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11 days in the DPRK

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Soviet cogitations: 52
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 28 Oct 2009, 18:26
Ideology: None
Post 23 Aug 2010, 20:21
I have returned after an 11 day visit to the DPRK. This was my third annual visit and I traveled to Pyongyang, Wonsan, Samjiyon, Mt. Paektu, and our group was the first tour group into the city of Hamhung. As with the previous visits I tried to gauge how the economy is doing and photographed everything. The photos can be seen on Flickr, user Zaruka.

While trying to do anything is difficult this trip allowed more time on the ground and a slower pace. We could wander a bit more and we had many interactions with local people in towns other than Pyongyang. While aid workers had been to Hamhung we were the first tour group from the outside and nothing could be stage managed. We were able to not only see the conditions on the streets but we were able to live more like the locals during our days on the east coast. We visited the Tongbong Cooperative farm, the Hungnam Fertilizer complex, as well as the Hamhung Revolutionary Opera.

In 2008 there was very little economic activity seen. I counted two state run kiosks in Pyongyang and the semi-permanant ones were mostly shut. In 2009 more kiosks were seen selling food and small goods and even some underground economic activity was documented. In August 2010 the kiosks were everywhere hawking a wide range of goods. I was able to purchase from many of these even if the poor attendant did not know how to price items to foreigners. We had a good laugh at that because in Hamhung they had never encountered the issue. For the first time open selling was permitted outside the markets and boys hawking melons, women selling crackers and baked goods, and ice cream vendors were all over the streets. What was different this time was that people were buying. I went into a vegetable store in Pyongyang and saw a great variety of things for sale. Fruits were sold on the streets by private citizens. In the free markets I could see from 100 feet, there was activity and people of all ages were indeed allowed inside in contrast to the old rules.

The attitude of people in the parks, beaches, downtowns and amusement parks was very good. It is always hard to see if people in any society are happy - much less Korean society. On the farms and in the city we saw more people laughing and enjoying themselves. Cell phones were finally making a real penetration. I saw some in Pyongyang in 2009 but now teenagers were using them. What a change. At the bowling alley I went into a shop were many people were buying consumer goods in won and in dollars. I actually had to wait in line to buy things behind local people. Even in small towns some lines formed to buy. I never saw that in 2008 and it was rare in 2009 except for some street foods. I think things are better in the major cities. For the first time I saw lots of trash left over from consumption of food items and the ice cream wrappers.

Photography is much more relaxed. In Wonsan our cameras were not permitted on a walk on the sea wall in the evening. The Koreans brought out their cameras and took photos of us. How ironic. We laughed at the turn around. Digital photography is taking off there as so many people seem to have cameras. People are much more used to photography even in the rural areas now. They wave as you photograph them. Even soldiers wave.

Indeed there is more traffic and the street lights are on - not just for the Liberation Day holiday August 15, but other nights as well. Yes, they are shut off at 11pm but I had never seen them on. Alas, the street lights are on and so many of the traffic girls stand on the sides of the intersections. Pyongyang with working traffic lights? Amazing.

In the far north of the country we saw more of what the old days were like. There was less to buy and the older rules of security seemed to apply. We noticed some gifts to children were quickly confiscated. A few of the children looked malnourished in one village. There seemed much less to buy but I would expect some regional differences as I saw in the USSR. Still life was not bad.

Some conclusions - The reports by Good Friends about starvation and deaths from May to now are not true. The food situation is as good as I have ever seen. If ice cream is all the rage on hot days there are probably no large problems in the major cities. Indeed we would watch the locals at factories and farms eating lunch and they had meat and noodles every time. We made unscheduled stops and saw the same across the southern tier of the country. I saw an elderly couple eating fruit and noodles under a tree and that was not too bad for a hot day. The cash situation was not as bad as 2009 and people were spending. The guides told us inflation was on the rise and many people did have Chinese RMB or USD. I saw one rural kiosk using dollars and won.

The crops look good in the south, not so good in the north of the DPRK due to flooding. Reports that I heard prior to landing told of the Pyongyang-Wonsan road being destroyed and closed. That was a lie as we only saw minor road issues, not even real damage. Locals said it was not closed. Toward the Yalu it is worse and this week I hear people are being evacuated.

The Chinese-DPRK Border - I was up on the border southeat of Mt. Paektu and there is no border. The Yalu is a creek and anyone can cross at any time. I saw two soldiers walking the border but that was really it. You can wave to the Chinese truckers on the road across the "river."

No word on Kim Jong-un from anyone but the party meeting coming up in September may give us some clues. I looked everywhere and asked but my usual party contact was not around. I wish I had seen something.

Some interesting observations from those on the tour who were new to the country. They were all disgusted at the lies the media in the US tells. We sat with average citizens having lunch in unplanned circumstances and found they were doing well. Oh they could have a higher standard of living but they were doing just fine. Whatever happens they want to do it in the "Korean way."

I am still digesting what I experienced. Sorry for the disjointed piece. I am getting my photos up on Flickr and still trying to sort out the experience. That and the jet lag is hell.
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Soviet cogitations: 489
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 22 Feb 2010, 15:15
Post 23 Aug 2010, 21:01
Thank you very much, this is a great report.
"You're a pretty cool guy" - Mabool
"the social democrats don't give a frag about changing this capitalist system [...] so they can lick my greasy peanut buttered balls like the dog they are." - Greenanarchism
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Soviet cogitations: 5159
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 08 Nov 2007, 06:31
Post 23 Aug 2010, 21:37
Indeed. People like zaruka make SE great when they share their unique experiences.
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Soviet cogitations: 4465
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 30 Mar 2010, 01:20
Ideology: None
Forum Commissar
Post 24 Aug 2010, 10:30
Thanks for your report zaruka. It is most illuminating. I might go and see if I can find some of those pictures you mentioned.
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