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 NORTH KOREA - City of Silence

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PostSubject: NORTH KOREA - City of Silence   Fri Nov 28, 2008 4:58 am

I found an interesting description of everyday life in the DPRK by a visitor - though a bit dated, from 2001. I like that he found the traffic women to be friendly.

http://www.nkmissions.com/10part_report/Articles/City%20of%20Silence%20-%20May%2017,%202001.htm

NORTH KOREA - City of Silence

A day in the life of Pyongyang reveals a city still firmly in the grip of one-party rule, and a people who--for all their unexpected courtesies--remain guarded and watchful
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By John Larkin/PYONGYANG

Issue cover-dated May 17, 2001


THE WORLD'S most paranoid city rises early. By 5:30 a.m. there are knots of people milling around on Pyongyang's pavements. Steam trains clatter by on the way from Pyongyang Station; like most public buildings in the North Korean capital it's crested with beaming colour posters of the country's revered founding father, Kim Il Sung, and his less charismatic son, Kim Jong Il. In a city devoid of the pop-iconography of the capitalist world, these giant images are rare outbreaks of colour and vitality.

The rest is silence. Pyongyang is a city of mesmerizing quietude. There's little happy conversation between couples as they stroll in the early morning half-light. They appear to have suppressed their natural Korean exuberance, instead retreating into their private thoughts where no neighbourhood snitch can intrude. There are cars on the streets--some of them Mercedes driven by party officials and many more 20-year-old Nissans or Volvos. But there are none of the traffic jams and frenzied honking of Seoul's rush-hour. Instead, men can often be seen hunched over the engines of stalled vehicles; spare parts, clearly, are scarce here. The city's ageing trolleybuses suffer too: Crews with mobile cranes patrol to repair the sparky overhead wires.

But Pyongyang is not a dreary wasteland. Nor are its people robots who respond to outsiders with unbridled hostility. Its streets are wide and clean, and some of its buildings are impressive in their Stalinist massiveness. Young lovers stroll across the bridges spanning the pretty Taedong River that bisects the city. Prim policewomen in sky-blue uniforms who marshal traffic at every big intersection will even smile and wave. Speak to them in Korean and Pyongyangers are often happy to exchange pleasantries: Just don't do it in public and don't ask awkward questions. "Our city is beautiful because it was created by our beloved father, Kim Il Sung," a middle-aged woman parrots dutifully in response to a compliment about her hometown. Then a more human touch as she offers directions to a shop on the next block that sells beer.

Children from a middle school laugh and joke on their way to class, where a poster exhorts them to "Learn for Chosun" (the name North Koreans use for the Korean nation). A woman with a broom and pan sweeps the pavement, stopping only to pluck tiny leaves from cracks in the stone. A group of three men pull up in an official-looking Mercedes, only to take brooms from the boot and sweep the street. Posters on a community-centre door urge smokers to quit ("If you smoke you'll have trouble breathing") and call on everyone to look after their teeth.

At 7 a.m. the eerie silence is broken by a siren from public loudspeakers, followed by a prolonged chorus of sung praise to Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. Middle-school boys assemble at one end of a dusty playing field, then launch themselves into a goose-step march past their saluting teachers. A primary-school teacher leads her class through early-morning calisthenics, drawing quite a crowd. Like many people in Pyongyang, the onlookers seem to have very little else to do.

Clearly, Pyongyang has been spruced up for the influx of foreign visitors that have arrived since South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's breakthrough summit meeting last June with Kim Jong Il. New buses were brought in from China only this year, and are generally packed. "Our great general cares for us so much that he bought these new buses," rhapsodized a North Korean guide for journalists covering the visit of a European Union delegation to Pyongyang in early May. The bases of trees lining the main streets are freshly painted in dazzling white. Take a ride on one of the quaint white trolleybuses that trundle through the city and for a fleeting moment you might imagine you're in San Francisco. The moment ends rudely when an old cadre in a beret bellows a paean to Kim Jong Il: "Kim Jong Il, our guiding presence, never sleeping from concern for his people!" His fellow passengers pay little attention, preferring instead to stare blankly into space.

LUNCHTIME: Pyongyang's main boulevards are lined with shops, but most have still not bothered to open for the day. Through the windows of many can be glimpsed shelves crammed with bottles of North Korean liquor. More popular are the hairdressing salons, but the place attracting most custom is a watch-repair shop that doubles as a pawnbroker. Street vendors selling small cones of ice-cream and packets of unflavoured popcorn also do a reasonable trade.

Confronted by a foreign face, children giggle and chirp "Hello," and bow deeply when asked their names. Some older residents, though, veer sharply away. Others ring their bicycle bells and mutter darkly if you wander into the bike lane on the pavement. For all that, though, the people's warmth is never that far away. On a crowded trolleybus an old man insists on giving his seat to a foreign journalist, politely asking where the visitors are from and what they think of Pyongyang. When the time comes to get off, a woman takes it upon herself to brush dirt off the journalist's jacket. "We all have to get off here," she says helpfully and waves goodbye. It says something about the secretiveness of this society that even the tiniest glimmer of humanity in its people can surprise.

Across the Taedong River, the southern suburbs are the Pyongyang that few foreigners see. While most people in the city live in dun-coloured high-rise apartments or scabrous brown tenements, here the homes are mostly neat-looking, whitewashed houses. They look well cared for and most have small vegetable plots in their front yards, but from the thick stench of raw sewage it's clear they lack even basic services. Nearby, a dental clinic looks clean enough, though not as new as suggested by a giant poster on the ground floor showing Kim Il Sung and his son beaming as they inspect equipment that looks as though it's just been unpacked.

When school gets out and adults finish work late in the afternoon, some measure of commerce returns to the shops. Most are still locked and empty, but one selling baby-clothes and boots is crowded with shoppers. They don't seem much interested in the jars of Nescafé and coffee creamer selling for 29 won (officially $13.18 )--a small fortune in a country where a college graduate can expect to earn no more than 100 won a month and where official exchange rates are meaningless. Across town capitalism has dug a small niche at a farmers' market near the Tower of the Juche Ideal (the North's guiding philosophy of self-reliance). The markets sprouted a few years ago when food shortages were at their worst. The party at first tolerated them, and then institutionalized them. Today, officials guard the entrance, blocking foreigners--and most locals.

For all its unexpected courtesies, Pyongyang leaves the visitor with a deep sense of unease. It gives no real indication of the condition of people outside the city, who suffer far more from food shortages and lack of proper medical care. "Pyongyang is a showcase, and that's pretty obvious when you live here," says one foreign aid worker.

People in Pyongang may be the lucky ones, but even they live in a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion. Soldiers, some with machine-guns slung across their backs, are everywhere. Pedestrians who turn to avoid your eyes, stare at you once you've passed by. Look into a shop for too long and someone will pick up a phone, presumably to inform local party officials.

Journalists in Pyongyang to cover the European Union delegation were only allowed out of the Koryo Hotel accompanied by a guide. Those who slipped out unaccompanied were admonished, and two journalists who broke the rules were stopped in the street by a middle-aged man in a Kim Jong Il-style jump-suit after taking photos of soldiers fixing a stalled Mercedes. "You can't just walk around here taking photos," he said contemptuously. "This is a big problem for you. Where do you think you were going anyway?" Older party men took their film, and it was an hour before the journalist's now furious minders were called to collect them.

Pyongyang lets down its guard at night. Off-duty soldiers lean against a bar in a shop selling traditional pancakes. Ground-floor apartments provide glimpses of home life; the ubiquitous posters of the two Kims in the living room, and snippets of family conversation. At the Yanggak Hotel a casino plies its trade to Chinese and Middle Eastern gamblers until the wee hours. On the street a singsong siren from Pyongyang Station announces the time--10 p.m--and people shuffle home under lazy street lights. Soon the quiet reasserts itself. Pyongyang awaits the promise, or lack thereof, of the day to come.
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