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North Korea: A Westerner’s Look in Forbidden Pyongyang

A member of Greek shows us what very few Westerners have the opportunity to see in their lifetime. After spending a full month in the Asian country where visitors are very rarely allowed, we have decided to share what we experienced.

North Korea is a country where appearances can be deceiving; where contradictory forces are always clashing with each other. It is a rather ‘tough’ country with its secrets kept away safe – although no one really knows what these secrets are.

Before arriving in the country, I had already read books about North Korea and spent many hours on YouTube watching the forbidden videos shot by those few who had already been there. It all looked kind of scary! I was expecting to visit a country, where the people would  act like robots; where children would never play but rather cite from their leaders’ work and march to the beat of revolutionary songs. When I came to North Korea I did come across a paranoid and simultaneously claustrophobic system, but the robots were nowhere to be found.

Even if the capital city is used as a key part of the official propaganda of the state, I should admit that it is a very beautiful place. It’s a city where architecture serves politics in the most absolute way. Huge but strictly defined squares, cubic buildings, massive structures, where individualism disappears before collectivism – as this is comprehended by the ruling class.

Can individualism really grow in such an environment? I would say that even the weirdest regimes in the world cannot halt the social dynamics shaping the tolerance and the intolerance of people. These dynamics must never be underestimated because they form the grey zones absorbing tensions and allowing regimes to survive.

Walking around Pyongyang, you will not see westernized stores. No cafés, no bars… The division of labor is strict and the citizens are responsible for particular duties and jobs. You will see people cleaning the public areas with reverence, watering the trees on the pavements, pulling the grass from the flowerbeds on the streets. Among those people someone will be supervising, while at the same time someone else will supervise the supervisor. The secret is not to know who is being supervised by whom.

Following the same logic, the rules concerning the traffic of the few vehicles and many bicycles are always changing. One day you are allowed to cross the road, and the next you’ll be forced to get off your bike and go back by the wild whistling of the traffic policeman. The secret here is that you will never know what exactly you are allowed to do or not, so that fear can have a stronger grip on you…
This is like Orwell’s 1984 has been alarmingly brought to life (for those who have read it, you know exactly what I mean). Yet, since life is not a book, there are some grey zones in Pyongyang too.

Moving to Pyongyang’s west bank and the image is changing. Sunday afternoon and long queues are formed outside the public pubs where beer and cigars are sold. Full of men and women, these pubs are a meeting point to discuss and chat through a glass of Taedong beer. For the ones not favoring beer, tea and sorbets await them and their families outside the North Korean cafés made of cement. Nearby, women are drying their hair in the ancient hairdryers of a public hairdresser. Some children with plastic skaters are running up and down the park, while teenagers play basketball in the many small courts.

However, what North Koreans really like doing on Sundays is boat riding. Children with their parents, teenagers and couples are all waiting in line to take one of the rusted boats and enjoy a romantic or peaceful ride down the river. Young women all dressed up and holding umbrellas against the sun are sitting next to men wearing khaki uniforms and patiently rowing to impress their sweethearts. All across the bank elderly people are playing cards, eating and looking around them. If the above sounds too good to be true, I can assure you this is the honest truth. Well, it is surely one of the many truths dwelling in this country.

Because next to the pretty ladies with their umbrellas and the fat babies nabbing on their sorbets, you can also see dozens of poorly nourished laborers working non-stop to build, mend and clean the huge, empty buildings downtown. Close enough you can see the charcoal blackened faces of little children, the dilapidated window shields from the apartments of the people, the containers of water, which is steadily becoming harder to access, and the broken tiles of the pavements… If you take a closer look you may even see and the not so beautiful women, whose darkened, coarse skin and their premature wrinkles tell a different story…

In the end, everyone can choose the truth that suits them!

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