Glimpse of North Korea: Travels in the Empire of Kim Jong Un

PHOTO: North Korean soldiers march during a military parade in honor of the 100th birthday of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang in this April 15, 2012 file photo.

The followers of the "Juche" ideology had come from 47 countries, perhaps 400 or maybe even 500 of them, the last remaining believers in an idea that was once intended to bring delight to the entire world. They wanted to see the successes with their own eyes and pay homage to their hero. Kim Il Sung, the founder and "Eternal President" of the nation, which remains communist to this day, was the inventor of this philosophy meant to benefit the whole world. The festivities marking his 100th birthday were to provide the framework for adoration.

"In the transformation of the world," Kim Il Sung places the people above the principles of world communism in his pamphlets. "Humans are the masters of all things," he wrote. When inflated to form a state ideology, Juche essentially means: "Trust in your own strength."

His successors, his son Kim Jong Il, who died in December, and now his grandson Kim Jong Un, had insisted that the country must "cross the threshold to become a prospering nation" by Kim Il Sung's 100th birthday. About 100,000 new apartments were intended to mark North Korea's unstoppable path to modernity.

Visitors who managed to slip into the country past the authorities' careful scrutiny among the arriving Juche disciples and other friends of the system can see the results in the capital Pyongyang. The new apartment blocks were built at a breakneck pace, buildings that are 12 to 15 stories high, ranging from structures resembling public housing in the West to avant-garde apartment towers to huge blocks of houses that look almost inviting with their terraced roof decks. 'Collectively Thrown Out' It was a massive undertaking. The government was ruthless as it moved forward with its plans, reports a European Union envoy in Pyongyang. To obtain the necessary land, people were "collectively thrown out" of their old apartments. An entire residential neighborhood of four-story buildings on the banks of the Taedong River, in a prime downtown location, was leveled in a single weekend.

According to the EU envoy, a column of military trucks arrived one Saturday morning. The residents were forced to load up their belongings in next to no time and were then taken away to relatives. Two circular apartment towers painted gray and blue now stand on the site, within full view of the few guests at the Yanggakdo International Hotel across the river.

To visitors, Pyongyang's modern skyline looks impressive at first glance, seeming to belie descriptions of North Korea as a poverty-stricken realm stuck in the stone age of communism. But there is a catch: These new buildings are off-limits, even to diplomats.

The supposed proof of the success of the "aspiring nation" quickly turns out to be nothing but Potemkin villages. The new residential towers are often uninhabited and little more than empty shells. The country has had problems with its energy supply. There was even less electricity this past winter than in the year previous, and heating systems were not working well. In the cold months, many families burned wood in small, homemade ovens to at least keep one room warm, report foreigners in Pyongyang.

Because of insufficient water pressure, there is often no running water on the upper floors of the apartment towers. To get water, residents carry buckets and tubs to taps on the street, or they fetch their water from the polluted river.

A Modern Metropolis?

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