North Korea: The Final Frontier of Business and Other Impressions
Barnaby Caddy shares his experience working and travelling in North Korea as a United Nations Consultant
Leave your books at home
Expectation plays a big part of travel, and none more so than North Korea. The mix of nervous anticipation and childish excitement is palpable as I watch the plane on my seat monitor cross into North Korean airspace. My first aerial glimpses of the landscape conformed to my expectations: rugged hills, very little infrastructure, and villages with uniform-looking houses clinging to what flat land is available.
We descend towards Pyongyang, which means flat or peaceful land, it looks just that. Orderly houses in neat rows sit beside yellowing paddy fields, and empty roads link one similar place to the next. We touch down gently and complete our taxi to the terminal with me staring out of the plane window at the thousands of labourers repairing the runway – only some of them return a quizzical glance at the gawking foreigner. It’s the only place where I’ve seen one hundred percent of the work crews using shovels as a tool for digging, and not for leaning on. As it would turn out, the labourer sweating at the roadside would be a quintessential image throughout the country.
Although I was warned of and prepared for a rigorous check at the customs hall, the guard’s oversize Soviet-style hat coupled with his keen interest in the novels in my suitcase was becoming a little unnerving.
“What is the story of this book about?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t read it yet”.
“Is it about sex?”
An awkward silence followed. Nervous energy took over and I shuffled my feet and let out an embarrassing half-giggle, which was quickly stopped by a firm stare.
“It is about an English teacher who works in Greece” I managed to mumble as I showed him the back cover description, and mentally pinched myself for not offering this explanation when first asked.
The guard didn’t ask about weapons, drugs, food or currency, which of course I had prepared answers for. He was interested in information. Although not what you’d call fun at the time, the guard gave me two valuable lessons that day that would serve me well for my three months in North Korea: that information is power, and that the purity of Korean culture is sacrosanct.
North Korea is still officially at war, and at that moment it really felt like it. After the guard carefully recorded the titles and authors of my books in his notepad, I re-packed my suitcase, and silently rejoiced that Nabokov and de Sade were still firmly on my bookshelf back in Sydney.
Impressions of Pyongyang
The first few steps through the streets of Pyongyang are underwhelming. I found myself unprepared for the prosaicness of the world’s most secretive capital. There are no starving masses, no goose-stepping soldiers, and no bread queues. The streets are clean, people are very well dressed and oddly, no one stares despite me being the only Caucasian on the street. The neo-Soviet architecture and grand monuments reminded me of any ex-Soviet big city, except that everything seems to work and no one’s overtly drunk.
The battle between my pre-conceived expectations and what I was seeing made the normality of the city appear a little sinister to me though.
Pyongyang’s skyline is dominated by the 105 story Ryugyong Hotel. Shaped liked a glass spaceship or a pyramid depending on your interpretation, it is, quite simply, spectacular. But none its 3,000 rooms are quite ready for guests just yet as the builders are still “putting the finishing touches on”. Given construction began in 1987, completion of the hotel doesn’t look likely to happen any time soon, which is unfortunate. Such a grand vision: so much labourer’s sweat and countless panes of glass of have gone into the project which, if finished, could stand proudly in Shanghai or Dubai.
A newcomer like me couldn’t help thinking that the hotel is a hard-to-hide 330m high metaphor of the North Korean state. I for one would have happily taken a room in the hotel if the hotel had been open for business.
The residents of Pyongyang seemed to having a good time despite the half-finished hotel. I saw plenty of picnics in the park with families, and fun fairs full of guys winning stuffed toys for their girlfriends at outdoor shooting galleries. There were even some women sitting on the subway steps selling dried squid to passers-by.
Like many countries though, the shiny glass and pressed suits of the capital give way to a more utilitarian feel when I left the city limits. North Korea is a physically tough country. Eighty five percent of the land is not arable and the icy winter wind picks up momentum all the way across Siberia before briefly passing through North Korea on its way to the Sea of Japan (or Eastern Sea if you ask a Korean).
Add trade sanctions and global isolation to the weather and rugged landscape, and it’s surprising that anyone could survive there at all. Minus fifteen degrees Celsius on windy day has to be experienced to really understand what cold is about. I can only assume that the North Koreans I saw carting heavy loads along icy mountain roads had a lifetime of practice to be able to do this. The irony wasn’t lost on me that the only other place I have been where the locals displayed such a strong ethic of hard work was South Korea.
Watching North Koreans work, I couldn’t help imagine what a unified Korea would look like. At minimum no other country would ever win an archery, table tennis or tae-kwon-do medal at the Olympics ever again. At best, the mind boggles.
The final frontier of business
Despite the command economy, I was surprised that there are foreign businesses operating in North Korea. There’s an Egyptian company delivering a large telecommunications infrastructure project, but what I found more interesting were the entrepreneurs from China who were prepared to take on the risks of investing in such a volatile marketplace.
“Nineteen out of Twenty Chinese business men here in North Korea fail” explained the Chinese guy next to me at the bar car on the Pyongyang-Beijing train.
“But the ones who succeed, really succeed” he said placing such an emphasis on the word ‘really’ that I had to lean back slightly so our noses didn’t touch.
From his perspective, North Korea was a kind of final frontier of business in terms of the lack of regulation, and history of casualty rates (metaphorically speaking) along the way.
I explained that I didn’t expect that North Korea would have large tourism infrastructure projects that looked to be targeting an overseas market, for example the brand new and very shiny Masikryong ski resort. He wasn’t able to enlighten me on who had financed this and where the skiers were expected to come from.
I had taken a weekend off to go skiing there a fortnight before and the luxury hotel and empty pistes were still fresh in my mind. Like the Ryugyong pyramid hotel in Pyongyang, Masikryong ski resort looks like a mirage after driving through hours of poor looking villages next to icy roads with the ubiquitous North Korean carrying something heavy from somewhere to somewhere else.
The perfect skinned, very charming and multi-lingual staff at the ski resort welcomed me and my two other friends like royalty. We were ushered through the huge but deserted hotel to our rooms in silence. Upon opening the door to the room, I could sense the bell boy’s nationalistic pride as we each ‘Ooooohd’ and ‘Aaaahd’ at the extravagance of the luxury rooms. We didn’t explain that for what we had paid we hadn’t expected very much, and this may well be the best value for money ski resort in the world.
I’m sure the bell boy knew that foreigners wouldn't expect that such a luxury resort could exist in North Korea, let alone be built by North Koreans. Unexpected yes, but also a little uncomfortable from an ethical perspective.
“Everything just like in Switzerland” the concierge reminded us as he took our dinner orders which would be served that evening in our private function room.
Not exactly like Switzerland we thought. The areas we drove through on the way to the resort have significant child stunting rates caused by lack of access to adequate micro-nutrients, as well as a lack of clean water and safe sanitation. If you could blot those things from your mind, it was easier to enjoy the empty ski runs and brand new Italian hire gear.
But as my North Korean work colleague pointed out when I got back to Pyongyang: “Wouldn’t you say that inequality is more prevalent in Europe than North Korea?”
My new Chinese friend on the train explained that national pride is huge part of the psyche of North Korea. They are the last protectors of Korean culture given that their southern brothers have been duped by Western Imperialists into selling out. Building infrastructure projects like Masikryong demonstrates to the world that North Korea is capable of matching or exceeding the world’s best, but at the same time creating something quintessentially Korean.
As the train was about to cross the Yalu River into China, the neon lights of Dandong on the other side looked crass and overbearing. Three months isn’t such a long time, but it was long enough to begin to get used of a place where generic transnational sameness doesn’t exist. It is sobering to spend time in a place like North Korea that has plotted its own course – for better or worse – and stuck to it with dogged determination.
I bid a warm farewell to the Masikryong staff who had provided us superlative service and good humour, and made the huge hotel not feel anything like the Overlook Hotel from the Shining. Like nearly all the North Koreans I met, I feel a little embarrassed that I was surprised at their warmth, generosity and strength. And to the Reception Manager at Masikryong Ski Resort, I hope your advice to “book early next year to avoid the crowds” will actually be needed.