A detour brought us to something few non-North Koreans, and probably few North Koreans, get to see — the other side of the tracks in Pyongang.
April 15 was the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, something like July 4, 1776 in the United States. Amid the hubbub, they detoured our bus from whatever our route was supposed to be to a driving along some dilapidated and run-down places. The government so heavily controls what anyone sees, especially foreigners, this must have been an accident of the once-in-a-lifetime chaos of the day.
I would call the area a slum, but it was nothing like slums elsewhere, like in American cities. Things were old and decrepit but empty. I had no sense that it was unsafe. I saw few signs of activity. I saw many crumbling walls and buildings in various states of falling apart. I saw no overcrowding.
We also drove along railroad tracks for a while. Many trains looked like they were barely in one piece. Some wobbled as they moved — I think indicating the tracks weren’t level, but could have resulted from some other engineering problem.
I felt privileged to see this hidden part of a city. I didn’t feel great to see economic depression, but as much as the government would probably normally hide it, it looked no more economically depressed than corresponding areas in most American cities, though in the U.S. I’d expect to feel less safe.
Why no pictures?
The North Korean government jealously protects what foreigners can see. We were told the government holds guides responsible for the behavior of people in their groups, even after they leave. And the North Korean government has a notorious reputation for draconian punishment. So in a bus full of people with great cameras, we decided not to take advantage of an obvious mistake, risk the well-being of a great (and innocent) guide, and held off on taking pictures.
The North Korean government’s secrecy hurts its people, in my estimation, because I believe inequities like we saw come from lack of transparency. And I think it was unneeded. Those parts of town hardly compared to slums in, say, the U.S. or Rio.