The future of the left since 1884

Postcard from Pyongyang

This year marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War of 1950-1953, but no peace treaty has ever been signed and the peninsula remains technically at war. Perhaps mindful of the impact of glasnost in the...


This year marked the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War of 1950-1953, but no peace treaty has ever been signed and the peninsula remains technically at war. Perhaps mindful of the impact of glasnost in the former USSR and economic reform in China, there has been no attempt to reform the system. The consequence is an impoverished time warp from where there are unpredictable provocations such as the third in a series of missile tests earlier this year.

A recent visit enabled me to gain some perspective on this intriguing nation, but from arrival to departure we were chaperoned by three guides who blocked our attempts at making any independent investigation.

Pyongyang resembles a smart version of East Berlin. There is no obvious poverty, but witnessing gangs of people pulling up grass in the city centre suggested a scheme to either disguise unemployment, overcome a shortage of lawnmowers, or maybe both. On a visit to a collective farm outside the capital I didn’t see a single tractor, with oxen and carts the norm. Here, poverty was evident despite the abundance of rice and wheat being grown. As in Stalin’s USSR travel is strictly controlled with regular checkpoints. A large number of people, some idling away the day in military uniform, had no discernable work to do especially in the rural areas.

North Korea’s history has been rewritten by its leaders. The political structure makes little reference to Marx, Lenin or Mao with the roles played by both the USSR and China airbrushed out of the official version of events. Indeed it amounts to a form of Marxism in reverse with the industrialisation of the 1950s and 1960s now fossilised and a leadership cult well in excess of that of Stalin. Kim Il Sung, The Great Leader, died in 1994 but is still Head of State; his son Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011 is styled The Dear Leader and his grandson, Kim Jong-un, otherwise known as The Marshal, continues what has become a dynasty.

I visited their corpses at the mausoleum. After bowing with the other visitors before two enormous statues at the Mansudae Grand Monument, we walked in groups of four before bowing three times as we circulated around the corpses. Afterwards there are rooms devoted to a plethora of awards and decorations as well as the deceased’s railway carriages, speedboats and Mercedes Benzes.

When I arrived, a new military museum had just been opened to coincide with the anniversary of the end of the war. The official line, which is pointless to challenge, was that conflict began with a US inspired attack and ended with resounding victory for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The latter is ironical given that the initial attack in 1950 very nearly succeeded, suggesting considerable pre-planning. Minimal reference is made to the role of the USSR whilst the Chinese are referred to as volunteers.

The official philosophy of North Korea is a complex mixture of Marxism, nationalism and isolationism with the name of Juche, which translates as Master of One’s Self. The essential feudal structure of society is confirmed by the idea of Songun, which places citizens into three categories – Loyal,     Wavering and Hostile.

The week of my visit coincided with the global controversy over how to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria but the English language Pyongyang Times had as its headline:


Perhaps the most bizarre experience was to stay in a hotel close to the demilitarised zone that had been developed by the Hyundai Corporation in an earlier attempt to promote tourism from the South. That source of revenue has since been stopped, but those few who are still able to visit the hotel have the dubious pleasure of being completely surrounded by a miniature version of the Berlin Wall – complete with armed soldiers and the occasional air raid alarm.

While keeping an open mind in this closed society, my visit confirmed the mental picture I had acquired over 40 years of observation.  But given the restrictions on my trip, I wondered what remained out of view.

Back in 1945 there was no more intention to divide Korea than Germany, but outside factors determined otherwise. Today, the gap between North and South grows ever larger, with the latter evolving from an impoverished dictatorship into a successful economy and democracy in the last 30 years. Like family members that have badly fallen out, both countries aspire to reunification but only on their own incompatible terms.

China has the most influence over the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but it is apprehensive of the consequences of change – China’s own experience being a possible model – with all their neighbours embarrassed and unnerved by the regime’s repeated efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

It is impossible to predict future trends but China is likely to prove a crucial ally and guide for North Korea. As I left the country, it struck me that the heirs of Clement Attlee and Harry Truman (not to mention Mao Tse Tung and Douglas MacArthur) would have found that idea very ironical.


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