What is illegal in North Korea? People can leave? Dangerous places, religion and life – Documentary

by birtanpublished on July 13, 2020

Decades on, the topic of North Korea remains a touchy subject The world has passed judgment: the country is beyond repair Our preconceived ideas about the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea remain firmly in place: An erratic, Orwellian regime? paranoid, schizophrenic, a place of modern-day gulags, a red dynasty, long headed by a despotic film buff,

And now by his son, whose portly appearance is topped with a singular haircut And then there’s the country’s nuclear arsenal — a threat that makes the self-proclaimed ‘innocent’ nations of the world tremble with fear When it comes to North Korea, why do we so often resort to clichés? In light of the difficult and often tragic situation

The country's people find themselves in, hyperbole seems rather inappropriate We’re often told that foreigners are not permitted into the country That those who do manage to visit are not permitted to see much of anything And that those who do manage to see something should remember it’s probably fake

Someone once insisted to us that there were no high-rises in Pyongyang A disorienting claim, given that one of us was living on the 24th floor of a building on Kwangbok Street at the time This film was shot over a period of eight years by three people One of us is a translator of Korean Between us, we made more than forty trips to North Korea

But the film does not show prison camps or rocket launch pads — that’s forbidden As are images of soldiers, construction sites, shopping malls, gambling, pictures of people who do not have enough to eat, and pictures of people who are eating Avoiding these images is harder than it might seem

Entering North Korea is still complicated But foreigners are permitted to travel and explore the country, although they always have a local “minder” Visitors are not required to proclaim their loyalty to the state Nor do they only see what the state permits them to see And it’s a myth that you’ll never hear laughter in North Korea

As soon as we leave the city, the roads are riddled with cracks and potholes The bumpy journey is hard on drivers and vehicles That could explain why broken-down trucks and buses are a common sight Depending on the season, the workers in the fields might be harvesting wheat, rice, or potatoes Although much of the country is mountainous,

The rest is primarily devoted to farming North Korea hopes to become economically self-sufficient someday Every square meter of available land is put to use, even on the steep hillsides But only barely 20 percent of the land is arable This factory was not filmed in 1920, but in 2016 using a small camera while exploring the city of Hamhung

As so often in North Korea, appearances are deceiving This is the country's largest fertilizer factory, which Kim Il-sung honored with more than 30 visits It's recently been modernized in a bid to increase the productivity of the country's cooperative farms Cooperative farms like this one,

With its familiar oxcarts, geese and ducks, and the omnipresent red flags Another visit to a collective farm, a year later It’s raining and everyone has gone to seek shelter The productivity chart proudly displays the farm’s yields We take shelter in the living room of one of the farm workers

She tells us about the bitter cold winters, hot summers, and the backbreaking work in the rice fields Her son is fourteen — small for his age, she admits, but the family has been through hard times Her son was born just as the great famine was ending Behind her, one of the country’s ubiquitous historical melodramas

Is playing on TV Then she launches into an vivid description of her visits to Pyongyang: In addition to the mausoleum of the Great Leaders, I visited the museum of the Revolution, the amusement park near the Leader’s birthplace, the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery,

The Science and Technology museum, and the Grand People’s Study House I went everywhere! Anyone from the provinces who visits the capital comes here first: the house where Kim Il Sung was born The birthplace of the Republic

This is where it all started, they say The Great Leader’s training as a revolutionary, the resistance against the Japanese, the struggle against the evil landowners and collaborators It’s a story that’s very familiar to people here And as Kim Il Sung was the son of an ordinary peasant,

He is also venerated as a role model This is a place of pilgrimage year-round In the winter, the buildings and grounds are decked in sober white During our visit in 2011, we first saw local visitors wearing brightly colored winter coats, imported from China By 2015, the classes of schoolchildren are wearing name-brand sweatpants,

Even though their sneakers don’t quite yet make the grade September brings the color of autumn and a pumpkin on the thatched roof “In Pyongyang, everything is bigger, more modern, more beautiful,” we were told by the woman from the collective farm The city has more of everything: more light, more shops, more food, more housing,

More work, more education, more culture Who wouldn’t want to live here? The capital is more than the epicenter of the state, it’s an icon Our farmer would probably have been told that these exemplary buildings are home to exemplary citizens — scientists, soldiers, civil servants

Some of the most eminent live on the glossy new Mirae or Future Scientists Street For a farmer from a village without so much as a paved road, this would be an impressive sight And the people who live here seem to have plenty of time for leisure activities Our visitor from the collective farm couldn’t help

But be dazzled by these high-rises, the most famous of which looks like an atom when viewed from above And by the new districts springing up around the city, built with the labor of the country’s soldiers and workers But it would be very unlikely that our visitor would ever set foot in one of these apartments,

Reserved for the most worthy citizens It’s perfectly neat and tidy — though the residents have fled the camera There’s a computer, cell phone, books, and a sewing machine The balcony offers a view across a city in the midst of a real estate boom There’s an abundance of color —

Quite the contrast to the grey that dominated here just 20 years ago This real estate boom has given rise to a black market in Pyongyang and other large cities When the state awards a faithful follower with a new apartment, they pass on the old one to the highest bidder For a choice location, prices can easily top 100,000 dollars

And only a fraction of that is tax that ends up in state coffers Karl Marx might have called this the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ A visitor’s tour might end with a trip to an amusement park or a water park One of Kim Jong-un’s priorities is building ‘playgrounds for the people’ The entrance fee? equivalent of two euros? isn’t cheap by local standards

But everyone mingles and enjoys themselves Even the adults get into the swing of things I came with my group, but I don’t know where my coworkers are Now, I’m looking for them I work at a large coal mine, an hour away from Pyongyang I can’t come often because of my work

Today we visited the Great Leaders’ mausoleum, so I stopped by here I like to come to Pyongyang to relax After having fun like this, work comes more easily What are you looking at? Go play! We’ve never been abroad But now we have lots of water parks Even at home, in our province north of Pyongyang

We will become the best in the world Without anyone’s help, just by our own hands Any more questions? We’re the best! Some of the rural visitors seem a bit lost in the crowd But since many people don’t know how to swim, no one really notices But on state television nowadays,

People can even tune in to swimming lessons The sun is beginning to set A good time to visit the city’s main amusement park, beyond Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph Like everywhere in North Korea, filming anything to do with the military is banned,

But hard to avoid, because soldiers are everywhere Some might call this nothing but ‘bread and circuses’ But it’s far more than that There’s hardly a North Korean who doesn’t dream of living in Pyongyang And every resident of Pyongyang is terrified of being expelled from the city for some foolish mistake —

Forcing them and their family to live in exile, for a few years or for the rest of their lives, in a place where they will have less of everything With its lights and sights Pyongyang inspires loyalty People flock to the parks and swimming pools to enjoy what is the most attractive city in the country

And even the world — for the people who live here at least, since their world ends at the North Korean border We’ve never witnessed a birth in North Korea, but we have seen plenty of weddings Or wedding ‘preparations,’ to be more precise

Like this professional photo-shoot, where the happy couple is posing in front of Pyongyang’s most iconic locations It’s monsoon season, which means 38 degrees Celsius and very humid The bride and groom first went to statues of the Great Leaders Then we came the flower park you see here, near the water fountains Soldiers usually like to pose in front of military monuments,

Like the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War What the wedding video doesn’t show are the many people who helped make this happy event possible In North Korea, most marriages are arranged through matchmakers It’s their job to find the ideal marriage partner who will also be suitable to the families

Although marrying for love is just starting to trend, arranged marriages are still the norm One result is that people usually marry within their own social class For many decades, the country’s elite was dominated by the revolutionary comrades of Kim Il-sung, and their descendants

At the bottom of the social order were the families of people who had collaborated with Japan, and their descendants In between were some forty sub-classes, who were not permitted to marry outside their rank The end of Kim Il-Sung’s regime, the famine under Kim Jong-Il,

And the partial disintegration of both state and party that followed not only shook the country, but also its traditional social hierarchy This helped loosen the stringent marriage rules Today the most desirable professions for a husband are scientist, diplomat, the military, and, of course, business professionals

For years, women traffic police were highly sought after on the marriage market But they’re seen less often now, with the installation of traffic lights Young couples are expected to have children And their education will be put in the hands of the state at an early age The country boasts a reported literacy rate of 100 percent — a success that is attributed to the revolution

The most important school subjects are math, physics, music and singing, Korean, and the lives of the Great Leaders From kindergarten on, children are subjected to a rigorous selection process The best students spend their holidays taking part in sports at the young pioneer camps When we arrive at the stadium, the competition is underway

Each side is cheering on its team The young charges aren’t wearing the standard lapel pins bearing images of the Great Leaders They’re on holiday, and children under 16 aren’t obliged to wear them Then it’s time for the tug-of-war The evil American soldier in the middle is tough

He’s already made it through several tournaments Finding a good husband, having a successful career — these topics are far more interesting to most North Koreans than the endless propaganda they’re exposed to Getting married is important, and it’s also the focus of the sitcoms that are broadcast on a giant screen near the central railway station

Locals stand here to watch them in the middle of December, even in a chilly minus 15 degrees Celsius There’s also an ad for automaker Pyeonghwa, which means “peace” in Korean The company was founded by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, but has been fully owned by the state since 2013 The sitcoms portray a politically correct world

The individual matters only as part of the collective, where being a good worker is what counts In the winter, everyone is responsible for a stretch of road No matter how much snow has fallen, it has to be cleared That’s why scenes of people scraping snow and ice off their patch of road before heading off to the office are a common sight in the winter

For some unknown reason, we had to wait for years before our guides allowed us to film in parks Moranbong Park is a popular place for Sunday outings It’s something like North Korea’s Central Park We wondered why permission to film here took so long People drawing park scenes hardly seem like a state secret

Then there are also shooting ranges Dancers And lots of picnics On public holidays, the state sometimes distributes meat and beer These pensioners, free of family and professional obligations, are enjoying a day out

Their free-style of dancing is not easily defined, and has the air of a shamanic ritual In 1956, filmmaker Chris Marker, who was part of the first French delegation to visit the North after the Korean War, recorded almost identical scenes, of workers dancing by a train factory

We’ve always danced at Moranbong park We come here with former colleagues We meet every Sunday to dance Thank you Why don’t you stay and dance with us! The district next to the park is nicknamed “Little Dubai”

At first sight it looks like a kind of commuter suburb But appearances are deceiving All sorts of things are hidden behind these tinted windows: electronics stores, pharmacies, banquet halls, supermarkets And a huge selection of bars and restaurants This television ad sings the praises of a luxury supermarket,

So heavily air-conditioned the staff wear warm jackets It’s well stocked with everything from Swiss chocolate, to olive oil, French and Italian wines, and imported fruit The elegant restaurants upstairs are popular with the “Dongju” — the “money masters,” as the newly affluent are called They serve up sushi, cappuccino, a $20 steak

North Korea is no longer an anti-consumerist state Quite the opposite — for those who can afford it North Korea’s party newspapers don’t publish restaurant reviews yet But given the number of restaurants, barbecue joints, and snack bars cropping up everywhere around the country, that’s probably not too far off

Is the North Korean obsession with food a remnant of the “Arduous March,” the famine that ravaged the country between 1994 to 2000, causing somewhere between half a million and a million deaths? Back then, even the word “restaurant” was considered taboo When Kim Jong-un came to power, he promised the North Koreans they would never face such deprivation again

Now food has become a sign of success, an important part of the culture — almost as much as in South Korea We come across a 2018 press release from the official North-Korean news agency It reads “From the 2nd to the 4th of April, the 23rd Cooking Festival took place at the Pyongyang Noodle House marking the Day of the Sun,

The birthday of President Kim Il-sung” If there is anything North Koreans excel at, it’s parades Each time, military experts around the world scrutinize the missiles mounted on the vehicles? imported in violation of UN sanctions Others analyze the slogans, or ponder the differences between

Parades over three generations of rulers Kim Il-sun, his son, and his grandson But there’s one constant over the years — the images of North Koreans cheering on their leaders It takes weeks of practice to make these living mosaics Normally, filming rehearsals is forbidden North Korea only likes to display finished products,

Be it a choir, a painting, a missile or a reform But it’s a tempting scene Since 5:30 in the morning, students been out on every square in the city, practicing for the upcoming parade All of Pyongyang’s main roads pass through Kim Il-sung Square It’s obligatory to slow down when

Passing in front of the portraits of the Great Leaders — so the temptation to reach for our cell phones and cameras is high We observe the portraits as they observe us During our first visits here, we were like many foreigners: intrigued by their omnipresence But the more often we visited, the less we noticed them

The same does not apply to North Koreans Cyclists are required to dismount from their bikes and look upon the statues of their leaders Cars must slow down Passersby turn to gaze at the images Shortly after Kim Jong-Il’s death,

A young, upper-class woman tried to explain what the leaders meant to her: “It’s a bit like you with your Jesus,” she said “Except for us, Jesus would also be a member of the family” In the heat of the summer, we occasionally saw a fan cooling the portrait of the leaders North Korean art, like this fresco near the entrance to a sports shoe factory,

Is designed to portray the country as the party would like to see it It’s not pure fiction, but more often more an aspiration rather than a reality The Ryu Won factory — or “weeping willow paradise”— has 700 workers 70 percent are women They produce 15 million sport shoes a year

It’s assembly-line work For years, local products were conspicuous in their conformity Now the factory is seeking to draw inspiration from foreign trends In marketing jargon, this is what’s called “benchmarking” After he visited our factory, our respected marshal sent us 142 pairs of foreign shoe models

He told us to display them at the workplace, next to the ones which had been done incorrectly That allows our technicians and employees to observe and compare them to ours Our goal is to raise the quality of our shoes to an international level Copying foreign trends, reducing imports, and promoting local industry makes sense in a country that is often struck by sanctions

But for the plan to work, the products have to appeal to North Korean consumers One new brand is called AdiBas, with a B The shoes all sport three stripes In North Korea, patriotism is still a key sales driver Fashions are changing slowly, too In the early 1990s, a Foreign Ministry publication was still

Proudly defending the goal of a “monochrome” society, something between grey and brown Times have changed We pay a visit to a bowling alley Bowling, popular in the 1980s, has become trendy again Upstairs people are playing the slot machines

Downstairs we get a look at some of the latest fashions Here too, banners tout the party line It reads: If it wasn’t for the slogans on the walls, we could be almost anywhere in Asia This young woman is an office worker

Everyone dresses to suit their body type and coloring Some women have square shoulders and try to disguise them The heavier ones try to dress in the color that suits them Men do the same, don’t they? Everyone knows best which clothes, shoes and makeup to choose so they can look stylish

Have fun! We come here with friends and colleagues to get some exercise and relax Bowling alone is no fun It’s the atmosphere and good mood that’s counts At this rest area along the motorway, a bus full of Chinese tourists has stopped on its way to Kaesong,

The city at the border to South Korea In 2017, these visitors had all but disappeared due to sanctions In 2018, they returned Nearly 1,000 Chinese tourists come each day, drawn by the peace and quiet, the unspoiled nature, and perhaps a touch of nostalgia

For a country that reminds them of China 40 years ago Though it might come as a surprise, training for jobs in the tourism industry is very popular in North Korea nowadays Over the long term, the country is hoping to increase the number of visitors by thirty percent each year

In the fall, Wonsan beach, on the East Sea, is deserted It’s the off-season here Two soldiers have the beach to themselves This time we’re allowed to film them, since they’re not in uniform This is the same beach in the summer On the right, the premium beach for affluent visitors

On the left, the public area, where admission costs just a few cents Whether it’s a group of workers, a gathering of students, or entire families, everyone’s enjoying themselves People arrive by truck or on bicycles Some come for the day, others for a week Many come from rural regions

Okay everybody, dig in! We come from the countryside, north of Pyongyang The whole family has come here to relax It’s the best place to rest and have fun Our leader Kim Jong-un encouraged us to come They are building another tourist site in Wonsan

This year, we’re enjoying the beach here Next year, we plan to relax at the new Kalma tourist zone In the distance, we can see the construction site — dozens of hotels are being built That’s another priority for the current leader When Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un,

The US president was enthusiastic about the area and said the location had a lot of potential for development In 2015 and 2016, North Korean delegations discreetly inspected the French Riviera and other Mediterranean resorts for ideas that they could bring back to adopt at home The manager of a famous local fish restaurant is

Pleased with what’s happening It’s a great opportunity to make Wonsan known around the world There are lots of guesthouses and small hotels Some people even camp here because the sea is very close I hope many French people will come here to swim, and try our famous soup, of course

Except in the mining and nuclear testing areas, there’s lots of unspoiled nature here Due to embargos, farming uses very little artificial fertilizer There’s little light pollution due to frequent electricity shortages It comes as something of a surprise that North Korea has never thought to market itself as a pioneer in sustainable development

Uninhabited for the past 65 years, the Demilitarized Zone has preserved a unique biodiversity So far, Pyongyang doesn’t seem inclined to take advantage of these natural assets In the rest of the world, North Korea is seen as an anomaly North Korea also sees itself as unique

Which it certainly is As frequent visitors, we are struck by the endless repetition — of the same songs, sung everywhere: at schools and on public transportation; the same slogans decorate the streets; the same films are constantly broadcast on TV

North Korea is a country under a bell jar, a country marching to its own pace It is impenetrable, frustrating, exhausting But its people are open, curious, and full of life North Korea is changing rapidly “Palli Palli” — or “fast fast”

Is a favorite phrase, in both North and South Korea North Koreans’ tastes are changing, as are their hopes for the future Perhaps one day, our image of North Korea will change, too

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