Saturday, October 11, 2008

First hand glimpse into North Korea

During my first visit to North Korea, the commonly used short name for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (or DPRK), I fully agreed with the statement that North Korea is the closest thing the world has to a hermetically sealed society.

With “no connection” for my BlackBerry, my laptop and other accessories which connect me to the rest of the world and which form an essential part of my everyday existence, I was face to face with skinny North Korean soldiers, wearing old Soviet-style uniforms at a North Korean customs and immigration centre. Under North Korean law of military first, every male must spend 10 years in the military. Women spend seven.

As I had followed the advice at the South Korean side of “Rules in North Korea are made to be followed,” with special emphasis on “no outside newspapers,” “no communication devices” and “no cameras with telescopic or long lenses,” the clearance came fast but with a stern warning to wear “the identity badge” all the time and “not to take” pictures of ordinary North Koreans.

The bus ride to Kaesong, the North Korean city was itself an experience. The buses being led by military escorts through a countryside with hardly any visible human presence except North Korean soldiers standing guard on empty roads along the route. When I asked about the presence of these soldiers, the North Korean guide emphatically pointed that those soldiers were there for our safety. But we could not take any pictures from the bus nor were allowed to take pictures anywhere except where we were designated to use the cameras.

Arriving in the city the downtown appeared like a post-card picture from the past, North Koreans hurrying to nowhere either walking or riding bikes. The bicycle riding lanes on both sides of the broad streets reminded me of North Europe but there were hardly any automobiles on the streets. Our buses and unmarked military vehicles were the only competitors for road space with bikes and pedestrians.

Everyone has their lapels adorned with pictures of late Kim II Sung and his son Kim Jung II. I had been warned earlier by the South Koreans not to but I still ask why do they (North Koreans) wear those. I escape only with a look and an explanation that these are signs of their loyalty and commitment to their country and people.

The most ironic part of the day is the lunch where a feast is provided: bowl of rice with 14 side dishes, served in heavy brass wares. After having read hundreds of reports about recent famine killing millions and there being a constant food scarcity, I feel nauseated at all this food.

The historic places in the city are quite well maintained and at every point there is more than one traditionally dressed North Korean girl giving out historic background punctuated with praise of the present regime.

Most of the public squares have a huge bust or a statue of the North Korean leader with inscriptions in the local language saying propaganda slogans like, “We are winning.” In a way that is true, as the North Korea uses its nuclear card with shrewd expertise of a gambler, the global forces including US have to keep changing its approach.

Tejinder Singh
in North Korea

(more in coming days)


tomic said...

Always shrewd and on the edge, simple, yet with a deeper meaning, you manage to absorb us, readers, with truthfulness.

I love your openness to understand, your judgments without judging ...

Laju K. said...

Thanks for sharing, Teji. All very interesting.

Laju K. said...

All very interesting, thanks for sharing. Looking forward to reading more, Teji.