Images, Sounds of North Korea
On a five-day train trip across this communist holdout, even the conductor is dictatorial
ON THE RAILS, NORTH KOREA — 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.
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.
Unlike in South Korea, the houses have no black pots sitting outside filled with kimchi. The only birds to be seen are magpies, crows, and sea gulls. The few sheep, cows, and goats are all skinny. People look hungry, and some pick leaves off bushes to chew.
North Koreans are shorter than their southern cousins, perhaps because of the poor food or hard labor. This led recently to a "youth campaign to become taller" in which students were fed seaweed.
Most conspicuous by their absence are bicycles. Everyone has to walk everywhere. Perhaps Kim Il Sung thinks bicycles are a sign of backwardness. Or maybe police can better monitor people if they are less mobile. Along the coast, miles of electrified fences and barbed wire keep people from escaping, even though few try, reportedly. At tunnels and crossroads, soldiers stand guard in a state of war-readiness against an imagined invasion from the south.
The houses, made of either stone, wood, or mud, are painted in mustards and grays. The roofs are either metal, tile, or thatch. Almost every home is surrounded by tall poles for growing vines of beans. To till their fields, farmers must use either old Soviet tractors, wooden plows, or human yokes. In 1990, they were ordered to spread fertilized soil up to half-a-foot thick over all arable land. Many carry baskets of dung over long distances. The fields and villages are highly organized by local communist
officials. Farmers need not worry about marketplace economics.
Each village has a tall gate with a slogan emblazoned across the top, such as "WHAT THE GREAT LEADERS DECIDES, WE WILL DO!" Things only happen in North Korea, it seems, when Kim gives "on-the-spot guidance" during his travels. Mothers are taught to regard Kim's family as their own. When a baby is born, the mother is encouraged to say: "I offer my baby to the Great Leader."
Hills in North Korea are almost treeless. Farmers have been told to till up to the peaks, causing massive erosion that has silted up rivers. The hills also provide a backdrop for more slogans, much like the big sign in H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D. Farmers in the fields can look up at the signs and read such newspeak as "WE HAVE NOTHING TO ENVY."
When our train reaches Chongjin, I try to take a walk to meet the locals. "Stop, stop!" yells a soldier running after me, snapping his rifle.
Commander Park later scolds me. No mingling, she says. Rural folk, I learn, must not be contaminated with bourgeois thinking.
On the ride back to Pyongyang, I finally get the courage to leave my compartment and turn down the music. Commander Park soon detects the silence and corrects it. An hour later, I turn down the knob again. She later turns it up.
I finally cave in to the rapture of the soothing tunes. In fact, after we return to Pyongyang, I bid goodbye to Commander Park and decide to buy a cassette tape of North Korean music - just in case I ever need a wake-me-up.