Kim's Empire: Advancing Globalization Makes its Mark in North Korea

By  in Pyongyang

A trip through Kim Jong Un's North Korea reveals a country where one can find widespread poverty as well as an increasing number of Western products. Government minders, however, remain vigilant.

"Potemkin villages," I scribble onto a scrap of paper for the interpreter, Mr. Kim. "What does that mean?" he asks. "It means that you are just showing us facades here to feign growth and progress, just as the Russian Prince Potemkin once did," I reply. "You should google it."

That, though, is not an option available to Mr. Kim. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the only country on earth in which the people have no connection to the World Wide Web.

The 21-year-old interpreter has never left North Korea. He believes in the imminent victory of the socialist revolution and is now trying to show us the achievements of his native country: The capital, cleaned up for the 100th birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, and a new high-rise development that looks like something the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser might have designed, albeit in concrete. Western diplomats in Pyongyang sardonically refer to the development as the city's new "Manhattan skyline."

Mr. Kim doesn't understand why foreign guests always ask these questions: Why are so many men here dressed in uniforms? Does North Korea really need long-range missiles? Why does the government spend 60 percent of its budget on defense if annual GDP per capita is only $960 (€742) and the average adult only has access to 2,150 kilocalories a day? Why does the regime need reeducation camps? Why are we only driven on boulevards but are not shown any ordinary residential neighborhoods? And, finally: Why can we never move around without minders?

This is too much for Mr. Kim. At the end of the day, he asks to be replaced.

That evening, a man with darting eyes and thinning hair is standing at the entrance to the Yanggakdo Hotel, a 47-story structure built in 1995. His dark suit is positively elegant, as if it had been tailored for Mao Zedong at Emporio Armani.

Familiar with the World

Mr. Hong introduces himself as our team's new guide. We are in North Korea to find out whether things are changing under its new dictator, Kim Jong Un. There will be many questions on our 10-day journey, by train and by car, through a country that is sealed off from the rest of the world. Mr. Hong, 57, used to work at the North Korean embassy in Berlin, both before and after German reunification. Mr. Hong is familiar with the world.

He smiles and shakes hands affably. According to Western experts, a person of his rank and age who assumes the task of attending to curious guests in Pyongyang is undoubtedly a member of the Ministry of State Security.

The next day is to be a special one, both for us and for our minder. It's the 64th anniversary of the proclamation of the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea. There are huge parades, massive dance performances and, in the city's stadium, a gymnastics demonstration so large that the mere idea of choreographing such an event -- with 100,000 participants -- seems unimaginable.

Before long, Mr. Hong begins rolling his eyes. "Enough with these photos! They're giving me a headache," he says. Hong's anger is directed at photographer Andreas Taubert, who is apparently taking far too many pictures. The argument over right and wrong images of North Korea will accompany us until the last day of the trip.

Photographing mass gymnastics is basically okay, even though the dancers outnumber the audience in the stadium three to one. But military parades are taboo, especially when the army drives by in its smoke-belching trucks, some of which are powered with wood because of a gasoline shortage.

Stopped Time

It's verboten to take pictures of battery vendors squatting by the side of road to sell their meager goods, because it could suggest that the planned economy is a failure. We can photograph cars in Pyongyang traffic, because if we don't show these images they'll be saying, once again, that the streets of the capital are empty, says Mr. Hong, although he tells us not to photograph the shiny VW Touaregs driven by senior party officials. Apple orchards and small livestock farms are on the approved list, because they depict the production of healthy food products, but photos of women carrying heaving loads on their heads or sweating in the fields are not.

North Korea remains the world's most enigmatic nation. It's as if history had placed a glass dome over the country and stopped time -- in the middle of the Cold War.

At the "Three Villages Spring" collective farm near the port city of Wonsan, women are already in the fields shortly after sunrise, cutting sheaves of rice with a scythe. They wear visor caps decorated with a red star. A photo of the most productive farm worker, framed by a wreath of plastic flowers, is displayed in front of the brigade clubhouse. Five-year-old Jun Hak Ljong is standing in his parents' kitchen. They are already out in the fields. What are you going to do today, we ask? "I'll wait," he says. What's your greatest wish? "To be a soldier."

A military checkpoint has been set up on the road leading out of Wonsan. Soldiers wearing brown uniforms and armbands check vehicles and all pedestrians. Everyone is required to have a pass. No one in this country can leave a district, a province or even a housing development without being noticed.

The government is everywhere, monitoring and regulating the lives of its citizens, like a domineering father figure.

Three-year-olds learn marching in kindergarten, and Young Pioneers -- 10 or 11-year-old children -- are assigned to work details. Men are required to serve in the military for at least three years, and soldiers seem to be everywhere, sweating in their turquoise uniform shirts on construction sites, in roadside ditches and on public squares -- almost as if they were digging up the entire country with their shovels and pickaxes. The ambitious campaign to spruce up the capital was only finished in April, in time for the festivities surrounding Kim Il Sung's centennial, because a large number of students were pulled out of universities for a year and assigned to work details.

In North Korea, there is no such thing as individuals. There is only the collective.

The people are thin and the children are too small for their age. Although rice and the fermented cabbage dish known as kimchi are filling, the diet is deficient in protein and many vitamins. Government guides like to take visitors to newly established ostrich and turtle farms, which they tout as progress.

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