Ben Hills

With a thunderous roar from the sound system, tanks, cannon, missiles and fighter planes boom across the great grandstand where 10,000 cadres manipulate coloured display boards with robot precision. “Make the people the bullets and bombs for Kim Il-sung,” threaten the characters in the Korean Han-gul script which the guides translate for foreigners watching apprehensively from the stands of the enormous outdoor stadium.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the scene changes. The menacing military hardware disappears. In its place a peaceful pastoral scene, a log cabin set among snow-caped pine trees, grey smoke wreathing from its chimney.”

This is the birthplace of our Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il,” whispers our guide, whom we’ll also call Mr Kim, whose eyes are shining with adulation. “Like his father, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, he was born in a very humble house.” Thus the enigma of North Korea, the world’s most isolated, secretive and mysterious country. Nearly a year after a heart attack ended half a century of Stalinist dictatorship by Kim snr, his anointed son and heir remains in the shadows, deferred to obliquely by symbols such as his birthplace, but apparently powerless to influence its schizophrenic policies.

One minute North Korea shrilly denounces the rest of the world, most particularly the Americans, as “imperialist wolves”, breaks off talks over its nuclear weapons program and threatens to turn the southern capital of Seoul into a sea of fire at the slightest provocation.

The next, as dramatically as the change of scene in the stadium, it opens its gates an inch to welcome visitors to a pathetic “international sports and culture festival”, appeals for recognition as a normal nation and begs for foreign aid, trade and investment.

Earlier this month I spent a week in the capital of Pyongyang and travelled some 800 kilometres by train and bus through the countryside, not as a journalist (that is a privilege still afforded only to a few carefully chosen “safe” organisations such as CNN), but as a tourist, hoping to find some clues to the future of Korea after Kim.

The excuse was the aforementioned festival. It was the biggest thing to happen in Pyongyang for years and consisted mainly of some imported American and Japanese professional wrestlers – including a fat woman with spiky blue hair – pretending to injure one another. The only “international celebrity” to turn up was a brain-damaged Muhammad Ali, leaning on a stick and gazing blankly around as if unaware what country he was in.

By allowing in some 9,000 foreign visitors (a fraction of the 70,000 they were hoping for), North Korea put itself in a Catch-22 situation – desperate for foreign currency but determined to quarantine its people from infection by foreign contact, and lacking the basic infrastructure to cater for more than the most hardy backpackers.Facilities would appeal to holidaymakers nostalgic for the Brezhnev era, offering the Soviet trifecta of yellow tapwater, thick brown toilet paper and thunderous banging on the bedroom door in the middle of the night – and this, it should be emphasised, was in luxury government accommodation for “honoured guests”. Pyongyang’s sole claim to gastronomic fame is some kind of spaghetti, served cold in a greasy broth.

Security was oppressive – up to three minders allocated to our little group of nine, and any attempt to step out of line invited discouragement, shouting, then being shoved about. Disinformation has been refined to a comic art-form, as when I questioned Mr Kim about the many police cars, complete with sirens and flashing lights, to be seen guarding strategic points around Pyongyang. Kim: They are not police cars, they are there to assist the traffic. North Korea does not have any crime, so we do not need any police.

Hills: Well, what are the courts for, then?

Kim: (long pause) I am not an expert on that.

Is this not, his injured tone implies, North Korea, which, as our beloved vice-president Kim Byong-sik recently declared, “has solved all problems arising in the course of social development; a paradise where there are no criminals, drug addicts, beggars, prostitutes or unemployed people” and where people “are free from worries about food, clothes, housing, education and medical treatment”? Pointless to say that I had interviewed several of the hundreds of recent defectors with a very different story, including one man sentenced to life in a prison camp for the “crime” of singing a popular South Korean song while drunk. Asia Watch, the human rights group, estimates that up to 400,000 prisoners are rotting in the North Korean gulag.

The overwhelming impression, particularly in the capital, is that the Great Leader never died. In fact, that was the title of a song performed for us by young students at the Magnolia Mountain Junior High School. Their faces were contorted with grief as they trilled “Kim Il-sung will be with us for ever”. An old woman had tears running down her cheeks as she carried a single marigold to lay at the feet of the 20-metre bronze statue of Kim snr, which looms over Pyongyang as do similar statues over every city in the country. On the lapels of every official, Kim snr’s dead face smiles out – not that of his living son “because Kim Jong-il wants to be an ordinary person”, says Mr Kim.

To the humble thatched-roof cottage where Kim snr was born, 30,000 people queue in a line a kilometre long every day of the year for a glimpse of the holy relics, including the misshapen pot in which his mother stored pickled cabbage. They remind you of Muslim pilgrims making the haj to Mecca – indeed, the cult of Kim seems more like religious ecstasy than economic or political ideology.

Of late, Kim jnr has established his own improbably ubiquitous personality cult. He now appears with his father in the vast oil paintings which adorn every public building – often against a backdrop of factories or a power station. Books by, for and about him fill the shops.

One of these hilarious hagiographies relates how, at the moment of Kim Jong-il’s birth, storms in the Pacific, Atlantic, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Egypt miraculously subsided.

It tells how as a child Kim rewrote his school curriculum, commanded crickets which were disturbing his father’s study to be silent (a chapter headed “Wetting himself with the morning dew”). He performed feats such as repairing a car to “shouts of joy” from fellow students, and increased the productivity of sewerage workers by 3,000 per cent with “on the spot guidance”.

Just who the man behind the myth really is has exercised foreign pundits since his father died last July. Aged 53, Kim jnr is said to be seriously ill (everything from liver cancer to ulcers), mentally unhinged, an alcoholic – it’s true he is the largest customer in the world for Hennessy’s most expensive line of cognac, spending $700,000 a year of his impoverished country’s foreign exchange importing the stuff.

We glimpsed his distinctive pudgy form and frightful hairdo twice on television – presumably pre-taped appearances, since the reclusive Dear Leader has been seen in public only about a dozen times in the past year, and then mainly in the company of the military.

One fact I can report is that every word Kim says is edited out of the tape. His mouth moves, but nothing comes out. An enterprising South Korean TV show recently hired a lip-reader who reported that Kim’s speech was illogical and disjointed – ammunition for those who claim his succession is being blocked because of doubts about his mental capacity.

Whoever eventually takes over will inherit the leviathan task of rebuilding North Korea’s ruined economy. In spite of the carefully orchestrated nature of my visit, it was impossible for our minders to hide all the evidence of shortages, breakdowns and desperate squalor.

From the windows of the trains and the buses, you see a medieval landscape of broad, brown hectares of collective farms worked largely by hand. Twenty years ago the Great Leader proclaimed: “It’s high time to do all farming with machines” – yet wooden ploughs are towed by cows, women carry cans of night-soil and the handful of decrepit tractors is immobile, presumably because of lack of parts or fuel.

It was not always so. Before the war of 1950-1953 that left millions dead and divided the peninsula between communism and capitalism along the 38th parallel, the mineral-rich North was the industrial centre, the South the rice bowl. Today, the booming South produces about $14,000 worth of goods a head, while the North’s shrinking economy makes it look more like Africa than East Asia. Its per capita output is less than $1,000, and if the economists’ guess of a realistic conversion rate of 20 North Korean won to the US dollar is right, our guide earns roughly $5 a month.

Forty-six years of Kim Il-sung’s juche ideology – ironically a philosophy of self-reliance – have debauched his country more surely than the three decades of Japanese occupation, and the two wars that were fought here. “This decline and fall must rate as one of the worst instances of economic mismanagement in the Third World,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, an authority on the North.

A surreptitious inspection of shops on Yonggwang Street – “Glory Street”, which is the main shopping boulevard in Pyongyang – reveals none of the food shortages reported so gleefully south of the border, probably because they had been specially stocked up to impress the influx of foreigners. The produce is of poor quality, but plentiful – bottles of weak, soapy beer, trays of fatty black pudding, piles of wilted salad greens. People don’t even have bicycles – the streets are full of people walking, or queueing for trams and trolley-buses. The most common cars are stolen Volvos – Pyongyang reneged on this debt, like all its international obligations, and Sweden joined the list of countries cutting off trade and diplomatic relations.

And remember Pyongyang, population 2 million, is the showpiece of the nation – only privileged cadres and their families are allowed to live there in the sterile blocks of concrete apartments, interspersed with great empty squares, 10-lane highways used by the occasional lone trolley-bus, and futuristic sports stadiums.

Over it all looms the hulk of Kim’s last and greatest folly – the grey pyramid of the 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel, Asia’s tallest building, which will never be occupied because of substandard construction. An Australian official in our party remarks on the resemblance to Bucharest during the dying days of the Ceaucescu regime, when the country was looted to build a vast palace for which no use has been found.

The impression of a country caught in a time-warp, hermetically sealed against the outside world, is reinforced by a visit to the border village of Panmunjom. The bright lights and the booming economy of Seoul are only 70 kilometres away, but it might as well be another planet. The spiel of another guide is acid with contempt for the South Korean “puppet army” which faces him across the minefields and barbed wire. “They are my brothers, but also my enemy,” he says, attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. “That is the tragedy of Korea.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 27 May 1995
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section: Page: 11
Word count: 1640
1. Kim Jong-il, left … there are doubts about his mental stability
2. 10 months after the death of Kim Il-sung, Koreans still bow and weep under the shadow of his 20-metre statue in Pyongyang. Map: North and South Korea