There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 13 September 2013

Last Day in Pyongyang (2) Serious Study and Juche Thought: Part 10 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

After lunch we were told we could walk in the streets and visit a shop and café. This sounded interesting - might there at last be an opportunity to see real North Koreans in their natural habitat? No chance. It was mainly a time wasting exercise as our next appointment was not for an hour or two.

The bustling streets of Pyongyang
We did indeed take a short walk through the streets near the city centre. They were hardly bustling; indeed they were as empty as they usually were. We also entered a shop, it had dark tinted windows - most Pyongyang shops do - but it also had two red plaques above the door. The plaques commemorate visits by a Kim, father, son or grandson, and this shop had been visited twice. This was no ordinary shop.
Red plaques show the dates of visits by Kims

Inside was a small self-service store and we immediately noticed the fruit. For us food had been plentiful if not always expertly cooked or served, but we had hardly seen any fruit. At some meals an apple, cored and sliced had been served between four or six, but that was it. This shop was full of fruit, and not just locally produced apples and pears, but imported tropical fruit as well, bananas, pineapples and mangoes.

Fruit apart, the rest of the stock, though nicely presented, was surprisingly mundane. Apparently, what the elite of the DPRK crave is Kellogg’s cornflakes, Nescafé and Edam cheese.

Upstairs was a café bar, hardly the sort of establishment your regular working Korean could expect to patronise. A waitress appeared and took orders, but we had just eaten, and a snack or a lukewarm Nescafé were the last things we wanted. Some orders were placed but we, and several others, did not bother. It mattered not, we were going to sit there for an hour come what may.

Café-bar for the elite, Pyongyang
Eventually we left and strolled through more eerily quiet streets to a square dominated by a statue of what would have been apsaras in a country less disapproving of religion.

This is where newly married couples come for their wedding photographs, and if business was hardly brisk, there was at least some activity. Our guide charged up to one couple and insisted on them posing for the photograph below - and a dozen like it. The newlyweds look less than delighted – and I don’t blame them.

Wedding photo with a few unwanted extras
Eventually enough time had passed and we set off for the Grand Peoples' Study House, which is both the national library and a correspondence university. There was the usual vast marble entrance hall dominated not, this time, by a picture Kim Il Sung, but a statue of the great man seated on a throne. Of course it was not really a throne as North Korea is a People’s Democracy not a monarchy. That the present leader is the son of the previous leader, who was in turn the son of Kim Il Sung is irrelevant; he is leader only because he is, by far, the best man for the job.

Kim Il Sung welcomes us to the Grand Peoples' Study House, Pyongyang
Nearby was something unusual – a photograph of Kim Jong Un. The ‘Marshall’ is not omnipresent, unlike his late forebears.

A rare sighting of Kim Jung Un
Grand Peoples' Study House, Pyongyang
Our tour involved dropping in on some rather basic reading rooms, though they were apparently proud of a Heath-Robinson contrivance which allowed the reader to tilt the desk surface for ease of reading.

Reading room with tilting desks!
Grand Peoples' Study House, Pyongyang
There were computers about the building linked, we were told, to the library catalogue but in one room there were several dozen computers and the students seemed to be doing more than merely searching for books.

J sat at an unoccupied desk and attempted to find the result of the Ukraine v England World Cup Qualifier played the previous Tuesday when we had been away from Pyongyang and access to the BBC World Service [it was 0-0, I am really sorry I missed it]. The attempt was doomed, but as the machine spluttered with indignation at being asked such a trivial question, all the computers in the room crashed. It was probably a coincidence.
None of these people know the football result
Grand Peoples' Study House, Pyongyang
They were up and running in a few minutes and J typed ‘peace and democracy’ into the library search. It came up with a few suggestions. We left them on the screen and walked away.

Learn with the Magic Roundabout
Grand Peoples' Study House, Pyongyang
We visited what we were told was the music department. It was a reading room like all the others but also equipped with ancient cassette tape recorders. A staff member stuck in a tape and we all joined in with ‘Yellow Submarine’, though ‘Let it Be’ was rather less of a sing-along success. Was this all they knew of western music? Did they know about Beethoven and Beyoncé? The staff member had gone so there was no one to ask.
Music department
Grand Peoples' Study House, Pyongyang

In another room a language class sat in a 1970s-style language lab. B asked if he could speak to the students. Surprisingly the guide agreed and he walked to the front and made a start. His little speech did not seem to go well, and an attempt at interaction with individual students was met with embarrassed silence.  Only then did the teacher in charge mention that this was a Chinese language class and none of the students spoke English.

B starts to talk - in the wrong language
Grand Peoples' Study Hall, Pyongyang
In the English class next door his carefully chosen words about the value of education went down rather better.

We were shown some of the books from the English language section, aged and tatty copies of Huckleberry Finn and Gone with the Wind and a much glossier non-fiction publication entitled The Story of the German Shepherd Dog.

Every reading room had the inevitable portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, but we did escape their gaze while in the lift – perhaps the authorities should look into that. On the roof there was a small gift shop with exactly the same goods as in every gift shop, and some views across the city.

The Grand People’s Study House overlooked Kim Il Sung Square with the Juche Tower over the river.

Kim Il Sung Square, the Taedong River and the Juche Tower, Pyongyang

Our educational afternoon continued with a visit to the 9th of June Secondary School. We arrived around 5 o’clock and were greeted in the entrance hall by a local guide, presumably a teacher, and a painting of a grandfatherly Kim Il Sung, a fatherly Kim Jong Il and the sort of train they do not have in North Korea.

Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il welcome us to the 9th of June Secondary School
There were few children around. Many, maybe all, stay after school for compulsory homework (though if it isn’t done at home….?) and extra-curricular activities but by this time most had dispersed, possibly to home or more likely to one of the many activities the state likes to organise to keep youth happy, or at least properly occupied – ‘give me the child and I will give you the man’ as the Jesuits might have said.

We started in the biology room which had a microscope on every bench, how many would be sharing it we never found out. There was little other equipment and the room had a Spartan air.

Wow, microscopes, 9th of June Secondary School, Pyongyang
Other classrooms were even barer. This was, presumably, a show school, but it all looked a bit 1960s, though not brightened by anything on the classroom walls except the obligatory portraits of the Kims and framed displays of children in uniform with a red scarf round their necks - ‘scout of the week’ type pictures. There were no displays of children’s work, no posters and no bright or stimulating material. There was a room full of stuffed animals – a personal gift from Kim Jung Un – but whether it was ever used (and if so, for what) we never discovered though we were shown it with great pride.

Stuffed animals, an essential teaching resource
9th of June Secondary School, Pyongyang
We were not immensely impressed, but the sight of blackboards and sticks of chalk, made me come over all nostalgic - even the orphans' school we visited in Myanmar had white boards.
A blackboard, how nostalgic
9th of June Secondary School, Pyongyang
Our visit finished, almost inevitably, in the auditorium where we were treated to yet another song and dance show, this one mercifully brief. The performances were technically good, if rather joyless. At the end they came forward and grabbed as many as were willing to dance with them in front of the stage.
Concert party, 9th of June Secondary School, Pyongyang

At the end, B joined them for the photographs and then attempted to introduce them to the hand-jive. One or two hesitantly started to follow, but after a glance at their teacher they soon gave up. Spontaneity is not encouraged in the DPRK education system. Perhaps we could send them Michael Gove (oh please let’s).
Anyone for the hand jive? No?
9th of June Secondary School, Pyongyang

Taking our leave we moved on to the Juche Tower, a landmark visible from all over the city, particularly at night when the red flame is lit up and much of the rest of Pyongyang isn’t.

The tower was ‘personally designed’ by Kim Jong Il to celebrate the 70th birthday of Kim Il Sung. Various dimensions accord with the dimensions of the elder Kim’s life, and it is, they claim, the tallest granite tower in the world.

Juche Tower, Pyongyang

‘Juche,’ literally self-reliance, is the basic creed of Kim Il Sungism and brilliantly fills the gaps left by Marxism/Leninism and Maoism. Beyond the basic (and distinctly non-Marxist) idea that North Korea has to be self-sufficient in every way, and the related and self-explanatory ‘military first’ policy, there does not seem to be much to ‘Juche Thought’ and it is difficult to imagine what ‘Juche Study Groups’ do with their time. Ironically, what applies to the nation does not apply to the people; far from being self-reliant, the government ensures they are supplied with every thought they should ever need.

Over the entrance are plaques presented by various worthies, including a clutch of long-deposed African dictators and a selection of ‘Juche study groups’ in an assortment of Universities, none, as far as I could see, came from the UK.

Inside a lift plods up to the observation platform below the flame. Our group and others were shuttled upwards in a series of journeys. L and I shared the lift with three men one of whom was short but immensely wide and powerful. A laminated card round his neck identified him as a member of the Myanmar weightlifting team in the DPRK for a competition; we had seen similar well-muscled individuals around the hotel earlier. On the back of my t-shirt were the words ‘souvenir of Lake Inle’, at least that is what I believe, though Burmese is one of many alphabets I cannot read. The wide short man, however, could read my back and asked if I had been to Myanmar. We had a brief conversation and I told him how much we had liked his country, which seemed to please him. It was a small interaction, an everyday experience anywhere else, but one that had been totally absent in our dealings with North Koreans.

From the top we could look back to the ‘Grand Peoples’ Study House’ and Kim Il Sung Square or downstream to the now familiar outline of the Yanggakdo Hotel…
The Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang

or upstream to the  Rungnado Stadium where we had seen the Arirang Games
The Rungnado Stadium, Pyongyang

 ..or  across the river to the distinctive bulk of the Ryugyong Hotel. Construction began on this 105 story concrete pyramid in 1987. It was topped out in 1992 but work ceased leaving the 330m building without windows or interior fittings. Work restarted in 2008 and was, allegedly, completed in 2012, though it has yet to open. How North Korea would fill 8 revolving restaurants and either 3000 or 7500 (reports vary) guest rooms is a mystery.
The Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang

Back on the ground we were passed by a long stream of children, all in a uniform similar to the scouts. Some carried brushes and they were on their way to clean up the streets round their school. We waved and some waved back, after checking first to see if the teacher was watching. Adults often work until 7 or 8 and the state is keen to occupy the children for as long as necessary, and make sure they grow up with the right thoughts.

It was the end of a long day and back on the bus the guide announced we would go straight to our farewell dinner. Insurrection ensued. The revolutionaries demanded we returned to the hotel for a shower and a change of clothes. The demands were met.

We dined in a department store, but the store was closed so we saw nothing of the goods on sale, being merely whisked up to the restaurant, which was also closed - to everybody but us. The meal was good if similar to others we had eaten and I will miss the kimchi when we leave. The sudden production of a main course, in this case a hefty beef stew with rice and vegetables stirred with egg, just as we thought we had finished caught us out, yet again.

On the way back we received a little lecture, which essentially said ‘Terrible lies are told about our country in the west. You have seen the truth, now go home and tell them.’ So I have, and undoubtedly the guide would be disappointed, maybe amazed, that I have found so little positive to say about the DPRK. To redress the balance here are two good things: 1) Pyongyang is very clean, 2) The DPRK brews the best beers in Asia.

The lead guide sang the folk song Arirang, and turned out to have a very good voice. The assistants were called on to sing and they too had good voices, though the only songs they knew were in praise of the nation’s leaders – hymns to Kims. B promised to reciprocate on our behalf in the morning.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Like the other instalments this brings back good memories, although again not perhaps in the way our hosts would have hoped. The only recollection I have which differs is that I thought B's talk went down better in the Chinese speaking room!