Should anyone be surprised that the Dear Leader turned dearly departed aboard a train carriage? A somewhat outdated mode of transport, forever travelling the same route where the passengers’ conditions are predetermined according to class: in many ways, North Korea is a train. Certainly, transit by locomotive is one of the few means by which foreigners will see, albeit in snatches, the real DPRK.
In November 2003, the real DPRK appeared to resemble a rather dour water colour as I gazed out of a ‘soft sleeper’ carriage en route to the border city of Sinuiju. North Korea in winter is a study in dun browns, beige and muddy yellows. The farmland I saw in those colours was bristly and unkempt, broken by thickets of spruce and juniper trees. The 20th century intruded fleetingly, the 21st century not at all. On the roads sliding past, transport was largely on foot or by bicycle. A photograph I managed to snap-surreptitiously-showed an antiquated Russian truck packed with civilians, skinny and threadbare.
For the 2003 journey, I had shared a sleeper with a Canadian tourist and a North African diplomat. The latter was on his way to Dandong on the Chinese side of the border to stock up on basic consumer items, unavailable in Pyongyang. He chatted breezily but guardedly about the functions his job compelled him to attend. We heard about the parades with their saluting, goose-stepping soldiers, the mass games with their twirling gymnasts and thousand card transformations.
At one point, the train stopped in the Ryongchon station. In a few months time, at least 160 people would perish there, 1,300 be injured and around 1,800 houses destroyed when a devastating blast levelled the station. If the official story is to be believed, at the time subject to a news blackout of several days, two carriages slammed into each other on 22 April 2004, just after 1p.m. local time. Their fertiliser cargoes ignited and seconds later, a sizeable portion of Ryongchon was billowing skyward in a massive mushroom cloud. Only split atoms would have inflicted more damage. Some residents of the province, hearing and seeing the blast from miles away, believed exactly that had just occurred: that a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the American imperialists was underway.
Over the years, there has been much speculation as to the provenance of the Ryongchon explosion. An assassination attempt? Well it did seem too much of a coincidence, given that Kim Jong-il and his entourage had passed through the town hours earlier. Suffice is to say I would not have met the Dear Leader even he had passed through Ryongchon that evening. If the DPRK can be likened to a train, then those used by the Great and Dear Leaders were particularly analogous to their style of rule. Kim Jong-il had six luxurious private trains at his disposal, comprising 90 carriages. They travelled through 19 exclusive stations.
Going Back in 2012
While there doesn’t seem to be evidence that Kim Jong-un has inherited his father’s aerophobia, it seems hard to imagine him forsaking a mode of transport that epitomises his dynasty’s rule in such spectacular style: armoured carriages containing luxury bedrooms, conference rooms and banqueting halls, hurtling through a countryside that languishes at the lower end of the industrial age.
If my ‘soft sleeper’ carriage put me several rungs below the leadership, but still well above the average citizen, a train journey in the opposite direction earlier this year gave me a more telling view of North Korea. And this was both inside and outside the carriage.
The ‘hard sleeper’ route from Sinuiju to Pyongyang is aptly named. After crossing the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge that morning and spending some hours confined to an unheated, intermittently unlit, hotel in Sinuiju, my group was driven at speed past the main square with its obligatory Kim Il-sung statue.
The train station at Sinuiju is possibly one of the only places where foreigners can spot those people who of course do not exist under the Juche system: vagrants. Our party was making towards the station entrance when a sunburned, bedraggled old man crossed our path, rags on his feet and a knapsack over his shoulder. We were quickly hurried up the steps and past a massive Father and Son painting. That was 2.30 p.m.
Two hours later, I gazed upon the icy platform from the unheated carriage. Amongst the local passengers were three fur-hatted Korean People’s Army (KPA) officers, squeezed into an alcove, joking and playing cards. The other passengers were of all ages. They smoked and unwrapped fish snacks as the afternoon crawled past. With their shaggy hair, less than perfect complexions and well worn clothes, they’d have looked like rubes on the far side of the Friendship Bridge. But everyone abroad was en route to Pyongyang and thus numbered amongst the privileged haeksim (Core) class. I even spotted an adolescent girl with a pair of orthodontic braces.
Sometime before 5 p.m. an apocalyptic bang shook the carriage and we were off. Snow laden farmland rolled past, looking no less unkempt than it had done eight and a half years before.
Foreigners are forbidden from photographing the bullock carts, dilapidated houses and manual labour they will see on the Pyŏngῠ Line (the name is derived from the amalgamation of Pyongyang and Sinuiju). A few of the Koreans fished out mobiles. But these were the special North Korea only variety produced by the State’s joint venture with Orascom, the Egyptian telecommunications conglomerate. These injunctions were rather bizarre given what anyone, local or foreign, could see with their own eyes: the towers of the comparatively prosperous Chinese city of Dandong on the northern horizon.
The State fairytale, where the DPRK is an island of plenty in a sea of want, has surely long ago reached its Wizard of Oz moment of ignominious exposure.
At around 7.30 p.m. the train clunked to a halt for another hour. Most of North Korea’s rolling stock was manufactured at the Kim Chông Tae Electric locomotives works in Pyongyang, using Soviet or Chinese designs. There are a few second hand China National Rail railroad cars and even a few Imperial Japanese locomotives. Indeed, I had seen an ancient looking steam locomotive in Sinuiju in 2003.
North Korean locomotives are a mixture of electric, steam and diesel models: the Korean State Railway (Chosôn Minjujῠui Inmin Kongkwaguk) provides over 6,000 km of track, most of which is standard gauge. And a fine job they do too. It was soon dark outside. Especially dark: the buildings on the platform were lit only the occasional oil lamp or candle. With one of the half dozen European in the carriage, I crossed into the ‘restaurant’ carriage to find a menu consisting mainly of biscuits, crackers, soft drinks and a single bottle of vodka. But traversing the length of both carriages, for me, was simply a matter of keeping the circulation going in my increasingly rubbery legs. As midnight approached and the train began to rumble forward again, sleep was impossible. I sat down and wiped ice crystals from the inside of the window. A member of our group would develop quite severe influenza over the next few days and had to fly home upon returning to Beijing.
At 3.15 a.m. the train rolled into a snowy and unlit Pyongyang. Our shivering band was escorted the platform and whisked off to the massive Yanggakdo Hotel.
During the Cold War, most foreigners visiting the country came from North Korea’s ideological allies. The few that came from The West, almost invariably members of Communist Party delegations, wanted validation of their political convictions. In an era of cheap Soviet oil and ‘fraternal’ prices for its exports, North Korea, with its smoke stack factories and collective farms, seemed to do just that. (Even so, fellow travellers tended to come away smarting from the overly protective nature of their hosts, often glimpsing the racist xenophobia beneath the smiles.)
A different type of ‘guest’ visits these days. Many of the several thousand tourists arriving in Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport or the city rail station will fall into the bracket of ‘dark’ tourist, keen to regale friends at dinner parties with anecdotes about the surreal excesses of Kim’s kingdom. Few will be making pilgrimages to an imagined workers’ paradise. The authorities know this. Hence the guides appointed to accompany foreigners at all times.
And in that sense, the train journey route between Pyongyang and Sinuiju is a weak link in the chain, a crack in a wall that surrounds the Potemkin village.
Why are its unsightly glimpses of poverty and decrepitude even permitted? The most obvious answer is that, beneath a censorious front, the minders do not actually care. In 2012, it is possible to watch footage taken outside North Korea’s penal labour camps on You Tube. But, for foreign visitors, the moment of truth could also be a moment when something else is revealed: their own complicity. It is as if their hosts are saying: we know the DPRK is a charade. We know you know. Chilled by what you see outside the train: the hunger, the backwardness, the repression? Your money has helped pay for it.
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