December 2013 - January 2014


A day in North Korea

By Linda Jaivin
Children performing for tourists in Sinuiju, North Korea. © Linda Jaivin

Children performing for tourists in Sinuiju, North Korea. © Linda Jaivin

Big statues, high swings and a ‘Sound of Music’ sing-along

Our bus, the only vehicle on the road, mounts the truss bridge. Crisscrossing girders slice the pale morning light into shafts and planes that create layers of wispy veils. At the vanishing point, just under a kilometre away, stiff-backed soldiers shimmer, mirage-like. Beside me, my friend Emma squirms, sighing, “If only I could film this.” We have a camera, but it stays in the bag. We have been told not to take photos of bridges or soldiers or people on the streets. Mobile phones are forbidden; we left ours with Chinese friends in the border city of Dandong, in China’s north-eastern Liaoning Province. When you go to North Korea, even just for a day, it is important to follow the rules.

The night before, our Dandong friends had taken us to a cafe overlooking this bridge. The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge links Dandong with Sinuiju, capital of North Korea’s North Pyongan Province. Beside the Friendship Bridge is the Broken Bridge, an older iron truss construction that abruptly ends halfway across the Yalu River: American planes bombed it during the Korean War as they sought to cut off Chinese supply lines to North Korea. Coloured lights illuminate the bridges. As viewed from North Korea, the landscaped street that runs along the Chinese bank of the river, with its neon effusions, rainbow-lit trees and streetlights adorned with red lanterns, would make Dandong look like a fairyland. From our vantage point on the cafe balcony, by contrast, North Korea lay mostly in darkness. The odd light glimmered faintly here and there, with only one illuminated display cutting through the black: two bright white rectangles from which a thin blue line curved gracefully down to the left. Our Chinese friends were as mystified as we were.

Now it is morning, and we are there. Waiting for us are our North Korean guides, Miss Pak and Mr Buc (I’m guessing the spelling from the pronunciation – we were given no name cards). Miss Pak is 23, slim, clear-skinned and pretty. Her tailored suit is something a young banker might have worn 20 years ago, with a narrow skirt, pussy-bow blouse, dark tights and patent leather heels. Mr Buc appears to be in his 30s. He wears a wide blue-striped tie and a delighted, twinkly smile. They both speak English and Chinese, as do Emma and I: from a linguistic standpoint, our communication will be easy.

First, they take us to the statue of Kim Il-sung that towers over the mostly empty square in front of the neo-classical, Stalinist pile that is Sinuiju’s Revolution Museum. Following our guides’ prompts, we purchase plastic-wrapped bouquets of flowers for the equivalent of $3 or so, payable like everything else here in Chinese yuan, and set these down at the statue’s feet. Our bouquets lie next to ones placed there by members of the two Chinese tour groups also visiting Sinuiju on this day. Our guides instruct us to bow to the statue with them. In our photographs, the statue is very, very large and we are very, very small. We guess the bouquets are probably recycled the following day.

Inside the museum, we admire a map of the province that is covered in stars to indicate all the places Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-il had visited. In an enlarged black-and-white photo, Kim Il-sung speaks into a microphone; underneath the picture is the microphone itself, preserved for posterity in a vitrine. Another vitrine holds a piano accordion that Kim Jong-il once played. We are told how many times the leaders, Great and Dear, visited this province.

Stopped at an intersection in the broad streets, we watch a traffic policeman energetically direct the sparse traffic. Soon we stroll into another plaza, this one dominated by a huge, colourful mosaic triptych of the “Three Generals”: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-suk, wife of the former and mother of the latter. In our photos, the Three Generals are very, very large and Emma and I are very, very small. Later, when they look at the images, our friends in Beijing will remark on the deep, clear blue of Sinuiju’s sky.

On the way to a park, we stop to pay our respects in another plaza, at the foot of a very, very tall obelisk that expresses the North Korean people’s eternal love for and loyalty to the departed Kim Il-sung, their “Eternal President”, and his son. We look at two more giant, avuncular portraits of the men, which showcase their very large, very white smiles. The photos we take at the obelisk make us appear like tiny figures in an architectural drawing.

At a kiosk by the entrance to the park, the Chinese tourists are queuing up to buy eggs. We learn that North Korean eggs have an excellent reputation among Chinese tourists. There are games to play in the park. Despite Mr Buc’s amused and expert guidance, I fail to hit a single archery target. Emma works the Korean high swing as hard as she can but can’t get quite high enough; Miss Pak shows how it is done, her head touching a plastic wreath suspended at what appears to be cloud level. Emma and I shoot popguns without once disturbing the targets. We are failed representatives of our sporting nation. And yet we feel unreasonably proud of ourselves when our guides inform us that we are the first Australians to tour Sinuiju. The city only opened to Western tourism in July this year and, they say, had only hosted fewer than 30 Westerners by the time of our visit at the end of October. They receive a hundred or so Chinese tourists a day, more in good weather. We take photos in front of a carp pond from which emerge the tentacles of a concrete octopus that Emma likes very much.

Over a generous lunch featuring delicious scrambled eggs – the Chinese are right about the eggs – and bottles of Taedong River Beer, Miss Pak says, “Ask us anything.” We learn, among other things, that North Korean girls go for boys who have Workers’ Party and army credentials. In turn, Miss Pak asks Emma, “as a sister of my own age”, if she has a boyfriend. She and Mr Buc seem faintly surprised when Emma says no, although Miss Pak is single, too. (Mr Buc is married with children.) Miss Pak sings a Korean song. Emma sings ‘I Still Call Australia Home’. I sing the Chinese song ‘Heirs of the Dragon’. Mr Pak launches into ‘Edelweiss’ from The Sound of Music, and it’s now Emma’s and my turn to appear faintly surprised. We all chorus “Doe, a deer” and then Miss Pak serenades us with the theme song from Love Story. Has she seen the film? “Of course,” she answers.

The deputy head of another museum guides us through exhibitions of cultural artefacts, including ancient ones, in glass cases. Miss Pak translates. Everyone seems bemused when, thinking of Chinese ceramics, I correctly guess the age of certain bowls on display. But there’s not much time for questions because “our little friends are waiting”.

Dozens of small children are clapping rhythmically to an auditorium half-filled with one of the Chinese tour groups. Eyes widen at the sight of Emma and me – one impossibly red-haired, the other pertly blonde and blue-eyed – as we take our seats in the front row with our guides. Soon the second Chinese group files in and the show begins. There are little boys in bright blue shorts, bow ties and braces over ruffled white shirts, with lipstick as bright as that of the tiny girls in their sparkly dresses. Some girls wear the national style known as choson-ot: colourful triangular puffs, with wide circling hems, tied at the chest with a half-bow. For the next hour or so, the kindergarteners sing, play instruments, tumble and dance. A cardboard tank rumbles past over their heads, and two little girls plant the Chinese and Korean flags in a plastic garden for a skit that enacts the two countries’ eternal friendship. During another performance, tiny Korean scouts capture American GIs, who have long tails, like rats; the scouts hold miniature guns to the GIs’ heads. In this town, above which jets fought the biggest dogfight the world had known, we are bombarded with cuteness.

It is suddenly the end of our day in North Korea. We stand at the foot of the bridge, gazing through the dusk at glittering Dandong. Emma points to a waterslide by an empty amusement park at the foot of the bridge. The slide is beginning to glow: this is the mysterious blue-and-white display we noticed the previous night.

Outside the North Korean customs hall, where a screen broadcasts a military parade, we say fond goodbyes to Miss Pak and Mr Buc. As we get on the bus, Miss Pak waves us off with the words: “Please don’t forget us.”

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

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