American Sees Changes in His North Korean Hometown
By Jean H. Lee
October 24, 2009
Pyongyang, North Korea
Daniel Chun peers out of the window of the Air Koryo turboprop from China as it touches down outside Pyongyang, his former home. It has taken him less than two hours to go back nearly 60 years.
There are no jumbo jets jockeying for a gate or passengers jostling for luggage at the baggage claim here. There is only a massive portrait of beaming North Korea founder Kim Il Sung overlooking the serenely empty tarmac of the two-runway airport.
"So peaceful," says Chun, a 69-year-old American engineer. He poses for a photo, then disembarks for the journey into one of the most reclusive countries in the world and into his own past.
Decades after retreating into isolation at the end of the Korean War in 1953, communist North Korea remains an enigma.
It is one of the world's last strongholds of totalitarian communism, led by leader Kim Jong Il. But there have been some signs of openness after more than a year of tensions over the regime's nuclear ambitions and speculation about a succession crisis, with Pyongyang reaching out to Seoul and Washington.
Last month, a group of academics and entrepreneurs from the U.S., South Korea, Canada and Europe had a rare chance to visit the North Korean capital to see the construction of the new Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Chun was among them.
Chun escaped North Korea with his family by jumping on a South Korean fishing boat when he was 12 and made a new life in South Korea and then in the U.S. This is his first trip back to the city of his birth.
"It's like going home," he says, his eyes shining as he grapples with a mix of emotions: excitement, nervousness, curiosity. He's still wary enough to ask that his Korean name not be used.
The road to Pyongyang is unexpectedly scenic, lined with poplar trees and sunflowers. A woman pushes a cart loaded with a crate, a baby perched on top. A lone man sits on the riverbank fishing. Three girls in sweatsuits skip along a river clutching flowers.
There are no playgrounds, rest stops or strip malls in sight. "Where are they going?" Chun wonders aloud. The "endless walking" reminds him of refugees' flight by foot during the Korean War.
A billboard hawking sedans for Pyeongwha Motors is a jarring sight in a country where commercial advertisements are rare. Near the capital, concrete high-rises come into sight. Outside one, a woman squats in the dirt with a baby on her back, watching without expression as the convoy of buses and police cars passes.
North Korea may have one of the world's largest armies and the scientific know-how to build nuclear bombs and long-range missiles, but the population of 24 million has among the lowest per-capita incomes in the world: $1,065 in 2008, according to South Korea's Central Bank.
North Korea goes to great lengths to keep its poverty and hardship from prying eyes, and few outsiders, even the diplomats and aid workers who live in Pyongyang, are allowed a look at the real North Korea.
Foreign visitors are booked into special hotels far from the locals. Chun and his group are housed at the Yanggakdo Hotel overlooking the Taedong River and a nine-hole golf course, with the luxury of foreign TV, electricity and hot water around the clock.
The rest of Pyongyang isn't so fortunate. A few hours after nightfall, it's lights out across the energy-starved capital. From the 47th-floor restaurant at the top of the Yanggakdo, there's nothing but sheer darkness.
Visitors are taken on a strictly controlled itinerary of monuments and plazas where the roads are paved, windows lined with flowers and plants, the hedges manicured.
The North Koreans warn the visitors not to take photos or video from bus windows. Perhaps hoping to distract them from seeing the dilapidated buildings on side streets, a guide passes out copies of a Korean folk song and leads the group in rounds of a capella singing.
"It's very exciting and also emotional because I'm right back in the place I have been thinking about, dreaming about, imagining for so many years," Chun says. "It's hard to believe I'm actually seeing all this."
Images of the Kims abound, from the 65-foot-tall bronze statue of the founder atop Mansudae Hill to his iconic smiling image on the red badges pinned to every lapel.
The reinforcement is verbal as well: Every sentence one tour guide utters begins with the phrase "Our dear general, Kim Jong Il." She advises the visitors to carefully fold and lay old issues of the Pyongyang Times or Rodong Sinmun on top of wastebaskets, not to crumple and toss them out. Defectors say "defacing" an image of Kim Jong Il by tossing a newspaper bearing his photo into the garbage could send a North Korean to prison.
Chun gazes out the bus window looking for the city he left behind. But the rustic homes along dirt paths have made way for paved roads and cement-block skyscrapers.
He was a child when Korea, newly independent from colonial power Japan, split into the communist north and the U.S.-backed south after World War II.
Chun's family lived in the heart of Pyongyang, in a traditional courtyard home with a pond. They were among the city's elite: One grandfather owned a lucrative lumber business, the other was one of Pyongyang's richest men.
Under communist rule in 1948, the Confucian name of Chun's school was changed from Myung Ryun Elementary School to the Soviet-style People's Primary School No. 4. Students in white shirts, blue shorts and red scarves marched around the playground, saluting one another with: "Joonbi haja!" "Let's prepare ourselves!"
The school claims one particularly illustrious alumnus: Kim Jong Il. Kim would have been two years behind Chun. Chun has no recollection of the young future leader.
The school still stands there, one guide assures him, intact and preserved as a cherished piece of North Korean history.