Jack’s story (part 2)
After spending two days touring Pyongyang Jack and his friends were looking forward to the next phase of their short trip, which they were told would involve being taken outside the city and after passing through a number of villages, would eventually arrive at The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Not many people get to do this, and for some time in the past it was completely off limits to the small number of tourists who visit the country annually.
From what his guides had mentioned Jack got the distinct feeling that this was going to be a propaganda laced trip. He was already aware of the vitriol that many North Korean officials use against the US at every opportunity, and how the citizens of North Korea are schooled in the historical aspect of the 1950-1953 Korean war. All are imbued from a very young age that the invasion was perpetrated by the South Koreans and that the United States was its architect, wanting to destroy its system and enslave its people.
The previous evening before the day they were due to head off into the country was very convivial, their guides exchange jokes, were very interested in life in the UK, but firmly believed that the US exercised far too much influence over the British people. Miss Choe and her cameraman Mr Jo abstained from the copious amount of drinks that were flowing in the hotel bar that evening. Jack with his two friends and many members of the accompanying party enjoyed the local Korean Soju; a pleasant alcoholic beverage produced generally from rice, but some distillers replace this with either potatoes or barley. One of Jacks friends had drunk the liquor before at a Korean restaurant in London, but Mr Lee, who had initially remained sober throughout most of the evening, finally succumbed to Jacks continued insistence of joining in. He managed to ply Mr Lee to the point of serious intoxication, although in his quest had become rather inebriated himself. Eventually it was all brought to an abrupt halt by a rather stern looking Miss Choe. After first (rather proudly) pointing out to Jack that North Korean Soju has generally of a much higher alcoholic content that the South Korean version, the piano lid was unceremoniously slammed shut and hotel staff were suddenly scurrying around removing all the unfinished bottles of Soju and quickly removing the entire detritus of the evenings heavy drinking session.
The following morning was a rather quiet affair. Jack and his two buddies sat at one of the central tables all with a general hung-over appearance, their heads drooped having adopted sloth like movements to pick rather forlornly at their breakfast. One of Jacks friends, with plenty of alcohol still circulating through his system, began to feel rather nauseous upon facing the first meal of the day; eventually he decided to opt out and disappeared into the nearest bathroom.
A moment later Mr Lee entered the large breakfast room appearing to be none the worse for wear, confirming Jacks suspicion that he was a regular drinker but fought his urge to partake the previous evening, unfortunately his abstinence didn’t go to plan. Jack turned and beckoned him over to their table wishing to discuss and compare their various hung-over conditions when Miss Choe suddenly appeared in full stride with Mr Jo. She shouted to Mr Lee in Hangul pointing to a table in the far corner. Jack looked at his other friend and just smiled. Mr Lee was obviously going to be kept on a tighter leash by the indomitable Miss Choe from now on.
At ten o’clock they were all waiting in the hotel lobby, Mr Lee made the odd bee-line towards Jack and his friends, but Miss Choe was keeping him busy with the other guests in the party, she was obviously going to keep him out of Jacks orbit until the previous evenings frivolities were all but forgotten.
Jack had already informed me how clean and modern Pyongyang appeared, and despite the 1950’s look to many of the buildings (the grandeur of which is undeniable), there were many modern buildings under construction. Jack noticed how many cranes were dotted around as the coach threaded its way through the city. However when they passed the various building sites many were actually abandoned, and ones that did have workers on them appeared to be doing little if any work, added to which the massive cranes appeared to him to be grossly oversized for the tasks they appeared to be involved in.
At one particular point the coach had stopped to admire a large poster of the Korean conflict, their guides explained enthusiastically that the words emanating from the mouths of the thankful proletariat as they are rescued from South Korean and American forces, are expressions of joy and thankfulness to Kim Il Sung (the founder) for his bravery and fortitude in grinding the Americans and their gutless South Korean allies from their lands. Jack questioned Miss Choe at some length, not only concerning the veracity of previous statements they had articulated about how the Korean conflict was initiated by the Americans, but also the overblown language and melodramatic feel to the poster, and other smaller ones Jack observed as they passed by. She was resolute in her belief that the system she lived under was-in all ways-superior to western democracy, and infinitely (her exact words) more desirable to live under. Jack continued with his line of questioning the inflated rhetoric, but Miss Choe rebutted him each time. He decided that the matter was no longer worth pursuing, as she dismissed out of hand there was some underlying problem with the half empty construction sites (and others completely devoid of activity) as just a material supply problems that, not surprisingly, were blamed on western sanctions. However something had already caught his eye on the first evening and knowing something of its history he was keen to question his guides on.
The Ryugyong hotel from practically any vantage point in Pyongyang can easily be seen. Jack had already been aware of this monstrosity and explained to me that seeing it in real life is a very different experience, and one that left him thinking how the hell something like this could have ever been considered practical. The hotel was initially constructed over twenty years ago and was going to be the jewel in the crown of Pyongyang’s skyscrapers, with some 3000 rooms it was billed as the world’s largest hotel. Unfortunately outside of North Korea it was not quite viewed with the same reverence. Esquire magazine (in 2008) named it as “The worst building in the history of mankind.” Since then others have joined in to denounce this both lavish, extravagant, decedent and most foolish building of all time. The various epithets include: The Hotel of Doom, The Death Star, the Ministry of Truth (Orwell’s 1984) and the Phantom Pyramid, to name a few. The shape was so impractical due to its ludicrous design, that many lift shafts basically went nowhere and more and more had to be added to overcome the problem, and ones that were constructed to go all the way to the top often had lift cars grinding to a halt as the angle simply became too difficult to overcome.
The whole endeavour made Kim Jong il a laughing stock and consumed so much capital that the project was mothballed. Jack had discovered that some time ago Orascom, an Egyptian company, founded originally as a construction business that later branched into the telecommunications industry, were awarded a contract to introduce the first limited cell phone system into the country. As part of that contract and with their expertise, they agree to finance and plan a massive refurbishment of the defunct hotel in an attempt to restore its original intended glory.
Jack asked Mr Lee at length about this at one particular stop at a small village. Armed with some knowledge he already had of the hotel, Jack and his friends asked if they could go and view it as they were natural curious to see why the construction was suddenly halted a few years ago, and if the rumours were in fact true. He already guessed the answer, as the whole thing had been an act of sheer folly and hubris that had entirely backfired. But in true North Korean style and bombast Mr Lee, quickly joined by Miss Choe, (seemingly becoming concerned as more of the party had now begun to gather round a long table where Jack and his friends were sitting) rambled on about how the western sanctions-predictable and with the same opening gambit Jack knew was coming-caused the building works to be halted. So according to Miss Choe and Mr Lee, that far from being the worst design since the square steering wheel (great line from Jack, but he emphatically denied his father ever owned an Austin Allegro), it was a brilliant conception and daring innovation from the Dear Leader (Kim Jong il). Therefore had it not been for western sanctions, it would now be hailed as one of the greatest paradigm shifts in construction ever. Jack and his friends eventually gave up, but the answer was still no; the hotel was closed and tours are currently unavailable was the reoccurring line.
They pressed on after the short break, it was at this point that Jack came to realise the stark contrast between the shining façade of Pyongyang and the austere reality of life outside the capital. As the coach meandered along Jack observed from the coach window the obvious stark change of surroundings, how the countryside with the some quite beautiful scenery and the constant mountainous landscape which forms much of the alluring topography of North Korea, is scarred by the obvious poverty. As they passed through a number of similar villages Jack was shocked they were allowed to see this, but surprisingly Mr Lee did speak unashamedly about it; not attributing any blame, just stating that this is what one would see in any capital outside any major city in the western world. Jack realised that Mr Lee and probably most city dwellers and even the people of the countryside themselves also believed this. But there was no question in Jacks mind as to the poverty, on the odd stops they made, although the guides would consciously keep them from wandering off into the heart of the villages, it was blatantly obvious as to the degree of penury people were living in, just by the gaunt faces and general physical shape of some of the people he and his friends witnessed. They decided not to challenge their guides any further, but Jack told me that he was very uncomfortable with this and emphatic in his belief that if he could have roamed the countryside freely there was worse than he had witnessed, much worse.
They eventually arrived at the DMZ in the early afternoon but the mood music now had a distinct change of tempo. Mr Lee and Miss Choe adopted a more serious demeanour and any questions concerning the how and why relative to the historical aspects of the DMZ were met with an absolute stinging criticism of US policy towards North Korea, how the Americans with their so called South Korean lackeys are responsible for the continuing impasse at the most fortified and well-guarded border in the world. Jack informed me he had recently read a book by Victor Cha called The Impossible State. In which the author gives an estimate of the potential costs of a new conflict on the Korean peninsula. He told me that roughly it is broke into three segments: One million in human lives, one billion in military costs, and up to one trillion in industrial damage. He threw the mind-numbing apocalyptic figures at Mr Lee, who batted them away with the skill of a seasoned cricket player, insisting North Korea would never instigate a war and has always tried to negotiate hard for a de-escalation of the obvious tension that exists in this most surreal of places.
The village of Panmunjom was originally a small village that became the location for the signing of the armistice between the North and South Korea in 1953 and was north of the military demarcation line. A new site was then constructed known as the Joint Security Area (JSA) where many official meetings are now scheduled and the smart blue huts have the demarcation line directly running through them. Jack and his party were not allowed into the buildings but said it was strange seeing it from the North Korean side, as most people only view it from the Southern aspect.
Jack was amazed when they went back into one of the many buildings in the JSA to see amongst other memorabilia, the actual axe that was used in the killing of a Captain Bonifas. In 1976 the captain and another US officer were attacked and killed by troops from the North, simply for attempting some necessary surgery on a tree in the DMZ. When he challenged Mr Lee and Miss Choe on their account of the incident, the obvious slant was placed that favoured the North Korean line. That narrative asserts the tree at the centre of the confrontation was planted by Kim il Sung himself, and as such, by the American’s attempting to prune it was an affront to North Korean dignity. But Jack made the point that whatever the rights and wrongs, he stressed to Miss Choe that the US or the UK would not keep such items, and to do so was morbid and unsavoury in the extreme. When I asked Jack what their reaction was to this, he smiled wryly and just said: “What would you expect?”
The capital Pyongyang is much further from the DMZ than from Seoul to the same destination, as such they were told the party would not be driving home that evening, even though by Jacks rough calculations they could have easily made it back. A specially selected hotel had been chosen on the route back, which Jack guessed was probably because the lack of street lighting could prove an embarrassment to their hosts. North Korea is well renowned for this, and the badly maintained roads would only exacerbate the problem. However after an hour on the coach they were suddenly informed that due to unforeseen circumstances the hotel was unable to accommodate them and they were going to continue directly back to the capital.
Although Mr Lee tried to reassure them it was simply due to some obscure plumbing problem that purely coincidentally had just occurred, Jack and both his friends suspected the hotel was rather run down and would prove embarrassing (something that a member of the party who had a limited understanding of Hangul confirmed when overhearing Miss Choe), and so it was decided by their omnipresent guides that seeing North Korea at night without street lights, was better than guests experiencing a rather shabby hotel. But as they had already witnessed, outside of the capital was a different country. Devoid of clean affluent villages and towns, surprisingly backward in terms of farm machinery and with an obvious lack of motorised transport, all bore stark evidence to the harsh reality of life outside Pyongyang.
The last evening in the Yanggakdo hotel was relaxed, the Soju flowed and this time even miss Choe enjoyed a small glass and mixed happily with all the guests, and surprisingly spoke quite freely about some minor (a word she was careful to heavily inflect) problems North Korea currently has, and was surprisingly candid.
But just as the expression goes that all roads lead to Rome, North Koreans firmly believe all the sanctions it endures, all the stories that appear in the western press of a belligerent and isolated country and all other negative propaganda, only emanate from one source. They are deliberate, sustained, and specifically designed to further isolate their country. As Jack quite eloquently articulated to me, the old well-worn chestnut is that the US remains as it always has, the evil empire, the aggressor. To this day they are taught the Americans and Seoul were both the architects and instigators of the bloody and brutal Korean War.
As their plane lifted off from Pyongyang’s’ Sunan airport Jack wondered that perhaps if he came back here in five years’ time the Kim regime will have fallen, and like most places around the world that were former bastions of communism, has embraced change and finally thrown off the yoke of authoritarian control.
But it’s a question that is not that simple in North Korea. As Jack concluded, if somebody speculated that the Kim dynasty will end soon, the entire edifice crumble and burn with a new democratic order finally appearing from the embers, then conversely and also considering the level of control that is exercised over its people, it’s just as possible it will continue; unashamed and proud of its strange and yet compelling existence that continues to defy all logic. That is the eternal paradox of North Korea.
I would just like to thank Jack for taking the time to impart his story to me, and for the honest and forthright manner in which he told it. As to his future plans, well I am sure there will be more adventures to come and I wish him every success in life. We hear so much in the media about the mollycoddled life of today’s youth, but it’s refreshing to know that there are young people out there who are risk takers, who do think on a deep level and have a sense of yearning for the unknown. As by pushing boundaries, questioning political systems and social structures, finding out what this world is all about, only then can we become enlightened and hopefully build a better world.