Sunday, September 25, 2011

DPRK photo preview

Uploading photos is a pain over here. Here's a sample of some of my best, out of more than 400 taken, in North Korea. Family: you can see more at the next holiday meet-up. Everyone else: I will do uploads when I am in a country with better Internets.

The Puerto Rico Tae Kwon Do team stepping off our flight to Pyongyang. There was a big tournament while we were in town. The plane was really old. My seat was a wee bit broken, so couldn't get the back to come fully forward which seemed to irritate the teenage boy wearing Kazakhstan warm-ups seated behind me. They served beer and cider on the two-hour flight.

Airport portrait of Kim Il-Sung. The lights went out once as we went through customs. This happened a few times during the trip, our hotel had a generator though, so it wasn't a problem. At the airport they took all our cell phones and put them in a big bag for our guides to keep hold of (it's not like we could've used them anyways). They also searched our cameras for GPS functions, which is also a no-no.

We went straight from the airport to a World Cup qualifier match. DPRK vs. Tajikistan. North Korea won and we got there after the first and only goal. We sat in a special foreigners section. Our British guide rallied the foreigner section to do the wave, and the North Koreans followed our lead. That was fun.

The next day we were up early to go see the DMZ. It's been a little less than a year since I visited South Korea, I never imagined 11 months later I'd be standing in the same room, but entering from the other side. This is the arch of reunion, it's built over the highway that connects Seoul to Pyongyang (or would, if cars were allowed to cross the border). Each lady represents one side of the Korean Peninsula. There are murals carved at the foundations - on the North Korean side some really smart, young people extend their arms and the torch of the Juche philosophy (philosophy of self reliance that Kim Il-Sung made up). On the South Korean side, the people look all old and in need of rescue/reunion with family. All week the message seemed to be we want to reunite with South Korea and we want them to accept our philosophy. Tall order.

Here's the DMZ, in the foreground are North Korean soldiers, then behind them you see a South Korean soldier and behind him two US soldiers. My DMZ visit was much more relaxed this time around. On the South Korean side you have to dress up (no flip flops or shorts), and it starts with a safety briefing wherein you sign some sort of UN form that says if you get smoked it's not their problem.

There wasn't any of that on the North Korean side. Our guides gave us the North Korean version of the Korean War story, emphasizing that their side has always wanted peace and it's the US and the 'South Korean puppet army' that are the war mongers. They did briefly mention two "accidents," one in the seventies where North Korean soldiers hacked to death some Americans back when both sides could wander about the Joint Security Area, the other accident being when they killed a South Korean woman who went wandering (always inadvisable in North Korea) around her tourist hotel near the border and was gunned down.

Our guides motioned to the more formal, tightly-watched South Korean side (where you're told not to wave or motion to anyone on the DPRK side, we were free to do as we pleased) and made remarks like, "see, you can see we are more peaceful." But my overall impression on the trip is that the country is highly militarized. We saw hundreds of young soldiers all over Pyongyang, and they didn't have any of the military discipline I'm used to seeing exhibited by American soldiers. They smoked in rank, their hats were on wrong, their jackets misfit. I think it's highly likely the fact that you have all these young men who have been fed a bunch of one-sided war-time rhetoric, and don't have the same kind of discipline our soldiers do, is a major contributing factor to all the scary little flare ups that have happened.

North Koreans say they want peace, but then at the same time they also think there's a war going on. We went to see a music show on a national holiday and one of the acts was a comedian who did impersonations of characters in famous North Korean movies. It was all very light until at the end of the act he said something like (my guide translated): "If there's one spark on the Korean peninsula we will go fight and vanquish the enemies."

On our second night we went to Mass Games. The games go on for a month and a half, four nights a week, and comprise 100,000 performers (in honor of Kim Il-Sung's burfday). See all the girls dancing? Then see the Korean writing and flowers behind them? That's a giant human mosaic, the people have big books and change the pictures all throughout the performance.

Kim Il-Sung is the Sun. Everywhere we went we saw KimilSungia and Kimjongilia - a pink orchid and a red begonia, supposedly new flowers invented and then named after those two guys. We drove by an exhibition center and our guide told us twice a year their are flower exhibitions where all kinds of different work units bring their best flowers (their best Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia, that is) to be judged.

Kid on a scooter in Pyongyang. The capital looks like what I imagine China looked like in the mid seventies. There's no advertising anywhere, there are hardly any cars, lots of people walking and biking. All the buildings are big concrete blocks that look like they need to be painted.

School girls. The scarves indicate they're 'young pioneers.' A few years from now they'll take off their scarves and get their first pins with Kim Il-Sung's face on them. Every adult North Korean wears this pin all the time (unless it's a construction guy working in his undershirt, or some other sort of manual labor).

Ah, the Pyramid Hotel. 105 stories. 3,000 guest rooms. Started construction in 1987, never finished (no $$).

Me making a North Korean man really uncomfortable outside Kim Il-Sung's mausoleum. We were all being friendly and he agreed to take a picture with me so I put an arm around him, which is probably way too much (North Korea is super conservative). This big group of men and women crowded around giggling as we had our photo taken.

The mausoleum was a trip. Lots and lots of crying North Koreans. We got little mp3 players to listen to the narration as we walked through the halls and the English narration was completely overwrought "nothing could quench the people's great sorrow! They couldn't bare to be torn from their dear leader so soon..." Before you enter the chamber where the body lies, you go through this little passage that blows air on you to get all the dust off. All the women working in the mausoleum are tall and beautiful and deathly pale, which makes it all seem that much more morbid. Everyone, no matter what your work unit, has to go help on the farms during harvest season. These women though must be really careful, because they don't look like they've ever seen the Sun.

Here I am manning the artillery of the USS Pueblo, which was captured in 1968 in North Korean waters or International waters, depending on who you talk to. Technically it's still in active commission, but it serves as a museum on the Taedong River in Pyongyang now.

On our last day there was a big national holiday. Hundreds of women in traditional dresses went to dance in this big plaza where the monument to the workers' party stands.

Overall, it was a really special trip and I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to go. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to see something really different, a way of life that (hopefully) wont be around forever. Everyone in my tour group was really well traveled (many, if not most, much more so than me). I guess North Korea isn't exactly first on anyone's international travel agenda.

Ah, I have so many more photos I want to show you guys. Hope to get more up soon!

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