In 2008, PROBUS Vancouver member Bob Ross published a book titled The Cucumber Tree, about growing up in Vancouver in the 1940’s and 50’s. This story about his childhood reveals his early interest in adventure and exploration. He built his own canoe and at the age of sixteen survived a week canoeing in the BC wilderness beyond the reach of civilization.
After graduation from UBC in 1963 with a degree in Civil Engineering, he spent a couple of years wandering around the world. In a time when the far side of the planet was not yet crisscrossed by airlines nor trampled by tourists, he worked on sheep stations in the Australian Outback and on coastal freighters in the South China Sea. He hitch-hiked up the Mekong River before the War broke out in Viet Nam, before most Westerners had even heard of Laos and Cambodia. Four times he found himself at gunpoint. He was smuggled over the Himalayan passes into Kathmandu in the back of a coal truck, and hitch-hiked alone up the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan and beyond, through Iran and Turkey to Berlin, where he worked in 1965 as a schallschutzisolierung helfer.
For the next 32 years Bob was employed by the City of Vancouver as Streets and Traffic Engineer. After getting married and raising two daughters, Bob and his wife Sandra have enjoyed many walking and hiking and barging holidays together in Europe, and many trips to visit their daughters and grandchildren who live in Australia and Mexico. Inspired by curiosity and a thirst for adventure, Bob has cycled in China and Japan, mushed dog-sleds in the Yukon, horse-packed in the Chilcotin, toured the Serengeti and hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
It is this curiosity and thirst for adventure which inspired Bob to visit the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea this past September. The escalating insults and threats between Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un only added to the excitement. In his presentation Bob will explore the question of what is real and what is fake in North Korea.
Transcript of Bob’s talk:
It’s fortunate that my speech is occurring during the Olympics in South Korea and you may know this morning that the North Korean bobsled team was disqualified for threatening to overpass Japan and crash in America.
Seriously though, people ask me why I would go to North Korea. My answer was fairly simple; I like to travel to out of the way places and discover unique experiences and North Korea is a place where you can do that because there are not many places left on the planet that haven’t been overrun by tourists and North Korea hasn’t. How many people here have been to North Korea? Don’t laugh, there is one. How many people have been to Antarctica? It turns out that 40,000 visitors a year travel to Antarctica and only 4,000 to North Korea. Almost 40,000 people trek up to Everest Base camp every year. So even from the ends of the earth to the tops of the highest mounts, places that used to be isolated, are not frequently trampled by the tourist hordes, but not North Korea. That’s the reason I went. The other reason is my curiosity.
Is it really a land of darkness figuratively and literally? Are the people starving? Is the country really on the verge of war? He’d do such a wonderful job with these military precision drills. What’s the mood in the country? Do they look like they can sustain it or are they on a war footing?
Well, I hope to find answers to these questions but I knew that wherever I went would be heavily proscriptive and I wouldn’t get to see the things I wanted to see necessarily except I thought I could pull the curtain back and look behind it now and then. I came away with more questions than answers.
When I started planning this trip last January Donald Trump hadn’t been inaugurated and people didn’t know anything about North Korea – it wasn’t on our radar. The only way you can travel there is as a member of a tour group so I started looking for tour groups. Each time I found one and signed up it was cancelled for lack of participation. People were being scared off by the rhetoric and the increasing awareness of North Korea’s missile capabilities. In March we first learned that they can send out four rockets simultaneously and that got everyone’s attention. Trump threatened them with the USS Carl Vinson and the power of aircraft carriers and submarines. The rhetoric went on and at the annual birthday parade for Kim Il Sung we saw more weapons and rocketry than we’d ever seen before.
Then, of course, the unfortunate situation for Otto Warmbier, a college student from America who stole a poster from the wall in his hotel and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in the gulag for disrespecting government property. He was repatriated in June of last year in a vegetative state and he died six days later. My friends asked why I would I go to a country where that might happen to me so my resolve started to waver a bit. However, in July I found a tour company that would take us and it was fully subscribed. All 12 people paid their money and obtained North Korean visas.
In August all that stuff about fire and fury happened with the deranged American dotard and the rocket man. The heat was really rising and then two days before I flew to Asia Kim Jong Un detonated a hydrogen bomb that contains ten times as much power as the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The nuclear program in North Korea started in 2006 and they have been detonating nuclear explosions all along but the public didn’t know about it.
The only way for tourists to get into Pyongyang is by air direct from Beijing. It’s a two hour flight. On the plane we were told to list all of our electronics and written material so I listed my very expensive 20-year-old Cyber-shot camera and my Chinese cell phone as my electronics. I took both of those because I knew they would scrub whatever pictures I took and they might just confiscate my camera or cell phone if I had material on it that wasn’t suitable to them. I also had two novels. They took my novels and electronics and I suppose they went through them to make sure they didn’t contain offensive Western literature.
There was a Swedish tour group with us on the plane of about a dozen people and their leader had a copy of the Lonely Planet and they confiscated that because they didn’t want that falling into the hands of their own citizens as it has a lot of Western takes on North Korean places of interest. When customs went through our luggage they unrolled my socks which were tucked into rolls. They went right through my underwear and checked all the pockets in my trousers in search of USB sticks because a lot of Western materials, movies and music are smuggled into North Korea via USB sticks. When we landed in Pyongyang there was only one other plane in the airport and it looked like it had been there for a few years and, of course, we were the only people going through customs. We drove into town at 5:30 on a Friday evening and it looked like a Western city. It’s very clean, very little traffic, no graffiti, no sign of the repressive regime and no distress at all. We parked the bus on the side of the road and we were told to get out to look around and take photographs. We were encouraged to take photographs. The architecture was stunningly clean and modern and the people were dressed in Western clothing. Everything was very orderly – not what I expected at all. There was no sign of poverty, homelessness, garbage or litter. When we arrived at Ryomyong Street we were told that everything we could see had been built in one year. Previously there were those old Soviet-style five or six storey apartment blocks and Kim Jong Un, the present leader, decided that that housing wasn’t good enough for the people who live in Pyongyang which includes high-ranking military officials, high-ranking members of the Workers’ Party, professors and scientists. He arranged for all of this to be built. He had all the old buildings torn down and all these new buildings completed in one year. I looked around at this mature planting and concrete work but they were adamant. There are reasons to be skeptical – not everything is as it appears to be.
There were a lot of people in uniforms who travel in big groups. This is a very common sight in North Korea and I guess this is something that’s ingrained in them when they are young. We saw that with farm workers, factory workers, college students and school children on many occasions.
This is Kim Il Sung University, one of several universities in the capital city, and you can see there are no cars. This big hotel is 100 hundred stories tall and the top six floors are revolving restaurants. It wasn’t until I got home that I Googled it and discovered it’s just a shell. They haven’t completed the interior.
Because I heard that there are power outages, water shortages and food shortages I took along my own water container, Imodium and water purification tablets. I also took a flashlight, a headlamp, batteries, a battery charger, protein bars and Kleenex as I thought there wouldn’t be any toilet paper. I was really prepared. Imagine my surprise when I checked into my hotel room and it was as good as any Western hotel, better than many, and nothing leaked, nothing ran, nothing overflowed. Everything in the bathroom was of a high standard.
What about this poverty-stricken country under sanctions? In the morning when I look out of my hotel room window I see evidence of the coal fire power plant.
Our hotel was 30 stories high and located on a sports complex. It had a soccer stadium, a Teletron screen, a grass hockey field, a gymnastics arena, a building for tae-kwon do, another for ping pong and another one for badminton. They really were well set up for bringing people in to sporting but we didn’t see any people. The first morning after breakfast we went on a bike ride along the Tadong River once the fog lifted. I saw a lot of people fishing in North Korea and that really surprised me. I thought it was healthy to see people getting recreation.
Watch this video of the police officer directing traffic; there’s really no correlation between her movements and traffic movements. What’s up with that? Is this a charade? There were a lot of little things like that that made you wonder what was happening.
Our first day in North Korea was one of the five national holidays. This was the holiday for their independence day and people go to the park. It was kind of like Stanley Park. And look, even the citizens have cameras. As we walked past the families having picnics one woman jumped off from one of these groups and offered me an earthenware cup full of some liquid, which I think was rice alcohol, and once I started drinking it other people jumped up and offered me food. I thought it was great. I hadn’t been there for 12 hours and people were already connecting with me. I was eating little hard-boiled eggs which I guess were quail’s eggs. Somebody gave me a little piece of meat that tasted different, stringy and kind of sweet which I learned later was dog meat. I was relating with these folks when our minder or guide came back and admonished me and said, “Don’t do that” and pulled me away from them. We carried on a hundred yards and I was falling back a little bit and someone else jumped up and offered me food. I can’t be rude so I accepted it and Mr. Kim came running back and knocked them down. He actually physically knocked them down.
I was trying to figure out where the boundaries were for my interaction with the local people. We got close to our campsite and were watching kids cross the creek to their picnic site and then we crossed the creek to go to our picnic. The blankets were already set out on the ground and there were three gas-fired braziers. We were sitting there barbequing our own squid, fish, chicken and duck and it was great. We were having a picnic with the people. I still have bruises on the back of my head and back from our minders pushing us all the time, not wanting us to talk with the people and linger. Behind us there was this little group dancing to traditional Korean music. Without asking I got up and joined them and Mr. Kim didn’t stop me and I was taken by how willing they were to interact but they weren’t making a big deal of it. It just seemed normal and I had a lot of fun. It just felt good to be able to interact with these people.
Next we went to the subway. The metro system in Pyongyang was built in 1975. It’s the deepest one in the world at over 110 meters straight down. One escalator took three minutes from top to bottom. They say that the stations are very similar to stations in Moscow and the trains, the U-Bahns, were bought from Berlin in 1997. The walls had murals on them, the ceilings had chandeliers. Many of the murals we saw showed citizens moving forward and creating this great new order of North Korea which is going to be a shining example to the rest of the world. We weren’t allowed to photograph the tunnels but we could photograph the murals. Many of the murals featured Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il mixing with the workers and creating this new society. When I got on the train I quickly realized that I was a little taller than Koreans. The average North Korean is about three to eight centimeters shorter than a South Korean family member with whom they parted over 50 years ago. There were portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in every train, every home, every office building and every bus everywhere you go. We went through five stations and there are 12 stations on this particular line. You can see that all of these folks have a badge on their left chest and that’s a portrait of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, either separately or together. Everybody must wear one of these after the age of 12 and you can’t leave the house without it after the age of 16 and if you do you get punished. The discipline ranges from criticism or shaming at the next self-criticism session, which they probably have weekly, to progressive discipline. If you really disrespect the glorious leaders and you don’t show revolutionary fervor and passion for them the end might be that you get deported from your town and eventually perhaps you have to go to the gulag and work it off for the rest of your life.
Here are a couple of the monuments I’m going to show you. The Korean Workers’ Party, they are a Communist party, is a very important part of their life and this is a big statue to them. This triumphal arch is a replica, sort of, of the Arc De Triomphe in Paris except it’s bigger. Everything in North Korea is just a little bit bigger and better than everyone else. This commemorates the struggles by Kim Il Sung against the Japanese as a guerrilla fighter between 1925 and 1945. Maybe a time for a little bit of modern history. From 1912 to 1945 the Korean Peninsula was occupied by Japan. It was a brutal occupation and they really suffered from it and there’s an inbred hatred of Japanese because of it. At the end of World War II in 1945 the Soviets advanced down from the north, the Americans advanced from the south and they met at the 38th parallel and had a peaceful ending to World War II. After that the Koreas tried to find a way to reunite as one country again but with that strong Communist influence in the north and the Capitalist Syng-man Rhee regime in the south they were having trouble finding a way they could do that. So, in 1948 the North proclaimed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Russia helped install Kim Il Sung as their leader. Two years later the South declared independence because they couldn’t find a way to resolve the situation which, in turn, sparked a North Korean invasion. So that’s why North Korea says that South Korea started the war. As you know that war didn’t really end. There was no peace treaty but an armistice they signed in 1953 and that’s the state that they’ve been in ever since. A couple of other events after that were the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 and that severe famine in 1996-1997 where the crops failed for three years in a row because of a drought. The Soviet Union had collapsed which meant that North Korea no longer received support from its previous Communist allies. They didn’t even get fertilizer or pesticides to help sustain the crops. Up to three million people died and they remember that now. Most people alive today lived through that which makes me think that we would have trouble making sanctions work against North Korea because they’ve lived through that kind of stuff and they are used to eating tree bark and dandelions and I think they have a tremendous resolve that would be hard to break because of what they have endured.
This the Tower of the Juche Ideology. Juche is the state doctrine of self-reliance, independence and isolation. It’s got a mixture of Leninist and Marxist Communism as well as the god-like cult of the Kim leaders. On top of that Juche statue is a picture of Pyongyang. You can see what a tight grid layout the city has. During the Korean War the Americans boasted that they levelled every centre of population in North Korea so every centre of population had a chance to rebuild a more modern street layout so it doesn’t have the winding streets of many Asian cities.
This is Kim Il Sung Square where all of those marching demonstrations and military parades with the weaponry take place. Participants march in from the right, pass in front of the government building and cross the square. The reviewing stands and the bleachers where the public sit are on that wall. When you see these parades on televisions from that point looking toward us. You can see the markings on the pavement. I always wondered how they know where to position themselves when they do those Arirang mass dances and so on. You can see how they do that with the little marks. These are some of the participants and they are very snowy-faced and don’t appear to have any joy on their faces until you try to engage with them. If you wave or try to give them a high-five they respond. So they are warm people but they just don’t show it perhaps. The interesting thing here is that the people on the right have cell phones. I didn’t think that there would be many cell phones but it turns out there are over three million cell phones in a country of 25 million people.
Here’s the mass dance and this is on the plaza of the building where Dennis Rodman did the basketball exhibition. I actually counted 2,500 people there. I wonder what is going through their minds as they do this. They live in a country where you can’t dream because you can’t change your life. You can’t plan on changing careers or moving to another city and of course you can’t leave the country. What goes through their mind? Up close you can see that they are just robots. They are just going through the motions here. They’ve done this a million times and they probably did a lot of their practice out in the rain. There’s no fun. Except this couple in the front seem to having a private moment of joy.
The next day we went to the memorial palace where Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung are both lying in state in a glass sarcophagus and we were told before we went that we would have to wear formal clothing and they told us what that should look like. Only the guy from Chile and myself got the memo about wearing a jacket and the others didn’t bring any formal clothing. Our leader who took us into the country was from Siberia. At 10 p.m. on the night before we flew in she took us to a shopping mall in Beijing and we bought ties and white shirts for all the men and dark slacks. As we go through this mausoleum it took two and a half hours to file down these long corridors to get past these two bodies lying in state in two different rooms. As we went we intermixed with a lot of Koreans. There were trainloads and busloads of people from Korea coming up and getting off. You could tell from their weathered faces that they came from the farms. They all had suit jackets on and were coming to pay their respects. Some were tearful. Our guide told us that when she first saw this mausoleum she had trouble controlling herself because she was so happy to have a chance to pay her respect to the Dear Leader. It was an example to us of how much they love the Kim Family and how that won’t change.
We had to buy flowers and put them at the appropriate place and the Koreans saw that. They see the well-dressed Westerners coming through, buying flowers and being respectful so they must love Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il too!
Then we went to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. This is where they pay tribute to the American War as they call it. It’s the war which South Korea started and North Korea won and they are adamant about that. This museum was so big and realistic. It was full of Madame Tussaud type wax bodies lying decapitated with exploded shells all around them as well as dead American soldiers and the American flag in ruins.
There was also a large diorama of the Korean War all the way around a large domed theatre. There were explosions and shells going off as well as artillery fire, tanks coming in, bombers and airplanes scraping in from above. It was really well done. We were sitting in an observation post on top of a hill and we are rotating so we kind of see these things unfold as we go around. Near the end there was a figure dressed in white walking up to a barn door and he’s signing an agreement to end the war and it’s Kim Il Sung. In addition to being able to shoot twelve holes in one in a round of golf he can do anything. He can end a war. This was our docent who took us around. She’s an officer in the North Korean army and you can see the North Korean army has a minimum height requirement of 4’8”. She showed us the captured booty from that war including an American tank, a downed American airplane, Radar O’Reilly’s MASH helicopter and the prized USS Pueblo. That was the spy ship that was captured by the North Koreans in 1968. There were 78 officers and men aboard. There was a brief firefight and one American was killed and they take us on the ship and show us where he died as well as all the bullet holes which are circled by white paint. They also showed us the radio transcripts and evidence that the Americans were within the 12 mile limit and were spying. I think they were right, they were.
So here’s the North Korean military. I would have thought that a country that’s so bombastic about its capability of war would have military convoys driving around. We thought we would see evidence of tanks, equipment, guns or marching soldiers but we saw none of that. This is the closest I came to seeing anything that might resemble a military transport and that is probably no longer in the army but the driver has an army uniform on. As we were leaving the country on a train I saw a siding with flat cars that had tarps over them and under those tarps there were tanks. I could see the guns sticking out. But not very much.
In the back of this picture is one of many posters you see and they are all pictures of a country at war where the citizens are rising up and fighting. This is the back of a bus stop. You can see the transit patrons on the other side sitting on the bench. On the back of the bus stop is a picture of artillery, anti-aircraft guns shooting out of a little snowbank. Posters everywhere with a military flair. Otto Warmbier took one of these down off the wall and he ended up with a sentence of 15 years. Smartly I learned from that. I bought this one. Every one of those shows America as the victim. One of them says the words, “the path to peace lies through the point of a bayonet.” There are American flags on the coffin and a visceral hatred of America.
Now we are going to drive down to Kaesong which is down near the southern border. It’s a city of about 300,000 people. The topography of North Korea is very mountainous. Only 20 per cent of the country is arable and most of that is on the west coast. From Pyongyang we drove down typical highways which were beautiful eight lane roads that were built in the 1970s but have no traffic. Bizarre. But those would be great military roads if you were trying to move an army. They aren’t well-maintained and there are a lot of potholes. I think the lack of petroleum products prevents them from getting asphalt to repair the roads. They are so rough that our side mirror rattled loose and it took an hour and a half to fix it. During that time I went and talked to some kids who were fishing. Again, they were friendly and warm and talked about how big the fish were or how many they caught. They engaged for a while and then they had a little huddle and I think they were saying to each other, “we shouldn’t be talking to this guy because it might get reported to our block monitor.” They politely left.
One of the features on this highway that interested me were these large concrete monuments. It wasn’t until I got home and Googled it that I discovered that they are tank traps. The bases of these concrete columns are packed with explosives. In the event of a war they will detonate these things across the road and the tanks can’t get through. That explains why these are always located in cuts in the embankments along the highways because if you couldn’t get over these you couldn’t get around.
We crossed many rivers on the coastal plain on this and other days. We saw the abutments and piers of old bridges. They are all quite common and I think this is the evidence of American bombing during the Korean War. They’ve taken away the superstructure and left just the piers which is just more evidence on a day-to-day basis of those damn Americans whom we hate so much. A little bit of the landscape. In the background there’s corn, rice paddies, green beans and potatoes. I couldn’t get any pictures of the landscape by getting out of the vehicle because we were always on the go somewhere. Pictures were taken with this crappy little camera through the window of a moving bus so I apologize.
We passed many villages and they look great. They look well-maintained. They don’t look like a country that’s oppressed and poverty-stricken. There was very little farm equipment. In the three days that we went through farm country I probably only saw three tractors. I didn’t see any combines, harvesters or even trucks that carry produce to market. And this was September which was the beginning of the harvest so I don’t know how they harvest the stuff and get it all to market to feed the people. There were a lot of bicycles in the field and I saw people with sacks of corn or sacks of rice on the back of a bicycle but that doesn’t look like it would sustain a country.
More villages. This stuff on the roof is corn that is drying which is common in Asian cities. These look quite healthy and well kept up. That night in Kaesong we stayed in a traditional guest house. I suspect that everybody who goes to Kaesong to see the DMZ stays in this guest house because it’s so picturesque, pretty and atypical. We were woken up at 5 a.m. by patriotic music which kind of got us into the revolutionary fervor and we walked into town.
The first thing we do is walk by this little walled village and we are encouraged to take a photograph at the entrance. It didn’t look bad so I thought the people must have been pretty well-off but when I got home I started reading about it and I discovered that everybody else called it a Potemkin village. That’s when a Russian leader would take the empress down the river in Russia. He had these villages built in front of them along the way and he would have them dismantled and rebuilt so that she would think they were prosperous. I think that was happening here.
This is the morning commute in Kaesong and you can see that the people are dressed a little bit differently than people in Pyongyang. People in Pyongyang are from the top class whereas people here in Kaesong would be middle class and then in the rural areas you get people who are from the bottom class and they are very different. These folks are wearing more pedestrian uniforms.
That’s the main street of Kaesong, a city of 300,000. Look at all the traffic congestion! On the right is Mr. Kim and on the left is Ms. Yang, our tour guides, and they are photographing us in front of this statue of Kim Il Sung on the left and Kim Jong Il on the right. I understand that there are about 1,500 of these bronze statues in the country and some of them are immense. It must be very expensive.
Now we are down here to see the DMZ. I’m sure you’ve all seen this picture of the demilitarized zone with the three blue huts in the centre. The negotiations that sometimes take place at the border are in that middle hut. You can see the North Korean border guards. This colonel in the North Korean army is the same gentleman who was featured in the CNN documentary, Secret State: Inside North Korea and any documentary that you see about North Korea so every tourist gets the same route through the country as the journalists.
He’s pointing out a map of the Korean Peninsula and here is a close-up of the border. How could they make it look more complicated? They don’t actually show the border, it’s a mystical ghost line and you see that it runs through those blue buildings. Why didn’t they just mark it as the border? It’s all so fuzzy. You probably saw videos last November of a defector being shot by the North Korean soldiers as he escaped to South Korea. The people who came down from the North Korean side and shot at him came down the stairs at the front of this building, went over there and then they quit and went back.
The DMZ is 4 kilometres wide from the entrance to the South Korean side and it’s 250 kilometres long.
As we drove through here we could see explosives every two to five minutes and I think they were supposed to make us think they were landmines going off. There was stuff that was making this all not real. There’s the South Korean flag so we know that we are just about there. The border runs through the village along that line there and there’s a concrete raised curb that goes along there. We’re inside the building and I walk to the far end so I’m at the South Korean end of the building. I look through the window and take a photograph back so I’m standing in South Korea photographing back into North Korea. I could have just opened the door beside me and walked out and I would be in South Korea.
We’ve heard a lot of stuff about this as the most hostile and heavily fortified border in the world, which you’re not allowed to make eye contact with the North Korean guards or make any fast gestures or do anything that might excite them. But it was so laid back that I couldn’t believe it.
When I saw those pictures of that defecting solder on television I realized it was the exact same place. I counted the stones here and there are the same number in each direction and it has the same landscaping so it was the same place but there’s something fishy about it.
We drove from the border back into Pyongyang and this is the statue of the two Koreas. The bus pulled over to the side of the road and we were encouraged to take photographs. Because there was no traffic my friend went out in the middle of the road and took this photograph. She asked me if I would take a photograph of her in front of the statue and she’s doing this fancy pose and we’ve been told not to do anything in front of these monuments that’s disrespectful. Don’t have your photographs truncate the bodies of the leaders. You must be dignified and show the utmost respect and here’s she’s doing something which I thought wasn’t allowed. So I thought I would do the same thing and get a photograph of myself doing a headstand in front of the statues. You just lose your head at times like this! I started to do a headstand and the guards came over, grabbed my camera and deleted half of my photos and I got the stink-eye from those guys for the rest of the trip. If they hadn’t known me better and known what a nice and respectful guy I am then I might be in the gulag right now.
We were taken to a lot of places where people performed for us and they are very good at their performing. These girls are in Grade 8 and they are very professional. There were drummers as well as a full orchestra and in this particular case they performed in a school auditorium with about 500 seats and we were only nine people. This happened to us a lot. At the time we thought it was wonderful that they were being great hosts but when I came back I realized they sure stage a lot of stuff.
Now these are the largest statues of the Dear Leader and the Supreme Leader in the country back in Pyongyang. Do you see the person walking across in the front? It gives you an idea of the scale. We had to buy flowers and take them up and lay them at the feet of the dear leaders and the Koreans see that even the Westerners put flowers in front of their statues so they must be wonderful people.
As we left I turned back and took this photograph of three women sweeping the ground. These are women in high heel shoes, wearing purses and they are not employees but volunteers. Now it turns out that everybody in the country has to spend about half an hour of the day cleaning the public realm. Somewhere in front of their house, the back lane or wherever. So these folks on their way home from work are sweeping up around the statues.
I took this picture of the bus that night to show you that I never saw a power outage during my time there. The lights are on in Pyongyang.
At the end of our trip we spent a day in the mountains and so they took us up the Chongchon
River into the mountains. Those buses you see are carrying North Koreans and this is a truckload of kids. We can get them to smile by waving at them which is kind of neat.
We are all going to this building here which is the International Friendship Exhibition hall. In this building there are 120,000 gifts that have been given to the dear leaders by leaders of countries from around the world. In here there’s a whole train car donated by Stalin, there are three Mercedes cars donated by Muammar Gaddafi, a canoe paddle and beaver pelt donated by CUPE 314 in Peterborough, Ontario.
Again, they are taking their people to see all of this evidence of how the rest of the world is giving gifts to their leaders for their wonderful leadership of North Korea with their Juche ideology.
Here’s a Buddhist monastery. It’s 1,000 years old and it’s evidence that there is freedom of religion in North Korea. Of course there isn’t and there was no evidence that people actually went into this monastery. Maybe Buddhists don’t have to go into the monastery to worship, I don’t know. Nobody appeared to have gone in there other than the tourists.
Then we got the overnight train back to Beijing. It’s a 22 hour train ride in a very modern train. That’s our restaurant car. On the right is a picture of us crossing the Yalu River which is the border between North Korea on the right and China on the left. The big city on the left is Dandong in China with a population of 2 million. On the right as we leave North Korea there is, of course, an amusement park.
The next morning I wake up on the train and you just see mile after of these clusters of high-rise buildings so you know that you are in China. We are back to the land where there is advertising on buildings and people are free to come and go as they please.
What is fake and what is real? I’ll just give you four examples of stuff that sure makes me wonder whether what I saw was what it was really supposed to be.
Questions and Answers:
- When I was in South Korea five years ago I found that there was a much more hostile environment at the border. We were told not to take photographs of or eye contact with the North Korean guards.
We were also taken down into the tunnels. Did you hear anything about that?
- They don’t talk about the tunnels. We didn’t find that at all. What was strange for me was that we saw no South Korean sentries or South Korean tourists. I asked one of the guides about this and she said, “They all wait until you get back in your coach and leave and then they all come out.” It was not a hostile environment.
- I led a Canadian Bar Association delegation to China in 1979 and everything was just like what you’re showing. The people were very friendly whenever they could talk to us but the tour guides, again, were keeping them at bay. A lot of what you said was exactly what I experienced in China but my question has to do with the North Korean hostility to America. Was there anything about your group that would tell people you were not Americans or were they being friendly and you could well have been Americans?
- I’ve seen in American documentaries since then that they are friendly to the Americans. Will Ripley, the guy on CNN, asked them what they think of America and they said, “We hate Americans and we are going to shoot America.” And then he asked, “What do you think of Americans?” and they said, “I don’t know about Americans.” And then he said, “Do you know I am an American?” They looked embarrassed. That befuddled them. I don’t think they think so much about the people from America as they do about the country and that maniacal dotard they say who is running the country. I asked the guy we rented our bicycles from what he thought of Donald Trump and his answer was, “bullshit!”
- Do all of the groups that go to North Korea take the same trip? Secondly, when you saw these buildings are they occupied or empty?
- We were told they were occupied because we asked that question and I never saw anything to suggest that they were empty. There was landscaping on the railings on some of the higher floors.
I know there must be power outages at some point because they talk about elderly people on the upper floors being prisoners and not being able to get out because the elevators aren’t running and they can’t get back up because they are too old. I believe that the buildings we saw were occupied but they may not have been. And that’s the thing, you can’t tell because you can’t stop to open the door and look in.
I think that all tourists take the same trip and they painted the facades so that we all see the same things. But we are all doing the same thing, we are all trying to peer around behind to see what’s going on. I think everybody came away skeptical that we weren’t seeing the real thing.
- Did you see any shopping malls or restaurants?
- No. No shopping malls but if you’ve seen that CNN documentary there’s apparently a shopping mall in Pyongyang and it’s stocked with cell phones, television sets and Western goods. A lot of Western goods get smuggled in and it’s all from China. There’s apparently one shopping mall in Pyongyang but there wouldn’t be in other towns. I am told there are restaurants. People do get a low salary. Teachers and professionals get about $100 a month and they can use that to go to a restaurant or theatre but there aren’t many. There’s no advertising on the streets. It’s a Communist country so there’s no competition between enterprises and so they don’t need to advertise. We happened to open a door once as we were walking down the street because people were going into this place. We discovered that it was a restaurant similar to a Greyhound bus station restaurant from the 1950s with arborite tabletops, linoleum floors and not very prosperous looking but people were sitting there eating food.
- Do you think there will ever be reunification of the two Koreas?
- I think it’s going to be extremely difficult. With the Olympics you’ve seen some of the little clips showing the South Korean younger generation protesting against the Olympics because they have no connection with North Korea. They were born after the Korean War and they see North Koreans as a big liability. When they have to absorb the North Koreans into their economy it will be much tougher than when West Germany absorbed East Germany. Right now their GDPs per-capita are like 50 to one.
The other thing is the Communism/Capitalism divide. Which country is going to give up their doctrine? The North isn’t and the South won’t so I don’t think they’ll ever get together.
- With all the missiles and threats from North Korea what do you think their real strategy is?
- It was explained to us that North Korea is surrounded by major powers who have overrun it, attacked it, brutalized it, and colonized it for centuries. China, Russia, Japan and now America through its proxy, South Korea. They don’t want that to happen again and they are so happy that they have a nuclear deterrent because I don’t believe they would win a conventional war. It would be over the first day. I never saw any capability. You would think that you would see evidence of some military capability in a country that could fight a war. In fact, they may not even have the nuclear capability that the Americans say they have. The Americans are building this whole thing up for North Korea to be much stronger than I think they are and much more of a pest than I think they would be if America would just accept North Korea. Their strategy is to make everybody to take notice that they are able to stand up and look after themselves because they are afraid of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi when America talked him out of his nuclear program in Libya and now he is dead and the country is in ruins. America talked Saddam Hussein out of his weapons of mass destruction and now he’s dead and his country is in ruins. Why would North Korea negotiate with America with that history?
- Is there any sign of great intellectual development through the schools and universities? How does it have the capacity to build this program?
- The government provides free education for everybody up to the end of university if you can qualify. The universities are well-attended. The range of programs they can study is limited, they can’t study anything about the West but they can study physics and nuclear physics – the subjects that would help them with the nuclear program. I believe they got a lot of this nuclear capacity from Pakistan and maybe they are working in cahoots with Iran. Here’s a thought; maybe the missile program that they’ve shown the world is great marketing for them. If sanctions continue and they have trouble selling their coal and other things they can sell their nuclear technology to rogue states like Iran. America’s pushing them in a direction where that might be what they have to do to survive. There’s also a lot of Russian technology in what they do.
- Can you comment on their healthcare? Is it universal?
- Yes. It is universal and we were told that there is one doctor for every 70 citizens. We said that wasn’t possible but they insisted. I’m sure it’s not 70. They can’t all be doctors, some people have to harvest corn in the fields. This is the kind of thing you have to filter what you are being told. But I’ll tell you what, there’s no obesity in that country. None. I think the people are probably pretty tough. They are genetically filtered down through all they’ve been through to being able to eat worms and grasshoppers. I think the population is pretty healthy.
- Kim looks pretty heavy.
- In Pyongyang there’s this upper-class elite that have access to all of the luxury goods that there are in the world. There’s a strong smuggling thing that happens and it happened before the sanctions. It happens at the lower levels where guards get paid off because they don’t get paid much. They take bribes willingly to allow smuggling to go back and forth across the border. I think that North Korea will survive the sanctions even though I heard yesterday that they are asking someone for permission to take the United Nations to court over the sanctions because they are unconstitutional. I’m not a lawyer but that’s an interesting activity they might be pursuing.
- Did you see policemen because I never saw any?
- We saw a traffic cop but that didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. I didn’t see anyone who identified as police at all. Don’t forget that this is a society that encourages people to squeal on one another for any transgressions. I don’t think they need policemen. They have block monitors and Communist Party leaders in their various schools, offices, mines and fields. What was interesting though were soldiers standing on guard. If you go through European countries there are soldiers in the airport who are heavily armed with automatic rifles and you go through Paris and they are everywhere. We didn’t see any of that. What we saw was an individual 4’8” 100 lb. scruffy looking soldier in a military-looking uniform with no weapon and no radio so no way for calling for help. It’s almost gratuitous. There was no hostile feeling in that country.