In Pyongyang’s Korean Central Zoo, many of the animals that fill the exhibitions were sent from far-flung countries and, if North Korean state media is to be believed, their notorious leaders as well.
This includes dictators and strongmen, like the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and China’s Mao Zedong.
Among these leaders’ names – collectively responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people – is Jonas Wahlström, a 64-year-old Swedish man from Stockholm.
SMITHSONIAN TO SWEDEN, SWEDEN TO PYONGYANG
Wahlström’s affiliation with the Korea Central Zoo, also known as the Pyongyang Zoo, began 30 years ago, when he was approached by North Korean diplomats in Sweden looking to fill the facility’s pens with animals from around the world.
Wahlström, who, then and now, worked at Stockholm’s Skansen Aquarium, was involved in the non-commercial transfer of primate, fish and reptile species to zoos around the world.
The Skansen Aquarium, in its provision of animals with “non-commercial” values to other facilities, works to continue a conservation project which originated at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C.
Wahlström says the project is aimed at increasing the population sizes of certain species. He points to the case of the Golden Lion Tamarin monkeys, whose numbers at one stage in the 1970s dropped to 200 in the wild.
Wahlström’s affiliation with Korea Central Zoo, also known as Pyongyang Zoo, began 30 years ago
Following the successful transfer of Golden Lion Tamarins from the Smithsonian, Skansen Aquarium – along with other European-based zoos – were able to boost their numbers.
“We managed to breed them… and we spread them around, non-commercial, and luckily we’ve been able to transfer them back to Brazil,” Wahlström tells NK News.
According to the Smithsonian Zoo there are about 3,200 Golden Lion Tamarins in the wild today. “That’s a perfect example of how the zoos can really work for the future of the animals in nature,” Wahlström says.
It is under this conservationist system that animals were transferred by Wahlström from Skansen Aquarium to the zoo in Pyongyang.
“They approached me about 30 years ago… they said ‘we know your institution, could you maybe help us in our zoo to make something good, out of your experience with smaller primates and so on?’,” Wahlström says. “And of course I was interested.”
Wahlström describes the initial knowledge of the North Korean zookeepers as “rather poor”
Wahlström was subsequently invited to North Korea for the first time in 1985 in order to tour the zoo and assess its facilities. At that stage, he says, the conditions were less than ideal and the setup was very limited – but that the leadership had wanted to improve the site.
His role would be central to the improvements made over the years and, aside from providing animals, Wahlström was to advise and consult the North Koreans.
“I was there supervising them to build a new exhibit for smaller primates, reptiles and some fish,” he says, which are among the three main types of animals Skansen Aquarium specialize in and transferred to the DPRK.
“I went there with some of my staff; I brought two veterinarians on two separate occasions, two of my curators, two of my keepers, two of my exhibit builders, and everything was focused on this specific building for keeping smaller primates, reptiles and fish.”
Wahlström describes the initial knowledge of the North Korean zookeepers as “rather poor” but with further consultation, training, and lectures given by veterinarians and colleagues – things slowly improved.
And, in a continuation of the project that began at the Smithsonian, Wahlström and his colleagues have also trained the North Koreans in breeding.
“We’ve trained them quite well… nowadays they are good [at] breeding.”
Kim Jong Un visits the Pyongyang Zoo in 2012
SNAKES ON A PLANE
While the North Koreans have become capable breeders, Wahlström – over his 25 visits to Pyongyang – has brought a significant number of animals with him.
“From my institution, I would say maybe 20 different species of smaller primates, several hundred tropical fish and maybe a hundred different reptiles,” Wahlström says. “They got some small crocodile babies from us – Cuban crocodiles – which we breed successfully, smaller python babies (and) smaller turtles.”
“A few times, the diplomats from the North Korean embassy in Stockholm have brought some of them in their hand luggage”
The route from Sweden to Pyongyang is long – around 7,200 kilometers – and requires a transit stop in Beijing. So how do they get there?
“Well if you want to send them, it is extremely difficult but if you want to take them within your hand luggage it is not difficult,” Wahlström explains. This is, of course, with all the necessary legalities and processes such as the completion of health clearance forms.
“I keep small animals and the two very good things with small animals is you can keep them in your hand luggage when you transport them, and secondly, they have very small teeth.”
Wahlström says the transfer of animals in his hand luggage can only be done via certain airlines that permit it, with Scandinavian Airlines being his primary choice.
“I mainly brought them with the knowledge of Scandinavian Airlines to Beijing and then there is Air Koryo from Beijing to North Korea.”
Sometimes, Wahlström would receive help from his North Korean interlocutors.
“A few times, the diplomats from the North Korean embassy in Stockholm have brought some of them in their hand luggage,” he says.
Crocodiles, snakes and Pygmy Marmoset monkeys are among the animals carried by Wahlström and North Korean diplomats from Sweden to Pyongyang in their carry-on bags. The animals, it seems, are exceptionally light.
“We are talking about monkeys weighing 100 grams – the size of a gold hamster or some smaller reptiles and so on. They don’t mind if they fit within the hand luggage of 5 kilos,” Wahlström says of the airlines.
The exception to this arrangement is usually slightly heavier animals and fish, which need to be carried in water and – due to the added weight – need to be checked into the cargo hold.
Aside from the necessary forms and checks, some extra permits are required for animals included on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) list – a list categorizing endangered or rare species of animals.
“You need a CITES permit to allow them to be exported from Sweden, so first you get that and then you need an import permit into North Korea, which is not a problem of course because they want them.”
“And then you have to approach Scandinavian Airlines and say I’d like to go to Beijing and I have two small monkeys in my hand luggage and then they say okay, we trust you, we know you, no problem.”
“EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL”
The Pyongyang Zoo has become one of the marquee tourist attractions in North Korea, with a revamp of the site and extensive construction occurring under Kim Jong Un’s tenure.
The new and improved Central Zoo, which reopened in 2016, is “one of the edifices provided under the Workers’ Party of Korea’s policy of love for the people,” according to North Korean state media.
“They are thinking a little bit slowly sometimes but I think we are on the right path”
The opening ceremony held following its renovation was even attended by high-level officials such as Premier Pak Pong Ju and Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) Choe Thae Bok.
The zoo is often mentioned in state media outlets, which make a point of highlighting the fact that international delegations regularly tour the area.
As a reward for the successful development of North Korea’s sanctions breaching Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) capabilities, technicians and defense personnel responsible were given leisure time in Pyongyang. The zoo was among their vacation itinerary and according to KCNA they “spent a good time” there.
“Everything is political in North Korea,” Wahlström says, and the zoo, the animals within it, and the people that provide them are no exception.
“They use me in the propaganda and it is a little bit embarrassing sometimes because my work with the zoo is absolutely not political but you have to face the fact that that’s the system over there.”
Out of the many KCNA articles mentioning Wahlström, one in 2010, for instance, reported that rare animals had been sent as gifts to Kim Jong Il by prominent overseas figures, in an act “deeply revering him (Kim) as ‘Sun of the 21st Century’”.
The Swede was listed among them, as was Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mongolian President Nambariin Enkhbayar and Equatorial Guinean President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
“Whenever I go there, if I have a bag of medicine for the animals or if I have some Pygmy Marmosets, it is immediately declared as a gift to the leader and then the leader decides it should end up in the zoo,” Wahlström explains.
The politics goes both ways.
Over the years Wahlström has seen the zoo blossom
Pyongyang’s Central Zoo, previously, had an affiliation and a degree of cooperation with China’s Beijing Zoo. However, according to Wahlström, that came to a rather abrupt end in the last two years.
“Before, they had a lot of cooperation with the zoo in Beijing but unfortunately the Chinese voted against them in the UN a few years ago so they don’t have any connections with the Beijing zoo anymore,” he tells NK News.
“They don’t regard them as friends any longer.”
This information was passed onto Wahlström by his North Korean colleagues at the zoo in Pyongyang, who says that the orders came from above.
“It was the North Koreans who were more or less ordered from high above that they should not have any cooperation with China because China is now working together with the U.S. ‘against us’.”
NK News’ attempts to contact Beijing Zoo for comment and further details, however, were unsuccessful.
While Beijing Zoo and the Korean Central Zoo may not be as close as they once were, Wahlström’s relationship with Pyongyang’s keepers has stayed strong and he regards his colleagues as his “good friends.”
“The zoo director is 74 years old and he was promised by the Dear Leader that he should stay as long as he wanted a zoo director. He is maybe the oldest zoo director in the world and I regard him as a personal friend,” he says.
He has never experienced any issues either, saying that he has “always felt very welcome” and that many of the people he interacts with have been at the zoo since he began the relationship some 30 years ago.
Over the years Wahlström has seen the zoo, and the standards the staff keep, improve substantially.
“They put a lot of effort in the zoo and I would say today, the zoo in Pyongyang, being in the Far East, it is one of the best except for one thing – they lack knowledge in enrichment,” he says.
“They do very big enclosures but in some cases like with the chimpanzees, there is only a big flat area. I’m trying to convince them that you have to make enrichments, you have to put in a lot of trees, a lot of things to do for the animals. Hopefully they are starting to do that now.”
“They are thinking a little bit slowly sometimes but I think we are on the right path.”
Bengt Röken, a veterinarian at Sweden’s Kolmarden Zoo and participant on the TV show “Animal Hospital”, who accompanied Wahlström on his last trip to Pyongyang, also points to certain areas that could be improved.
“The carnivores had only small ‘sterile’ cages with minimal possibilities for activities and even high resting platforms were systematically missing,” Röken tells NK News.
Wahlström’s relationship with Pyongyang’s keepers has stayed strong
While “some aviaries were of top quality and extremely large” others were left unfurnished and Röken says that “much more could have been done by the staff inside the sometimes exclusive exhibits for the benefit of activity and wellbeing of the animals as well as for the visitors.”
Röken also gave three lectures at the zoo’s hospital and the dolphinarium on how to handle immobilized animals, treat skin lesions on dolphins, improve nutrition for Giraffes, as well as instructions on medicines he brought over. He noticed during his visit that there were some bureaucratic hurdles impeding progress.
“The zoo hospital, a big relatively modern facility, was empty on patients and very little clinical work seemed to be going on there despite a staff of 25,” he says.
“To me it seemed that the medical staff did not dare to do any invasive treatments until asked or ordered by ‘someone’ in charge.” Overall, however, the technical capabilities of the North Korea staff were not of a bad standard, he says.
With 25 visits under his belt, Wahlström is also able to personally account for the care and conditions provided to the animals he has delivered to Pyongyang.
“The animals I have provided them with, they take very good care of them. Of course, it is quite easy to make a reasonable environment for a little monkey weighing 100g or reptiles and so on,” he says.
Wahlström’s perspective from his repeat visits also allows him to see the vast improvements made, there are, of course, a couple of sticking points. One such issue involves the zoo’s notorious smoking chimpanzee.
“I saw that the first time 6/7 years ago and I was thinking ‘you’ve got to stop this’,” Wahlström says.
“The keeper may interfere with the chimpanzee, go to them, be nice to them, things like that, but smoking? No, no, no. And they said ‘yeah, we will stop it’. They obviously did not because I saw the last pictures only 6/7 months ago.”
This is likely something the zoo will have to rectify quickly if it wants to achieve its goal of joining the World Zoo and Aquarium Association (WAZA).
“I heard the North Korean zoo wants to join the WAZA. They have wanted to join this association for several years because I said it is the only chance you have to exchange the animals, to get new animals within the organization,” he says.
In order to join WAZA you need two sponsors. Wahlström has already put his name forward and, in principal, so has the Director General of the Moscow Zoo. His sponsorship rests, however, on the condition that the Korean Central Zoo improves the enrichment of its enclosures, an improvement Röken also advocated.
Regardless, Wahlström is still keen to continue his role in providing advice, direction, veterinarian training and medicines to a zoo and indeed a country with few dedicated friends.
Featured Image: NK News
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 2523 words of this article.