IMPRESSIONS OF DPR KOREA
Part 1: "We are not jealous of anyone."
Once you have crossed the frontier between China and N.Korea, the countryside changes as if by magic: instead of craggy mountains covered in trees with grey smoky cities dotted amongst them, suddenly there appear through the train window bright green of fields of rice, carefully divided one from another by rows of potatoes and maize.
Korea is a mountainous country, so there isn't much land for agriculture, and one gets the impression that here, every possible bit of it is planted and cultivated, including the hill-slopes where they grow maize and various types of vegetables in terraces which are at times at such steep angles it is impossible to imagine how the farmers manage to climb up there. Obviously, tractors in these parts are useless. So the land is worked by hand with the help of oxen. In the fields there is literally not a single weed, not even in those furthest from the roadways. Perfect fields.
What terrible stories we are told nowadays in the bourgeouis press about North Korea! There is no sense in repeating all of them, just open any paper: "In Pyongyang they forbid people to hang curtains in their windows so they can know what is going on in the houses," or "in North Korea, public executions are carried out just for using a mobile phone" (of course we are not told who is executed or where or when these executions are carried out, nor, naturally, the sources of such 'information'). Just as in earlier times, according to the same press, in the USSR we didn't have trade unions, women only went to work because their husbands couldn't feed them, and women and children were 'socialized' by the evil Bolsheviks...
From the first moment in N. Korea, I did not get the feeling of being in an impoverished dictatorship of the godforsaken 'Axis of Evil', as the 'democratic' press would have us believe, but rather I got an impression of constant celebration!
It is exactly 30 years since I saw similar lines of trees with their whitened trunks along the roadsides. The trams and trolley-buses here are much newer and cleaner than those in my 'democratized' home town in Russia and there is not a single broken seat. No-one writes rude words on the walls, either in the native language or in English. Right up to the present day, it is possible to swim in the rivers and drink spring water (something that really surprised the Western Europeans in our group) and the tap-water in Pyongyang can be drunk without any need to boil it first.
Pyongyang is a very green city. It's like one big park. Along its streets are mainly willow and poplar trees. There is a lot of water: two rivers flow through the city, forming islands in the middle. And for the first time in my life I saw modern multicoloured buildings several storeys high which are really nice-looking, original and different one from another!
As I already said, people in the street are well- and neatly dressed, and with good taste. Actually, many of them wear rubber boots when it rains, but there's nothing surprising in this. No-one throws rubbish in the street and so no waste-bins are to be seen. That reminds me of a poster on the wall in one of the dining rooms in Soviet times: "Cleanliness comes, not from cleaning a lot, but from not getting things dirty in the first place!"
The first thing that agreeably surprised us in Pyongyang was the silence and tranquility of the night-time. In contrast, early in the morning, you awaken to the sound of the street sweepers keeping the roads clean. Pyongyang is perhaps the cleanest city in the world. And during the course of the day, you see here and there people, including schoolchildren, who help to keep the city clean. Certainly, this pertains not only in the capital, we saw the same thing in the provinces, and also in the villages. Children plant flowers along the roadways and soldiers work in the fields with oxen and ploughs. Can you imagine a more peaceful scene?
Here no-one walks around carrying dozens of bags (if something heavy has to be carried, it is carried on the back in a rucksack) The faces of the people are friendly and jovial. There is little traffic in the streets (we mustn't forget the problems this small country has with energy supply, abandoned to its fortune by its chief allies and friends, and still it is capable of surviving and continuing, not only maintaining its independence, but developing itself in spite of all adversity). Many people go by foot, or by bicycle, they engage in sports and physical work, and for this reason practically no-one suffers from obesity. I think of what things are like in this respect where I live now ... One out of every four children in Ireland is overweight. And as for the adults, now they show on TV the following advert: "Please move yourself, even for half an hour a day! That would be enough to maintain a healthy life-style..."
By the way, as regards electric energy, in North Korea they are very thrifty: wherever possible, normal light-bulbs have been substituted for others with low consumption,- something which in the West it is only being thought about introducing,- and wherever there is no need for light, it is turned out immediately.
Koreans go about their business in the streets without being in a hurry, and there is no overcrowding in the public transport. The shop windows are full of products, but there are no queues like in our countries. Here, people go calmly into the shops when they need something, they choose it and buy it. The capitalist system in the so-called developed countries, because of the laws inherent to its functioning, tends to accustom people to buy things they don't need at all, so that shopping becomes a passtime, one of their favourite activities, people become real 'shopaholics' and, like with any drug addiction, they feel satisfaction only for a short period of time after the shopping expedition, and then feel the irresistible need to go and buy something new, and they think that after that purchase they will finally understand the purpose of life and calm down. It is a terrible illness which drags people into an endless whirlwind of debts, credits and loans, after which many people work only to pay off their debts... And how can a person be 'free' like that? In fact, they are tied hand and foot, precisely what the system required of them!
The North Koreans happily know nothing of this terrible illness. But the variety of products in the shops is sufficiently wide and no-one swells up with hunger, as happens in the 'democratic' African countries. For example, a 20 year old here gets 700 grammes of rice a day. We were in different regions of the country, including agricultural areas, in a region where, if one is to believe the Western press, there should be hunger and we could see with our own eyes that these 'horror stories' are of the same type as those concerning Iraqi 'weapons of mass destruction.'
(I will speak further on about a visit to a local state farm)
North Koreans can also freely buy articles from the hotel shops where foreigners stay. We lived in a hotel with natives of the country and it never once occurred to me that any of our guides would prevent us from communicating with any of them. Naturally, there are places in the country which cannot be shown to foreigners, this used to be the case with us too (in Russia) and now I understand that this was absolutely correct. There hangs permanently over North Korea the threat of intervention from the imperialist United States, and up till now a peace accord has still not been signed between the two countries after the brilliant victory of the Korean people in the 1950-1953 war. There is only an armistice. The US does not want to sign documents guaranteeing a firm peace.
Actually, there are a lot of soldiers on the streets of North Korea, but you soon get used to their presence - it's an integral part of the reality of this small proud country. Here there is no marketing of military uniforms or of war decorations of fathers and grandfathers. And here, there could never happen what happened in Yogoslavia when the army came out unharmed from NATO bombing, and yet Kosovo was handed to the enemy without any resistance...
Of course, the people in the streets often stare at foreigners, particularly the children, who wave and smile, and the military patrols in the streets, with impeccable politeness, direct military salutes at you. They are certainly not used to foreigners. In one year, a total of just a few hundred foreign tourists visit North Korea. But the problem is not with Korea, but with Western propaganda. By chance I saw an email message sent from home to one of the Western tourists present in Pyongyang: "When we heard where you were, we were immediately worried."
This same tourist can now confirm that there wasn't the least reason to be worried (perhaps it could be that in her native country she would have to be worried, after returning from here). Moreover, here you can leave your things, including valuables, with no worry at all in the hotel, or even in the bus during excursions and you have a 100% guarantee that no-one will take anything. Where else can you imagine a situation like that in one of the European countries? And children leave their bags in school when they go home for dinner.
Our guides told us that the more people who visit their country, the better: "If you know anyone else interested in seeing North Korea, tell them to come. We will be very happy. Anyone who sees our country with their own eyes, without exception, no longer believes that we have aggressive intentions or in any of the other inventions of Western propaganda." And in fact, how could one believe in them, when you make a mental comparison between Korean soldiers who till the earth and work on the building sites of their country, with unruly Yankee soldiers or those of other NATO countries, torturers and executioners of the civilian population in other people's lands?
At times I felt for a while as if I were at home (in Russia). And it wasn't because there are so many Russian cars and other means of transport and that the streets are wide like in Moscow, that even the uniform of Korean officers is reminiscent of the Soviet unifrom, that many high-rise buildings are similar to the Soviet ones (only that, in contrast to the latter, they are painted in different pretty colours), and that the cinemas, like formerly at home, are decorated with handpainted posters showing the heroes of the films. No, the main reason lay in the people, in their way of life.
Everything was immediately recognizable - the school and work excursions to museums, to the circus, the voluntary unpaid work on Saturdays, the lists of honour (which show photos, for example, of the most outstanding workers in some activity) ... things which are difficult to explain to someone from the West, but which for us, brought up in the USSR, seem as natural as breathing. Just that we had forgotten about them somewhat, but after 2-3 days in Pyongyang, memories come crowding back like an avalanche, so that you can almost smell the familiar smell of your childhood home. Feelings too rushed in, ones that in the 'free' world you had to suppress carefully and over a long period, simply in order to survive. For example, loving people. Or the desire simply to be useful to society. And faith in the best in people, a faith that we almost lost after being more than 15 years constantly subjected to a life in which man is, in effect, a wolf towards his fellow man, and you can expect any nasty trick from him.
I saw a country in which every day was like the 1st May celebrations in the Soviet Union.
No-one of course can say that the North Koreans have an easy or worry-free life.
"Imagine what would happen in your country if, from one day to the next, you lost all your economic relations with Germany, Holland, France, Great Britain.... Our country found itself in this situation at the beginning of the 90s," said a N. Korean diplomat to his Belgian audience on the day of solidarity with his country. In that same period, several natural catastrophes occurred, resulting in the loss of the harvests. But finally, the country recovered from it, in spite of all difficulties related, not only to all these factors, but also to the economic sanctions imposed by the US. And when you see, in the Korean exhibition of the Three Revolutions (similar to our Exhibition of Economic Advances in the USSR), their own vehicles, whose production is carried out inside the country, and the pavilion dedicated to the first artificial N. Korean satellite (whose existence the US denies up until this day: "This can't exist, because it can never exist"), inevitably you are filled with wonder at the tenacity and value of this small country.
Here they don't sell for millions of dollars places in space ships, and they don't make business out of selling the historical documents of the country. Korean experts work for the benefit of their country. They are not forced to become prostitutes offering their services to the highest bidder, like our scientists, for whom the state itself plays the role of pimp.
Having no worries is not at all synonymous with happiness. As Leon Tolstoy said, 'tranquility is spiritually despicable'. 'Let me live in peace' is the favourite slogan of egotists and career merchants of all times and nations.
But that kind of tranquility and trust in tomorrow are two different things. The latter you can breathe in all North Korean streets.
North Korea is, effectively, the Russia we lost. But better, morally cleaner, more natural. It is possible that our country was like this in the 50s. Unfortunately, I only know of those years through the tales of my mother. I was unlucky, I was born later. And afterwards, for all of us, it suddenly seemed 'boring to build socialism', and in place of this, we began to think of white trousers of the latest style, of beautiful exotic girls and trips to Rio de Janeiro. With such unfortunate consequences for our country....
I realized when here that on the other side of the frontier, they simply don't understand North Korea, above all because of their own cynicism and lack of principles. They simply can't imagine that there are people in the world who really believe in a bright future and who work constantly to build it, because they themselves, although at one time they mouthed pretty words about communisim, were only pretending. Or else they can in no way imagine what socialism is, how it is possible to care for others and not live just for the satisfaction of one's own most basic needs (like the taxi driver in Dublin who put to me the question as to why the people in the Soviet Union bothered to study to be doctors or teachers if doctors and teachers had the same wage as the workers...). And naturally, these people judge others exclusively according to their own frame of reference...
When people in other countries that have been here return to their homes, they won't find many people to listen to their positive impressions. Instead, people will react in surprise: "Is it possible? How quickly North Korean propaganda stuck to you. My goodness, the dictatorship must be really strong there!"
But friends, what propaganda? Slogans are slogans, and nothing would influence me as much as what I see with my own eyes, like the fact that the vast majority of the population lives a decent life, are happy with it and work diligently for it. If they were forced to labour, they would not work like that!
Observing the Koreans - small people, quite delicate to look at,- who in the Saturday voluntary work teams form a human chain all along the road and dig ditches for electric cables over a distance of several kilometres and well into the night and often on public holidays don't take a rest but work in the rice fields, you will be forced to remember those lines of Tijonov: "If you made nails out of these people, you wouldn't find any stronger nails in the whole world!" They really do have a love relationship with work, if you still have the capacity to imagine what that means.
When you see Koreans working, you feel that each person knows exactly what their task is, without any boss standing over him, and consequently, he does it well. What a contrast with our communal work teams of the 70s in Russia when, for example, people wanted to do what was necessary as quickly as possible and your companions left the brooms in a pile and went into a corner to chat. "And what about you? It's not worth the effort ... Come with us!" ... The fruits of these and other actions are still being harvested today.
And what is more, Koreans live like one big family. Such a person, who hardly knows what bourgeois society is like, is really difficult to understand... "Oh, they only work like slaves, for them there's nothing else to life!" say our young men nowadays, dreaming that 'their money will work for them' just as all the con men promise them, and in their imagination, happiness is 'lying on a beach in the Bahamas.' "That's why you live in cages" as a character in the film Kindza-dza (1988) says ... By the way, in North Korea, I never saw one place with bars in the windows. Or barred doors, like in Russia. There is no need for them.
They have everything they want in life. There are theatres, museums, circuses, sports halls and swimming baths, cultural centres and recreational parks, and everything accessible to everyone. There was a girl in military uniform walking along a country pathway reading a good book as she went. There are children playing musical instruments, dancing and laughing (whilst in the 'civilized' town where I live, her contemporaries die of drug overdoses, steal cars or burn somebody.) And there are young people playing chess. And old people who rest with dignity on park benches without having to worry abut being robbed by monetary reforms. And lovers who walk along the piers, holding hands and looking at each other tenderly, instead of drinking tins of beer and afterwards falling down any old place amongst the bushes...
Look around! Look at the fetid, filthy rubbish dump we have turned our marvellous, beloved, unique country into! All of us, and not only evil-doers like Berezovski (the best known Russian oligarch, at present hiding in Britain). It was us that allowed him and others of his ilk to get power! What have we turned ourselves into in the name of the disease called the 'New Thinking', in which there is nothing new, only the usual selfishness and avarice. Look how we have turned Russia into merchandise, converting her into one big flea market, an enormous second hand market. Is no-one sorrowing for her? Is it possible we have reached such a degree of lack of self-esteem?
A long time ago, when I was still at school, when I was reading a magazine called 'Korea today' in Russian, this phrase engraved itself on my memory: 'We are jealous of no-one!' At the time it seemed to me, to put it mildly, an exaggeration. But today I was able, with my own eyes, to see the truth of this sentence. In effect, the Koreans have no reason to be envious of anyone infected by the virus of the most abject servility. We should be envious of them.....
Pyongyang, July 2007
Translated by Jenny James