“Good-a evening lay-deez and a-gentlemen,” said our government guide in a vague pastiche of American talk shows. “Welcome to Pyongyang.”
My journey to the least-visited country on earth began with a 1980s Soviet jet that carried us—a group of travel junkies hungry for the most epic cultural fix of our lives—from the bustling streets of Beijing to the empty squares of North Korea.
After moving through the airport, where officers flipped through my iPad apps and held on to our mobile phones, I sat on the bus studying the expressionless faces making their way home in the amber glow of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Pyongyang is a hard metropolis in the tradition of Communist capitals. To be one of the 2 million people who live among Pyongyang’s massive memorials and quiet streets is a privilege. Resource shortages are less acute here than in the countryside, and citizens enjoy the luxuries of mass housing, which, though crumbling and sometimes crawling with mold, is preferable to the privation outside of Pyongyang. I only had to notice the German scrawled on the windows of the subway cars (they were in fact sent from Berlin) and gaze at the gargantuan hammer-and-sickle statues (bisected by an artist’s brush, a North Korean twist on the revolution) to find the inspiration for North Korea’s Red Confucianism. At the same time, modern cranes topped with bright red flags punctuate the skyline, signaling an advance in infrastructure that will “open the gate to a thriving nation without fail in 2012.” Anachronism does not apply here: North Korea is a world unto itself, both ancient and contemporary, bound by time but forever timeless.
Life in the DPRK might be summed up as an interminable state lecture, punctuated by moments of real, basic humanity. Speakers installed in people’s homes deliver an indefatigable stream of subterfuge about the outside world—“news,” one guide explained—sprinkled with items of local interest. The broadcast continues in the street, where booming opera music accompanies the bike ride to work. Farmers bound to collective farms endure a hostile barking that rains down from rooftops and echoes in the fields. So pervasive is the state that it quickly becomes ambient noise. The city beats to its rhythm. On national holidays, throngs of young women in traditional garb gather for a strangely charming “mass dance” (think of it as the North Korean equivalent of a flash mob), where a van with mounted speakers plays opera while women sway to its tones in red and yellow dresses. The songs change every few minutes. The choreography does not.
Something far more ambitious than old-school collectivism is at work here. The Great Leader’s son, the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, currently serves as Chariman of the National Defense Commission, General Secretary of the Workers’ Party and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army. He runs the country and lays claim to writing 1,500 works as a university student, but you will never hear him referred to as “president.”
That is because the Great Leader Kim Il-sung is North Korea’s “Eternal President,” a title conferred after his death in 1994. He is, and will always be, the only president of the DPRK. The statues erected all over the country in his honor were specially commissioned by the Dear Leader, who surely enjoys the most deep-seated daddy issues in the dictator club. But you won’t find any statues of Kim Jong-il around the city. Why? Because, I was told, he is too modest for that sort of thing.
Humility, it turns out, is not a hallmark of the dynasty. At the Kumsusan Memorial Palace I was patted down, dusted and shuffled onto a moving walkway at a hypnotic three miles per hour. On the opposite walkway, baby-faced soldiers from the countryside passed by in endless succession. Their heads, too large for their bodies, stared back.
Up a flight of stairs, then down—this entire parade, I realized, was a device of anticipation—we were asked to stand in lines of fours in front of a replica of the Great Leader, a creamy white monstrosity back-lit by pink and blue lights. A cold draft picked up, and I shivered. An old-school MP3 player with a British man’s quivering voice was placed into my hand as I descended yet another flight of stairs. I held it to my ear. The shaky, dramatic voice worked up to a crescendo:
When the Great Leader passed away, the tears of the people fell to the ground and were fossilized like jewels set in stone…
That’s when I saw him. Deep in the bowels of the palatial freezer lies the perfectly preserved body of Kim Il-sung, his pale corpse on full display in a glass case. Following custom, our guide asked us to queue up in lines of four and bow no fewer than three times while listening to the Great Leader’s sacrifice for his people. Visitors leaving his body were dabbing their eyes, though I couldn’t make out any tears.
There is no other regime on earth with this kind of dynastic deification. Where else does a dead man preside? Of the many dictatorships in recent history, only one is an open necrocracy (to borrow the term from Christopher Hitchens) supported by the most ardent cult of personality I have ever encountered. 17 years after his death, Kim Il-sung remains very much in power, a zombie dictator of the totalitarian undead.
Interested in visiting North Korea? Learn more about our safe, awesome tours to the DPRK.