A few days ago a fellow reader asked me what is the difference between Pyongyang and the rest of the North Korea country in terms of people and perceived culture and lifestyle. I can tell you, dear Reader, that the differences are so vast that as soon as you leave the city it feels and looks like a complete different country. The only similarity that I have found between both capital and countryside is the presence of military people everywhere and propaganda billboards attached everywhere. Other than that, it’s two completely different worlds..
In fact, the difference between the capital and the countryside is so vast that if you see the whole nation from 35,000 ft height, the first thing you’ll see is: Pyongyang glitters with some lights with nice looking dressed people, the rest of the country looks like a hole in the dark.
The capital. Pyongyang is the heart of North Korea, the pride of the dictatorial government’s elite and location of the privileged people. Is a nice city filled with buildings, fancy and futuristic looking-like hotels for foreigners, people have cellphones and dress nicely with a hint of 1950’s style. In few words is the socialist fairyland of the Juche ideals.
The city is forged in concrete and bronze, it was built from scratch after the Korean War destroyed it. A totalitarian metropolis that has barely any traffic and yet filled with traffic officers.
Every visit to the country, focus very heavily on the capital. Tours will take you to every important monument, square, statues, buildings, any spot that glorifies the Great & Dear Leader, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and the Juche ideology.
When my friends and I planned this trip, we prepared by reading books and listening to incredible testimonials like Monkeetime, one of the pioneers on publishing videos and information about the Hermit Kingdom. I learnt a lot from him before and so when I arrived I knew that:
1- North Korea is the most secluded dictatorship on Earth,
2- the Kims hold an overwhelming control over the entire population, what they see, hear, read, drink and eat
3- there is a huge divide between those who live in the capital and those who are spread all over the country,
4- there is an effort from the local authorities to show you (the tourist) a beautiful image of the country, in spite of all its challenges, so in other words, Pyongyang should have looked normal to our eyes. We ate very well and in abundance, visited monuments, enjoyed roller coster rides, played in a casino, and had beers.
People dress in a conservative slightly old fashion and women tend to have a very white tone of skin, women use pantyhose even during summer
Most of them won’t look at foreigners, while others will be more intrigued
streets are almost devoid of traffic and traffic officers guard most corners and intersections
Food is very good, varied and tasty
In few words, the capital city looks conformed to the idea we were expecting: tightly controlled and orderly city.
The countryside was a complete different world. As soon as you leave Pyongyang, the landscape becomes inexorably green and filled with vast fields. Every valley and flatland we passed seemed to be utilised for some sort of crop and we could see the countryside bursts with the bright greens of rice, corn, soybeans and cabbage. Our guide told us that on hillier ground lie orchards for apples and pears while more up in the mountains you find potatoes.
Life looks simple and most of the land I saw was farmed
Unlike in the capital, here people seem not used to the presence of foreigners, in fact they were friendlier and more open about it, even willing to be photographed
Cities like Kaesong differ greatly from Pyongyang and it looked more alive and back in time
We traveled hard and I cannot recall seeing any traffic light in the rural towns of North Korea
People rest next to a road in near Kaesong town. Vehicles of any kind are relatively rare outside Pyongyang, and even on the most rugged stretches of road, lone pedestrians loaded with their belongings for the market bravely plod to the next village.
Some propaganda billboards in the town of Chongsan. The inevitable voice of the ruling Workers’ Party is in part a sort of pep talk, in part a reminder of who is in charge and in part is a sermon on how the nation must strive and sacrifice to achieve the goals of “Kimilsungism” and “Kimjongilism,” which long ago supplanted Marxism and Leninism.
Government slogans stand for: ‘We Are A Great Spacefaring Nation!’, ‘to Our Country Is The Best!’ and ‘Let’s Go Our Own Way’. The most common slogan is Single-Minded Unity.
Only two things won’t change between capital and country side: the amount of government propaganda and military people. More on the Propaganda on my next post. Stay tuned!