First Glimpses of Pyongyang


This is the second in a multi-part blog on North Korea.

I flew to Pyongyang on Air Koryo, the North Korean national airline. It was an old Russian jet with a rate of climb of about 2 degrees. It felt like we’d never get in the air. Surprisingly the flight was full. There was one flight a week into North Korea from Beijing—its only contact with the outside world. Most of the passengers on this one were members of a Hong Kong table tennis team traveling to a competition.

The jet’s rate of descent matched its prior rate of climb. We made a long, slow glide in, which allowed us forbidden glimpses at the countryside below. Patchy fields surrounded the city, dotted with crumbling brick houses and wisps of grey smoke.

northkor1.jpgSurrealism supplanted reality the moment we landed in Pyongyang. In front of the terminal, beneath a huge picture of Kim Il-Sung, a long line of people in traditional dress chanted “Welcome Pyongyang! Welcome Pyongyang!” and pumped their fists in the air. We all huddled a little closer together.

The airport was chaos. There were no real lines, only crowds of milling people loosely organized. If a “line” got shorter and we jumped over, that window would inexplicably close and we’d have to go back to the longer queue. I was told to fill out a long form detailing all of my personal belongings. The North Koreans were especially interested in foreign publications, radios, mobile phones and cameras. They also insisted on x-raying our bags before allowing us out of the containment area. I was used to being x-rayed before boarding a plane. It was the first time I’d been x-rayed before leaving an airport.

Our “guides” (read: watchers) were waiting on the other side. We were also joined by an unexpected third man. He carried a bulky, outdated video camera, and we were told he would make a tape of our trip that we could purchase if we wanted to. We all suspected him of being a spy.

The cameraman followed us around for the first few days, listening to our conversations, and then we were told that if nobody was interested in the video, he would no longer be with us. We said we wanted the camera man to stay, that we might buy the tape. They were visibly surprised. I got the impression that this had never happened before. If he was a spy then he was a very bored one, having to spend the week with us.

The ride into central Pyongyang took about 20 minutes. We had a full-sized tourist bus for the eight of us and our three watchers. The road from the airport was very good. All the tourist roads were. There weren’t many cars; in fact it was unusual to see one. Instead, I saw groups of people walking with tired, plodding steps. Work groups with homemade brooms swept the streets and the highways, and by the roadside people crawled on their knees cutting grass with small knives.

northkor3.jpgThe people in and around Pyongyang city didn’t look starved. They were thin and their clothing was faded and stained, but Pyongyang has the highest living standards in the country, though for everyone except the tiny elite these standards aren’t very high. In the countryside was starvation.

There were soldiers everywhere. Both men and women were in uniform. For many people enlistment was the only way to ensure regular meals. In the Kim regime the military is fed first and is first to benefit from foreign aid.

The streets of Pyongyang were clean and wide. On almost every corner were murals or posters of Kim Il-Sung. It’s a city of beautiful monuments and grand public buildings. The one thing missing was people. There was no life. A couple times a day, during what they called rush hour, I saw the usual groups of walking people, but most of the time the streets were silent. It felt like a stage set, like we were walking through an engineer’s conceptual model.

 Pyongyang is North Korea’s showcase: a Potemkin village on an enormous scale, built to dazzle the few foreign guests and delegations permitted to visit. It’s a city built to be seen and toured, not lived in. There’s a strange unreality about it.

The citizens of the capital are carefully chosen. Only those most loyal to the regime are permitted to live there. Old people, cripples, and the extremely ugly are banished to the countryside. It’s all part of the illusion. Even the female traffic control police are said to be chosen for their beauty rather than for their abilities. It wouldn’t matter much anyway; there isn’t any traffic.

northkor4.jpgFrom a distance the facade was impressive. The apartment complexes looked well organized and comfortable in their neat little rows. But up close they were revealed as drab grey concrete structures that seemed about to collapse from sheer depression and lethargy. Many appeared to lack window glass. There were chronic electricity shortages in North Korea; during the harsh winter most of those dwellings lacked heat, as well as elevators and running water. At night they were lit by a dim bare bulb, and through each window I saw the regulation framed pictures of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il.

northkor5.jpgAs we drove through the city, the enormous silhouette of the Ryugyong Hotel dominated the skyline. A massive 105-storey pyramid with 5 revolving restaurants on top, it was built to be the biggest luxury hotel in Asia, but the government ran out of money before they could finish it. Today it’s an empty shell. Construction was halted in 1989, and it isn’t likely to ever be resumed. There wasn’t even enough money to power the elevators. Each morning the workers had to trudge up 105 flights of stairs, and back down at the end of the day.

I could see the pyramid from everywhere in the city, and I quickly became obsessed with it. Why did they need so many large hotels when they don’t allow tourists? Perhaps the Leader was wisely planning ahead for the tourist boom to come? That would explain the ten-lane highways as well.

We were driven directly to our hotel, which was isolated on an island in the middle of one of the two rivers that runs through Pyongyang: a modern 47-storey building with a revolving restaurant on top. We were the only guests.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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