A little taste of North Korea
PYONGYANG - The first question you ask the guide who meets you at Sunan Airport is how's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, and the answer is unequivocal.
"He is in excellent health," was the loud response of the young man who greeted us, his voice rising in genuine anger. "It is an insult even to ask the question." Reports to the contrary about the dear one’s stroke or cerebral hemorrhage or brain surgery or convulsions were, he said, "all lies on BBC and CNN".
That response more or less sets the tone for a visit here, my first to North Korea in three years. You see a lot of monuments and museums, you’re whisked down near-empty highways to the truce village of Panmunjom, 144 kilometers south, and the port of Nampo, 64 kilometers west. You're twice taken to May Day Stadium to witness the Arirang Festival, the biggest if not greatest show on Earth.
And, of course, you're treated to the famous northern noodles and other sumptuous fare, fish, beef bulgoki, rice and fruit, a show of traditional music, at the finest restaurants with not a moment’s show of concern about the near-starving millions who you know are out there, notably in the northeast near the Chinese and Russian borders.
You don't, however, come here to find out what's going on, what’s in the headlines you've been scanning before taking off from Beijing. Nor are you going to escape your minders for insights into what anyone’s thinking among the people lining up at tram stops or walking determinedly through Kim Il-Sung Square or poring over books in the Grand People's Study Hall.
You're here in search of mood and insights, and you get enough from your guides and see enough around you to get a sense of a regime that’s on edge, uncertain and seething with newly kindled rage at the US and South Korea after an all-too-brief era of optimism about prospects for reconciliation - and denuclearization.
You don't hear a word about firing up the nuclear program at the complex at Yongbyon, 96 kilometers north of the capital, but the lieutenant who shows you around Panmunjom, that is, on his side of the line, leaves no doubt that he views all the yakking as a waste of time.
The soldiers, says the lieutenant, in formal uniform, his chest gleaming with medals, are sick of the dialogue they've been witnessing between North and South officials in meeting halls on either side of the line here, and they don't care for the six-party talks in Beijing either.
"We want action for action," he says, meaning President George W Bush has got to remove the North’s name from the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The inference, though he doesn't say so, is the North is otherwise free to do whatever it wants regardless of the verbiage of the nuclear deal of February 13, 2007, signed in Beijing by envoys from all six parties, the two Koreas, the US, Japan, Russia and the host, China.
The guides, a senior one named Choe Jong-hun, a tough-looking expert in dealing with foreign intruders, who was also my guide on my visit in October 2005, and a young firebrand, Oh Keum-suk, are primed to repeat the litany of negotiators. They say their government produced "10,000 pages" of documents on everything to do with its nuclear program in June and that should be more than enough.
The latest chapter in American duplicity, as you learn as you're whirled through the War Museum and on to the US spy ship Pueblo, a trophy proudly moored in the Daedong River where the crew of the USS Sherman was slaughtered on the first American foray into the Hermit Kingdom in 1866, is part of a long continuum of American cruelty, lies and defeats.
Ryu Ok, the same woman who showed me around the War Museum in 2005, wearing the same dress uniform, khaki blouse and skirt, though she insists she's a civilian, shows us walls papered with blow-ups of articles repeating charges of American biological and chemical warfare, of bombs filled with disease-carrying insects, of scenes of human suffering and devastation wrought by American bombing that destroyed every building in Pyongyang.
There's no point arguing the familiar germ warfare charges, but I can't resist debating her as she leads us past a great slowly turning diorama of the battle for the city of Taejon, about 128 kilometers south of Seoul, when North Korean troops drove out its American defenders in July 1950.
The figure of Major General William Dean, commander of the force ordered to hold the city in a delaying action, is shown surrendering, hands up, as North Korean troops swarm over the wreckage of battle. When I tell her it's well known that Dean escaped for more than a month until two South Koreans told North Korean troops where to find him, she responds angrily that that version is "untrue".
It seems strange that the story has to be distorted when it's well known that Dean was the highest ranking American prisoner of war. Would it not suffice to say that South Korean "patriots" revealed his whereabouts? But then you remember the question would arise about those South Korean "traitors" who sheltered and fed him for weeks before his capture?
Ryu is also on hand to greet us at the Pueblo where we hear the story of its capture on January 23, 1968, with 83 crew members, one of whom was killed by gunfire before the surrender. The surrender comes through as a moment in history on a scale with the American "defeat" of July 1953, the humiliation of the Americans portrayed in apologies from president Lyndon Johnson and an army general as the crew, defeated, are shown 11 months later, on a cold December day, walking silently across the "bridge of no return" to the South Korean side at Panmunjom.
If the Americans come through as liars and villains, you also sense a craving for a level of acceptance of a system that appears superficially to have changed little since my first visit in 1992. The craving comes through at the Arirang Festival, a show of unity and loyalty in which 50,000 young people flash cards on one side of the stands portraying scene after scene of national glory while another 50,000 march, dance and pirouette on the playing field.
The display of victory in war, of verdant fields, of happy children and powerful factories is as synchronized and flawless as when I saw it in 2005, but with a difference. The planes, the tanks and missiles of bygone festivals are gone, and there's no hint of the country's greatest success story, the underground explosion of a nuclear warhead on October 9, 2006, that frightened the great powers at the six-party talks into getting serious about pressing for a nuclear agreement.
One explanation is that the festival was choreographed before the latest downturn, when Bush was still expected to take North Korea off the terrorist list.
Another may be that the festival this year marks a date in civilian, not military, history, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, on September 9, 1948. The fact that Kim Jong-il did not show up that day to review the militia on Kim Il-Sung Square goes unmentioned by your guide as his face appears on the flashcards promoting his policy of songun, "military first", befitting his title as chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Guide Oh Keum-suk tells you excitedly that the Dear Leader is "my father" when the question again arises about his health, but the real father of the country remains Kim Il-sung, whose bronzed statue stares down on the capital from Mansu-dae, the hill overlooking the city. On your first morning it's de rigeur to troop up the hill, present flowers and bow politely.
You wonder, though, if Kim Jong-il will be remembered as reverently when he leaves the scene. Sights of near-empty shops, bereft of customers as well as goods, of decrepit buildings off the roads out of the capital, of oxen pulling ploughs and soldiers filling potholes by shoveling tar from large cans by the road all convey an image of little change.
Maybe not, though. Crews are visible piling up blocks of cement for new buildings around the capital, and cranes are seen rising here and there. There's even a plan to finish off construction of the 105-story hotel that rises high above the city 21 years after construction began on what was to have been one of the country's proudest achievements.
Never mind the assessment of a foreign observer that the cement is rotting and the structure basically beyond repair or recovery. North Korea is already planning for another anniversary, the centennial of Kim Il-sung's birth on April 15, 2012, and your guides see the building frenzy as part of the build-up for that great occasion.
"We built this city from nothing after the Korean War," said one of the guides. "We are still building. Nothing is too good for our Great Leader" - whether Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il is not clear.
In the meantime, a young guide on the tour bus advises you not to crumple or toss copies of the Pyongyang Times, the weekly English-language paean to the regime. "They will have pictures of our Great Leader Kim Il-sung and Our Dear Leader Kim Jong-il," she told us. "Foreigners who have thrown the papers away have gotten into trouble."
That’s one rule you wouldn't think of violating as you wonder how long the system can endure in its present form - and whether all will be the same the next time you visit, maybe in 2012.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.