(CONTINUED FROM PART 5)
Remember that from the North Korean authorities’ point of view, all foreign tourist visits are massive PR exercises (as well as hard currency earners).
In that vein, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – in other words, the Korean War museum – was pure propaganda. The narrative was “The evil US imperialists started the war and the DPRK secured a heroic victory”. Yes.
On our final afternoon in Pyongyang we visited a school. Of course, we were not allowed to meet the children, who we caught a glimpse of being kept upstairs out of sight. The floor we inspected was more like a museum than any kind of school I’ve ever seen, complete with glass cases, stuffed animals and old desks. The walls displayed photos of the country’s leaders visiting and a rollcall of the staff and students. In none if the classrooms was there any evidence of the students’ work and I got the impression that it had been many years since they were used by real students for real lessons. Like everything, it was intended to impress – and failed.
The International Friendship Exhibition is like no other exhibition on the planet. It contains thousands of gifts given to the Great Leaders (mainly Kim Il Sung) over the years from all over the world. It is housed in two giant complexes in the mountains at Myohyangsan, amidst scenic splendour.
As you enter, through security, it is obligatory to remove your shoes and replace them with felt sacks to protect the marble floors, hand in cameras (strictly no photography), be on best behaviour, show respect, and, of course, bow in front of the Leaders’ statues.
From the outside, these complexes look like large, ornate Korean-style houses but as we ventured in, I found long corridors leading off in all directions, disappearing into the distance and lined with cavernous halls. I realised that the exhibitions had been carved into the mountains themselves – to protect from the predicted nuclear attack, I speculated.
The exhibitions are organised chronologically and divided into sections: gifts from China, Russia, Europe, Latin America, the USA, etc. There is far too much to see on a single visit. One would think the exhibition shows the high esteem in which the leaders are held throughout the world and this, no doubt, is the message the exhibition is intended to give – for internal consumption, I assume. It is all part of the propaganda machine that continually feeds North Koreans the message that everything is wonderful in the DPRK. There were several groups of Koreans, dressed in their Sunday best, dutifully lining up in ranks outside waiting to enter. I wondered whether visits are mandatory for them.
Closer inspection shows the gifts for what they really are: kitsch and tacky. There is a car presented by Joseph Stalin to Kim Il Sung, Chairman Mao’s railway carriage, a stuffed alligator standing on its hind legs carrying a wooden tray and cups – a gift from the Sandinistas – some Kalashnikov-shaped vodka bottles and two jewel-encrusted Bedouin swords from Colonel Gaddafi. Gifts from the USA, though the arch-enemy, seemed to be, nevertheless, prized. But they turned out to be such things as plates from the Steelworkers Union of Michigan and the ‘Cowherders of Nebraska’, though there are several gifts from Christian evangelist Billy Graham and Madeline Albright, who visited Kim Jong-Il in 2000, and there were a couple of basketballs and a basketball shirt from Kim Jong-Un’s pal, NBA player Dennis Rodman. From the UK, there are gifts from several trade unions, academic institutions and a coffee mug from Derbyshire County Council. All these are presented with pride in glass cases and illuminated by spotlights.
It was funny and I couldn’t help but laugh at some of it. But this is a national treasure to the locals and taken very seriously, so I had to check my mirth and keep a straight face in front of Mrs Kang and the local guide. By the 1990s the gifts become fewer and more mundane. Consumer goods – such as TVs and personal computers given to Kim Il-Sung – became much more common.
On the road between Pyongyang and Nampo (a road, like many in the country, wide enough to double as an airport runway), near the West Sea Barrage, we visited a collective farm. There were the obligatory murals of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il at the entrance and keeping watch over the farm. Again, it was difficult to assess what was going on. There were certainly crops growing but I didn’t see anyone working in the fields. The only workers I saw were making repairs on the road and, of course, I was not allowed to photograph them. I was, however, introduced to the farm supervisor, who showed me rice paddies, which are separated from one another by banks of soya plants.
Everywhere in the countryside that I saw, crops looked abundant and healthy and there was no sign of the famine conditions that had killed millions of people in the 1990s.
On the other side of the country, near Hamhung, we visited a large fertiliser factory. I had been told that these factories belched out noxious fumes but there was not much evidence of that. In fact, there was not much evidence that anything much was happening.
I was given a tour by the manager – from the pumps and mixing machines, which I was told produce a chemical process that results in the nitrate fertiliser, to the central control room with all of two computer keyboards and single TV monitor. The machines I inspected were grimy, antiquated and noisy, operated by a sallow-faced worker in his twenties. Other workers passed by on their bicycles to and from the factory gates, beneath rusting pipes and idle cranes. I could not tell if anything was actually being made.
Finally, I was shown a warehouse containing sacks of fertiliser behind panes of glass. In the entrance was a single sack of white crystals that I was allowed to inspect. I had no way of verifying what the chemical was or where it had come from.
It was strange to be in a country with so many inconsistencies, contradictions, secrecy, control and obvious lies that one questioned the truth of everything. Much as they want visitors to visit the DPRK, they really don’t make it easy for them to come away with a good impression, however hard they try.
Hamhung street scene (from a distance)