for me late one night and told me earnestly: 'Come back to talk to me every night. I want to practise English.'
I tried to keep my promise, but did not see her on duty again.
While working hard at blocking the outside world from its people, Pyongyang is also understandably edgy about what foreigners see and document of their much-misunderstood country.
Shortly after our arrival, our minder gave each of the six journalists blue armbands with the words 'ki ja' ('journalist' in transliterated Korean) embroidered in loud white letters. 'Don't forget to wear it. Otherwise people will think you're a spy when you photograph them. And don't lose it,' Mr Kim told us.
We dutifully wore the armband everywhere we went, pleasantly surprised on the first two days that our minders did not stop us from photographing anything, although they watched us closely.
We asked and were allowed to take pictures of daily life on the streets around our hotel one afternoon - till they came chasing after us asking 'Aren't you finished yet?' just 10 minutes after giving us free rein.
The next morning, we were gathered and admonished: 'Some of you are not following the rules. The negative side is growing. Every country has rules for foreign journalists.'
We were told to follow the unstated 'rules' from then on.
In what seemed like an episode of extraordinary openness, Pyongyang early this year hosted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and 80 accompanying journalists.
Mr Kim told me he had been assigned to a few of the American journalists. I had seen some of their articles and nice photographs in international news magazines, I said.
He replied: 'I saw only un-beautiful pictures. American journalists are just out to see us in a bad way, write bad things about us... and you're just the same, right?'
I told him I had come with an open mind just to see for myself and try to understand a little of his mysterious country.
I'm not sure I convinced him.
That sort of ambivalence about interacting with the outside world is reflected in the tepid, tentative diplomatic dance North Korea seems to be engaged in of late. The New York Philharmonic performance was followed by another encouraging signal of a growing openness: Pyongyang signed a non-aggression pact with Asean in late July.
But with the regime announcing last month that it had stopped disabling its key nuclear reactor, the long-running six-nation denuclearisation talks - which resumed only recently after a nine-month hiatus - appear to have hit a roadblock yet again.
ALL around me was pitch darkness. The street lamps were not lit and only a few windows on the high-rise apartment blocks glowed with white or yellow.
Looking up to the sky, I saw a carpet of stars like I had seen in no other capital city in the world.
Was it a blessing or curse then that Pyongyang had a chronic electricity shortage and no (polluting) industries close by, I wondered.
It was close to midnight but for a while, music flowed through the cool air: pathos-filled choral martial hymns and then instrumental tunes a touch shrill.
Was that rousing, eerie or calming?
Like so much of what we saw, it was hard from this vignette to make sense of this complex place. But I was beginning to understand why a friend who had been here before described it as 'Alice in Wonderland meets 1984' - a surreal, fairytale-like utopia that was also Orwellian.
If we had hoped to see grittier scenes once we were out of Pyongyang, we were disappointed. The snatches of the countryside we caught on our train ride northwards to the Chinese border city of Dandong were surprisingly clean and orderly.
I had been to other communist or former communist states - Cuba, Russia, Romania, China and Vietnam, but this really was something else.
There was none of the grubbiness of poverty commonplace elsewhere. Neat rows of white stone houses and languid farmers zipped past our train windows. It was all very impressive but also spoke of a ramrod discipline and high degree of social organisation.
Somewhere in the folds of those treeless mountains and gridded fields was a more brutal reality of a nation that has put away one out of every 150 of its citizens as political prisoners.
Whatever the state does, it may become increasingly difficult to lock out the world beyond.
North Korea may not have had anything like the former Soviet Union's glasnost that chipped away the credibility of the state or China's Cultural Revolution which thoroughly bankrupted the Maoist system.
But while the North Korean famine of the 1990s did not bring about a political challenge from within, it did have an irreversible impact on the expectations of ordinary citizens, scholars say.
For now, though, to our minder Mr Kim - old enough to have lived through the famine yet young enough to see the future - there is still an ostensible pride in the country's pariah status, 60 years on.
In a casual conversation at the back of our van one day, he said: 'People often blame the leadership and the system...We have chosen our course.
'In 20 to 30 years, we'll be able to tell...'
The writer-photographer went to North Korea in May with a Singapore delegation accompanying Foreign Minister George Yeo, who was on an official visit there, the first by a Singapore minister.