25 Mar 2008
North Korea might remain isolated on the international stage but the streets of Pyongyang are slowly coming to life, finds Meredith Burgmann
If Richard Nixon's overture to China in the 1970s was "ping pong diplomacy", then the recent tour of North Korea by the New York Philharmonic is surely "piccolo diplomacy". At the same time, North Korea has closed its Canberra Embassy. These contradictory symbols of North Korean policy are symptomatic of the present regime in Pyongyang.
The Embassy in Culgoa Circuit, O'Malley - aligned neatly in a row with the rest of the "Axis of Evil" - was an extraordinary place. The huge reception area contained no furniture at all except the national flag, two sofas and a coffee table. Neatly set out on the coffee table was a tin of instant coffee, a packet of Coffee-Mate and a can of orangeade.
While no fan of North Korea's domestic policies, I had achieved an understanding of their international relations outlook after spending time there in 1997. A recent visit to the Canberra Embassy was part of a concerted year-long campaign to obtain a journalism visa for my nephew, The Chaser's Charles Firth. This proved a much harder task than I had imagined. As we sat drinking orangeade and instant coffee in the empty Embassy we tried to explain to Mr Pak, the Senior Minister, that Charles was a serious journalist as well as a satirist.
The concept of satire to the North Koreans is difficult. We eventually resolved it by explaining that satire was when you make fun of George Bush.
That explanation was evidently reassuring enough for us to be issued with visas and a motley trio - Charles, Head of Sydney's College of Fine Arts Professor Ian Howard, and I - set out for Pyongyang in October last year.
The difference between North Korea ten years ago and now is extraordinary. At the official level it is still isolated and paranoid, but it is now very different at the street level. Ten years ago it was a totally closed society, there were few people on the streets, no shops or cafes and only stiff and formal interaction during the limited social occasions that were allowed. There was in fact an eerie similarity to the physical geography of Canberra (several travellers have remarked upon this).
Pyongyang and the people are now very different. The government officials are much more open and communicative, especially about their financial difficulties. However, their legendary paranoia is still evident, especially in regard to the United States and Japan.
It is on the social and cultural level that I saw the greatest difference. On one evening for instance, as we walked along the river bank, our delightful guide Mr Pak (another Mr Pak, everyone is Mr Pak or Mr Kim) pointed out to us that the giggling and rustlings in the greenery around us were actually lovers meeting each other illicitly on the banks of the river. The lights along the river bank Mr Pak opined were "not as good as Darling Harbour" and when we came across a large bunch of brightly clothed men and women dancing underneath the giant Juche Tower, he let us know that this was where young single people come to meet each other. Charles of course plunged into the array of colourful dancers all ginger hair and sangfroid. Ten years ago he might have been shot, but this time we eventually all joined in the dancing.
Similarly, Ian wanted to do some of his art practice - brass rubbings of famous military installations around the world - as he is interested in the interaction of civilian and military cultures. He decided that the appropriate military installation would be the captured American spy ship, USS Pueblo, which had been taken over by the North Koreans in a blaze of headlines in 1968.
Eventually the 82 American crew members were released, but the USS Pueblo remained an important prize in Pyongyang. Ian talked his way in, taped some of his art paper across the pock marked and riveted funnel of the USS Pueblo and began his crayon rubbing under the suspicious eye of a tall Navy official dressed something akin to an admiral, with a very large gun. As Ian was getting up steam and I was taking his photograph, the admiral moved forward and grabbed Ian by the shoulder. I became quite nervous at this stage but the admiral simply took the piece of crayon from Ian's hand, did a few dramatic flourishes of rubbing and then proceeded to sign and date the artwork. He understood the nature of the project probably better than Ian's students back in Australia. It was a wonderful moment.
Mr Kim, the Pueblo guide, when complimented on his English accent, told us that he had learnt to speak English by watching the "classics" which turned out to be Kramer vs Kramer, Love Story and Torn Curtain.
Even at the Tomb of Kim Il Sung which is probably where the difference in our cultures is most clearly defined, our perceptive companion Mr Pak remarked that Australians don't have the same cultural values about the dead as Koreans do. We were quite clearly ill at ease with the amount of drama that went with the visit to the embalmed body. "Australians do not revere the dead", he said, as we wondered where Sir Robert Menzies was even buried.
The guards were in fact the most interesting part of this visit. I noticed that on the South Korean side of the room the military personnel were in North Korean uniform, and upon asking why this was so was told that when the South Koreans had important visitors they wanted to impress, then the North Koreans left the room, and when the North had VIPs then the South would hand over the room to them. A very co-operative way to conduct what the rest of the world is led to believe is a frosty relationship.
Fashion is now huge in the streets of Pyongyang. Unfortunately it happens to be the fashion of the 1970s. Women wear six inch wedges and even the boys wear wedge-soled sneakers. Spangles and lycra and luminous colours are particularly favoured by the young. The currency of preference is the Euro and the conversations with us are about investment in the animation film industry. At their spectacular Arirang Festival - famous the world over for the perfection of its open air extravaganza displays - just the week before we arrived they had achieved the ultimate in any capitalist society: a Guinness Book of Records achievement for 120,000 school children being involved in a flip card demonstration.
At the official level, they talked to us about their enemies, who they see as the United States and Japan. (They never talk about South Korea as anything other than themselves. They are all Koreans.) They see themselves as threatened with invasion: "When we are threatened with rifles we cannot defend ourselves with clubs." They believe they should have their own capacity for national defence: "America has always invaded weak countries, not powerful countries." They speak endlessly about how Pyongyang was razed to the ground at the end of the Korean War. They give you the figures that there were 370,000 people in Pyongyang and 420,000 bombs fell on the city. These refrains are identical to 10 years ago.
They are now short of electricity and believe that when they try to build nuclear power plants they are stopped. Minister Jon,Vice Chairman of the powerful Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, told us "We were promised petroleum but it did not happen" and "We are determined to raise the standard of living through science and technology". Technology they declared included nuclear power.
They regarded the recent North-South Summit between South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun and Kim Jong Il as an "epoch-making" event to further develop relations between North and South, "It is our firm belief as long as it takes place under the North South Declaration that reunification will come."
Vice Chairman Jon also reiterated their fear of Japan, pointing out, "We apologised for the kidnappings but have had no apology from Japan for 40 years of occupation and cruelty". As we leave they inform us that "Unfortunately we have no cultural agreement with Australia", and add enigmatically "Seeing is believing".
Relations with Australia have always been hit and miss. The redoubtable Mr Pak informed us that he had met Kevin Rudd in 2000, when he was Secretary General of the Korean Anti Nuclear Peace Committee. They are very excited about Rudd's election because they believe that he will understand the Korean situation better than previous leaders.
When Minister Pak rang me last month to inform me that the North Korean Embassy was closing, he sounded sad. He said that it was a lack of finances that caused the closure. It is a problem because they certainly need as much connection with the real world as they can get.
The last 10 years of gradually defrosting relations has had a beneficial effect on their society. How can a society that boasts of a Guinness Book of Records achievement and learns English from Kramer vs Kramer not benefit from detente and cultural exchange? Thank goodness for piccolo diplomacy.