North Korea Travels in a Quiet Land

North Korea is a country where time has stood still. While its former communist allies have long since embarked on new paths, the isolated regime defies all efforts to bring about change. For a Western visitor it can be difficult to know if one is getting a rare glimpse of reality or partaking in a performance.

By Michael Schindhelm


It is a smooth landing on a seemingly endless runway, past fields of vegetables and corn, low pine groves and barbed-wire fences. After 10 minutes, the Airbus rumbles up to the modest terminal. Visitors are greeted by an enormous portrait of the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung, on the roof of the building. The next day North Korea's Communist Party is holding its first assembly in 30 years. The outside world, which will not be a part of it, is speculating from afar about the country's future leadership.

The board in the arrivals hall is empty. Only one flight arrives here on normal days, usually from Beijing and sometimes from Vladivostok. A North Korean car takes us to downtown Pyongyang. The two doves in the brand logo represent the name of the company, Pyeonghwa (Peace), and symbolize the fact that the car is the result of a joint venture with South Korea.

Sitting next to me is Karin Janz, a 51-year-old Berlin native who has been running the office of German Agro Action (Welthungerhilfe), the only permanent base for a German aid organization in North Korea, since 2005. More than a third of North Korean children are considered malnourished. After Welthungerhilfe had distributed aid materials in the wake of catastrophic flooding in the mid-1990s, the organization was permitted to conduct development projects with agricultural cooperatives. Teaching people how to grow fruit and vegetables is better than distributing grain, says Janz.

Parallel Worlds

She gives me a mobile phone with which I can make calls in North Korea and internationally. An attempt was made to introduce a mobile network a few years ago, but then the government ended up confiscating the phones, out of worries about espionage and fears that the world could find out more about the isolated country than the leadership wanted it to. Finally, an Egyptian communications company was hired to develop a new system. In an example of the parallel worlds that exist here, a separate network was developed for foreigners that cannot be used to dial Korean users.

We pass an access road lined with Chinese cypresses and poplar trees. Children are picking up leaves. Long lines of people in uniforms and civilian clothes pass by in both directions, even though there are no buildings in sight. Red banners in bright yellow rice fields tout the achievements of agricultural production.

Heineken is available in the pub next to the Koryo Hotel. The bar has apparently just run out of the domestic brand, Taedonggang. The décor -- heavy wooden furniture and an aquarium -- is reminiscent of bars in China. But in the North Korean version, the aquarium is empty and the television set on the wall is showing epic-looking scenes from the heroic everyday life of the People's Republic: workers in a steel mill, plows slicing into the Korean soil and anti-aircraft missiles protecting the Korean skies from attacks.

Only a few North Koreans are in the bar, enjoying the chicken, vegetables and rice on the menu. In China, an evening out would be a loud affair, but the people here whisper like theatergoers during a performance. Janz is one of fewer than 100 foreigners from the West who live in North Korea. It isn't easy to strike up a conversation with Koreans, she says, although they do like to talk about love and sex.

Pyongyang is bathed in warm autumn light. At 7 a.m., crowds of workers walk or take the bus to their factory jobs. There is hardly a car in sight, but there are formations of children, a patriotic song on their lips, holding artificial flowers on wooden sticks and waving little flags on their way to the socialist academies.

Late Communist Modern Style

Divisions of recruits are gearing up to do digging work at the new cultural palace, which is almost complete, as if to prove that the prevailing "Military first!" doctrine clearly promotes the overall development of society.

The capital of North Korea is built in the late communist modern style, complete with high-rise apartment buildings made of prefabricated panels and bricks, boulevards that stretch for several kilometers, like Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee, cutting deep slices into the urban geometry. Anyone who believes that iconic architecture is the invention of modern-day celebrity architects on an ego trip can see here that landmark planning truly comes into its own in a dictatorship of the proletariat. Pyongyang, with its monuments, theaters and sports arenas, is the epitome of grandiose design.

I am only permitted to explore the city with supervision. My guide is a gaunt, shy man, an employee of the Foreign Ministry. It is the day of the party convention being so hotly discussed in the outside world, but even my guide cannot tell me exactly where the comrades are in fact meeting. Or perhaps he doesn't want to tell me for security reasons.

He says that his son is learning Russian in school, because this could be valuable to him in his future professional life, and that he once learned Turkish in Sofia -- 20 years before Turkey established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic.

Although I am the only man from the West far and wide, my presence hardly attracts any attention at all. People walk past me reading newspapers, determined cyclists cross my path and a marching band is practicing in front of the theater. Even the people standing in an orderly line as they wait for the trolley bus seem to be in a hurry. Pyongyang residents are young and dynamic. In the coming days, it will be difficult to shake the impression that there are no old or frail people in the North Korean capital.

My hosts convince the authorities to allow me to visit the metro. Even a trip from the Triumphant Return station to the Blossoming Light station is permitted. This is apparently a great honor for a foreigner. Though built in the 1970s, the stations, with their frescoes and chandeliers, imitate the splendor of Stalin's Moscow metro. Issues of the daily newspaper are on display on the platform. Today's front page features the music for a new hymn to the party. The trains are made up of decommissioned cars from the old West Berlin subway. The interior, devoid of all advertising, exudes the coffee-brown Formica charm of 1970s Germany. There is graffiti scratched into the glass, but it's clearly left over from the cars' Berlin days.

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