On September 14 2011, three prominent North-East Asia scholars presented the findings of their June 2011 trip to North Korea at an event hosted at the Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington DC. At the event, the three scholars all noted how surprised they were at some of the observations they had made during their stay, observations that suggest discernnible changes might well be underway in the DPRK.
Before the presentations, the Korea Economic Institute’s Dr. Abraham Kim warned of a few caveats to bear in mind while assessing the groups’ findings. For some members of the group, it was their first visit to the DPRK; their insights represented but a window of eight days; they had mainly travelled around the more prosperous western regions of the country; and they could only report on what they had seen or heard. However, the group had visited with a shared and significant experience in working on North Korean issues and had good Korean language skills – factors that undoubtedly helped inform the understanding of what they saw.
To kick off, Charles Armstrong of Columbia University broke down several Western stereotypes of North Korea with a number of contrasting pictures that showed the reality of daily life behind the veneer of Pyongyang’s military-first propaganda. To help shatter some of the traditional illusions of North Korea, Armstrong showed pictures of people roller-blading, young couples laughing, people enjoying the newly refurbished Kaesong funfair, and examples of modern fashion – now increasingly the norm among younger generations. He said that in Pyongyang at least, despite sanctions and isolation, life seemed to be improving noticeably from previous visits. Evidence of widespread construction efforts for 2012 were visible throughout the city, while roadside vendors working on many street corners illustrated recent changes in economic regulation.
But while Pyongyang was “now a city of light,” and there was “an energy and hope that was lacking there in previous years,” Armstrong reminded the audience that the capital only represented the “elite stratum of society” in North Korea. In the countryside, he observed that roads were in a terrible state of repair – with few vehicles outside the streets of Pyongyang. Manual labour was still the norm in fields, and the lack of gasoline meant that vintage wood powered vehicles could still be found. Armstrong also showed pictures from Mt. Myoyhang, where soldiers lining up to enter the International Friendship Exhibition looked “unkempt, scruffy and unwashed”. But despite the negatives, overall he said that it nevertheless seemed that the country was not a place undergoing profound distress – rather, that the degree of confidence was somewhat surprising for an outsider.
Dr. Abraham Kim moved on to talk about the impact of sanctions; specifically UNSC 1874, designed to prevent the import of “luxury goods” into the DPRK. He said that in country he had looked for proxies that could serve as indicators to the effectiveness of these sanctions – the presence of foreign goods, such as cars, being an obvious place to start. While Mercedes Benz has long been a favourite of the regime, Dr. Kim showed pictures of a surprising number of modern, American branded vehicles on the streets of Pyongyang – Chevy’s, Fords, and even Lincoln Continentals. Dr. Kim’s conversations with representatives of Pyonghwa Motors, a joint North-South car manufacturer, indicated that they had helped to import a number of these vehicles to the country. Dr. Kim reminded the audience that one of the problems with UNSC 1874 was that it had left the term “luxury goods” undefined, leaving sanctions decisions to be implemented by national governments directly.
The academics also had the opportunity to visit the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, or PUST as more colloquially known as. Dr. Kim said that were currently 280 students (all male) at the school, being taught in English by Western professors. Their visit also revealed that students get free lodging and food, with some 25kg of rice to take home to families during the vacation – all provided by the university. With full internet access a condition of PUST’s existence, Dr. Kim explained that the foreign teaching staff had little free movement, allowed into town just once per week to buy food.
Kim expanded on the concept of internet usage in North Korea by telling the audience that the 3G Koryolink network now had over 600,000 subscribers, with roaming iPad internet access even possible for certain groups. Conversations with an Orsacom executive (the Egyptian firm who part-own the DPRK network) revealed that a special SIM card has been designed for foreigners who need internet access on the go – something the government was apparently encouraging. In addition, Dr. Kim added that high speed broadband had now been installed in every room of the Hyangsang Hotel – an expensive resort visited by few, located near the Mt. Myoyhang. Pictures of the hotel showed an extreme dearth of tourists, and Dr. Kim pondered as to who might actually stay there.
James Person of the North Korea International Documentation Project concentrated the final presentation on the theme of ideology, politics and usage of history. He started by explaining that political symbolism is everywhere in North Korea, used by leaders to advance goals, shape public opinion, and keep opposing forces in check. While most are aware of the famous statues and monuments of Pyongyang, he emphasized how far idealization actually goes in the DPRK, with even seemingly mundane things that could in anyway be attributed to the Kims, greatly venerated.
He went on to explain how he felt the visit made it clear that the regime uses history to reinforce its ideology. Propaganda depicting the attrocities of the Korean war could be found in hotels to remind staff not to get too close to foreigners, war trophies related to captured or downed enemy vessels were proudly displayed as a reminder that North Korea could never let its guard down, and Kim Il Sung’s 1972 contribution to the Three Principles of National Reunification were celebrated as if to suggest that if not for the American occupiers, Pyongyang could have unified the whole peninsula long ago.
But despite the obvious propaganda, Person said he had noticed a number of interesting cracks, no doubt a result of increasing inflows of information. As trained scholars of modern history, he said that while out of the way of guides, people working at a number of sites had been keen to hear the American side of history. And they had been most grateful to receive from him a number of historical documents on U.S. – Korea relations from his office archives.
Before ending his presentation, Person briefly touched on two issues of contemporary concern to many North Korea watchers – succession and famine. He said that his group had seen little indication of a propaganda drive towards securing support for the Kim Jong-un succession, with only limited references to an unnamed, 4 Star general being visible. With regards to famine, he said that they had seen little signs of food-shortages even in the countryside – but with the caveat that they had been there before the monsoon season.
In closing, Person looked at the prospects for North Korea becoming a strong and prosperous country by 2012. Citing the example of the reverse-engineered “Chollima” tractor which had driven only in reverse on initial tests, but nevertheless regarded as a success of North Korea’s self-reliance, Person said that definitions of “success” are evidently subjective. As a result, the incremental changes that the group witnessed during the visit might in some way be enough to make the country seem strong and prosperous to the average North Korean.
After their presentations, the audience posed a number of questions on succession issues, famine, economic cooperation with Russia, and track two diplomacy.
The event was hosted by the Korea Economic Institute, a think tank that focuses on Korean economic issues, and The North Korea International Documentation Project, a Wilson Center program.