Pyongyang and the Party

Our comfortable tour coach swayed through a landscape of large Soviet-style blocks, bright propaganda posters and statues presiding over open spaces. ‘Welcome to the Axis of Evil’, grinned one of our two North Korean guides knowingly. The guides would be doing more than just controlling what we did and saw, they would be sure we heard the party line too.
That morning’s short flight from Beijing’s Capital Airport into mysterious North Korea has to be one of the most unusual scheduled routes in the world, starting in the ultra-modern Chinese capital and ending up in a city without the internet, mobile phones, advertising or many shops.

Our first stop in Pyongyang was the Mansudae Grand Monument, a raised platform overlooking the city where a vast bronze statue of the late Kim Il Sung, the current president’s father and founder of the country, stands waving to the populace. Here, we’d been informed by guidebooks, we’d need to lay flowers and bow solemnly to keep the guides happy. ‘If you take photos’, warned a guide, ‘please make sure you get the whole of the president in the frame, it is disrespectful otherwise’. Other Kim-centric sights on the agenda included his childhood home, his mausoleum, a monument to his philosophy of Juche and the city’s main square – unsurprisingly named Kim Il Sung Square.

As we boarded the train, two of us from the tour group slipped into the next carriage. The guides glared uneasily at us through the glass, as we sat with the locals in the dark carriages overseen by absurdly flattering portraits of the Great Leader and his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il. We nodded and smiled at the Korean commuters who, when not skilfully ignoring eye contact, smiled and nodded back enthusiastically.

After our act of leader worship and a brief city tour from the coach (our guides don’t seem to want us to walk anywhere or interact with the locals) we pulled up outside our hotel, a towering 1000-bedroom prism built on an island in the middle of Pyongyang’s huge Taedong River. The hotel’s vast scale seems ridiculously out of proportion to the number of tourists the country admits a year – some 2000 Westerners annually. We were assured that during the summer months all the city’s hotels are full due to the Mass Games, a magnificent display of North Korean propaganda performed by tens of thousands of locals who train for months for the honour, attracting people from South Korea to China all on a nostalgia-binge.

Bright and early the next day, our guides were waiting, perma-smiles painted onto their faces. They took us to the Pyongyang metro, one of the highlights of any visit to the city. It’s a simple two-line system with stations bedecked in socialist propaganda so ornate it makes Moscow’s impressive system look like the London Underground. We descend the vast escalators to the platform, passing huge blast doors on either side of the tunnel. Behind these doors, the local population could retreat in the event that the 50-year standoff on the peninsula goes nuclear.
At the next stop we were led out of the incongruous splendour of the metro and into rush hour. The streets were full of people walking and cycling to work, a picture of spooky normality we were able to enjoy for a few seconds before being shepherded back onto our tour bus.

The day progressed like clockwork – museum followed monument and monument followed museum. It was an exhausting succession of sights designed to impress us and impose on us just how evil they believe the Americans really are. Sadly, despite the smugness of the guides who at every point told us that we didn’t know anything about the real history of the Korean War, the flimsy lies behind everything were all too obvious to anyone.

Back at the hotel that night, after eating out in a ‘typical’ Pyongyang restaurant where the only patrons were two other small tour groups, we all decided that the most enjoyable moment of the day had been the stroll on Moran Hill, the city’s main park. Here, we saw people enjoying quiet walks, picnics and sports, unconcerned with the politicisation of daily life elsewhere. There was something haunting about locking eyes with them and smiling. Such tiny moments of human contact are the essence of any trip.