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Images, Sounds of North Korea

On a five-day train trip across this communist holdout, even the conductor is dictatorial

By Clayton JonesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 1992


COMMANDER Park, the conductor of my coach on a 350-mile train trip across North Korea, has an Orwellian way of waking up passengers at 5:30 a.m.

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She simply turns up the volume on the train's speakers, blasting out melodies such as "Song of Labor" or, worse, marching music dedicated to Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader" of this Spartan, hard-line communist nation.

In fact, as three other journalists and I ride in a cozy sleeping compartment on a Chinese-made train across a land little seen by outsiders, the propaganda music plays on and on, a lesson to any visitor that North Korea is an authentic totalitarian experience.

Democracy may be sweeping other nations, but North Korea persists as a political anachronism because of the strong personality cult around the 80-year-old Kim, who has successfully indoctrinated his 20 million subjects. Perhaps no other nation comes as close to George Orwell's specter of total social control.

To truly enjoy a journey across this antique bastion of 20th-century despotism requires that North Korea be viewed somewhat like the home of a vanishing tribe or an exotic theme park with a giant horror house.

This means, of course, putting up with the likes of Commander Park. She is a worker more equal than others in this self-proclaimed "Workers' Paradise." She wears a military uniform, a Mao cap and, like all women in the army, knows how to goose-step in parades while carrying a rifle and wearing a dress and yellow stockings. She wears a red lapel button with the visage of the Great Leader, as all North Koreans do in public, and she has been taught that Americans are "imperialist aggressors" who are "wolves

in sheep's clothing."

I took this train trip as a journalist tag-along with a group of Japanese and South Korea investors and academics who had been invited to inspect the northeast port city of Chongjin, which North Korea wants to develop as a "special economic zone."

On our first morning after departing the capital, Pyongyang, Commander Park hands out a no-choice breakfast of kimchi (a spicy, fermented cabbage), rice with seaweed, and ginseng tea. She then gives orders on making the bed, where to sit, etc. She would be a natural playing Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

All day long, she keeps the music blaring away, forcing us to surrender our minds in the same way that North Koreans have done for four decades. In North Korean homes, for instance, televisions and radios can only be tuned to a state-run station.

After taking notice of where the music's volume knob is located, I stuff my ears with cotton and stare out the train window. Over a five-day journey, I watch a landscape go by that has been scarred by the dictates of Kim's social engineers. Unlike Pyongyang, a showcase city that has been granted special wealth and status like a modern-day Potemkin village, the countryside is drab and monotonous, notable for what it lacks. In village after village, it's obvious what's missing: There are no signs of commer ce, no religious symbols, no bright clothing, no graveyards, and no laundry hanging out to dry. All signs of "bourgeois" living have been wiped out.