Basic observations of North Korea
Continuing writing about my North Korea trip…
Here are some basic observations I saw in North Korea without embellishment or analysis.
- When I looked out my hotel room the first night we arrived to see about half the city, because of their dearth of electrical power I could count the number of cars driving: two.
- Buildings outside Pyongyang were bunker-like concrete slabs, many unfinished. Many people appeared to live in unfinished buildings.
- On the highway between Pyongyang and the Demilitarized Zone we passed two adjacent unfinished bridges falling into streams as if construction halted unexpectedly year ago, like ancient ruins.
- That highway was divided, with two or three lanes in each direction. For most of the roughly two-hour trip we saw no other vehicles than our bus. One side of the divided highway was closed to traffic. We asked why. Our guides said for construction, but we saw none.
- The drive to the farm toward the end of the trip took a ten-lane highway. This highway also had almost no traffic besides our bus. We used almost all ten lanes to avoid potholes, at times several lanes wide.
- Since laborers worked without shirts in the August heat, you could see average, regular people had four-packs and sometimes ripped muscles. I saw no fat North Koreans, except their leaders.
- We say few 20-30 year olds outside our guides and in uniform. Where were they? I can only wonder… Factories? Cities? The military?
- The land we saw from the airplane landing and from all the roads outside Pyongyang appeared very green.
- We saw many people sitting around, unhurried. The place had a relaxed pace, though the unhurriedness may have been lethargy.
- We saw no jet trails in the sky.
- The guides’ talk about politics and history, which appeared scripted for them, overplayed U.S. malevolence, at least compared to histories available outside North Korea. In our group these scripts reduced the credibility of all their official histories.
- They often referred to the U.S. as American imperialist aggressors. Same with Japan.
- Power went out at night outside Pyongyang, which made those nights peaceful.
- Our hotel’s air-conditioning went out on the second or third day, then never went back on during our trip.
- In Keasong, a city of roughly 300,000 people, a central loudspeaker broadcast messages across whole city, apparently all day from before 6am. Early in the morning it played instrumental music, at first peaceful but then rousing and patriotic-sounding. In the day it sounded like propaganda, but we couldn’t tell because it was in Korean.
- A farm we visited toward the end also had a loudspeaker broadcasting what sounded like propaganda from a speaker of lower quality and annoying. The voice sounded excited. Our guides told us it was broadcasting news, that day of Kim Jung Il visiting Russia. They said it played every day and you couldn’t turn it off.
- On the farm trip, they showed us farm without showing any fields of plants. They did show us a thirty-foot statue of Kim Il Sung with farm laborers, a model farmer’s residence, and a stage production of Andrews Sisters meets Lawrence Weld with a huge dose of self-confidence and pride music.
- We saw almost no stores from the bus and the ones we did see you had to look for. They had no produce outside. We saw almost no restaurants or hotels.
- Nearly all forms of self-expression were totalitarian — art, architecture, music, etc — becoming totally predictable.
- There were almost no logos or advertising anywhere.
- We saw children alone on streets and highways and in parks. We wondered where there parents were.
- Despite its name, the Demilitarized Zone had plenty of military presence on both sides, including, they told us, land mine fields, though also large fields and communities showing no military presence. On the other hand, the military didn’t seem on alert.
- I didn’t see any unusual wildlife or geography. All the differences between North Korea and the U.S. seemed based in people.
- I saw no fresh fruits or vegetables except a few apples and a small slice of watermelon one morning.
- The music and art I saw exhibited limited self-expression or spontaneity. They performed on grand scale, including performances with tens of thousands of performers, showing amazing technical precision.
- The always refer to Kim Jong Il as Leader Kim Jong Il.
- Differences in accents make “Leader Kim Jong Il” sound like “Little Kim Jong Il.”
Tomorrow: I’ll start showing pictures of North Korea
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees