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Thursday, September 18, 2014

North Korea Unplugged: Kim Il-sung Slept Here, 2nd in a series

Though there are many stops on the North Korean tour, one thing is remarkably consistent. At each venue, whether it's a factory, historic place, or university, when the local tourist guide gets passed the baton to speak to the group, she always focuses on one theme: When did Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, or more recently, Kim Jung-un, visit the place?, What words of wisdom did he impart?, and what artifacts from his visit remain on display in perpetuity, for all to see and admire?

On the Spot Guidance
The leaders are exceedingly brilliant. Their expertise is broad and deep. Their wisdom is admired far and wide. During Kim Il-sung's visit to the Wonsan Agricultural University, for example, he told school officials that they should begin to grow bananas in their university greenhouse. Done! We are directed to the exact spot where the Eternal Leader stood when he made that pronouncement. We are shown a black and white photo of the Eternal Leader surrounded by admiring students. In a glass case we observe a chair upon which he sat while visiting the university.

In her book, Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick noted "Father and son were experts in absolutely everything, be it geology or farming." One day Kim Jung-il "decreed that the country should switch from rice to potatoes for its staple food; the next he would decide that raising ostriches was the cure for North Korea's food shortage. The country lurched from one harebrained scheme to another." Demick refers to this dynamic as "on the spot guidance."

At all the stops on our tour, this is what our North Korean hosts always assumed we most wanted to hear about. And this "dance" continued from venue to venue. Kim Il-sung's "wisdom" was invariably offered as the talking centerpiece. Salient questions were often brushed aside. When I asked one of our guides about the black "sleeves" I noticed near the tops of telephone poles in the countryside, he said he didn't know what they were. Later, doing my own research, I learned the sleeves, with exposed nails, were placed there during the famines of the 90's. It seems starving North Koreans would climb the poles and steal the copper wiring to sell on the black market for food. Was the "Kim Il-sung slept here routine" genuine national pride, or had it become an obligatory story line--a safe way to get through another day in a failed state?

Visiting Wonsan Agricultural University

Photo showing the Eternal Leader, Kim Il-sung, meeting with admiring
university students decades ago. During the visit, he instructed
school officials to grow bananas in the university greenhouse
Red triangle marks the exact spot where Kim Il-sung stood
when he gave his "on the spot guidance" to the university
University students in uniforms head to class
 as tour members pass in opposite direction

Students mingle in front of mural depicting North Korean leaders
standing in fields of grain

My guide couldn't explain the black "sleeves" I noticed on
telephone poles in the countryside. Later I learned they were
placed there to prevent the theft of copper wiring
during the famines of the 1990's.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

North Korea Unplugged: Wonsan #1 In A Series of Unpublished Photos and Commentary on North Korea

As a child I couldn't get my hands on enough National Geographic Magazines to quench my insatiable appetite for information about foreign places. For me, the stories were really about the photos and their pithy captions. My mind and eyes were moving too fast to slow down to read the articles.

It's in that spirit, that I share photos from my recent trip to North Korea. I start with the port city of Wonsan. Wonsan, a major city of 330,000, lies on the East Sea, several hours by bus, due east of the capital, Pyongyang.

A trip to North Korea is, in some ways, very predictable. Yet, there were many surprises. For me, I was surprised that, with few exceptions (including soldiers and military installations), we were free to take almost all the photos we wanted. Enjoy this photographic tour of Wonsan, North Korea!

The Wonsan skyline on a hazy summer afternoon
Our hotel in Wonsan. Hot water only available from 7-8 AM

Wonsan Central Station

Caring for a public garden near ubiquitous statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il.

Men fishing off the public pier

Ferry that once brought Japanese tourists to Wonsan. 

Photographers waiting for customers

Wonsan art gallery
Painting displayed in art gallery. Classic "propaganda" art: leader (Kim Jung Il) gazing confidently into the future, before adoring legions, banquet served by leader,  everyone smiling. 
Day capped-off with seafood grill on nearby beach prepared
by our hosts. The clams were delicious!