Wednesday 12 September, 2012 – Nampo and Pyongyang
|Our last full day today. How quickly the time has gone, although on balance, my feeling is that we judged our tour very well, with it ending up as neither too short nor too long, and including neither too few nor too many sights. There are longer tours, going as long as two weeks or more, but I think most people other than truly dedicated North Korean specialists will find five days to be about right.After a usual hotel breakfast this morning, we headed down another of the spookily empty ‘super-highways’, this one measuring probably ten lanes across (lane markings were again indistinct), but every bit as empty as the one to Kaesong on Monday. Not only was it as empty as Monday’s highway, it was also as lumpy and bumpy and bouncy, however the journey time to Nampo was much shorter than to Kaesong and so we made it with no-one feeling the effects of motion sickness.Nampo is another major North Korean city with a population of about 367,000 people. It has a port and a cluster of manufacturing industry around it. Our plan had been to visit a couple of these factories, but we were told that flooding the previous week had made access to the factories impossible and so we substituted a visit to a cooperative farm instead.
We drove through the city, and noticed lines and lines of school children, all in their school uniforms, lining the streets, many with flags – some even waving their flags at us. It seems that once or twice a month, the children line the streets to encourage soldiers and workers on their way to work, to inspire them to greater glory and productivity. I wish we’d had outings like that when I was at primary school!
Our first stop was to visit the Western Sea Barrier (or Barrage) where the Taedong river (the same river that runs through Pyongyang and on which our hotel is on an island in the middle of) flows to the sea. This barrier isolates the salt water from the fresh water, preventing tidal flows of salt water inland, and also helps to dam up the fresh water for irrigation and even some hydro-electric power generation. Raising the level of the river also enhances its navigability for larger capacity ships, with three locks of various sizes making up part of the damn/barrier/barrage to allow ships up to 50,000 tons to pass through.
Building the barrier was a massive task, completed in 1986 after five years of massive construction, the story of which was told to us in a delightful video complete with stirring martial music and images, and a wonderful narration that sounded reminiscent of a WW2 Pathe newsreel. One of the highlights of the narrative was an admiring visit by ex-President Jimmy Carter – the way the North Koreans are quick to cite any type of positive response by the US to anything they do clearly shows that their relationship with us is not just a ‘hate’ relationship, but also mixed in with some ‘love’ as well and a keen desire to be respected and appreciated.
We saw the video at the visitor center, then took the obligatory photos of the barrage before moving on to the next stop at the cooperative farm, a ‘model’ farm which was a particular focus of attention for both Kim il Sung and Kim Jong il.
Kim il Sung espoused a particular theory at this farm, which, as best I can gather, boiled down to requiring party leaders to cut through a very lengthy vertical line of communication and listen directly to the farm workers to get an accurate understanding of what was going on at the farm, rather than relying on a series of increasingly incorrect and optimistic/politically modified claims from the party hierarchy. The earlier disconnect between the reality of agricultural production and the theoretical promised production had been a major problem in the past, and this new approach was hoped to create a more accurate set of expectations about real farm outputs.
The model farm was just that – a model farm, and gave little impression at all about what a ‘real’ farm would be like in North Korea. However, even at their apparently ‘best practices’ model farm, we were surprised at the almost complete lack of mechanization.
In particular, we noted that harvested corn (how was it harvested – we surely didn’t see any combine harvesters) was husked and then lying on the road sides to dry in the sun. The process continued to have the corn kernels successively drop off or be removed from the cobs, which were broken up and then separated from the kernels – all by hand.
We had seen similar examples of people manually processing harvested corn on the drive to and from the DMZ on Monday, too.
It is a strange disconnect to see a well-educated and partially computerized country using farming techniques that related to how things were done 100 – if not 1,000 – years ago. But maybe, as a poor country and with very low labor costs, the payback on mechanization just doesn’t make sense. I again say that if the country can afford to allocate 100,000 people to Mass Games performances, clearly there’s no shortage of cheap labor for any purpose required of it.
On the other hand, there’s no denying the country can not grow sufficient food to feed its population, but whether that is due to poor farming practices or simply the lack of arable land and the abundance of bad weather, is something I don’t know, but I do have a feeling that even if not used for farming, surely the pool of available labor could be freed by even a little automation and then used for something else like working in factories, or making things to export or in any other way improving the country’s economy.
We also were invited in to a farm worker’s apartment, although we didn’t see all of it, and it was very hard to know how truly representative the apartment was compared to what ‘real’ farm workers would experience on a ‘real’ farm away from where the tourists visit. I don’t wish to sound automatically cynical, but even so, one should take such experiences with a grain of salt.
So, rather than being impressed at the demonstration farm, we all left feeling rather dismayed and depressed by what we saw. About the best that could be said is that the country has a huge amount of upside potential.
Next was lunch, back in Pyongyang, where we had an amusing demonstration that even if automation remains mainly foreign, some elements of the modern world have been aggressively seized upon and adopted. Rather than allow us to go in the door to the restaurant directly, the staff required us to detour around the side and go in through the gift shop entrance and walk through the gift shop to the restaurant. We similarly had go through the gift shop to leave the restaurant after lunch, too (yes even restaurants have gift shops attached to them).
Now, if they could just manage to compile a decent range of tourist souvenirs to stock in their souvenir stores. Only a very few souvenir stores have post cards, none have fridge magnets, I might have seen caps, but in only one store, and very few have any type of clothing.
Talking about souvenir stores, our first stop after lunch was the Mansudae Art Studio. This describes itself on its website as being the world’s largest art production center, employing 4,000 people, and having over 850,000 sq ft of indoor space. But all we got to see there was a fairly small gift shop selling expensive paintings.
Which reminds me – on one of the days we also got to visit a ‘Folk Museum’ which was, again, nothing but a gift shop. Both the Art Studio and Folk Museum displays were of things for sale rather than of historical artifacts and objets d’art.
We didn’t stay too long at the gift shop/world’s largest art production center, and instead hurried off to have our noses rubbed in an embarrassing past incident – yes, it was USS Pueblo time. The USS Pueblo, an NSA spy ship, was seized by the North Koreans in January 1968 after it allegedly and repeated strayed into Korean territorial waters. The official US story is the ship never got within some miles of the 12 mile territorial limit, the Korean story is that it did, and when they captured it, they say they seized an automated chart plotting trace showing the ship to have gone several miles into the zone as many as 12 or so times in the days preceding its capture.
Who to believe? The truth will almost certainly never be known, and for sure the chart plotting traces weren’t on display, but how do you prove something as intangible as where a ship was, particularly back in 1968 with the navigational technologies available at the time.
It is hard to feel too good about the way the Pueblo and her crew responded to the developing situation however, with its two single M2 .50 cal rail mounted heavy machineguns never deployed and its ammunition never released from its below deck stores. Even more strange is the NSA excuse, as quoted on Wikipedia’s page about the event that these weapons were temperamental and could take up to 10 minutes to ‘activate’. This is a nonsense statement that anyone who has ever had the good fortune to work with an M2 – one of John Moses Browning’s finest designs, and still in wide use today, almost 100 years after its release in 1918 – will readily attest to.
It is even harder to feel good about the US government’s response – both at the time the incident was unfolding, and then in the eleven months that passed between when the ship was captured and its crew finally released. Neither side feels it beneficial to reveal the full details of the crew’s captivity, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the crew were not treated as VIP guests the same way we were, and one can only guess how they felt as days became weeks became months with no sign of any end to their captivity.
We left the Pueblo feeling uncomfortable and subdued – not due to any too assertive propagandizing by the North Koreans, although we did get to watch a video telling the ‘epic story’ of their side of the capture, but due to the situation as couldn’t be denied – our country, our navy and armed forces, and the ship’s crew, all passively allowed the ship to be captured without firing a single shot or in any way trying to defend against the threat and fight back.
On the other hand, the Pueblo was massively outgunned and would surely have lost if the confrontation escalated – as ungallant as it sounds, maybe surrender was best? As I said – an uncomfortable situation for all concerned, then and now.
There was one positive experience, however. We shared our tour around the ship with the same group of army girls we’d seen the previous night at the amusement park. More giggling and bolder waving ensued, and – yes, more chocolate changed hands, too.
There’s only one possible thing to do as a cure after such an experience, right? Go to the circus! So, next stop was indeed a circus, where we got to see the usual range of acts (or so I’m told, I snoozed through much of it, falling asleep shortly after the bear and only waking when the final trapeze numbers started), climaxing in an excellent display of high-wire trapeze artistry, made all the better due to the grand finale resulting in one of the artists failing to be caught by another of the artists, twice in a row.
Third time was a charm, fortunately, and he completed his very complex maneuvers, doubtless very grateful for the safety net beneath him. Some in our group thought the two failures prior to the success were part of the act, but the guides told us he succeeds about half the time.
Next we went to visit a department store. This was to be the first ‘real’ store we would set foot inside. Sure, we’d been in souvenir shops galore, but as for ‘normal’ stores where the locals shopped, all we’d done was drive past. With all the store names being both subtle and in Korean characters, and with no stores, anywhere, having display windows or big signwriting, it was very difficult for us, as we drove around, to tell which buildings housed shops and which did not – a situation not dissimilar to in the Soviet Union thirty years ago.
We did see kiosks on the sides of many streets – small little enclosed stalls selling all manner of different things, with shelves that varied from reasonably full to largely empty; sometimes with people apparently buying things, sometimes not, and on a few rare occasions, with lines of people waiting their turn to get something.
The department store was a strange place (but I probably didn’t need to say that, did I – little would pass as ‘normal’ in North Korea!). Inside it was almost empty of customers, apart from a few fellow foreigners being toured through it, the same as us, and a few local women who reeked of great wealth.
It was also the only place in the city where I’d seen any taxis parked outside, waiting for passengers. We did occasionally see some taxis on the streets driving around, but this was the first time I’d seen one stopped waiting for a fare. There were never any taxis at our hotel, although it subsequently turned out that apparently it is not easy for taxis to be given permission to visit our hotel, perhaps due to the preponderance of foreign tourists there.
I saw some lovely fold-up umbrellas that I thought would make a nice gift for my eight year old daughter Anna, but upon sighting their price (about €75 – call it $100) and realizing them to be nothing other than slightly fancier versions of the travel umbrellas one can buy generically for $10 or less, I lost interest. Sorry, Anna – you’ll have to make do with the gifts I bought you in Beijing, instead!
North Korea, like many other countries, shows this strange disconnect – incomes are massively lower than in the west, but western style goods are massively more expensive. I guess that the country has abandoned any current attempt at making western style goods affordable for the population as a whole, and so it almost suits their purposes to make them as expensive as possible, so as to make them something that ‘normal’ people wouldn’t even aspire to.
Adjacent to the department store was what could have been a highlight of the tour (at least for some of us) – a microbrewery. I eagerly went there, and noted with approval the microbrewery’s various large brewing and storage vessels, and asked about the different types of beer they brewed. Wrong question – they only brew one type of beer, and upon trying it, I discovered it to be not nearly as nice as the microbrewed beer at the hotel, although it was, happily, only about one third the price of the hotel’s microbrewery.
We abandoned the microbrewery quickly and went back to the hotel where most of the ladies dressed up for our final dinner, while most of the men did not. One man surprised us all by appearing with a jacket and tie, but the tie was abandoned almost as soon as he arrived at the restaurant.
Our final dinner was described to us as being at a special restaurant that was sometimes used as a venue for visiting foreign dignitaries (well, wasn’t that what we were, too!?), and we looked forward to it with some eagerness, hoping for a grand finale to our North Korean experience.
We almost ended up with the other coach dining at the hotel while our coach-load dined at the restaurant alone due to their guide passively not doing anything to book her group into the restaurant with us, but the lady I’d asked to lead the other coach proved to be a force to be reckoned with, and rather than pressure her own ineffectual guide to sort out her arrangements, she went to our guide and by sheer force of will (and a few choice words) convinced our guide to look after her sub-group’s arrangements for dinner too. Well done, Hilda!
The room was large and reasonably well decorated, but it lacked one small thing. Ventilation. So the temperature and humidity inexorably rose, and the room become more and more uncomfortable as the meal progressed, almost literally forcing us out of the room and into the fresh night air much earlier than we’d otherwise have probably chosen.
The food was okay, but again it was largely a semi-generic sort of Asian style of food. We did leaven the drink service (as always being either bottled beer or water) with a bottle of special local spirits – some sort of distilled liquor enlivened by the presence of a ginseng root inside it. This was a gift from our guide (her mother works in the factory that makes the liquor) and we all tried a bit. It was strong rather than subtle in flavor…. A few of our number tried more than a bit, and the bottle quickly emptied.
Back to the hotel, with some of us heading to our rooms to pack, and some of us heading to the bar to enjoy one last night of fellowship before the morrow’s departure and diaspora.
It was a pleasant evening in the bar, with several of the group bringing down their own bottles of half finished spirits that they’d bought at Duty Free on the way in to Pyongyang from Beijing, and the rest of us helpfully assisting them to empty them. The bar staff didn’t seem to mind this at all.
We discovered again the loophole in the claim that the bar will stay open until the last patron finishes drinking. Yes, well, the bar will stay open, but the lights – or at least most of them – are turned off at about 11pm!
Perhaps this was just as well. We went to bed at some time that I vaguely remember as being somewhere the other side of midnight, after a very pleasant evening and another varied day.
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