Think North Korea. The first image could well be Trump and Kim looking into the lens. A second thought and it could be a plethora of images from nuclear rockets, an almost comical dictatorial leadership, a populace in constant fear of executions and prison camps.
Hardly visited as a country, yet the sheer mention of its name evokes such graphic images! What about the 25 million souls who call this country their home? Is every waking moment spent in fear and secrecy? Do they have dreams and aspirations? How do they cope?
After a decade and half of intense fascination, in the past year I visited the DPRK (as North Korea is formally and correctly called) twice. The first was when I signed up for a personal three-day tour with my cousin and a friend in August 2018. This fascinating glimpse of the country and its life instead of satisfying my curiosity raised even more questions and in April 2019 I visited once more as part of the Choson Exchange — to train and mentor North Korean Entrepreneurs and Managers.
Tourism we realised is a completely stage-managed affair. For three of us, we had two guides who chaperoned us, well right to the ‘loo’ door. You are free to go inside all by yourself! Yet, it was easy and happy interaction with the guides. We saw a fair bit of Pyongyang & around. It’s inconceivable how in the 21st century, while rest of the world has such easy access to information and travel, where freedom of speech is taken for granted, an entire nation can exist in isolation and restrictions to personal freedom. The common man has no access to the Internet. He cannot travel abroad. Having the means to do so does not matter.
North Korea is like the world’s Jurassic Park. Here fossilised notions live and breathe. It is a socialist state in action in 2019 where the official line is ‘workers paradise’ with ‘nothing to envy’ in comparison to rest of the world. And we are talking of 25 million people.
Our trip started in Pyongyang with its dazzling new terminal with barely just 1 or 2 daily flights. This suffices the diplomat and tourist traffic. And, more importantly it suffices what little contact the powers that be wish between North Korea and the world without.
Enter the city. Images of the present leader’s grandfather and father dominate. Every citizen even wears a pin on the left lapel with the leaders’ photos. Overwhelming.
Pyongyang looked very pleasant, if austere. People seemed agreeable enough. Yet, expressionless. They went about their business much like other places in the world but in an orderly and well-behaved manner.
We were taken from one monument to another through a series of well planned and coordinated visits. That gave us a fair glimpse of the main as well as some back streets. The roads were wide and well-maintained, the buildings basic but orderly and painted in bright pastel shades. Almost every balcony is lined with flowers, but there is a palpable sense of economic stagnation everywhere.
Decades of economic isolation and sanctions have taken their toll. The roads are broad, but there are hardly any cars. Public transport is crumbling. It is inadequate for the growing population. Shops seemed to have a limited range of goods. The standard of living was uniformly middle-class.
Within their homes, I felt people were able to maintain a semblance of normalcy. Most houses have TVs, CD players and are able to get content from across the world, both through official and unofficial channels. Yet, the logistics must be nightmarish. There are multiple layers of permissions for the most basic things. Can you imagine taking your just bought TV mandatorily to a specialist who ensures that it does not receive foreign signal before you can take it home?
Even the thought is overwhelming and disturbing for someone from the ‘other’ world. I am convinced that tourists are kept on such a tight leash and not allowed to interact with Koreans or move about freely so that they don’t find out the level of control of the government on the daily lives of its citizens.
The next stop was the DMZ — the demilitarised zone which Donald Trump famously crossed just last week. I had had a sneak peak in 2012 at the DMZ from the South Korean side. An intriguing, reclusive land. It is about 170 km from Pyongyang to the DMZ via a six-lane highway. We crossed three buses, three-four military jeeps and maybe, one private vehicle on the entire route.
Undoubtedly, there is a big difference between Pyongyang and the rest of the DPRK. The difference in the countryside of the two Koreas is also glaring. If Pyongyang has an 80’s feel to it, it’s countryside lives in the sixties. The fields are lush, all arable land is cultivated, but the agriculture equipment is basic and outdated. Villages look basic, but the quality of the dwellings looked more ‘pukka’ and orderly than our Indian villages. People get food, but just enough. Homes are heated, but just a little above the freezing point. Poverty for sure, but managed poverty. Looking at the monotonous, grey cityscape of Kaesong I could not help but wonder that just 40 kms away was Seoul with its dazzling lights and cutting edge infrastructure.
After a few days, the incessant propaganda songs at restaurants, huge hoardings with patriotic slogans, the mass rallies, monotonous media and the omnipresent photos of the leaders in every room seem inconsequential. Would it have been oddly charming had there been a little more prosperity? But it is the economic stagnation, isolation & restrictions that leave a lasting impression.
While leaving the airport, the Immigration Officer sweetly asked, “When do we see you again?” I couldn’t help but think of the sweet-natured, humble, ever smiling people like the phone booth lady at my hotel who knew all the country codes by heart. She would jubilantly shout ‘zero-zero-nine-one’ every time I walked past. Did I mention the elderly ladies dancing cheerfully to electronic tunes on the riverfront or grandparents playing with their grandchildren in the many parks or the bright eyed children everywhere?
It’s the sort of good hearted bonhomie that the rest of the world has started finding too trite. A lesson in human spirit, squeezing whatever little to make the most of life and its moments. As I smiled back at the immigration officer, my heart reflected on the people who smile and find joy in small things despite such adversities.
Rahul Kale is an entrepreneur from Nagpur, with experience in manufacturing Ayurvedic cosmetics. He has visited North Korea twice, as a tourist and as part of Choson Exchange, a Business Training program where he guided North Korean entrepreneurs on how traditional products could be made relevant for modern consumers.