Fifteen years ago, on one of my early visits to Pyongyang, I was taken to the Tower of the Juche Idea, the vertiginous propaganda monument on the south bank of the Taedong River. Peering acrophobically over the railing at the ground 560 feet below, I asked one of the local guides if people ever came here to commit suicide. The young woman, who spoke flawless English, appeared baffled. I rephrased the question. She still didn’t understand.
‘Does anyone ever jump off here?’ I repeated. ‘To kill themselves.’
She looked at me with a frowning smile, as if at a wilfully obtuse child. ‘But why would anyone ever want to kill themselves?’ she asked. ‘Then your life would be over – you’d be dead.’
Visiting North Korea used to be like that. Not only were the actions of the country’s leadership perfect in all particulars, not only were all of its citizens unimprovably provided for, even personal anguish was unknown. I have no doubt that, in reality, my young guide was fully acquainted with despair, and may well have known people who had been driven to kill themselves: just a few years before, in the late 1990s, the country had been struck by a famine so dreadful that North Koreans fell dead in the street, and as many as a few million perished. But in the official version of reality as presented to visiting foreigners, there were no snakes in the garden. Not only hunger, but disharmony, disagreement, personal pain, even death itself, had been abolished. Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, who had died in 1994, continued to reign as Eternal President. When asked what would happen after the demise of his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, the guides were completely unwilling to consider the possibility. That was what visiting North Korea used to be like. It isn’t anymore.
In September I spent a week there, my first visit since 2010, and the willingness to admit imperfection, the acknowledgment of at least a few creepy crawlies in paradise, was, I think, the most striking among many alterations that had taken place. Travelling to Pyongyang used to be like teleporting to an alien world, in which the most familiar assumptions no longer applied. It is still a singular experience: touching, nostalgic, infuriating and sinister. But in the space of eight years, North Korea has changed. The changes are small in themselves; almost all could quickly and easily be reversed. But cumulatively, they are remarkable.
At Pyongyang’s airport (a brightly lit new building has replaced the sepulchral halls of the old terminal), the foreign visitor can pick up a sim card that allows him to browse the internet more freely than in neighbouring China (where Google, for example, is blocked). Locals, of course, are restricted to a closely policed ‘intranet’ of official websites but several million of them now have mobile phones, and use them in similar ways to people all over the world. Our guide, Mr Ri, showed us an online shopping site – manmulsang.com.kp – where a modest range of clothes, food, books and CDs could be purchased using another innovation, a prepaid credit card. On the Pyongyang subway, a dimly lit netherworld decorated with mosaics of idealised life under the Kims, I saw something that I never imagined here: North Koreans zoning out between stations to play Candy Crush and card games on their phones.
At night, Pyongyang, which used to decline into blackness after sunset, was better illuminated than I had ever seen it. There were the lights of new restaurants, selling pizza, burgers, steak and fried chicken. There were many more cars on the streets, Chinese imitations of foreign models, as well as authentic Toyotas, and expensive electric bicycles of the kind Japanese mothers use to ferry around young children. The toilets in the restaurants had electric hand dryers, and in a couple of places I found another Japanese invention: lavatories that squirt a cleansing jet of water between the buttocks at the touch of a button.
The skyline of the city, spied from the Juche Tower, was jagged with new construction – bristling, cylindrical apartment blocks built for teachers and their families. South of the river, the stained and crumbling post-Korean War high-rises that gave the city much of its grimy texture have been refaced and repainted in pastel colours. The Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-storey pyramid that has never opened thanks to a mysterious structural problem, had been veneered on one of its sides with LED screens, flashing patriotic slogans and colossal animations.
In large part, the change that has taken place lies in the willingness of the authorities to show the visitor what was formerly hidden from view. We went one evening to the Kaeson Youth Park, a hundred-acre expanse of carousel, rollercoaster and Ferris wheel, which opened in 1984. In the amusement arcade, girls of university age in high heels and trench coats eyed boys in tight jeans, who were trying a bit too hard. I suspect that this subsection of youth culture has been a feature of the city for a while. But the guides on my previous visits would never have had the confidence to expose a foreign journalist to anything so raw, unfiltered and unselfconscious. There was nothing rebellious about them, but the sight of young North Koreans being pouty and flirty was something that I never expected to be allowed to see.
The biggest change was in the behaviour of the guides themselves. When you visit North Korea, the ‘minders’, as everyone calls them, are the only people with whom you have unmediated contact, and they are the key to the entire trip. Their job, to a great extent, is persuasively to bamboozle visitors to a country that is by a long way the most repressive in the world. At the same time, they have it in their power to bestow indulgences, or to impose prohibitions, in ways that can make the difference between a successful and enjoyable trip and a tedious and frustrating one. Yes – I will ask those students if you can photograph them. No! The visit to buy souvenirs in the Number 1 Department Store has been cancelled. Past tours in which I had taken part were a delicate mixture of flattering the minders in order to win their goodwill, teasing them about the absurdities which their job forces on them, and stealthily defying the rules in order to harvest the experiences and observations that are the journalist’s raw material.
Never has it been less tense and more enjoyable, never has the atmosphere been more relaxed, than it was in September. In the past, photography was forbidden unless it was explicitly permitted: I once travelled with a BBC team which, having been caught filming out of the window of the bus, were obliged to spend the next day showing every frame of their footage to the chief minder, on pain of having the whole lot confiscated. This time the only prohibition was on photographing soldiers. I received one stiff telling off – for inappropriate smirking in the vicinity of a statue of Kim Il-sung. But otherwise, Mr Ri and his senior colleague Mr Kim gave the best impression of normal human beings that I have ever encountered in North Korean minders.
It came out in small incidents that anywhere else would have been trivial. Driving through Pyongyang on the bus one day, Mr Ri, a man in his mid-thirties, called ahead on his smartphone to our next destination, the Pyongyang International Trade Fair, to ask if we could film and photograph inside. No one was paying particular attention to his conversation, and none of us spoke or understood Korean. But after hanging up he pulled a face. ‘The person I spoke to,’ he explained, ‘was quite rude to me.’
The trade fair itself was dull, and the people to whom we tried to talk were ungracious. Mr Ri attempted to interpret our questions, but ended up in a salty exchange with the proprietor of a stall that sold fitness drinks made out of potatoes. He rolled his eyes in irritation as we walked away. The significance of all this is relative, and I don’t want to exaggerate it. My travelling companions, all of whom were visiting for the first time, were struck most of all by the stifling atmosphere of constraint. But to me it was remarkable, and thrilling, to witness two North Koreans falling out with each other.
During the long hours on the bus, Mr Ri talked, freely and at length, about surprisingly personal matters, including his marriage. It had taken him a year, he said, to establish his authority over his wife; during the difficult interim, he had been helped by the advice of his father-in-law. He told a story about a friend of his, a young woman who had fallen out with her parents over the man she wanted to marry. After one bitter argument, she went to her room and lay down next to an open bottle of pills. When her parents came in to see how she was, they assumed that she had taken an overdose. ‘Her family were all lamenting,’ Mr Ri said, with amusement. ‘But she was only pretending! In the end her family relaxed, and she and her husband are now happily married.’ Suicide, then, is indeed alive and well in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
He also shared a series of dirty jokes. They were not of the highest calibre but, in a land little known for comedy, they were remarkable in themselves. ‘An ant fell in love with an elephant,’ one of them began, in Mr Ri’s telling. ‘She told the elephant: “I want to enjoy love with you.” The elephant said: “No. You are so small I can hardly see you.” But the ant followed the elephant everywhere. In the end the elephant said: “OK.” So they got married and enjoyed their wedding night. The next night they came together again, but the ant said: “No! I cannot share love with you anymore.” “But why?” asked the elephant. The ant said: “I’m pregnant.”’
How to explain this striking alteration in the atmosphere? It was not, I am sure, simply down to the character of our minders. The job they do is not one that offers scope for personal innovation and individual flair; they speak from a well-rehearsed and carefully edited script, issued by a central authority. And since my last visit in 2010, the tone and quality of the dialogue had changed. At its heart were the same old pride and defiance. But there had crept in alongside them a new and amused confidence, an acknowledgment of imperfection, and a previously suppressed sense of fun. There is an obvious explanation for much of this: the young leader Kim Jong-un, who succeeded Kim Jong-il in 2011.
North Korea is routinely regarded as a place that defies understanding, a realm of fizzing irrationality and madness, but viewed from a few steps back, the logic of its government’s actions is not at all difficult to grasp. Kim Jong-un has one overriding aim in life: to die of natural causes in old age, as his father and grandfather did before him. His enemies, the United States and South Korea, are primed to go to war, and on his doorstep. The closest he has to friends, China and Russia, regard him with irritable disdain. Every year, the competitive advantages conferred by the massive size of his army are being eroded by the technological advances made by his adversaries. The nuclear weapons that he claims now to have – a small arsenal of warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles – could never bring victory against the immense forces of the US. But the capacity to take out even one American city, to raise to an unacceptable level the cost of an attack against him: this in itself is an insurance policy like no other.
The argument of Western governments is that, far from protecting him, nuclear weapons put Kim in greater danger of being attacked, and that if he obediently gives over his deterrent he will enjoy a rich bounty. Recent examples of those who were persuaded to reverse nuclear course provide strong reasons to doubt this. The most prominent among them, Gaddafi, was lynched in 2011, shortly after being sodomised with a bayonet, in a Libyan uprising backed up by American bombardment. The more recent nuclear deal with Iran is in jeopardy after the present US government abandoned the agreement painstakingly reached by its predecessor. You don’t have to approve morally of anything about the Kim regime to conclude that, for a dictator in such circumstances, to give away nuclear weapons, rather than hold on to them, would be the behaviour of a madman.
Why then, at the very beginning of 2018, did Kim Jong-un set in motion a series of diplomatic initiatives culminating in his June summit in Singapore with Trump, a meeting devoted to the subject of denuclearisation? To the American president, and the foreign governments that take his lead, the reason is clear: he has been successfully pummelled into submission by the sanctions that have been imposed on North Korea since its first nuclear test in 2006, as well as by Trump’s military threats. Like much else connected to North Korea, this is an explanation freighted with wish fulfilment and false hopes.
The international sanctions regime reinforced in 2017 is, on paper at least, the most stringent ever imposed on North Korea, but the only evidence of its effects is anecdotal, and hopelessly liable to manipulation by governments with a need to cast their own policies in the best light. Trump and his secretaries of state have veered between claims of extravagant success for sanctions, and complaints that North Korea’s neighbours Russia and China are not doing enough to enforce them. China, which controls the literal and metaphorical pipelines into the country, did appear to be enforcing an embargo on iron and coal in 2017, though by Trump’s own admission this has slackened over the course of the past year. Sanctions, in any case, do not in themselves equate to pressure, especially in a regime such as North Korea in which the sufferings of the population are of only incidental concern to its leaders. This is a government which, in its self-imposed isolation, has effectively sanctioned itself. If the collapse of the North Korean economy after the Cold War and the Arduous March were not enough to prompt political change, or galvanise North Koreans to rise up, then no fudged punishment imposed from outside will either.
There is another way of understanding Kim’s change of course, which is more or less to take at face value what he himself has said. In his annual New Year address to the nation in 2017, he announced that the country was in the ‘final stages’ of creating an ICBM that could strike the US mainland. (‘It won’t happen!’ Trump tweeted in response.) In September of that year, North Korea exploded underground what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb. Three months later, after a series of tests of increasingly powerful missiles, it successfully launched the Hwasong-15, an ICBM with an estimated range of 13,000 km – enough to reach any city in North America or Europe. At New Year 2018, Kim spoke triumphantly of ‘the achievement of the great historic cause of perfecting the national nuclear forces’.
He also talked of his hope for improved relations between the two Koreas. Within weeks, North Korean athletes and members of the senior leadership were attending South Korea’s Winter Olympics; within months, Kim had held three summit meetings with the South Korean president; and in June he met Trump in Singapore. Rather than a meek submission to the power of sanctions, it is quite possible to interpret this pivot to diplomacy as a confident decision, made from a position of strength. For years, he had been racing towards a precise goal: nuclear missiles capable of striking the United States. Having achieved it, with all the security it brings, there is nothing to be lost by talking, and possibly useful concessions to be gained – but it does not follow that he will abandon the strategic asset that brought a US president to the negotiating table in the first place.
These opposing interpretations of Kim’s actions – that he has been ignominiously crushed, or that he has pulled off a brilliant and high-risk strategic coup – are more or less the orthodoxies of the two strains of thinking on North Korea that have prevailed since the 1990s. The first holds that only toughness, force and confrontation will bludgeon the recalcitrant regime into submission; the second insists that North Koreans are a lot tougher and cleverer than many people give them credit for, and that engagement with them, in some form or other, is the only way to achieve a long-term solution. But perhaps there is a third possibility: that North Korea is undergoing a fundamental change, and that Kim Jong-un is a historic figure of a different character from his father and grandfather, a man who is guiding North Korea towards a new and only dimly discernible destiny.
It’s not about sim cards, funfairs and pizza joints, of course, all of which could be shut down and withdrawn overnight. The serious changes, of a kind that cannot readily be reversed, are taking place within the North Korean economy. In September, I visited a catfish farm in Pyongyang, and an agricultural collective near the city of Wonsan. Like many state-run producers across the country, they have in the past few years transformed the way they operate. They still have a production quota, which must be delivered to the government. But having achieved it, everything left over becomes the property of the business, to be disposed of as the management decides. The catfish breeders sell their surplus, and spend part of the proceeds on superior feed for their fish, thus increasing next year’s yield. Managers at both farms spoke with satisfaction of the bonuses – in cash and kind – that they give to workers, based on their productivity. Until recently, in the official conception, all North Koreans were automatically assumed to be giving their all out of patriotism, passionate devotion to the ideals of socialism and love for the Kims. Now, they get paid at different rates depending on how hard and well they work. This is not a small or subtle change. Under the so-called Socialist Corporate Responsibility Management System, businesses have the right to plan production, to organise management teams and to manage labour, intellectual property and finances. All over the country, farms, factories, mines and fishing collectives are incorporating competitive market mechanisms into state-owned enterprises.
When asked, North Koreans insist that this is nothing new, and refer to obscure ordnances on incentives laid down decades ago under Kim Il-sung. But these were meaningless until the famine of the 1990s, when the sheer necessity of survival after the collapse of the state distribution system caused informal markets to spring up across the country, and those with produce at their disposal to sell or barter it at market rates rather than handing it over to the government. Confronted with this reality, Kim Jong-il took an anxious and indecisive approach, alternately tolerating and repressing entrepreneurial activity. Under his son, however, the system has proliferated and grown, and has become institutionalised to some extent through new laws. Even more remarkably, the newly empowered enterprises are actively seeking investment from the world at large.
An English-language prospectus distributed at the Pyongyang International Trade Fair set out some of the opportunities available in the Wonsan-Mt Kumgang International Tourist Zone on the east coast. They include the Sinsong Sewage Station (investment sought: $20.53m), the Tongmyong Emergency Hospital ($7.6m), the Wonsan Taxi Station ($4.2m), right down to a humble souvenir shop for $310,000. The business people travelling in my group were invited to put €600,000 into building and operating a guesthouse in the high-tech Unjong Special Economic Zone, just outside Pyongyang. Like most of the other offerings, this was to be not a joint venture – as all foreign investment in China, for example, must be – but a wholly owned foreign enterprise. Large practical questions – about how these projects could ever be legally squared with sanctions, for example, or whether they are remotely sensible as business prospects – remain unanswered. The point is that such things have never happened before. Until recently – until more or less the coming of Kim Jong-un – they were unimaginable.
The immense changes wrought in the Chinese economy by Deng Xiaoping began like this, with the empowerment of state-owned enterprises in the early 1980s, a process conventionally described with words such as ‘liberalisation’ and ‘reform’. But the subsequent trajectory of Chinese politics, through the repression of the pro-democracy movement to the neo-Maoist Confucianist Xi Jinping, illustrates how inadequate those terms are. To speak of Kim, too, as a ‘reformer’ would be hopelessly premature. But his relentless and triumphant race to full nuclear status has shown that – unlike his timidly opportunistic father – he is a bold and fearless strategist, unconstrained by the outward conventions and modes of behaviour established by his forebears. It was remarkable when Kim attended a concert in Pyongyang at which musicians dressed as Walt Disney characters cavorted for his entertainment. It was amazing when he stepped out alongside his young and fashionably dressed wife (the numerous women in the lives of his father and grandfather were scarcely seen or even mentioned). By the time he stepped over the South Korean border to embrace its president, Moon Jae-in, and flew to Singapore for Trump (leaving behind the bulletproof train), the unprecedented had become normal.
Let there be no doubt: whatever changes are visible in North Korea, life there continues to be defined by deprivation, repression and fear, underwritten by the threat of violence. The notion of a ‘Pyongyang Spring’ is fantasy, arising from lazy analogies with former despotisms with which North Korea has little in common. Even if Kim Jong-un wanted to give his people greater political freedom, and to open up his economy, tensions are at such a pitch that to do so would be suicidal. The days when dictators could scarper safely off into exile, like Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran or Syngman Rhee, have long gone. Kim knows that in attempting to do a Gorbachev, or even a Deng Xiaoping, he would be more likely to end up as a Gaddafi or a Ceaușescu. He would be just as mad to stop locking up those who challenge him, in fact, as he would be to give up his nuclear weapons.
And yet even in the quality of his repression he is singular. The most astonishing example of this was the execution in 2013 of Jang Song-thaek, his uncle by marriage. The 67-year-old Jang, husband to Kim Jong-il’s sister, had spent a lifetime negotiating the intricacies of Pyongyang politics – and been banished from court, only to return, at least once before. The murder of political opponents has always been a feature of life under the Kims, but in the past it was done discreetly and in private, to emerge in the sudden absence of a senior name from the lists of party hierarchs published in the state media on the occasion of an important funeral or military parade. The fall of Jang, however, could not have been more public.
The news was on the front page of North Korean newspapers, led television and radio broadcasts, and was piped into trains on the Pyongyang subway. Photographs showed a hunched and handcuffed prisoner being frogmarched into the tribunal. He was executed immediately afterwards, having ‘confessed’ to crimes that included plotting a coup, the dissemination of pornography, failing to applaud enthusiastically, and causing a monument honouring Kim to be erected ‘in a shaded corner’. ‘Despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader,’ read the report of the Korean Central News Agency. ‘The accused is a traitor to the nation for all ages who perpetrated anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of our party and state and the socialist system.’
Whatever the truth of the charges, the way that they were presented was profoundly transgressive. Put aside the fact that he was a member of the Kim family, a man who had been judged worthy and elevated to a position of power by father and son. Even to admit to the existence of such a thing as plotting a coup, to accept that a North Korean, certainly one so honoured and trusted, was capable of harbouring treasonous thoughts: this in itself seemed to violate an essential principle on which the North Korean lie is built. Even in his cruelty and ruthlessness Kim Jong-un is like no one before him. Under his leadership, new creatures have been born and are slithering audibly around the garden. Who can tell how many they are, and what they will look like when they are fully grown?