Deeper Than Oil: An evening stroll in North Korea

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
The streets of Pyongyang were unnaturally clean. I don’t think I saw a piece of rubbish all week, unless you count cigarette butts.

I’ve just got back from a week in North Korea. It was a fascinating trip, but I’m not entirely sure I understand the country any better now than I did before I left. Still, at least I got to eat pizza in Pyongyang, which is more than most folk will ever get to do.

There are no welcome signs to greet you as you arrive at Pyongyang international airport. Instead, portraits of Eternal President Kim il-Sung (he acquired the title after his death in 1994) and his son and successor Dear Leader Kim Jong-il gaze down at you with undisguised disapproval in the arrivals hall. We would see a lot of them in the next week.

As befits the world’s most secretive country, cell phones are removed from all foreigners upon entry to North Korea. They wouldn’t work even if you did manage to smuggle one through, anyway. There is likewise no Internet, although it’s possible to send emails from hotel accounts, if you don’t mind having them scanned for content beforehand, that is.

Despite this lack of modern technology, the border guards were surprisingly clued up. “You have I-Pad?” one of them asked as he went through my bags. Steve Jobs would have been proud.

Foreigners, with the unique exception of a bunch of Chinese tourists who recently got to go on an unprecedented solo road trip across parts of North Korea, have to be accompanied throughout their visit by two guides/minders. We’d arranged our visit through KCNA, the North Korean state news agency, and were met by Comrade Lee and Seo, our translator. We would see almost as much of them as the two Kims in the following seven days.

It had taken two months of negotiations and general pleading to get my hands on a journalist visa. Of course, as the North Koreans aren’t exactly forthcoming with access to interviewees or information, many news agencies and media outlets simply go undercover on tourist visas. But I’d heard rumors that subsequent articles could have nasty consequences for guides, and so we’d played it by the book.

During the lengthy and torturous process of getting approval from Pyongyang, I had scoured the Internet for footage of North Korea, indiscriminately devouring news reports, tourist videos on YouTube and state propaganda.  As a result, the scenery on the drive into the North Korean capital was oddly familiar. That made me feel a touch sad, as if the world no longer held any secrets, although I guess it was my own fault for not being so patient.

The streets of Pyongyang were unnaturally clean. I don’t think I saw a piece of rubbish all week, unless you count cigarette butts. Children, I noted, played happily in the streets without parental supervision. There were very few cars, and we would only encounter one traffic jam during our stay (after an international football match). While women’s clothes were somewhat varied and occasionally brightly coloured, all the men were dressed in black, grey or dark green military-type uniforms. Or imported business suits for high-up officials.

At first glance, it seemed like a pretty nice place to live, especially if you were able to ignore the hundreds of placards, signs and posters praising Kim il-Sung, Kim Jong-il and the ruling Labor Party. Which, admittedly, was kind of hard.

We were put up at the Koryo, a vast twin-tower hotel in central Pyongyang. The Washington Times once claimed many of the guests here are arms dealers, although no one offered me so much as a grenade during my entire stay. I was just glad we hadn’t been taken to the Yanggadko, a hotel set on an island, from where chances to wander the streets of Pyongyang are zero.

Still, I wasn’t really expecting to be let out unaccompanied, whatever hotel I was staying at. Tourists are strictly forbidden to leave their hotels without their guides, and are usually simply bussed from site to site before being taken back to their accommodation.

But I thought I may as well pop the question anyway and asked if we were free to come and go as we liked, within reason.

“Why not?” Comrade Lee smiled, obviously glad of the chance to surprise. “Just don’t go too far.”

One of the city's few foreign residents later told me that it wasn’t unheard of – although still pretty unusual – for journalists to be allowed to wander around alone. It was, she said, a sign of trust. Perhaps the fact we were from a Russian news agency had something to do with it? Ties between Moscow and Pyongyang have been developing rapidly of late, and a rail link between the two countries would open during our time in the country.

And so, after dumping our bags in our rooms, my colleague Maria and I set off for an evening walk around Pyongyang. The streets of the North Korean capital were very dimly lit, even in the centre, and the Tower of Juche, the monument to the national ideology of self-reliance, glowed – I hate to resort to stereotypes here, but there really is no other word here to describe that light – malevolently in the distance.

The further we got from the hotel, the darker it got. I was still stunned to be walking around Pyongyang without a minder, and the North Koreans we encountered were equally as flabbergasted to see us, although they all looked away as soon as I made eye contact.

Ours were the only white faces I saw on the streets both that evening and for the rest of the week. One afternoon a group of small children would hurry away from us in fear.

We made our way to the nearby train station, a Soviet-inspired construction bearing a portrait of Kim il-Sung. “Wow,” a tipsy local said (in Korean, of course), upon setting eyes upon us.

We turned the corner and the hotel was out of sight. It felt like stepping over to the dark side of the moon. Are we supposed to be here? I wondered. Perhaps we had misunderstood Comrade Lee?

The nature of North Korea’s isolation means that every little thing – no matter how mundane – becomes instantly fascinating and cause for speculation. We walked into a shop and examined the rows of fruit. I would later discover that a kilo of apples cost the equivalent of an average monthly salary, with a kilo of rice slightly cheaper. But it’s an open fact these days in North Korea that almost no one can survive on their official salary, and the authorities have no choice but to turn a blind eye to private - illegal - markets.

We then popped into a local café – a sign in English said it was called Café Pyulmori. That was odd, I thought. Why did they need an English-language sign? After all, at last count there were less than 200 Westerners who called Pyongyang home.

I was expecting to be sent packing at once. Mingling with locals is actively discouraged in North Korea, even if you can find one brave enough to chat. But another surprise awaited.

The smiling waitress showed us to our seats as the Beatles “Let It Be” – muzak version – played softly in the background. Frank Sinatra was up next, the melody to “My Way” mingling strangely with the evening news: Kim Jong-il had visited a factory that day to dispense some “on-the-spot guidance” (he seems to do a lot of that).

I ordered a pizza. Earlier this year I ate a pizza on Chechnya’s Putin Avenue, but this topped even that in the surreal-places-to-eat-Italian-food ratings. The pizza was pretty good, and very filling, with plenty of melted cheese. We paid in dollars and walked back out into the gloom. The next time we tried to go into another restaurant, a man – who, I have no idea – yelled at us from the street and ran over to bar our entry. We didn’t argue.

I later found out that the Café Pyulmori was an approved spot for foreign residents and diplomats. Not that we saw any there, mind. They also put the rock standards muzak disc on every time we visited in the following days. I got pretty fed up with it, I can tell you. I'd kind of counted on North Korea being at least the kind of place where I would be spared the inanity of Lennon and McCartney. I only wish I could have somehow slipped on some Pyongyang Hardcore Resistance.

After pizza, we went back to the hotel and retired to our rooms. Opposite the hotel, construction workers were still busy building a new restaurant set to open in 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim il-Sung. There were building sites all over the city, with work continuing round the clock. The hammering woke me up later that night and I stared out of my window at the residential block opposite. It was 3am and there were lights on in a number of apartments. Who stays up half the night in Pyongyang? And what do they do?

Like many things in North Korea, I guess I'll never know the answer to that one.

I’ve been back in Moscow for less than 24 hours at the time of writing, and I’m still sifting through my material and my thoughts. I’ll be posting more articles on topics such as everyday life in North Korea, the Juche ideology, the Kim cult of personality and Party Day celebrations, as well as photos and video in the next week or so. So stay tuned for more tales from North Korea.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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