PYONGYANG — It’s not difficult to find your way around Pyongyang. The city has few tall buildings and wherever you go, the imposing monolith of the Tower of the Juche Idea — topped by a red “flame” that glows at night — enables visitors to get their bearings.
Not that a tourist is going to get lost anyway. There’s no such thing as “independent travel” in the world’s last Stalinist state — you’ll have a government-appointed translator (read “minder”) to make sure you don’t stray too far from the approved sights.
Despite the constant scrutiny, right now is the best time there has ever been for the adventurous traveler to see a country that lives up to its “Hermit Kingdom” tag.
The North Korean government is vigorously promoting the Arirang Festival, which began on April 29 and runs until the end of June and will feature mass displays of gymnastics, dancing and music from around the world.
Even getting there is something of an adventure. My Air Koryo jet was an aging Tupolev with no concessions to comfort; indeed there are few concessions to safety, either, as we get no demonstration of emergency procedure.
On arrival, one of the first things I notice is how conspicuous I am as a Westerner. Everywhere I go, I’m the object of inquisitive looks by the people of what is an ethnically homogenous country. None of the watchers seem hostile — which, given their unrelenting diet of propaganda, would be understandable — they’re just curious.
The broad and dusty streets of Pyongyang are initially reminiscent of the thoroughfares of Spain or Italy, but the thousands of red flags and banners bearing hangul characters quickly dispel that image. Pictures of Kim Il Sung, “The Great Leader,” and his son and successor Kim Jong Il, “The Dear Leader,” grace grand buildings, while Mansu Hill is topped by a colossal bronze statue of the elder Kim, who died in 1994 but is still revered as a demigod by his people.
It soon becomes apparent that there are few places in which to escape the piercing stare of the father-and-son double act that built this country’s creed of juche — a unique form of self-reliant communism.
Their faces are in train carriages, propaganda posters and stations, in classrooms and shops, on postage stamps and the lapel pins that everyone wears. They are quite literally part of the scenery, for locals and tourists alike.
But whatever outsiders thinks of the country’s compliant communist system, the casual tourist isn’t going to shake its foundations. I’d suggest coming, seeing and not trying to conquer.
My hotel, the Yanggakdo, stands on the northern tip of Ram’s Horn Island in the Taedong River. From its upper stories, the views across Pyongyang are spectacular; to the north the May Day Stadium, where the Arirang Festival is being staged, stands out, while the bridges across the river are lit up at night.
Off to the west is the vast pyramid of the Ryuyong Hotel. According to the literature, it was conceived by Kim Jong Il himself, with 3,000 guest rooms and no fewer than five revolving restaurants. It was started in 1989. Then they ran out of money. Construction cranes still grip its steep sides, but they’re not moving. It’s not clear whether they ever will again.
If completed, it will doubtless rank high on the list of “must-see” buildings that your cheerful guide will want you to admire. But don’t worry — in the meantime, there are plenty more landmarks, among them the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace, Friendship Tower, the Grand People’s Study House and the International House of Culture. Unfortunately, North Korea’s tourism ministry still labors under the belief that monstrous buildings of slab concrete are attractive to tourists. Gently suggesting alternative places to see might work, but don’t bank on it.
Perhaps the one thing that North Korea does really well is military monuments. These are impressive in both their scale and number: the Liberation Tower, the Monument to Fallen Soldiers of the People’s Army and the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, to name just a few, are concentrated within a small area of the capital.
At the Fatherland Liberation memorial, a procession of newly married couples — still in their wedding dresses and morning suits — are arriving in battered cars to have their photographs taken as they pay their respects to the men and women who “freed their country from the U.S. aggressors,” my guide tells me.
They pose beneath bronze tableaux of soldiers, sailors, farmers and citizens in heroic poses and armed with assault rifles and scythes. They then lay flowers before the largest of the statues — of a man brandishing a flag — before heading off to their wedding receptions, presumably.
While there’s plenty to see and do in Pyongyang, the fact that visitors are led everywhere lends a sense of claustrophobia to proceedings, so seize any opportunity of a trip out of the city.
Two sites are particularly popular, and even though both are only a couple of kilometers out of the city, simply driving through a bit of countryside offers a different perspective on this nation.
To the west of the city, on the banks of the Taedong, is the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Site, where Kim Il Sung was reportedly born and spent his childhood. His family’s thatched homestead, set in manicured gardens, has been rebuilt and turned into a shrine. The hayloft where he studied political theory is proudly pointed out.
Nearby is the Mangyongdae Fun Fair, a 1960s-era collection of rides and amusements populated by legions of children, most of whom wear a military-style uniform of one kind or another. The girls of the Revolutionary Orphans Corps, smart in their green tunics and tailored blue trousers, are initially shy about being photographed, but are eventually talked round by my interpreter. They still scowl, though.
The other frequent destination is to the far northeast of the city, but provides the best view across the city and into the countryside beyond. Predictably, it has been commandeered by the military, even if its occupiers have long been dead.
The Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, on the top of Mount Taesong, is holy ground for North Koreans and is where 126 heroes of the struggle against Japan are remembered. Each has his or her own polished bust atop a stone pillar, with the highest point reserved for a dozen top-ranked veterans, including Kim Il Sung’s mother, beneath a flag carved out of red stone.
Wherever you go in Pyongyang, the propaganda is unrelenting. For enthusiasts of the genre, though, there’s only one place to end any trip: the USS Pueblo. Captured by North Korean warships on Jan. 23, 1968, for allegedly spying within North Korean waters, it has been turned into a floating museum.
A video presentation before the tour tells how President Lyndon Johnson and the rest of the U.S. “knelt down before the Korean people and apologized” before the 83-man crew was released, “shattering the myth of the might of the U.S. imperialists.”
A pair of 12.7-mm machineguns are on the bow and stern, while the ship’s bell still hangs on the flying bridge beside a Chrysler Corp. Mark XV gyrocompass, military technology from a half-century ago.
And while the U.S. has evolved in that time, it is legitimate to ask whether North Korea’s leaders have moved forward — or even made the effort to move forward — in their relations with the outside world.