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PYONGYANG: The Hidden History of the North Korean Capital, by Chris Springer, photos by Eckart Dege. Budapest: Entente Bt., 2003, 158 pp., $29.95 (paper).

Although the capital of the new Hermit Kingdom is not a popular tourist destination, we now have this interesting detailed guide to the socialist showcase with its triumphalist monuments and gigantic buildings. We have also, as the subtitle suggests, the means to discover discrepancies between official history and the truth.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has, writes the author, “imposed a draconian policy of national isolation . . . attempting to leave the country or to contact foreigners without permission can land the offender in a prison camp.”

Regardless of whether the attractions of capitalism will prove as irresistible as they have in contemporary China, it was the Beijing model that originally helped create DPRK policy.

Kim Il Sung’s personality cult took inspiration from the worship of Mao Zedong. The obligation of every adult to wear a metal badge bearing his portrait was another Chinese importation, and there was also a “little red book” devoted to Kim’s theory of national self-reliance. Likewise the mystification surrounding the present “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, owes much to Mao’s methods.

Pyongyang, the capital, illustrates the results. There are enormous statues and monuments, deifications, shrines to power. One, a bronze effigy of Kim Il Sung, is the largest erected to any leader anywhere. Another, the Juche Tower, devoted to “national self-reliance,” is taller than the Washington Monument (by one meter) and is composed of 25,000 slabs of white granite — one for each day of Kim’s life.

Kim Il Sung Square, North Korea’s version of Tiananmen, is designed to be slightly larger than Moscow’s Red Square, and the 105-story, 3000-room Ryugyong Hotel, is as tall as the Eiffel Tower.

The reverse side of this triumphalism is seen in that none of these rooms has ever been occupied; nor has this mammoth hotel ever opened its doors. Critics say it symbolizes the North Korean economy, “overreaching and stalled.”

Others wonder why this hyperisolationist regime would construct its biggest building for foreign visitors? Still others say that South Korea had just built the world’s tallest hotel and North Korea was not going leave that feat unchallenged.

What is often forgotten in the West is that Pyongyang was completely re-created after the Korean War. In 1952, U.S. air raids utterly leveled the city. On Aug. 29, 1,403 sorties were launched — the largest airstrike in the entire war. Six thousand civilians lost their lives in this raid alone. When the treaty was signed, there was no more city.

Rather than move the site, however, Kim turned to the Russians for help. It was Soviet urban planners, working from the blueprints drawn up for Stalingrad, Minsk and other rebuilt Soviet cities, who created the enormously wide streets and the grandiose buildings.

Since then there have been many additions. The “luxury” island-moated Yanggakdo Hotel was built in part, with French loans. The Potonggang Hotel is owned by the Unification Church. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon battled Kim’s government for a time, but then the rival messiahs negotiated and Moon was allowed not only the hotel but also satellite TV so that the Yanggakdo is now the only place in town to view CNN.

There have been many deletions as well, and Chris Springer lists as many of these “vanished sites” as he can find. One that has certainly not vanished is the USS Pueblo, which is presently a tourist attraction. It is moored at the site where the General Sherman, an American vessel intent on trade, was destroyed and thus offers another example of U.S. imperialism and Korean resistance.

Springer, who specializes in secretive capitals (“Tirana in Your Pocket”) is thorough and fair. He describes things as he found them during his visits to Pyongyang and is not concerned with countering propaganda nor in encouraging tourism. The publishers likewise make the point of refusing to take responsibility “for any consequences arising from the use of this book.”

Travelers are advised to use information provided by the U.S. State Department’s “North Korean Information Sheet,” to be found at: travel.state.gov/nkorea.html.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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