From our partners at The Agonist
Der Spiegel, Susan Koelbl, October 12
PYONGYANG - “Potemkin villages,” I scribble onto a scrap of paper for the interpreter, Mr. Kim. “What does that mean?” he asks. “It means that you are just showing us facades here to feign growth and progress, just as the Russian Prince Potemkin once did,” I reply. “You should google it.”
That, though, is not an option available to Mr. Kim. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the only country on earth in which the people have no connection to the World Wide Web.
The 21-year-old interpreter has never left North Korea. He believes in the imminent victory of the socialist revolution and is now trying to show us the achievements of his native country: The capital, cleaned up for the 100th birthday of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and a new high-rise development that looks like something the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser might have designed, albeit in concrete. Western diplomats in Pyongyang sardonically refer to the development as the city’s new “Manhattan skyline.”
Mr. Kim doesn’t understand why foreign guests always ask these questions: Why are so many men here dressed in uniforms? Does North Korea really need long-range missiles? Why does the government spend 60 percent of its budget on defense if annual GDP per capita is only $960 (€742) and the average adult only has access to 2,150 kilocalories a day? Why does the regime need reeducation camps? Why are we only driven on boulevards but are not shown any ordinary residential neighborhoods? And, finally: Why can we never move around without minders?
This is too much for Mr. Kim. At the end of the day, he asks to be replaced.
That evening, a man with darting eyes and thinning hair is standing at the entrance to the Yanggakdo Hotel, a 47-story structure built in 1995. His dark suit is positively elegant, as if it had been tailored for Mao Zedong at Emporio Armani.
Mr. Hong introduces himself as our team’s new guide. We are in North Korea to find out whether things are changing under its new dictator, Kim Jong Un. There will be many questions on our 10-day journey, by train and by car, through a country that is sealed off from the rest of the world. Mr. Hong, 57, used to work at the North Korean embassy in Berlin, both before and after German reunification. Mr. Hong is familiar with the world.
He smiles and shakes hands affably. According to Western experts, a person of his rank and age who assumes the task of attending to curious guests in Pyongyang is undoubtedly a member of the Ministry of State Security.