In North Korea (Review)

Posted January 8, 2020

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Review of In North Korea: A Trip to the Last Communist Dynasty (En Corea del Norte: Viaje a la Ultima Dinastia Comunista) by Florencia Grieco (Buenos Aires: Debate, 2018), 339 pages


The Argentine journalist Florencia Grieco took two trips to North Korea, in 2015 and 2017. Her account of those trips, along with some observations from a trip to South Korea in 2017, is available in a slender volume in Spanish, along with several dozen photos that she took during these journeys.


In North Korea is unusual in a couple respects. As an Argentine, Grieco can do some things that American tourists generally can’t, like travel by train from Beijing to Pyongyang. She also takes advantage of some new opportunities that the North Korean government has made available to tourists, such as exploring much of the Pyongyang metro and staying in the country’s only “home stay village” in the seaside town of Chilbo.


Grieco provides just enough historical context for the general reader to understand what makes North Korea a unique place: the division of the peninsula after World War II, the horrors of the Korean War, the ruling dynasty that Kim Il Sung founded and passed on to his son (Kim Jong Il) and grandson (Kim Jong Un), the famine that ravaged the country in the 1990s, and the hesitant opening to the outside world that North Korea has been orchestrating for several decades.


This is not a comprehensive treatment of North Korea. Rather, for those who speak Spanish, the value of the book lies in Grieco’s perceptive observations – both written and photographic – and the glimpses of North Korean reality that she provides.


These glimpses start with her train journey from Beijing where she meets Alex Lee. Born in Cuba and educated in Venezuela, Lee is eager to practice a language he hadn’t spoken for some time. He’s also eager, it seems, to “follow every move that I make,” following Grieco into the passage to smoke and bumping into her on the way to the bathroom. Lee lives in Dalian, China, where he does “business for the government.” His watchful solicitude is her first indication that tourists in North Korea are always under surveillance – even before they cross into the country.


Once in Pyongyang, Grieco stays at the Yanggakdo Hotel, a familiar hangout for tourists. Located on an island in the Taedong River, it’s sometimes referred to by foreigners as the “North Korean Alcatraz.” The Yanggakdo is a 5-star hotel, with a casino and bowling alley in the basement and a slowly revolving restaurant on its 47th floor. But Grieco discovers that of the nine elevators, at most two are working at any given time – not because the others are being repaired but in order to save electricity and money.


North Korea, after all, is under economic sanctions and short on energy. She is struck by how dark Pyongyang is at night, with bicyclists making their way with headlights along unlit streets and pedestrians navigating sidewalks with the help of the flashlight function of their cell phones. However, the huge structures dedicated to the country’s deceased leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are well illuminated, “magnified by the surrounding darkness,” Grieco writes. “In North Korea even lighting is a form of propaganda.”


During the day, it’s a different story. “Pyongyang seems like a film from the 1960s: saturated, light-filled, and artificial like a communist musical in Technicolor.” The apartment buildings are painted in pastel colors. The streets are filled with cars, including a new fleet of taxis. It’s remarkably clean. “Pyongyang is a city without trash,” she writes, “without posters, without noise, without animals, without disorder, and needless to say, without individual liberties. It’s an anti-capitalist metropolis.”


Grieco goes on the requisite circuit of Pyongyang attractions: the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, the mausoleum where he and his son lie embalmed, the Grand People’s Study House. She takes the requisite photographs: schoolchildren, lady traffic cop, the still-unfinished Ryugyong Hotel.


But many of her photos are unusual. For instance, she provides a fascinating overview of Pyongyang’s underground, complete with photos of the subway cars, the stations, and the colorful murals that decorate each stop. Only in September 2015, she reports, did the government authorize access for foreigners to the whole underground network. In fact, it’s why she chose that date to make her first trip to the country. The Pyongyang subway was built primarily in the 1970s with Soviet financing to serve as a mode of transportation but also as a refuge in case of a US nuclear attack. The current subway cars were bought on the cheap from Germany after the fall of the Wall. Repainted, they now show almost no indication of their origin.


Unfortunately, she’s not allowed to take any photos of Supermarket No. 1, which has changed dramatically since I went there in 1999. I remember a vast empty space with a few domestic items like wristwatches for sale. Today, as Grieco describes, it’s filled with a plethora of both domestic products and Chinese imports: packaged foods, canned goods, candies, frozen fish and meat, fresh fruit, pet fish and turtles, clothes, electric bikes, solar panels. On the third floor, a food court offers pastries, hamburgers, and ice cream.


Also unusual are the photos she takes of the interior of the country, where fewer tourists visit. Grieco manages to visit the cities of Hamhung, Wonsan, and Chongjin as well as the free trade zone of Rajin in the northeast corner of the country. The tour company keeps her group – an American backpacker, two young Canadians, an Australian actor, a Japanese photographer, someone who appeared in the TV show Survivor – busily moving from hotel to hotel by minibus. The tour company is Young Pioneers, the same outfit that brought the American student, Otto Warmbier, to Pyongyang. The North Korean authorities detained Warmbier before he could leave the country, on the grounds that he allegedly stole a poster from his hotel. Everyone in Grieco’s group is thus mindful of the importance of observing the rules.


The itinerary of this trip beyond Pyongyang includes plenty of restaurants and spas as well as visits to a fertilizer plant, an orphanage, an agricultural cooperative, an English class, and a kindergarten of musical virtuosos. There’s a volleyball game, a wrestling match, a cooking class, and a campfire on the beach that features Australian marshmallows and a sing-off of national anthems.


The home stay in Chilbo represents the first time a group of Western tourists can stay with North Korean families. On the way to the village, the North Korean tour guide is visibly nervous about this experiment, which prompts him to deliver, on the minibus, a long monologue full of historic and geographic details. The foreigners are all taught to sing Let’s Go to Mount Paektu – in Korean. It’s as if everyone is involved in a large-scale performance, from the tour guides to the staff that put on a show at the restaurant to the tourists themselves.


The owner of the house where Grieco stays in Chilbo is a 40-year-old woman with a three-year-old son. They can’t communicate outside of pantomime, but Grieco provides a gift of candy. In return, the owner gives her a handful of raspberries, which are a rare commodity outside of Pyongyang. It’s particularly precious for Grieco, a vegetarian, who has been eating pretty much the same meal morning, noon, and night: barley tea and occasionally instant coffee, huge portions of potatoes, rice, and rice noodles, “repulsive” quantities of tofu and eggs, and absolutely no raw vegetables, fruit, bread, or dairy products. Her connection to her host family, wordless though it has been, feels authentic to Grieco.


As the finale of this trip, they visit the northeast cities of Rajin, the center of the free trade zone, and Tumen, which lies close to the borders with China and Russia. There’s not much to see in Rajin, she confesses, that’s any different from other North Korean cities. But here, they are allowed access for the first time to a private market, provided they don’t take any photos. Here she sees a tremendous array of goods for sale, which they can purchase with whatever currency they like. Capitalism is allowed in North Korea but only in this contained fashion.


Finally, it’s time to leave North Korea. Shortly after they cross into China, they get the news: Otto Warmbier died the day before. It’s a sobering reminder that even a tourist trip to North Korea carries certain risks.


Korean Quarterly, Fall 2020



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