Saturday, October 15, 2011

North Korea: First Thoughts

Arriving in North Korea is like stepping out of a time machine.  Soldiers are walking in the streets in the same uniforms from way back when. Citizens are working collectively on community volunteer projects like planting flowers for road beautification or repairing sidewalks. Farmers are working in the fields just outside the city perimeter. There is very little car traffic.  (With the economic embargo, gasoline is hard to get so the issue seems to be framed that not driving is the patriotic thing to do.  Sundays, the day we arrived was a voluntary no driving day. Though it was also not clear to me how many people even have cars?) Rusty old buses and street cars are packed with people and seem to run constantly.  The sidewalks are packed with people walking to get places.  Many others ride bicycles. 
A view of one of the cool huge monuments in the middle of town.
Simpler images of the 50s come to mind.  For me, it brought back strong memories of visiting the U.S.S.R. in the 80s with giant, uniform, high rise concrete buildings, small stores selling almost nothing, no advertising, and simple signage accented with bright obvious propaganda images on billboards all over.  And like my trip to the U.S.S.R. my movements were completely controlled and monitored and I was only allowed to see and talk to people they wanted me to.

There are lots of big granite memorials, statues, obelisks celebrating the ideals of the regime. (North Korea is a major exporter of granite but apparently they keep a little of it to make their own statues!)

Women dress much more conservatively than most modern standards, though many others look a lot like
working women everywhere with their hair pulled back into pony tales, button down cotton shirts, pencil skirts and pumps.  Men are almost all dressed in drab green or gray short sleeved suits or army uniforms.  Many women wore traditional dress for their work uniforms which adds a colorful element to the streets and certainly looks like it’s from another era and seems out of place in the communist washed out hues.  (This might be my favorite traditional dress of anywhere I’ve ever been.) Many children wear uniforms.  Boy and girls are seen wearing red neckerchiefs walking in large groups singing together.   Nationalist tunes seem to be pumped out into the air all over the place in a mind numbing way.  (My hotel room was on the 39th floor on an island but still I could hear the tunes either being sung by marching groups or out of loud speakers.  It definitely was surreal.)

One of the Young Pioneer Corps - The NK Communist Youth
It’s very hard to describe this all and give you the real feel.  In one way it was very soothing.  Things feel orderly and under control in a way that I didn’t question until I thought about how it could be this way without real enforcement.  Apartment buildings look alike and are painted in light pastels.  Everything flows nicely.  Soldiers are EVERYWHERE but they are sloppy and a bit ragtag and don’t feel so oppressive.  It’s hard to imagine them being the fighting force that our government is so afraid of.   Their vehicles are still from the time of the Korean War and I kept hoping Hawkeye Pierce would drive by on one of the old green jeeps.  (Gotta start watching MASH again.)

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