I watched the Truman show last night. It reminded me of my latest marathon trip abroad to the DPRK or Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea. Not purely because of the similarity between every moment of his life being documented on camera and the elderly party member and cameraman who followed us around for our entire time in the DPRK making us a ‘memento of our trip‘ alongside conveniently documenting every movement we made (viewable here). But also because of the uncertainty between exactly what was staged and what wasn’t.
I’m would also be the first to admit that I’m not usually a fan of crazed middle aged men with bad haircuts but actually, Jim Carey was quite good in The Truman Show.
As a result I wrote about my trip. So here are the unedited ramblings of a runner whose last literary outing was described as ‘sound of thought for someone whose first language clearly is not English‘….
I travelled to the DPRK to take part in the Pyongyang Marathon 2016 (and if you want to read purely about the marathon itself please click here). I regularly travel abroad for races as it’s a great excuse to see the world but this was certainly a unique trip because not only was I travelling across the globe, but also seemingly across a few decades. It was only a 42.195km city road race and I was only in North Korea for a week, but that was more than enough to make it clear that, although not quite as portrayed in Seth Rogen and James Franco’s classic coming of age movie ‘The Interview’, North Korea is every bit as weird as I was always told it was. Each incident alone would be enough for an anecdote in itself; from the issues at the border for not declaring a newspaper I had used to wrap my bottle of whiskey. The constant appearances of footage of Richard Hammond throughout our trip (I imagine the people of the DPRK too would be disappointed with Matt LeBlancs poor impression of the Hamster, if only they had TV’s to form their critique). The insistence of our hotel to only show ‘The Greatest European Footballing Blunders‘ on the lobby TV throughout our 6 day stay. Or the somewhat stereotyped, observation of struggling to understand why the ‘bustling’ department store we were being shown round was just having the lights turned on when we arrived at 1700 on a Saturday night.
As I mentioned, our ultimate aim in North Korea was to complete the marathon but we also took on a five day tour of the capital and DMZ. If you ever attempt this, you should be prepared. The normal advice to rest your legs prior to a big race, is not readily consumed in the DPRK and you will be doing a lot of walking both before and after the race.
Each tour group travelling to the DPRK will be assigned by the Ministry of Tourism two local guides, a driver and a cameraman to document your trip and each and everyone of them will be incredibly proud to tell you about the great feats and achievements of both the country and the glorious leaders. Although the history, stories and background to the great monuments of Pyongyang are undoubtedly interesting the real juicy parts come when talking about the ‘evil imperialist dogs’ or the American government. The hatred and vitriol to the oppressors here is widespread and clear. Tellingly the captured US Pueblo ‘warship’ sits proudly on display on the riverbank, right alongside the ‘captured enemy vehicles’ exhibit in the Korean War museum. Interestingly this hatred doesn’t extend to US citizens, who we are told are ‘merely misled’ by their government – although no one has passed this message on to the custodians of the The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, where photos are not allowed, but their views on the American culture and way of life is made clear.
Perhaps the pinnacle of this Korean obsession with lecturing you on the micro under-goings of the capital and it’s history comes in the form of the Metro tour. Yes, that’s a thing. The Metro, or the three stops open to public eyes, is undoubtedly impressive, opulent and a far stretch from the twisted tunnels of Elephant and Castle in our own dear capital. And in a typically North Korean fashion it is the deepest metro in the world, as was explained to us inside the Museum of the Construction of the Metro. But if this wasn’t enough there is also a Museum of the Construction of the Museum of the Construction of the Metro, which really exists. This to me typifies the current approach to ‘touristing’ in the DPRK. However if much of this sounds boring you’d be wrong. It was mind blowingly fascinating, if not mesmerisingly weird.
Another common observation made when talking about the DPRK is its isolationist policy either by choice or embargo from the rest of the world. This transcends the basic economic impact you would expect but also in the case of the DPRK flows into music, entertainment, literature, film and ideas. This idea came to a head in the Grand People’s Study House whose equivalent can only be described as if Tony Scott had been given free reign to redesign the British National Library and may have the greatest poster art known to be man (see below).
Up until this point on my trip, I had been developing a theory about Kim Jong-Un’s (the current supreme leader of the DPRK) musical taste- it was at this point this theory was given wings. Kim spent much of his formative years in the 90s being school in Switzerland under various different names and every mass dance and musical performance I had seen since arriving in the DPRK seemed to me to be rehashed militarised Abba tracks (check them out for yourself). Upon entering the Grand Peoples Study House in the musical awareness room, pictured below, we were oddly but pleasantly shown a collection of Abba songs taken from the ten track CD ‘Western Music’. It’s clear to me that the glorious leader had a soft spot for ABBA. With Australia coming dangerously close to winning Eurovision 2016 – how long will it be before we see a DPRK entrant? I wouldn’t be surprised if they already had an act in training – one thing that can’t be faulted in the DPRK is their willingness to prepare early already having a fully fitted ‘Olympic’ park ready and waiting on the outskirts of Pyongyang? I’d still wouldn’t be the one to put money on Pyongyang hosting the olympics in my lifetime.
On the subject of being prepared – the grand study house is home to over 30,000 books and as we were told, has one of the most advanced book delivery methods in the world. To demonstrate this our wonderful academic guide, who if I wasn’t very much mistaken had a wry delivery to all his words which made me feel that he knew that we knew that everything he was saying wasn’t quite as it was, asked us to select any book. Amongst cries of Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World and To Kill a Mockingbird the guide seemingly heard Harry Potter and before anyone could bewilderedly protest as to this silent selection, sure enough it shot down the shoot and into his hand. We stood in disbelief. I’d like to think even our teacher Mr Kim winked, but this I think was just my imagination. I hope JK Rowlings grip on the world is not yet so tight that in a room of 10-15 western readers, when asked to name a book at least one will rapidly shout Harry Potter.
The remainder of our tour included trips to the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, the birthplace of Kim Il-sung, the Schoolchildren’s Palace, the Demilitarized Zone, the National Reunification Monument, the Arch of Triumph, the Juche Tower, the Monument to the Foundation of the Worker’s Party, the Korean Film Studio, the Pyongyang Revolutionary Foreign Language Book shop, the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun and Mangyongdae, one of the many waterparks in Pyongyang and a trip to Kosong County on the way back from the DMZ ( the only trip away from Pyongyang itself). And of course the marathon itself held in the May Day stadium, the largest in the world (naturally) and patronised by Kim Jong-un himself. An exhaustive list but as they say ‘When in Rome, do as the Romanians do’ – a phrase which is as misquoted here as it is misplaced in this circumstance.
Although, as above, there were some traditionally ‘touristy’ moments, there was certainly times I felt so deluged with claims, statistics and diagrams that I felt less like a tourist but more an economist bought in to assess the value and productivity of the country. But even with tired legs and my carpet of pre conception being pulled out from beneath me at every turn, every building, mural, stone structure and two tone monument brought with it more and more to ogle at.
In spite of this extensive itinerary there were still things missing. Naturally we were not going to see some of the things which negatively litter the newsreports of the Western press but as one of our group put it ‘You don’t come to London and get offered a tour of Wormwood scrubs?’ It was more those things hidden in plain site, the power outages, the lack of traffic on the roads, the lack of people anywhere but places we were shown, the heavily policed state but perhaps most clearly is the literal elephant in the room; the Ryugyong Hotel sat in the real heart of Pyongyang. An incredible building which rides higher in the sky than any other structure in the city but clearly a slight sore point as still remains incomplete and unoccupied a mere 30 years after construction began on it. It was barely mentioned. Nor was the fact that it’s the same shape and size as the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – I for one am glad the acrhitect tasked with the most ambitious construction project in the heart of Pyongyang clearly had a sense of humour.
There were many highlights to my tours round Pyongyang but ultimately cramming a total rewrite of what you perceive to know in a five day tour is difficult for even the most open minded connoisseur to appreciate but for those of you, like me, who appreciate culture more by osmosis than lecturing – the Korean obsession with dates, heights, widths, statistics and hyperbole at least allow for a decent outing of Innuendo Bingo.
To wrap it up, whilst reflecting on my trip whilst waiting for the single departure to leave Pyongyang airport on the day I left the DPRK: I certainly saw one face of North Korea, a richly face painted face; painted to present itself to the almost 1000 foreigners there for the marathon, birthday celebrations and International Workers’ Day, the busiest tourist week in the year for the DPRK. However there were certainly times when I believed fully in what I was being presented with, in the words of Mr Li ‘tell your friends to come, we want them to come. People have a very negative view of this country from their media. If they come, they can see for themselves.’
But despite the grandeur of things and the seeming impossibility of such mass participation deception it was impossible not to occasionally wonder whether this was all contrived for our benefit? After all, a system that can mobilise thousands for the Mass Games (yet can make them disappear from the streets on a regular day), sit 40,000 in a stadium to watch a marathon race – which let’s face it isn’t the most spectacular spectator sport could surely pull off illusions of public transit and pleasure?
As the week came to an end and if you are still following my grammatical lucid tumblings into an ever deepening trifle of absurdity some things were becoming clear to me. (Here is also the point to stop reading if you just wanted an account of my time in North Korea rather than my thoughts on the country.) Mostly that the people of the DPRK aren’t that different to you or I, the admittedly limited and undoubtedly privileged few I had the pleasure to meet, had a sense of humour, they enjoyed singing and dancing, they even enjoyed Karaoke, they enjoyed a beer, they enjoyed five. On the race itself, which was practically the only time we had the chance to interact with those we weren’t scheduled to meet, the kids on the street loved high fiving runners, as do the kids in any city in the world, and mothers smile as they do so, the crowds smile, chatted and waved. Sure they dress differently, they have very different cultural ideas, we are told, and I think they do, idolise their leaders as we do our various gods. Indeed many of the iconic sites of Pyongyang; the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun and Mangyongdae most notably, hold a Mecca-like presence, a place of pilgrimage for North Koreans, hence the need for even foreigners to show decorum and reverential respect. But is this really so different from our multitude of different religious practices? At least the objects of their praise have the dignity to grace us with their physical presence. It’s the completely clouded lenses with which we view the DPRK which bothers me. We wouldn’t turn the rituals of a mosque, a church or a synagogue into farce but the same rules don’t seem to apply here.
One of the most telling moments of my time in the DPRK was when Mr Li, our guide (the other of whom was named Miss Kim), whose real name is in fact something totally different, but in the jingoistic way that we have come to expect has chosen a familiar name as we would never learn to pronounce the real thing. He, when talking about religious freedom in the country and how religion is generally discouraged said ‘When there is no religion, man needs his own God’. This for me, was a moment of genuine honesty which bores to the roots of the differences in ideology. The true irony here being that isn’t all religion ultimately man made as it is?
Despite these ramblings, the real difference lies in the narrative. Our Western guide Shane advised us ‘Don’t argue with any historical facts, They only know the one story and definitely don’t mention defectors, labour camps or any criticisms of the leadership.’ But then we too are taught one story, when it comes to North Korea, and actually any state which fails to subscribe to the imperialist idea of capitalism. The story that ultimately they will fail and in the mean time are bankrupt hellholes peopled by comedy-zealots whilst their people struggle in starvation, poverty and injustice.
By no means do I refute, the deep and obvious hardship and injustice in the DPRK nor was I beginning to accept the wholeness of the fictions I was being spun by a country with arguably the worst human rights record in history and a government led by a despotic system of quasideified elites. However at the same time, there were holes in our fiction as well. As much as the odd swimming pool may be shut one day after we were shown it packed to the rafters or how the rolling power cuts seemed to go against the great electrical advances being made and displayed in the gargantuan Sci-Tech centre. Noone had heard of the rumours Kim Jong – Il’s impressive 11 holes in one, or fastest century ever scored in a cricket match, common rumours batted about by my sporting friends regularly when I bring up my opinions on North Korea (and rumours supported in reputable western news outlets). Although I accept, these are trivial tales, they are reported as fact worldwide and it’s these exaggerated lies which present a landscape in which it is easy to dismiss anything which goes against the narrative. On both sides there is a biased view that never mentions anything positive and which masks any forms of progress that might just pave the way for a better future, even if it does evolve slowly from an extreme belief system. As the Brexit debate highlights, no political system is perfect but rather than seek to vilify and present as farce should we not aim to put it into context and explain our differences?
Amongst my travelling companions ranging from a Lord, a Swiss family, two German ultras, a group of friends from the LPDR (Lao People’s Democratic Republic), an American University professor and 2 doctors all thrown together with a notable lack of Journalists. There was a consensus that we didn’t believe in the completeness of either narrative and wanted, even through honey coated goggles, to see the DPRK for ourselves whilst attempting anything from 10km to 42.195km to justify the trip. Both in one of Pyongyang’s many microbreweries after the marathon and on the long drive south to the underwhelming DMZ we discussed the differing motives of the circa 6000 tourists who visit the DPRK every year. Although this sounds a lot, and was more than I knew about, to put this number into perspective, this is around a 10th of the number of people who crowded in to a relatively small stadium only last night to see one man, Bruce Springsteen perform over a period of four hours. The motivations on our bus alone were mixed but everyone had a common interest to get their own opinion on the truth behind the fictions. Ultimately, despite it’s misgivings I left with creeping respect for a country who stands alone in a world so otherwise homogenized. After leaving Pyongyang I boarded my plane back from Beijing to Istanbul and was offered a copy of Newsweek. It was far removed from the article I had read in the Pyongyang Times a few hours prior.
I leave you with this thought. But I also urge you, if you get the chance, to experience it do so. And do so now before the DPRK like so many other countries subscribes to the ‘one world model.’
For more information on joining me on the DPRK Marathon Tour in 2017 click here and please feel free to comment with thoughts, questions or to find out more information on next year. Although like a Brexit supporter asked about their justifications, I can’t promise to have the answers to everything.
If you enjoyed this and want to read a slightly more objective report on the race itself, my blog on the marathon experience itself can be found here.