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.PlayEd Jones/AFP/Getty Images
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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?

But then the celebrations for Kim Il Sung's birthday celebration began, and suddenly colorful lights went on all over Pyongyang. Spotlights illuminated the train station and many monuments to the nation's heroes. Lettering of various hues was projected onto building facades, colorful neon lights adorned the tops of high-rise buildings and individual LCD screens were quickly set up in the downtown area.

While the bright lights gave visitors the impression of Pyongyang as a modern metropolis, entire sections of the city were completely dark at night, not even the streetlights were lit. To keep the people in relatively good spirits for the festivities, the regime granted them three days off and a special ration of food. Shop displays were somewhat fuller than usual, there were apples and lettuce to be had. At stalls along the main streets, people stood in line to buy candy, soft drinks and peanuts. Peanuts for the festival -- the cynical game is already a tradition in Pyongyang.

The supply situation remains tense. Although foreign experts are not warning of acute famine, as in the 1990s, large sections of the country suffer from "chronic malnutrition," says Gerhard Uhrmacher, coordinator for North Korea for German Agro Action. This year's harvest was 9 percent better than in the previous year, but "problem groups," like babies, children, the elderly and single mothers, are notoriously underserved, says Uhrmacher.

German Agro Action is trying to remedy the situation by planting "Juwel" and "Magda" seed potatoes -- new to North Korea -- which require only a few weeks until they are ready for harvesting. Nevertheless, says Uhrmacher, there are still shortages of protein, fruit and vegetables, fish, meat and milk. To make matters worse, some 20 to 30 percent of the harvest spoils because of poor storage practices.

Residential and work groups are summoned for special assignments through radios in apartments that cannot be switched off. The workers are then required to perform extra shifts in the fields or vegetable beds. The fields are marked with red flags, a signal that a "special effort" is underway. But even that effort does little good.

Falling in Line

According to international calculations, there will be a shortage of about 414,000 tons of basic food products this year, making the US government's promise of aid all the more important. At the end of February, Pyongyang agreed to impose a moratorium on its nuclear tests and to allow international inspectors access to its facilities. In return, Washington promised to provide 240,000 tons of food, mostly protein crackers and vitamins. But after the failed test launch of a North Korean long-range missile more than two weeks ago, the US government suspended the aid. The United Nations Security Council condemned the test, and this time even Beijing, North Korea's most important ally, fell in line with the criticism.

Relations with China are vital to Pyongyang's survival. China supplies the country with a large share of its food and, in recent months, has also brought in millions of apple trees, with which North Korea intends to boost its fruit production. The countless deciduous and evergreen saplings that have been sprouting from the ground everywhere in recent weeks are also from Pyongyang's oversized neighbor.

The entire country is being reforested. In rural areas, where the freezing population has chopped down entire forests for firewood, trees are being planted on bare mountains to stop soil erosion and save the country's relatively meager agricultural land, which amounts to about 20 percent of its entire land area.

The cars that are suddenly appearing on Pyongyang's streets are also from China. The number of cars has "shot up" within the last year, says a staff member at an aid organization, who notes that now Pyongyang even sees the occasional traffic jam. The vehicles are brand-new, Chinese-made Volkswagen Passats, driving alongside 20-year-old Mercedes sedans. But many modern Japanese minibuses and SUVs are also coming across the Chinese border, despite international embargos.

Nevertheless, there are hardly any privately owned cars on the road. "People aren't quite used that yet," explains an official with the Foreign Ministry. What he really means is that the ownership of private cars is considered undesirable. Instead, the only cars on the streets are government vehicles with color-coded license plates: white with a red star for state and party cars, white without a star for ordinary officials, black for the military, blue for diplomats and international organizations, and red for foreigners without official status, like Chinese businesspeople.

The Ruling Gerontocracy

Despite the obvious divide between government officials and the people, there is no evidence of public opposition anywhere. "There is no civil society and there are no intellectual dissidents, and there is practically no literature. Where should resistance come from?" asks one foreign aid worker.

In this atmosphere, North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un has been able to establish himself surprisingly quickly. Shortly before the festivities in honor of his grandfather, the plump young man was named first secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, commander-in-chief of the army and, most importantly, first chairman of the National Defense Commission. In North Korea, it isn't the party that is the center of power in the communist power structure, but rather this peculiar commission, which is thought to consist of a dozen very old men from the army and the party.

Western experts believe that Kim, with the help of his mentor, Ri Yong Ho, the 69-year-old chief of the general staff of the North's Korean People's Army, has managed to overcome the reservations of the old guard. Choe Ryong Hae, promoted into the presidium of the party politburo and made director of the army's political office in April, now plays a key role. The 62-year-old military man is a youngster alongside the rest of the ruling gerontocracy. Kim Yong Nam, the official head of state, is 84, the premier is 81, the speaker of the parliament is 81, the second general chief of staff is 82, and so on.

During the birthday celebration, the geriatric old guard watched the military parade from the parapet of the national library. Down below on Kim Il Sung Square, some 100,000 appointed revelers provided a colorful, choreographed backdrop to the ancient Soviet weapons systems being paraded through the square. The new strongman, Choe Ryong Hae, appeared demonstratively at the side of the young leader, in the first spot to his right, replacing others who had sat there before. "That was the accolade," says one Western diplomat.

Chang Song Taek, Kim's 66-year-old uncle, was also noticeably near his side. Chang, the husband of Kim Jong Il's sister, is thought to be the second-most important individual in the young leader's entourage.

Kim, for his part, realized in the first few weeks how important it is to give the impression of being in touch with the people. Unlike his father Kim Jong Il, the junior Kim, who is only 29 -- or even younger, according to some sources -- is not just seeking to build relationships with the military. The government television station repeatedly shows him in the company of farm workers, students and children, who he allows to hug and embrace him. The message is clear: The new ruler is not shy when it comes to interacting with his people.

Kim Jong Un also broke another taboo at the parade. His father had never spoken directly to his fellow North Koreans, but instead chose to have his thoughts expressed in the form of slogans and pieces of proverbial wisdom. In contrast, his son was now speaking directly and personally to his subjects. The roughly 20-minute speech was monotonous and emotionless, but at least Kim was talking. North Koreans had never even heard the sound of his father's voice.

Still, Kim Jong Un had nothing new to say. There was only one theme to his address: "Stay the course!"

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan