North Korea

The Magic Kingdom of North Korea – Cartoon Logic

North Korea. By all accounts, it’s a simmering humanitarian crisis. Food problems are rife, following a four year famine in the 1990s that led to somewhere like three million deaths. Freedoms are heavily, heavily suppressed. It’s a nation whose official policy, ‘Songun’ puts the military first, always. It has a very worrying nuclear weapon programme. War with South Korea and its allies seems always just around the corner. It’s scary.

But beside the terrors and dangers and cruelties and tragedies of North Korea… bloody hell, is it fascinating. It’s like someone has put a medieval feudal state in a little bubble for my entertainment. The traits and quirks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (it should really be the Enigmatic Magic Kingdom of North Korea) are fascinating; I would definitely call myself a ‘Korea watcher’, albeit a casual one. This week, the state-run newspaper, Pyongyang Times, announced that North Korean scientists have invented hangover-free alcohol, in a typically North Korean boast. The article in the Times was brilliantly titled: “Liquor wins quality medal for preserving national smack”; the drink is, of course, made from one of the nation’s most prized plants, ginseng. That is about the most North Korean story I can think of. I like to collect little North Korea snippets like this, and here are some of my best. Do be careful, though. Information slips out of this secretive little state in dribs and drabs; everything has to be taken with a pinch of enriched uranium.

Interestingly, there is technically more than just the one political party in North Korea. Did you know that? Seems like the last thing Kim would ever allow is other parties, but his Workers’ Party of Korea isn’t actually the only one. They won 607 of the 687 seats at the last election (yes, North Korea has elections), but still. Other parties include the Korean Social Democratic Party, which advocates left-wing social democracy (50 seats won), the Chondoist Chongu Party, a religious party based on a 19th century neo-Confucian movement (22 seats) and something called the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, which is basically what it sounds like (five seats); a final three seats went to various religious associations. Here’s the trick, though. All the parties are in a permanent coalition with Kim’s lot. Isn’t that clever? Clever old Kim. Clever old feudal-baron-wizard-king Kim.

The Pyongyang Metro. I love the Pyongyang Metro. Like many capital cities, Pyongyang has your typical rapid transit underground railway system. It’s perhaps on the small side as metros go, but the name of the lines and stations are amazing nonetheless. ‘Chollima’ is the first line, named after a mythical winged horse, and ‘Hyoksin’ is the second; Hyoksin means ‘renewal’. On Chollima, there are ‘Red Star’, ‘Comrade’ ‘Triumphal Return’, ‘Unification’, ‘Victory’, ‘Torch’, ‘Glory’ and ‘Reconstruction’ stations, and on Hyoksin, there are ‘Glorious Restoration’, ‘National Foundation’, ‘Golden Soil’, ‘Construction’, ‘Innovation’, ‘Complete Victory’, ‘Three Revolutions’, and ‘Paradise’. There was a ninth station on Hyoksin, but that was closed in 1995. It was, of course, called ‘Bright Future’. I think we just hit ironic critical mass. Tickets cost less than £0.01; The Telegraph reports that there is a ‘Museum of the Construction of the Pyongyang Metro’ and a ‘Museum of the Construction of the Museum of the Construction of the Pyongyang Metro’.

The border between the technically still-warring Koreas is definitely one of the weirdest on this planetary sphere upon which we sit. The ‘Korea Demilitarized Zone’ is an oddity; both sides (South Korea isn’t entirely ‘blameless’ in all this Korea stuff) have giant flagpoles, and loudspeakers blasting music and propaganda over the border. Both sides also have special ‘peace villages’ in sight of the other’s territory. North Korea’s village has brightly coloured buildings. But apparently the buildings are concrete shells with automatic lights and some street sweepers to maintain the illusion of inhabitation. The idea is to attract South Korean defectors. Imagine if you got there, drawn like an easily impressed moth to the peace village, but found brightly coloured fake buildings and piped music. It’d be like expecting Venice, or Paris, or Vienna, and getting Disneyland.

North Korea really is a Magic Kingdom.

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