I did not tell many people I was visiting DPRK before the trip, partly because I had been traveling and partly because I don’t want to make it an issue. I have always tried to keep an open mind on many issues and am mindful that conventional and populist views may not necessarily reflect the truth. Nevertheless, friends and friends of friends have made it a point to let me into a piece of their minds. Many have asked me to be careful and have warned me that I would be led by the nose and would see what the country wants me to see. Some went as far as saying that I would be walking into a charade where everyone is paid to act his or her parts to create a picture of a peaceful and harmonious community, and so on. My father-in-law, who left Dalian with the family in 1973 and has never returned to the city, for example relayed me some advice through his daughter to be cautious in my demeanor and speech. His daughter though is open minded. She said she had decided not to join me so that I would have a good time with my friend who she is confident would look after me on the one hand, and because she is convinced that she would not see anything different from what she had experienced before she left Dalian.
Well, I cannot claim that I know the truth about what goes on in DPRK, but from I have seen and experienced, I have formed views on a few things about the country, its people and its position in the world. Let me try to be brief.
First, I find the people rather friendly, relaxed and well fed. It would be extremely costly and difficult choreography to arrange for hundreds and thousands of passersby to parade before four tourists wherever they go. While we might not be able to talk to the average man in the street because of the language barrier, the local guides had helped us by reflex in some instances and the people in shops and at the attractions were really helpful and forthcoming. We saw paddy fields and farms everywhere and it does appear that there is no food shortage or supply problems, in Pyongyang at least. True, the country controls the economy and all workers are technically paid by the state, a lot of whom are in the army. Our local guides are very proud of themselves, their country and their government and its top leadership, and have shown genuine interests in self-improvement and in learning about the world. The country provides free housing to individuals planning to get married and raise a family, and education is free for everyone who can make the grades.
Secondly, the country has certainly gone out of its way to build those showpieces in Pyongyang for its people and the world to see. They have built first class roads and basic infrastructures and all streets and roads are clean and well maintained. It does seem that architects of these showpieces worked to very tight briefs to build oversized structures to impress and to measurements calculated to reflect political messages, such as 50 metres for the 50th anniversary of the Workers Party and so on. The Grand People’s Study House also features high doors, high ceilings and very long staircases with huge halls and huge murals of their country founders and leaders, all calculated to be awe inspiring. Then of course, we saw portrays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il side by side everywhere and outside state buildings and their bronze statutes taller than life size at a number of sites, all rather impressive.
Thirdly, DPRK has done well in instilling in the citizens strong sense of patriotism and pride for the nation. I was somewhat impressed by the pretty young soldier who acted as our guide at the War Museum. She spoke confidently and eloquently with pose on the evil of the Americans whom she portrayed as war criminals, who started the Korean War in 1950 unilaterally, who bombed out Pyongyang and massacred innocent citizens and children on a Sunday, and who lost the war, but would not accept the responsibilities and had to hide behind United Nations in signing the armistice agreement. It is a pity that while they are aware of their ancient links and heritage with Buddhism, they have learnt nothing about non attachment and mindfulness, or about loving kindness, forgiveness and compassion, for if they had, they would realize that violence only begets violence; and violence of the mind could be the worst of its kind.
It follows that there is no willingness on either side – DPRK on one side and the United States and the West on the other – to understand each other and to communicate. There are no dialogues, only duologues; and both sides appear to be intent to portray each other as erring, senseless, worthless and wretched creatures which consistently and systematically have failed to learn from past mistakes and hence are destined to lose in the long run. The setup of the DMZ and the Concrete Wall in particular speaks volumes; and DPRK technically is still in a state for battles with the imperialist Americans.
Fourthly, DPRK has yet to open itself up in the manner and fashion that China began the process from 1979. Su is right about DPRK would be like China 40 or 50 years ago. Those of you who are old enough would recall the days when we travelled to China with retry permits which had the form of a passport-like booklets in which we were required to declare anything of some value we brought in and out of the country, such as wrist watches, cameras, jewelries and cash. Civil servants then were required to seek approval for visiting Macao, China and Taiwan; and I recall that as the personnel officer of a government department, I routinely briefed my colleagues that they were not to take pictures in places without permission of the other side and that should they run into trouble, the Hong Kong British Government would be powerless to bring them back, and so on.
I would stop here for the time being, and I might expand more on the theme later. I hope to talk to you again soon.