Part 4 of 6 in our Inside the Hermit Kingdom series on the people and culture of North Korea. Worldfocus multimedia producer Ben Piven writes about popular music, food and beer.
On my second day in North Korea, our guide asked if it was true that Michael Jackson had died. We pictured her doing the moonwalk as Michael blared from her in-house PA that never sleeps.
After we confirmed the star’s death, she asked whether Michael Jordan had also passed away. She was relieved to hear that America’s greatest basketball player was doing fine – and was about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The following day, our guard tried to impress us as we boarded the bus. “I hope you slept well last night,” said Lee. “I had sweet dreams about Beyonce and hope you did too!”
Exposure to foreign culture remains extremely restricted. As a child, our guide, Jong, had learned Ray Charles piano tunes at the Children’s Palace where we saw elite students perform. Lee had heard Auld Lang Syne and seen My Fair Lady. Jong said cutely that her favorite “popular music” was Ponchonbo Electric Ensemble, a Stalinist military-style band.
With outside media forbidden, citizens rely on domestic TV and intranet – which has instant messaging capabilities.
We were given the Pyongyang Times and Korea Today, English-language publications that resemble high school papers. “The flame of upsurge is kindled” in bold letters prefaced Kim Jong-il paying homage to the key components of Juche society: farm, factory, academy, and military. Our favorite photo showed Kim providing “on the spot field guidance to a gumball factory.”
Despite their national poverty, North Koreans love to picnic next to serene waterfalls. They also enjoy reading the newspaper before boarding the metro. They even find time to bicycle leisurely. However rare these moments seem, outsiders cherish those mundane instants where politics disappears and humanity triumphs.
The 23 million proud inhabitants of North Korea call their country the Land of Morning Calm. The nation is feisty in Northeast Asian geopolitics, but the actual place is indeed peaceful, orderly, and even sterile.
No armed security presence exists in most areas of the country, save for guards at major monuments, museums, and government installations – and of course the massive contingent of one million soldiers within several kilometers of the border with the southern nemesis.
Our guides revealed nothing about the reclusive dictator with a penchant for cognac and caviar. (They also vehemently denied the alleged Kim Jong-il ailments: heart disease, diabetes, and pancreatic cancer).
DPRK cuisine was uninspired and repetitive. and made China seem a gastronomic paradise. Tourists are treated to excessive portions of derivative Western cuisine. Tasteless fish, lukewarm schnitzel, and hard toast made regular appearances. The two authentic Korean meals were more appetizing, even if the kim chee was over-fermented and the baked clams saturated with lighter fluid. Ori bul go gi (grilled duck) on the last night was our favorite.
I brought American cigarettes and dried fruit to our guides, but they were not appreciative. I also brought a bag of jelly beans for schoolchildren. But they would not accept a foreigner’s gift, fearing they would appear selfish.
Our beloved local beer was Taedonggang, made in a brewery transported whole from England. The DPRK’s first-ever commercial was a 150-second Taedonggang promotional video. It first aired in July on Korean Central Television, the government network that reaches 1 million homes, broadcasting for 7.5 hours most days.
Women in North Korea were sharpest in neon pink or green choson-ot dresses that overpowered their malnourished frames. Three-inch platforms were the norm. Men wore matching navy or beige jumpsuits, often accentuating their stocky frames.
A phrase from the Korean-language book that I picked up in North Korea captures the essence of government propaganda: “Korea is a socialist paradise where there are no beggars and all of the people study all of the time.”
– Ben Piven