Infiltrating North Korea Part 3: The enigma of Pyongyang

I was quite pleased to discover that Pyongyang does not suffer from the typical communist infatuation with soulless concrete and is, instead, a rather pleasant city blessed with wide boulevards, spacious squares, picturesque parks, tree-lined sidewalks, traditional architecture and modern buildings.

What truly separates it from other parts of Asia, however, are its many communist accoutrements.

Propaganda comes in all shapes and sizes in Pyongyang and it’s simply impossible to avoid. The city is flush with politically charged statues, mosaics, posters, and monuments–which will be discussed later–as well as bright red flags festooned with the North Korean hammer, sickle and brush (paying tribute to the worker, peasant and intellectual).

Despite the negative association of the hammer and sickle in the Western world, these flags are actually quite festive and lend a welcome splash of color to the city. They’re also enjoyably anachronistic, making it seem as though I had traveled back in time to 1950s Moscow all proudly awash in communist red.
So, this is what it was like in the Soviet Bloc before the Wall came down and capitalism rushed in with its neon signs, billboards, and McDonald’s. I thought at first it would feel like being on a movie set where everything feels slightly fake and manufactured. But the red flags and banners just felt right, like they belonged–this was, after all, the real thing.
The most pleasant discovery of Pyongyang, however, was that it was not the polluted wasteland of acidic air and soot stained masonry so commonly found in other communist capitals. This struck me the moment I stepped on to the tarmac of the Pyongyang airport. I had flown in from China, one of the most polluted countries on this planet, and was quite taken back by the sudden shock of fresh air when we landed. This is because the North Korean capital relies mostly on hydroelectric energy instead of the cheaply burning lignite coal more commonly used throughout Eastern Europe.

The air is kept even cleaner by the fact that there were almost no cars on the streets–the place was an automotive ghost town. Pyongyang and the rest of North Korea, as it turns out, operates almost entirely on foot and bike power. Pedestrians and bicyclists were everywhere. They weren’t bunched up and crowding the sidewalks and street corners, however. Pyongyang is sparsely populated and its mobile citizens were always strung out and scattered with yards of separation between them. It was a lonely, spacious form of transportation indicative of the country itself.

The exception was the always overcrowded city busses. Commuters on street corners throughout the capital waited in very long lines for these busses, lines that were freakishly orderly as though as though anyone who stepped out of place would be punished in some manner or another.
This sense of order permeates the city. This is because only the most privileged of North Koreans (i.e. the party faithful) are allowed to live in Pyongyang. This means that all three million of them are constantly on their best behavior for fear of getting kicked off the “island” and banished to some provincial North Korean backwater. This is my theory, at least. And, I don’t think it’s too far from the truth. This explains why the bus lines are so orderly, the residents are constantly doffed up in their finest suits, there is absolutely no crime, and not a spot of litter to be seen anywhere–although with the dearth of consumer disposables and lack of fast food containers, there really isn’t too much to actually litter with. This passion for keeping things clean and orderly even extends to the most remote areas of North Korea where women can be seen sweeping the highway in the middle of nowhere without a village for miles.

Of course, being a good socialist means taking care of yourself and your society, so a healthy dose of communist rhetoric coupled with some good old fashioned totalitarian fear has gone a long way in keeping the capital squeaky clean and orderly–albeit cursed with somewhat of a stilted atmosphere.

Yesterday: The Challenges of Being a Tourist
Tomorrow: The Architecture of Pyongyang