kim's nuclear gamble

in the land of the dear leader by orville schell

Asia scholar Orville Schell wrote this article for the July 1996 issue of Harper's Magazine following a trip to Pyongyang. "To say that the DPRK is a singular and unpredictable country would be to put it mildly," he observes. In this engaging account, Schell writes of experiences ranging from visiting extravagant monuments dedicated to the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung to bowling at Pyongyang Golden Alley with his "faithful handlers" Comrades Li and Paik, and tries to offer some insight into the "almost ineffable otherness" of North Korea.

who are they?

Schell is the author of numerous books on Asia, including Mandate of Heaven, Virtual Tibet, and Discos and Democracy. This article was originally published in Harper's Magazine in July 1996. Republished with author's permission.

To land at Pyongyang Airport is to surrender all one's normal expectations of modern international travel: there are no jetways, no lines of planes waiting to take off, and no luggage trains snaking around trucks disgorging in-flight meals to waiting aircraft. In fact, there are no waiting aircraft at all, except for a few mothballed old planes parked off to one side with their engines plugged up and canvas tarps tied over their windshields like sleep masks. Disembarking the plane from Beijing (a lusterless Russian-made Ilyushin), my photographer and I walk toward the terminal through an eerie silence, broken only by the sighing of the wind.

Inside, there are no car-rental desks, no snack bars, no newsstands, no frequent-flyer lounges, not even a recognizable check-in counter. What we find instead, just as we do everywhere else in North Korea, are plenty of soldiers (the armed forces are 1.2 million strong) and a bounty of portraits of the country's recently departed "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung.

We have arrived here in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, at a time when each season seems to bring a fresh international crisis. The DMZ that has separated North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War remains one of the most militarily tense regions on earth; more than a thousand South Korean soldiers have been killed there since 1953, as have fifty Americans, two of whom were hacked to death in 1976 by ax-wielding DPRK guards. More recently, though, diplomatic anxiety over border infractions has been heightened by fears that the North is on the verge of achieving nuclear-weapons capability, fears that reached a crescendo in 1993 when Pyongyang announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. This spring, new alarums were sent through the international community when DPRK officials announced that they would no longer abide by long-standing rules authorizing only a small force of lightly armed soldiers from either side to be posted in the DMZ, and began conducting military exercises, well inside the zone, using boons armed with automatic weapons and mortars.

These threatening gestures are made all the more ominous by the fact that they emanate from a country about which the rest of the world knows practically nothing. There is no such thing as a free press here; foreign visitors, especially journalists, are extremely rare; and diplomatic relations are mostly a matter of guesswork. Even two years after Kim Il Sung's death, it is not clear who is really in charge. To say that the DPRK is a singular and unpredictable country would be to put it mildly. But it was exactly this almost ineffable otherness, this indecipherability, that had for years made me want to visit.

Now, as we walk through the terminal, we are intercepted by three handlers, all wearing regulation-issue Kim Il Sung badges pinned to their lapels. Comrade Paik, a young man with an athletic build who works for the Korea international Travel Company, introduces himself as our translator. Comrade (Ms.) Li is a serious young woman who speaks no English and is almost certainly from the Ministry of Public Security; she will be our "guide." Comrade Kim, our driver, a former soldier, wastes no time informing us that he once did a stint in Uganda teaching Idi Amin's troops how to kill with their bare hands.

This cheerless troika squires us with the warmth of undertakers through customs and into a Japanese van that sits in the middle of an almost vacant parking lot. Then our dour party sets off down a deserted highway toward Pyongyang.

From the outskirts of the city, we can see Pyongyang's most prominent landmark -- the massive Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-story, pyramid-shaped colossus that was intended to be the pride of the capital. But alas, because of an acute shortage of funds, construction ceased in 1990. Now its windowless, abandoned hulk looms over the skyline like an otherworldly archaeological ruin.

Nearer to hand, however, Pyongyang is quite beautiful. Built on both sides of the Taedong River, it boasts sweeping vistas, meticulously maintained parks and fountains, and an impressive collection of giant monuments and government buildings connected by broad, tree-lined boulevards -- all of which convey something of the grandeur and expansiveness of Washington, D.C., though with none of that capital's energy and hubbub. Pyongyang is both clean and silent; there is not a scrap of trash anywhere, no garish neon signs, no sirens screaming through traffic-clogged streets, and virtually none of the pollution that chokes other Asian capitals -- a blessing attributable less to good environmental planning than to poverty. Most industry has petered out, and the roads are almost entirely free of vehicles.

There is no stinting of resources, however, when it comes to making obeisances to Kim Il Sung, "the lodestar of human emancipation." Although Kim died in 1994, the city is filled with formidable billboards emblazoned with his smiling countenance and bearing such inscriptions as "The Respected Great Leader Kim Il Sung Is As Indelibly Engraved on the Memory of Our People As the Eternal Sun." Everywhere there are public statues of Kim standing in an overcoat, saluting his adoring subjects. (One South Korean report claims that there are some 35,000 large-scale Kim statues in the DPRK.)

We are driven past these marvels at high speed, as if we are being hijacked and rushed to some pre-arranged but mysterious place of rendezvous. Our destination, as it turns out, is the Grand Monument, a leviathan bronze likeness of Kim that looms over an imposing square in front of the Mansudae Assembly Hall. The first thing every visitor must do upon arriving in Pyongyang, we discover, is to stop here to make a symbolic genuflection before this, the mother of all Great Leader shrines, by presenting a bouquet of flowers (hard currency, please). When we arrive, a team of white-smocked young women is cleaning the cracks between the granite paving stones with delicate picks, like a flock of oral hygienists gone berserk, as if even a single speck of dirt would blaspheme this sacred place.

"According to my experience, capitalist people don't understand why we love the Great Leader so deeply," Comrade Paik tells me almost tenderly as we watch thousands of Koreans file up and lay bouquets on the statue's plinth. Everyone bows, and some even weep. "We think of the Great Leader as our father and of ourselves as his children," says Paik. He looks at me closely, searching my face for signs of doubt. "You must never ever allow yourself to think that our loyalty is forced. Oh no, no, no!"

The fact that Kim Il Sung is dead hardly seems to have diminished his cult status. His memory continues to be evoked so relentlessly that he seems to be more alive than ever. But this massive effort at hagiography has an air of desperation to it, as if it were undertaken less to mourn his death than to deny it. Accepting it would mean accepting the irrevocable loss of the one man of real consequence in the history of this small and eccentric country. Kim, after all, is the only leader North Koreans have ever known, and his death has left an enormous void. It is an emptiness that not even the lavish funeral given Kim, the ongoing displays of ritualized grief, and all the capital's statues and portraits can ever fill.

Kim Il Sung's immortality derives from a mythology that was painstakingly built up first by Kim himself and then by the propaganda machinery of the Workers' Party -- around three accomplishments: his role as a resistance fighter against the Japanese, who brutally colonized Korea from 1910 until the end of World War II, his leadership of the Korean People's Army during the Korean War; and his subsequent forty-six-year iron-fisted rule, backed by Stalin and Mao, which he consecrated to creating the illusion, if not the reality, of the DPRK as a modern, developed nation. Kim had a fetish not only for statues, billboards, and monuments but for more grandiose projects as well, such as conference halls, stadiums, universities, and museums -- all, of course, consecrated to his name. He was fond of panama hats and was a progenitor of another more plebeian form of male millinery that looks like a cross between a Mao cap and a popover. But Kim was no dandy. He was an industrious man who tirelessly made "inspection tours" and launched campaigns to mobilize the Korean people to build endless, and all too often wasteful, revolutionary projects. By occupying all the highest positions in the state, the party, and the military, he managed to turn North Korea into a private fiefdom.

Just as Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier anointed his son, Baby Doc, to succeed him, in 1980 Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, was officially designated to become the legitimate successor of his father. This gave the DPRK the distinction of being the only Communist state to have instituted a system of hereditary political succession. Kim the elder is reverentially referred to in shorthand as the Great Leader (henceforth the G.L.); Kim the younger is known as the Dear Leader (henceforth the D.L.). According to the grand viziers of Pyongyang, the D.L. is the "reincarnation" of his father, something like a "living Buddha," the term Tibetans use to refer to the reborn manifestation of a deceased high lama. Without a Buddhist tradition to legitimate such a notion, however, this North Korean attempt to establish political primogeniture has required a large dose of revolutionary P.R.

The D.L. myth begins at an Olympus-like mountain called Mt. Paektu, a snowcapped volcanic peak with a crater lake on the Chinese border that has been worshiped by superstitious Koreans for millennia. Although the historical record shows that his mother gave birth in Russia, party propagandists now claim that the D.L. was born here. They have even built him a "birthplace," a Lincolnesque log cabin erected in the shadow of the newly renamed Jong Il Peak around which they have spun a Bethlehem-like fable of nativity.

In its efforts to confer legitimacy on the D.L., the party has put out reams of ersatz historical accounts, poems, stories, songs, and films deifying him as the Second Coming. One can open any of thousands of panegyric tracts at random and come across passages such as this one, from "The Ever-Shining Star of Korea": "A golden sun rises whispering that a new glorious day has come, a day most splendid and lovable, full of honor and pride in the history of Korea. February 16, 1942. . ... Yes! That day the future leader Comrade Kim Jong Il was born ... with a mission to carry forward the fighting cause of class emancipation, national liberation, and to wipe out the traces of dark oppression left behind by the imperialists and their lackeys."

The D.L. is now fifty-four years old, has been married three times, and has at least three children. Since his father's death, he has almost never appeared in public, adding to the sense of enigma that surrounds both his person and his grip on power. The fact that he has rarely gone abroad, and then only to socialist bloc countries, has denied him the basis for a very sophisticated understanding of international affairs. His father met confidently with Mao and Stalin, and even, during the 1994 nuclear imbroglio, with Jimmy Carter, but much of what the D.L. knows about the outside world appears to come from watching his movie collection, reported to amount to over 20,000 films, including many from the West. Action and horror films, including Friday the 13th, are said to be favorites, although he is also known to have a fondness for Elizabeth Taylor's oeuvre.

With his short stature, potbelly, exotic bouffant hairdo (presumably contrived to compensate for his shortness) doughy face, and reportedly high-pitched voice, he does not cut a very dashing figure. In fact, he once referred to himself as resembling "a dwarf ... not a very handsome man." Nor has his penchant for wearing elevator shoes and short-sleeved zipper jackets, which look like Mao suits crossed with James Dean windbreakers, done much to enhance his image.

The D.L.'s dilemma -- and the dilemma, by extension, of all North Korea -- is that while political office can be handed down from father to son, talent and charisma cannot. For him and his bizarre country, the danger is that the protective shroud of seeming invincibility that propagandists have labored so hard to fabricate around the D.L. will be ripped away, so that, like the Wizard of Oz, he will be exposed in all his comic mortality. It is the fear of such humiliations that makes the party cling so tenaciously to its big-leader culture. As preposterous as Kim Jong Il may appear to outsiders, for now he is all North Koreans have.

The only tool that the D.L. has with which to prop up his inherited rule is his father's hand-me-down ideology, Juche. Juche (meaning "I, myself") is Kim Il Sung's own bewildering brand of personalized Communism, which mixes aspects of Marxism, Leninism, Christianity, Confucianism, and xenophobia to emphasize that the Korean people's destiny can be assured only by self-reliance. "The more one seeks to understand Juche, the more the meaning recedes," Korea specialist Bruce Cumings has noted. "It is a state of mind, not an idea, and one that is unavailable to the non-Korean. It is the opaque core of what one could call North Korean national solipsism."

Topped by a crimson torch that lights up at night, the Tower of the Juche Idea in central Pyongyang stands twenty-three feet taller than the Washington Monument. (Pyongyang also boasts an Arch of Triumph slightly taller than Paris's Arc de Triomphe.) Here, as everywhere, we are met by a guide who immediately launches into prepared remarks, in a voice that sounds almost as if it were computer-generated. "Under the guidance of the D.L. and thanks to the sagacious teaching of the G.L. we completed this monument in 1982 on the occasion of the Great Leader's seventieth birthday so that his revolutionary exploits would be remembered for all ages," she begins. And then, as if statistics alone could win converts, she tells me that the pedestal is made up of 70 tiers of blocks ("the number of years that the G.L. had spent by that year accomplishing everlasting exploits in the successful application of the immortal Juche idea"); the tower stands 495 feet high ("made up of 25,550 stones representing the number of days since the G.L.'s birth"); and its sides are carved with Kimilsungia ("a flower named especially after the G.L."). Then she leads me to a crypt-like repository on the monument's back side, where are enshrined hundreds of engraved plaques purportedly sent by overseas groups dedicated to studying Juche. Among this incomparable international fraternity is the Juche Study Group of Dar Es Salaam University, the Cercles Francais D'etudes des Idees Juche, the Uganda-DPRK Friendship Society, and even the New York Group for the Study of Kim Il Sungism.

The plaza surrounding the tower is truly staggering in pretension and scale. It is also quite lovely. But, as if a neutron bomb had been detonated nearby, even though it is Sunday the plaza is virtually empty of people. I ask where everyone is. "People are busy," replies Comrade Li taciturnly. Almost everywhere we go, ordinary Koreans seem to have vanished. (On a tour of National Economics University, not a single student is in evidence.) Those few people we do encounter wear expressions that are opaquely unresponsive to our presence.

The function of these extravagant public monuments seems to be not to provide places of enjoyment for actual people but to satisfy a national craving to believe that the DPRK is of consequence and that its revolution has not been a failure, a fear that recent floods and food shortages have only heightened. What this penchant for grandiosity suggests is not arrogance, much less greatness, but in fact a deep lack of self-confidence.

Right across the river from the Tower of the Juche Idea, in Kim Il Sung Square, a huge signboard proclaims with minimalist simplemindedness "We Are Happy!" It is here that the Grand People's Study House -- a structure that represents the myth that intellectuals in the DPRK are among the ranks of the "happy" -- is located. As the D.L. has boasted, "Today there is apparently no country on the earth but our country in which intellectuals are living and working with no worries under the care of the Party and Leader."

Done in a traditional Korean style with sloping tiled roofs, this mutant library complex (a guidebook issued by the National Directorate of Tourism lists it under "Peculiar Edifices") is of truly cosmic enormity. As we arrive, a young woman in a traditional pink chogori opens the Study House's majestic mahogany front door, and there before us like some spectral vision is yet another colossal statue of the G.L., this one fashioned out of marble and standing in the middle of a huge but empty rotunda hung with a riot of crystal chandeliers. "The chandeliers represent sunflowers, or the people, and the G.L. is the sun whom we follow," explains Comrade Paik, as if he were unlocking the riddle of the Sphinx.

As we head upstairs to the card catalogue area, I am surprised by a group of TV cameramen. When I pull open a drawer and examine a clutch of cards inscribed in Korean, they zoom in, apparently fascinated by my study habits.

Then it's off to a room dedicated to the study of the G.L.'s works, which are, I am informed, published in forty volumes and eight languages. There are five or six people reading, but there is something about their body language that makes me suspicious. Indeed, in the accounts of North Korea I have been reading, previous visitors speak again and again about wondering if the parishioners at church (there are only two in Pyongyang, one Protestant and one Catholic) are real; if the shoppers they encounter in the model department stores are ordinary people; and even if the patients and staff they meet at the one hospital open for visits by foreign delegations are not really actors just performing for them. After all, this is a land of illusion, and Pyongyang itself is the most fantastic of North Korea's illusions -- a Potemkinized city best viewed in photos.

No matter what their real sentiments, Koreans must participate in this illusion by pretending to be "happy" and by affecting undying devotion to the G.L.'s memory and the D.L.'s future reign. As a collectivity, North Korea has to maintain the most colossal fantasy of all: that its revolution is succeeding even as it degenerates into a state of economic meltdown. Although all statistics are closely guarded state secrets, the DPRK's economy is believed to be shrinking by up to 5 percent a year. Foreign trade has been cut in half since 1990. The country's annual rice production is reported to be running at about 40 percent below subsistence levels, forcing people to turn to a much less desirable diet of maize. So scarce has food become that even before the recent floods, officials started posting public exhortations urging: "Let's Eat Two Meals per Day, Not Three!" This May the U.N.'s World Food Program predicted imminent famine, warning that "the food supply is becoming increasingly desperate."

The last stop on our tour of the Study House is the Music Lecture Room, where, Paik tells me, "the people can come to study the music of different nations." Little carrels, each equipped with tape players and earphones, are lined up in rows. The curator gazes paternally out at the three or four students listening to tapes and proudly announces, "Today they are studying music from America." Closer inspection reveals that one is listening to a version of "Blue Hawaii," a second to Rosemary Clooney singing "Tennessee Waltz," and a third to a song called "Brother Louie" ("Love is a burning fire/The flames higher and higher"). A fourth seems to be shirking his international cultural responsibilities; he is listening to the Pochonbo Light Music Orchestra, a local ensemble known for its hybrid music that combines elements of pop, classical, traditional, and elevator music, creating a sound at once exquisitely banal and uniquely North Korean.

The next night, while watching the "news" on official television (which is, of course, the only kind there is), lo and behold there I am in the Grand People's Study House, looking into a card catalogue as if filled with socialist fervor to study the G.L.'s forty-volume collected works! The fact that my hair was disheveled and topped by an old Boston Red Sox cap, or that I am from the most treacherous of all DPRK enemies, the USA, was apparently no impediment to my being incorporated into this broadcast. What's important is that I have a white face, am here in Pyongyang, and can be made to appear as if I were on a G.L. pilgrimage. In this land of illusion, that is enough to make one a star. Since there are usually few foreigners touring North Korea, it is often difficult for TV news producers (if that is the right word here) to keep finding freshly imported subjects for each evening's devotional program. In order to maintain the appearance of a never-ending flood of foreign admirers, they are often forced to recycle old shots night after night. In fact, I make the "news" for the next three days running, so that wherever I go I am hailed as a celebrity.

After my tonsorially ragged appearance on TV, I tell Comrade Paik that I want to visit an "ordinary" I barbershop for a trim. "Of course, you may have a haircut," he says, sucking a gasp of air between clenched teeth. "But perhaps it is inconvenient for you to go to an ordinary barbershop." I end up being taken to the Changgwang Health Complex, a four-story leviathan of a building filled (for the use of the elite only) with bathing facilities, swimming pools, steam baths, massage rooms, barbershops, and beauty parlors. After a quick tour, I am ushered into a waiting room smelling of disinfectant in which five or six expressionless young men sit watching a TV film about Korean guerrillas killing what look like Americans. On the wall are the usual portraits of the G.L. and the D.L. Flanking them on the side wall, however, are fourteen other, anonymous portraits, each with a numeral affixed to it. These illustrate the different hairdos that customers can request. Since propinquity makes it look as if the G.L. and D.L. are also being offered up as tonsorial models, I am tempted to see if one of the Health Complex hairstylists (the word rings with such exoticism here!) can duplicate the incredible do that has become the D.L.'s most unforgettable hallmark. But, alas, since it has no number and I speak no Korean, I am at a loss to convey this wish except by some elaborate charade of swirling my hands around over my head as if I were making cotton candy and pointing to the D.L.'s portrait, which seems a bit undignified. Instead, I choose #14, a cut featuring a Fifties pompadour that is a cross between the D.L. and Wayne Newton.

As I am marched to a contrivance that looks like a dental chair, I meet my stylist, a pert young woman with a white clinician's smock, a freshly done permanent, and ruLy red lips. I raise one finger on my left hand and four on my right to signal the number 14. She nods tentatively, then warily eyes my capitalist mane as if she has doubts that she will ever be able to make it conform to the image on the wall.

As she pushes my head forward into a sink that opens out in front of the chair, I feel a little like someone bending for a guillotine. With strong, confident hands she sets about washing my hair. Then she sits me back up again, throws a shroud around my shoulders, and tentatively begins to cut, uncertainly, like a jazz musician vamping until inspiration hits. Having decided to throw my coiffure into the hands of fate and just see what happens, I sit back and close my eyes. Except for the snipping sound of scissors and the occasional miniature roar of a hair dryer from another chair, the room is utterly silent. I have the uneasy feeling that my alien presence is the cause.

Just then, a mysterious man in a dark blue suit, shades, and a G.L. lapel pin glides in and whispers something in my stylist's ear. Is this some kind of haircut police? My chair unexpectedly goes back. Now she's sharpening a straight razor on a strap. Has she just been instructed to rid the world of another Yankee dog? After all, this is the country whose leader urged "Peace-loving people of the world should unite ... [and] make a concentrated attack particularly on U.S. imperialists, the main force of aggression and war and the heinous strangler of peace and independence"; the country in which an official English-language phrase book teaches students to say, "Yankees are wolves in human shape"; and where a second-grade text presents a math problem this way: "During the war for the liberation of our fatherland, our uncles in the people's Army destroyed a pack of Yankee imperialist bastard jackals and confiscated 224,123 grenades and 265,137 various kinds of explosives. Altogether what was the total amount of grenades and explosives obtained?"

But suddenly the whole chair starts vibrating and I find myself surrendering to her, as she begins to knead the acupressure points on my forehead and neck. Next it's ginseng unguent all over my face. Gobs of pomade smelling like bubble gum go on my hair. Then, like a true daughter of the revolution, she upholsters her blow dryer and begins combing in the pomade and sculpting my now subdued hair. The pungent aroma of heated pomade, like fat frying in a pan, fills the room. My stylist gives my hair a little twist with the comb. It feels like she's making a Dairy Queen curl on top. Then she fries it in place with the dryer. Another dab of pomade. More mincing motions with the comb. Another blast of hot air. Suddenly I feel a moist breeze around my ears. She's taken out a can of imported aerosol spray and is cementing her creation in place. She's delicately patting my new coiffure now the way a baker taps a loaf of bread to see if it's springy to the touch. She murmurs something. I'm breathless with expectation. I open my eyes and gaze into the mirror. Magnifique! It looks like I have a loofah sponge on my head! I am reborn -- a cross between Elvis and a 1950s Bulgarian hydrology expert! At last I have become a true son of Pyongyang!

The one pastime that the North Koreans have made their own is what they call "mass games." Performances are held in huge stadiums and involve tens of thousands of youths, some of whom perform feats of collectivized gymnastics on the field while the rest sit behind them in the stands and create extravagant images by manipulating different-colored placards held up like shields in unison. Although the exercise is something like the routines performed at the Rose Bowl, to compare what happens in the 100,000-seat Kim Il Sung Stadium to anything in the "free world" is like comparing China to Liechtenstein. "Every foreigner speaks highly of our mass games," Comrade Paik proudly tells me as we make our way to the stadium one afternoon. "You know, only in Korea can the foreigner enjoy such a thing."

As martial music booms through the stands, thousands of high school students burst out onto the field. As if a massive television screen had suddenly come to life, the whole opposite side of the stadium turns into a titanic portrait of the G.L. "Great Leader, Great Revolutionary, Great Human, and Benevolent Father Who Devoted His Whole Life to the Fatherland," proclaims the inscription. Next a phalanx of young ballerinas marches in modified goose step across the field. The crowd begins to clap rhythmically as a luridly colored image of Mt. Paektu offset by a Day-Glo sunset materializes and then, with the most deft precision, melts into a giant torch of revolution on a crimson background.

The field drains of performers only to fill again with columns of young gymnasts, and a new succession of images appears in the stands: troops hurling rolling-pin hand grenades, soldiers charging machine guns, and MiGs roaring through the sky. As the national anthem booms, a 300-foot-long Korean flag mysteriously sequestered by the gymnasts magically blooms over the field. At the same time, Chollima, the winged horse, symbolizing the "upsurge of socialist construction," flies across the far side of the stadium as if in cartoon animation.

With the national anthem over, I assume that the "mass games" have ended. Not at all! Here, where a lot of propaganda is never enough, the performance goes on for another three quarters of an hour, each segment grander than the last, as if no amount of pyrotechnics could ever satisfy the hunger for greatness gnawing at this country's heart. Images flash before our eyes: factories belching smoke, geese winging their way across golden fields of grain, the G.L. on a park bench surrounded by children presenting him with flowers. "Our People Are Blessed to Have Two Great Leaders in One Century," "Socialism Is a Science," "Let Us Use Bombs and Grenades to Defend Our Leader and Socialism" trumpet relentless captions as a nonstop riot of sportsmen, martial-arts practitioners, and dancers parade across the field.

An enormous grinning visage of the G.L. materializes like a hallucination. The field erupts with hundreds of red parasols. "We Are Eager to See the Face of the Great Leader Every Day," reads the caption. As more music booms forth, thousands of children exit from the field weeping over the death of the G.L., waving to the awestruck audience.

As we are leaving I run into an elderly businessman from Vienna, one of the few other Westerners in the country. I ask him what he thought of the mass games. "I've never seen anything like it," he says. "The only people who even come close to North Koreans are the Nazis, whom I lived through. And do you want to know something? Even at Nuremberg, Hitler didn't do the big-leader thing anywhere near as well as these people."

There is nothing the Korean establishment craves more from foreigners than the appearance of respect for its leaders and revolution. This yearning for approval means that even as foreign capitalists and imperialists are reviled, DPRK leaders want to beguile them into coming to see Pyongyang. To impress such outsiders, they throw massive "international festivals" in the hoses that at least some who make the journey will extol what they see. And when the visitors -- especially journalists -- return home and write, as they invariably do, not about a "socialist paradise on earth" but about a weird little Stalinist satrap with a brainwashed populace, officials feel betrayed, and their view of the capitalist world as being arrayed implacably against them becomes more entrenched.

North Korea's sense of victimization has only been heightened by the feeling of loss brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union and China's sellout to capitalism. As the D.L. himself recently lamented, "Many countries which had long fought shoulder to shoulder with us in the push for socialism and Communism are now collaborating with the imperialists and averting their eyes from us." The DPRK's clumsy efforts to begin relating to the rest of the world since this debacle have often ended up leaving North Koreans feeling only more preyed upon and humiliated. Last April's International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace -- officially billed as "an opportunity for the foreign guests from many countries around the world to see at first hand the looks of the Korean people who are united around the great leader Comrade Kim Jong II in one mind and the advantages of the Korean-style socialism" -- was not an exception. Thousands of foreign guests were invited to Pyongyang for this three-day event, which fumed out to be dedicated not to physical culture or peace but to watching a motley gang of pro wrestlers from around the world perform body slams and kick and elbow one another in the face.

To give the whole occasion a pretension of sportsmanship, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was paid to make a cameo appearance. Bloated and palsied by Parkinson's disease, Ali gave a "press conference" at which his statement had to be read for him. Then he sat woodenly in the stands in May Day Stadium with a bewildered crowd of 150,000 Koreans as they watched a female tag team from Japan (featuring Keiko "Bull" Nakano, whose signature is spiked blue hair, and Akira "The Dangerous Empress" Hokuto, whose hallmark is an orange fright wig over platinum-blond hair) get hurled around the ring.

The festival was truly one of the oddest events in this country's strange history of contact with the outside world. Although the government had hoped to lure Western tourists to Pyongyang, most of those who showed up were overseas Koreans yearning to see long-lost relatives. Their fervent requests for visits were callously refused, however, and instead of enjoying family reunions, they found themselves prisoners at a pro-wrestling extravaganza. No one had a good answer for why the government had spent millions of scarce dollars on a festival that ended up alienating the very guests it hoped to impress. As a British friend who had spent a year in Pyongyang put it, "But then there are few things about the DPRK that make sense to us."

Despite such failed efforts, amid the militant anti-cosmopolitanism that is everywhere apparent, some of North Korea's leaders are trying to find intelligent ways to integrate their country back into the world. The problem is that to advocate having outright truck with American capitalists, South Korean "puppets," and Japanese imperialists is for political hard-liners the equivalent of Christian fundamentalists espousing a compromise with Satan. While talks on neutralizing the DPRK's nuclear-weapons program were being held in Geneva in 1994, the Armed Forces Ministry in Pyongyang made a statement that served as a reminder of how deep this anti-imperialist bias still is, especially within the army. The statement declared that "we do not recognize such talks at all" and that "it is our army's mission to protect the socialist fatherland with guns, not words."

Despite such hard-line rhetoric, a quiet group of Koreans does seem to understand that what their country is confronting is nothing less than the collapse of the economy. One of them is Kim Su Yong, head of the economics faculty at Kim II Sung University and a member of the Korea Committee for the Promotion of External Economic Cooperation. Although he, too, wears a G.L. lapel pin, when he speaks there is little suggestion of the kind of ideological extremism that permeates so much of the rest of life here. What is on his mind is not big-leader worship but finding a way to develop new international airports, telecommunications networks, and shipping facilities by creating legal guarantees and tax breaks to entice foreign joint ventures to invest in the Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic Trade Area, which was officially opened in May 1995 in North Korea's northeast comer. "It will be a country within a country," he says, laughing, albeit somewhat nervously.

Listening to him, I can't help remembering how reform-minded Chinese officials talked in the early Eighties, when their dreams of setting up "special economic zones" seemed equally fanciful. But because the post-Kim II Sung Korean leadership is still so sensitive to any insinuation that they might now be on the verge of selling out their revolution for a mess of pottage, even to suggest that Deng Xiaoping's reforms might be an applicable model evokes an almost universally chilly response. Perhaps because of this ambivalence, few foreign joint ventures have materialized. To date, most of the small amount of overseas investment that has flowed into the DPRK has come, curiously enough, from South Korean conglomerates, like the Samsung Group and the Daewoo Electronics Company, and from the chochongnyong, the General Association of Overseas Koreans living in Japan, many of whom have relatives in North Korea. Eager to see more of that small part of the DPRK that is trying to merge with the outside world, we paid a visit to two of their flagship projects.

After driving through the Chongchun sports complex on the outskirts of Pyongyang and turning left at the Sosan Hotel, one sees what at first looks like a mirage: gold letters on a new brick building proclaiming "Pyongyang Golf." Entering through an automatic glass door, one finds oneself in a "pro shop," or at least a Juche version of a pro shop. It is stocked not only with bags of clubs and Arnold Palmer golf accessories but with such incongruities as cellophane sacks of dried squid, packets of ladies' silk panties, boxes of dried Japanese mushrooms, bottles of L'Oreal skin moisturizer, and little jewel cases that hold solid gold and silver medallions embossed with busts of the G.L. and the D.L. And sure enough, just outside lies a driving range where for 10 won ($ 5) one can hit fifty balls. But, alas, the neutron bomb has beat us here too. Besides the staff, the only people to be seen are two peasants at the 250-meter mark scouring the range for edible greens, two of the thousands of hungry Koreans who have been reduced to combing every square inch of grass in parks and along roadsides for something to eat.

As unimaginable as it may seem, Pyongyang has also been introduced, through chochonguyong investment, to bowling. Pyongyang Golden Alley is a new state-of-the art-complex complete with American PBA Century 100 automatic floor waxers and Bowl-Mor ball-return machines. When after a hard day of G.L. statues and revolutionary martyrs cemeteries, I suggest to Comrade Paik that an evening of bowling might hit the spot, he replies, "Yes, of course." By now, however, I have learned to wait for the "but" that inevitably follows the "of course." "But I must talk to my superior, because to go bowling deviates from our itinerary." (Never mind that our itinerary for the evening is, as always, "rest.") It has been a constant struggle to do what we want rather than what they want us to do. But evidently bowling is considered "ideologically correct," because word finally comes down from on high that a change in our "itinerary" has been approved by Paik's "superior."

Located in the Youth Center Cultural Hall just across the river from where the Grand Monument is triumphantly lit up each night (even as power is cut off to residential buildings), the alley is a place where Pyongyang's haut monde (read: children of high-ranking officials) while away the night throwing strikes and spares, shooting pool, and drinking imported Japanese beer as the sound system plays such pop favorites as "The Song of the Dear Leader" over the din of rolling balls and falling tenpins.

As I watch a young woman employee in a company uniform spray rental bowling shoes with aerosol deodorant, a G.L. quote comes to mind. Back in the heyday of the revolution he warned, "If the younger generation forgets the enemy, becomes shy of struggle and only likes to lead a life of ease, they may not only be unable to carry forward our revolutionary cause but also be deprived of the achievements we have made."

Pyongyang Golf and Pyongyang Golden Alley are part of a new, although still discreet, subterranean world that has begun to emerge as North Korea's Stalinist society guardedly considers opening up. Fed by a critical need to earn foreign exchange, the regime has been forced to countenance such irrefutably capitalist enclaves as hard currency "paradise stores" filled with all sorts of imported luxury goods and karaoke clubs in hotels frequented by foreigners, stocked with videos of scantily clad foreign pop stars and sometimes even one-armed bandits blinking forth such un-Leninist names as Bunny Girl, Flash Queen, and Playmate.

These few oases of bourgeoisification suggest that if given half a chance, it may not be long before the Korean masses follow the Chinese down the slippery slope of counterrevolution. There are even a few places outside of Pyongyang that have started to be infected by such bourgeois blight. An enormous Stalinoid R&R facility not far from the Kumgangsan Hotel in the lovely Diamond Mountains on Korea's east coast (once favored by Russians when thousands of them still served here as foreign experts) reflects this creeping change. To leave one's hotel room, where portraits of the G.L. and D.L. stare down at the bed from the wall, and find oneself at the portal of a disco garlanded with blinking Christmas-tree lights, where two pretty young hostesses arrive to usher you to a bar at the end of a large, barely lit dance floor, is to add a new dimension to the notion of cognitive dissonance. And to sit drinking foreign liquor as an imported laser-disc changer shows a karaoke video of a voluptuous young girl in a polka-dot bikini (in bed with a can of corned beef!) wiggle her posterior as pop music booms forth is to wonder whether the socialist jig isn't up here too.

Of course, I am accompanied by my faithful handlers, Comrades Li and Paik, who are transfixed by the place. I order coffee (instant, from Hong Kong), Li ordets Coca-Cola (from China), and Paik orders beer (from Japan). By now it has become abundantly clear that big-leader kultur notwithstanding, even they have their weaknesses. Comrade Li is entranced by the laservideo player. "Can you sing?" I ask. She blushes and giggles with a sweetness that has not previously been evident. After polishing off two large bottles of beer, Paik suggests some dried octopus. Why not? We're all starting to get in an uncharacteristically festive mood, and so who am I to let the price of a little dried octopus stand in the way of cementing North Korean-American solidarity?

A homegrown video of the Pyongyang skyline suddenly comes on. A dump truck. A dam. But wait! There's a couple running down a beach! They embrace. They . . . Nope! No kiss. Just an embrace. But Comrade Li is laughing hysterically, incanting over and over like a mynah bird, "I love you! I love you!" Besides saying hello and goodbye, these are the first English words I have heard her utter. However tame by the standards of the outside world, the images of romance on the karaoke screen before us, the music, the colorful lights, and the dance-hall ambience have made Comrade Li come alive. The truth is that most Koreans have so few moments when they can simply enjoy themselves. There is so much pent-up emotion in this strangled country that on those rare occasions when it finds release, it becomes a turbulent torrent. Now that Comrades Paik and Li have been released into this pleasure dome with all the Coke, beer, and dried octopus they want, it's hard to blame them for a momentary loss of propriety.

By the time Comrade Paik finishes his third beer, his face is the color of uncooked ham. As another Japanese video blinks on and one of the hostesses picks up the karaoke microphone to sing along, a beaming Comrade Li, her pale face flushed, starts nodding her head in rhythm. Next a video of "Our Desire Is for Reunification" floods the screen with shots of the Pyongyang skyline, the Tower of the Juche Idea, the mass games, and smiling youths working in a field. Comrade Li begins actually to sway in her seat. It is impossible now to imagine her as a Public Security Bureau spook. Then, unable to control herself any longer, she leaps up, streaks toward the laserdisc player, and grabs the mike. A lovely young woman appears on the screen behind her, gazing longingly out over the DMZ toward South Korea. As the image fades and is replaced by a slow pan of a crowded stadium filled with patriots weeping for re-unification, Comrade Li begins to give voice. Never mind that she's singing off-key; never mind that she's slightly behind the bouncing ball. Here in this tiny oasis, transformed by creeping pop Communism, a star of sorts is momentarily born.



home : introduction : analyses : the north koreans : chronology : nuclear capabilities
interviews : readings & links : discussion : producer's chat
teacher's guide : tapes & transcripts : press reaction : credits : privacy policy
FRONTLINE : wgbh : pbsi

photograph copyright © afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation