Saying nice things about North Korea
" When you return home please say nice things about North Korea to your friends
and relatives , " Madam Lee our North Korean tour guide implored as she bade us
goodbye at the airport , and my heart ached .
The North Korean trip almost didn't come about . I was in the North West of
China chasing the Big Buddha Statues when I chanced to talk to our HK tour
guide about North Korean tours which had been suspended for a few years.
" But the tour's back on, " he said , " and if you go in the first week of May
you might catch the annual Flower Show which features the Kim ll Sung and Kim
Jong il flowers "
Unfortunately the tour was scheduled for the second week of May and I never got
to see the Great Leaders' flowers.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the easiest ( and for South Koreans the
only ) way to enter North Korea is through China. Boarding the plane at
Shenyang Airport bound for Pyongyang I ran into hordes of Koreans . The North
Koreans were all officials returning home after visits in China , distinguished
by their Kim ll Sung lapel pins and closed faces, while most of the South
Koreans appeared to be missionaries en route to a religious convention in North
" Golly ! " I was astonished, " Is that allowed ? " Yes, the smiling clergies
assured me, in fact there's been regular meetings between the men of cloth from
both sides for the past few years , but of course all meetings had to be held
in North Korea, as the Northerners are not permitted to go to the South .
This encounter proved to be just the first of many surprises North Korea
Apart from our party, all the Chinese on the plane were businessmen bent on
making a buck in North Korea . I wasted no time in pumping them for
" What's it like to do business with the North Koreans ?" Easy ! they said .
" What ! No bribes ? No under-table dealings ? No wine and dine the officials?
" My eyes were wide as saucers . Nope, they replied snugly, they like your
product then it's a sale . North Korea's so short of everything almost anything
you bring in they want . There were exhibition fairs every week on different
merchandise, and for that particular week it was medical supplies . I
remembered the boxes of Penicillin and medical instruments at the airport
terminal. Apparently North Korea is one of the best kept secrets of business
I was intrigued by a couple of agricultural scientists . " What exactly is it
that you sell to the North Koreans ?" Well, American technology on improving
grain stock and production. The Americans won't teach it to them so we learn
from the Americans and then we teach them !
Hmmm........What would the world do without the Chinese ?
Pyongyang's the quintessential showcase city . It's neat and clean , the
buildings well maintained , the streets wide and the roads good . While there's
no trace of luxury to be seen, there's no sign of poverty either : the dirt and
tattered clothing , the gaunt listlessness born of deprivation so evident in
India and rural China. The people though mostly in somber colors, were well
dressed , clean and well nourished .
Coming from busy bustling Hong Kong the immediate strangeness one experienced
on arrival in Pyongyang was the eerie quietness of the city. There's very
little traffic as most people commute by public transport ( buses, trams and
underground ), private cars were few and totally banned from roads on Sundays
to save energy . Apart from the rush hour when people travel to and fro from
work , the streets were almost deserted. The locals when they're about mostly
walked in stony silence, rarely did I catch them talking to each other in muted
Energy saving seemed high on the agenda .Though all the intersections were
fitted with perfect sets of traffic lights , they were only in use when there's
visits from dignitaries . The every day traffic was directed by young and
pretty ( mostly female ) traffic police which had became a hallmark of North
Korea , and was considered one of the tourist attractions. In all museums and
hotels that we went to , intelligent lighting was installed in all rooms,
corridors , even escalators and lifts , which flipped on and off in response to
people movement , in a bid to conserve energy . There were few street lights
and the whole city sunk into darkness after sunset . If only all countries
would follow suit the world might see much less energy crises ! All these
measures however did not stall off power cuts which we experienced 3 times
during our short stay, and gave some credence to the North Korean claim that
the development of nuclear power was ( at least in parts ) for energy .
All tours into North Korea had to go through the State Tourist Agency , even
for single traveler ; and tour guides were imposed on the tourists by the
Agency with no exception . The tour guides we were assigned with were Madam Lee
, an experienced guide fluent in Mandarin , and Mr Kim , a younger guy who's
supposedly still in training . We were warned by our Hong Kong tour company to
stay off sensitive topics and not to take pictures of the locals.
I smiled, obviously they didn't know me !
I broke the ice by interrogating the tour guides about their personal life .
Madam Lee was 50 , a college graduate in language and history, married with 2
grown up children who though already working, still lived with her. It was
fortunate one of the children was a boy, or she'd hear no end of it from her
mother-in-law who lived with the family and ruled the house . Mr Kim was 37,
and also only had 2 kids despite the push from the State to have larger family
. Apparently in the cities most families stopped at 2-3 kids, but in the
countryside they might have a couple more . After the famine, the population
stood at 20,000,000 ( the population of Taiwan ) , and the North Korean
Government's been desperately trying to step up population growth .
" I heard that Korean men boss over their women , is it true ?" I teased Mr Kim
. Not true ! He shook his head sadly, at least not in his household . In
accordance with the Confucianism teaching , seniority of age was bestowed
paramount respect and filial piety was the inherent duty, so in any family
conference the oldest member, usually the mother / mother-in-law, had the last
say . The North Korean family's extremely close- knit and the emotional tie
strong, so by regarding Kim ll Sung as their father or grandfather to their
children, they'd in fact symbolically given their Great Leader their ultimate
affection and deference .
Because family's so central to the Korean culture, nearly everybody's married
in North Korea . While the young people had free choice in courtship , parental
consent was still the final deciding factor .
" Do you've teenage pregnancies here ?" I was curious . Of course not ! Well, at
least not much ; which wasn't so unbelievable as everyone seemed to know
everyone else , the tight family unit and the community surveillance network
probably made teenage sexual rendezvous near impossible .
" What do young people do for fun after school ?" Well, after school they study
more, either at home or in tutorial classes , I was told solemnly.
" Do they go to the pictures ?" I bit my tongue before I finished the question
: there're no cinema that I could see in Pyongyang, only a Grand Theatre ! I
hurriedly changed the question, "Do they get together for parties, you know ,
singing or dancing ? " Well , they could learn musical instruments or Korean
folk dance, there're free classes in the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace ,
they could also learn sports there if they liked sports . I kind of gave up
that line of questioning there and then .
We visited the Schoolchildren's Palace and it was such a joy to see real
children again ! Compared with kids in westernized countries where they're
essentially miniature adults and loaded with notions and desires well beyond
their years, these kids were naive, unaffected , unspoiled and unpolluted ,
and I just adored them ! We were taken to see the painting and embroidery
classes where all the students' works were on sale to bolster funding of the
school . I gladly bought 2 pieces of embroidery, one of which now adorns my
office wall . In the musical classes we were treated to some beautiful Korean
folk songs , but come the computer class I was indignant . " How come there're
no girls in the computer class ? " I asked accusingly. Madam Lee drew me to one
side and whispered conspiratorially : "Our country needs more babies and the
computer might damage the reproductive organs of the girls, that's why they're
kept away ! " For once I was stunned into silence !
While touring the The Monument to Party Founding I spotted a group of
schoolgirls at a bus stop at the far end of the square . I'm a pretty good 50m
sprinter and I was 3/4 way across the square when I heard Madam Lee shouted
after me to stop . Out of the corner of my eye I saw her and Mr Kim exchanged
glances then shook their heads in resignation . I chatted with the girls for a
little bit then took some pictures with them . The day we visited Fountain Park
it was filled with wedding couples , many graciously agreed to have their
pictures taken with us. So went the myth about never taking pictures of the
After the initial warm up, I slowly edged towards the social and political
As in all communist countries North Korea has full employment .
" What happens when a person's sick and can't work ?" For people medically
certificated to be sick or handicapped , they're exempted from work and given a
pension. But when they recover they're expected to join the work force again .
" Can people choose what they want to do ?" Yes, but they're given an aptitude
test so the State can pick the right person for the right job.
" What happens if a person's lazy or not doing his job properly ?" His superior
would talk to him and try to educate him , but such cases're rare because all
North Koreans love their country and want to serve their country as best as
they can .
" What's the incentive to do well ?" For people who had significant
contribution to the country, e.g. scientists , they'd be rewarded with perhaps
a car or a nicer apartment, but the rewards were not theirs to keep, only to
use during their time of service .
With great deliberation I moved on to the central issues :
"What happens with people who don't agree with the Government policies ? "
Disagreements can be worked out and a final compromise reached .
" Can people publish dissenting view points ? " That's a non issue because
nobody would read them here !
" Are there political prisoners in North Korea ? " "Maybe, but not many ." I
sensed a little displeasure from Madam Lee .
" North Korea had received a lot of bad press, all that I've learnt about North
Korea were from books written by dissenters who's left the country. Why
doesn't North Korea clear the rumors by coming out and telling the world the
true story ?" "Because we've too much else to worry about right now ! " Madam
Lee almost snapped at me . She stopped to recompose herself, then continued ,"
We don't care about what the world thinks of us, we only care about how our
people are living. Food is the main concern with us. We've to make sure our
people have enough to eat and we don't have time for anything else , nothing is
more important than this . Every North Korean's a farmer, during plantation and
harvest times , all schools and offices are closed in the cities and everyone
goes down to the farms to help. We're humans too and we appreciate comfort and
and an easy life just like any other people, but our country's going through a
hard time right now and we can't be thinking of ourselves . "
I'd hit a nerve and decided to back off .
Both Madam Lee and Mr Kim had made multiple trips to China. " What's your
impression of China and what do you think about the changes there since the
market reform ?" Madam Lee spoke cautiously, "Of course there's progress
economically, but there're problems that came of it that we wouldn't like to
see happening in our country, that's why we want to change slowly in an orderly
Mr Kim's more jaunty and more open when Madam Lee's out of earshot , so I
cornered him one day while Madam Lee was busy with arranging our schedules .
" Is there corruption in the Government ?" "There might be but I shouldn't
think very much ." Mr Kim said after a brief consideration. "The administrative
authorities are made up by many different sections with built-in check and
balance, it'd be difficult to get away with large scale corruption ." He looked
me straight in the eye . " I'm not saying our system's perfect, there's no
perfect system in the world. Can anyone honestly say there's absolutely no
corruption in the American Government ?"
" What about nepotism ? If there's a good position that, say, the nephew of a
high ranking official wants, would he get it over some other more deserving
people ?" "Unlikely, because for any Government position the applicants have to
first sit an exam, then interviewed by a panel of people from different
sections , and it'd be difficult to get all of them to agree ." Come to think
of it, even in the small Clinic where I work favoritism and unfairness abound
! Maybe we shouldn't demand standards from others that we cannot attain
I was very impressed by our North Korean tour guides, they were well trained ,
friendly and helpful, and obviously coaxed with model answers to all questions,
but there's also a prevalent feeling they did actually believe in what they
said . Not withstanding the seeming openness, there's one topic even I didn't
dare broach : the Kim Jong il extravaganza !
The Korean guides were particularly attentive to our meals, which were adequate
but for some reason, always cold. " The North Koreans like their food
cold " Mr Kim said, then made a joke : " A South Korean Spy sneaked in and was
doing quite well until he made the mistake of asking for a hot meal! " To this
day I'm still not sure whether they really like cold rice or if it's just a
pretext because of fuel shortage .
Unification was one topic Madam Lee and Mr Kim were both most enthused about ."
Certainly it's the ardent yearning of both North and South Korean people for
reunification, the Korean people's one family , it's the Americans who's making
difficulties and trying to stop the process ! "
" But if you look at the reunification of East and West Germany, it's brought
out a lot of problems ; besides, would you be worried that your young people
might be seduced by the Western glitters and change their values ?" I was
worried for them.
"That's why we want to go slow and assimilate gradually, the reunification
could be a process that might take 10 or even more years to complete, but we
still have to start somewhere . "
The echo of the wound inflicted by the forced division of their country rang
deep in the psychic of the North Koreans and was most evident when we visited
the War Museum and Panmunjom , the Demilitarized Zone. As an armistice and not
a peace treaty was signed in 1953 , the 2 Korean countries are technically
still at war to this day.
" You know, my father actually served in the Korean War, " I told the young
Museum guide . "Our country thank your father," and she bowed . " But he wasn't
in the front line," I hastily added, " he was an interpreter in the
interrogation of the captured American GIs " . "No matter, he came so he's our
Many Chinese did come , and it's estimated that at least half a million Chinese
volunteer fighters died in the Korean War , including the eldest son of Mao
Visitors to North Korea all had different agendas . A young Indian guy from
Dehli was travelling alone, it turned out he was a student in Business Studies
in Beijing , and his theses was on North Korea. Two Italians from Milan came to
assess business opportunities, Italy being the first major Western country to
open ties with North Korea . The English and Scottish couples I met in our
hotel were retired folks, they came to verify what they'd read about North
Korea. The verdict for the experience was " surreal " but they nevertheless
enjoyed their stay.
A woman in our group was a reporter for a HK magazine of somewhat disrepute. I
read her piece after we got back : it was shallow, cliche and bigoted, full of
preconceived prejudicial ideas which did nothing but reinforce the
stereotypical narrow precepts of the North Korean People . This was perhaps not
surprising, as in the whole trip she asked less than 6 questions , in contrast
to the 600 I hurled at anyone who would talk to me. It's as though she's
already formulated her ideas of the country even before she came ! One time
while I was talking to some schoolgirls, she rushed up and started talking to
them in Mandarin . I glared at her. They might look Chinese but they're
Koreans, Stupid ! If this woman had done ANY homework she'd know the second
language taught in all North Korean schools was English !
I noted with sorrow this woman's not alone, almost all reporters coming into
North Korea only wanted scandals and dirt , and they would look at everything
through colored lenses , ready to sneer, jeer and snicker at any thoughts or
deeds dissimilar to their own , scrutinizing the people as if they were zoo
animals . Precious few would make any attempt to touch the real people, to see
things from their perspective, to try to understand the social fabric and
ideology that tie these people together , which in its way gave sense and
meaning to their harsh life . Having been poor for half of my life, I totally
despise people who'd look down on and make fun of others simply because they're
poor, which appears to be what some visitors do . Regardless of what one might
think of the Regime , the reality is against all odds North Korea is still
Korean patriotism is legendary. During the Asian Economic Crises hordes of
Koreans brought forth their family jewelry to help out their country, and
that was in South Korea ! It's just possible the love most North Koreans (
particularly the older generation ) proclaimed for Kim ll Sung is genuine ;
unlike China , North Korean never suffered any major political upheavals, and
the intellectuals fared much better than their counterparts in China . Korea
had been under foreign domination for generations, the older Koreans still
remember the hardship and humiliation they endured under the brutal Japanese
rule, as well as the years of war before they gained independence ; it's an
indisputable fact the new Republic gave them a new lease of life and a new
pride . Lest we forget, in the 60's and early 70's before the economy of South
Korea took off, North Korea was infinitely the more progressive of the 2 Koreas
in every way . People were well fed , industries boomed and literacy was 99% ,
thanks in part to the aids from the Communist Big Brothers .
The nightmare only began after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the
disintegration of the Eastern Block, suddenly there was no market for the
minerals which was their chief export , and the subsidized food and energy
supply ceased . The withdrawal of aids coincided with catastrophic draught and
floods which led to severe food shortage just around the time Kim ll Sung died
, so the memory of Kim's Realm was associated only with good times .
Juche is the official ideology of North Korea, the philosophy of socialist self-
reliance that the whole nation embraces. The Juche idea states that man is the
master of his own destiny, he dose not rely on others and it's through his own
effort that he changes nature as well as environment, and ultimately shape his
own destiny . North Koreans are intensely proud people , and they extract
donations in subtle ways. At every place we stopped we're invited to buy
bouquets of flowers to lay at the foot of a Monument ( Pyongyang's the City of
Monuments ), the bouquets were removed the moment we left to be re-sold to the
next lot of visitors. I was more than happy to buy the bouquets as a small way
to help out . Madam Lee was relieved there's at least one taker of the bouquets
in the tour group and enthusiastically recommended other sale items, with the
result suddenly I found myself the proud owner of a copy of " Kim ll Sung, The
early years " !
At Madam Lee's suggestion we broke away from the official itinerary and spent a
night at a Spa in the countryside . Madam Lee told me we could have arranged
more out- of- itinerary outings if our HK tour guide were a little smarter , but
unfortunately we were given a Potato as a guide. I wanted to see the Kumgang
Mountains and some other cities and I was assured that provided I inform them
early it's absolutely possible .
At the end of the journey everybody left with the guides whatever snacks they
didn't finish in the trip.
I gave Madam Lee a bag of mixed dried fruit ."It's all organic, so really good
for you", then added apologetically "But it's from America ."
"It's unopened," she muttered softly ."It's a gift," I gave her a hug, "I'd
never give you leftovers !" then stuffed 300 dollars in her hands : for her, Mr
Kim and the driver. " You must accept this," I urged as Madam Lee hesitated, "
this is a small token of thanks from my heart ! "
The trip reinforced my conviction that people are just people whatever country
or culture they're from . One lunch time I wandered off by myself a little way
off the hotel premises and was accosted by a group of young men and women .
Through a lot of body language and broken English I surmised they were workers
on a day trip. The guys crowded round me and all tried to finger my Canon
camera , holding their thumbs up and nodding their heads vigorously.They wanted
me to take pictures of them and laughed and jostled each other for a better
position . Flying in the face of socialist decorum , some of the guys were
drunk, in midday ! Guys would be guys and these young people were just trying
to have a good time on their day off and do young people things . I remembered
too the middle aged lady at the Arc de Triumph, who blushed with pleasure when
I complimented her on her beautiful Korean dress . Strip off the thin veneer of
unfamiliar languages and customs and we see ourselves and our friends .
While I have great reservation about the Korean Government ( actually all
Governments in general ! ) , I couldn't help but feel a great warmth for the
people, and admiration for their dignity and courage in dire circumstances .
What stirred me most was despite their daily hardship, all that the North
Koreans wanted from me was to think well of them ; all that they wanted was a
little respect for them as a people .
I certainly have no problem saying nice things about the North Koreans.
The painting :
Flag of South Korea is called the Taegeukgi, the symbol came from the Chinese
book I Ching, representing the four Chinese philosophical ideas about the
universe : harmony, symmetry, balance and circulation ; the Taegeuk holds the
two principles of " Eum ", the negative aspect rendered in blue, and "yang ",
the positive aspect in red, in perfect balance . The white background
symbolizes " cleanliness of the people ".
Flag of North Korea was adopted on 8th Sept 1948. It consists of three stripes
- blue, red, blue - separated from each other by two narrow white lines .
The hoist of the red stripe is charged with a white disc containing a red five-
The color red represents revolutionary patriotism. The blue stripes connote
"The aspiration of the Korean people to unite with the revolutionary people of
the whole world and fight for the victory of the idea of independence,
friendship and peace." .The white - a traditional Korean color - represents the
purity of the ideals of (North) Korea and national sovereignty. The five-
pointed star signifies the happy prospects of the people building socialism
under the leadership of the Korean Worker's Party.
Hibiscus Syriacus, the Rose of Sharon, is the national flower of South Korea.
Legend had it a rich landlord coveted a beautiful village woman who was married
to a blind man . The landlord kidnapped and later killed the woman who
stuck fast by her virtue. Brokenhearted the husband cried and mourned over his
wife's grave, and his tears brought forth the Rose of Sharon all around the
Kim ll Sung flower ( Kimilsungia ) is a species of orchid, bred by an
Indonesian botanist and presented to Sukarno to Kim ll Sung in 1965 when the
latter visited Indonesia .
Kim Jong il flower ( Kimjonglia ) is a variety of South American begonia, bred
by a Japanese botanist in 1988 .
China and North Korea had traditionally been close . Kim ll Sung spent his
formative years in China and was much influenced by Mao Zedong . China has been
a bridge between North Korea and the the rest of the world ever since the
dissolution of the Soviet Block . A direct railway line linking South and North
Korea was due to open this year, hopefully would bring the two peoples closer
together in the future .