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An ego trip in N. Korea

Visit Pyongyang! Give us your dollars and pay homage to our Great Leader's many divine feats! Guides provided for our convenience.

June 09, 2007|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

Pyongyang, North Korea — THERE'S not a lot to do when you're a closely watched visitor in North Korea except hit the karaoke at day's end, so we're at it again.

From the sound of it, most North Korean karaoke falls into two categories. Soupy ballads about national glory, superior leadership, glorious workers. And hard-driving martial tunes urging citizens to think as one and pick up a bayonet. Rounding out the experience are video clips of goose-stepping soldiers and ozone-piercing missiles.

A gentle tune floats by that doesn't seem to fit the bill. On the screen, a river meanders. Birds chirp. Trees sway. The reverie is brought up short, however, when our minder informs us it's about a river that would flow through a unified Korea -- if the imperialists hadn't ripped the peninsula apart.

From karaoke to billboards, lapel pins to education campaigns, North Korea doesn't miss an opportunity to drive a handful of core messages home: It's under siege, the Korean War never ended here, its leadership is divine, sacrifice and deprivation make you strong.

Even a carefully scripted visit designed to put the North's best foot forward underscores just how buttoned-down this place is. At a time when Pyongyang is flirting with some modest reform, the almost complete lack of tolerance for deviation from the party line suggests the huge psychological challenge this isolated society will face if and when it decides to join the outside world.

Most visitors are broadly aware before they arrive of the leadership cult centered on Great Leader Kim Il Sung -- who died in 1994 -- and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, who recently celebrated his 65th birthday. But that doesn't prepare you for its 3-D, surround-sound intensity in person.

Kim Il Sung called for reunification on his deathbed. Kim Il Sung taught farmers a better way to raise cows. Kim Il Sung visited every monument personally. Kim Il Sung taught construction workers to mix cement. Kim Il Sung designed the traffic police uniforms.

ON the twice-weekly flight from China aboard a Russian-built TU-154, flight attendants dressed in blue and red uniforms and Kim Il Sung pins hand out copies of the Workers Party Daily newspaper. The front page is dominated by a massive picture of Kim Jong Il and hundreds of soldiers. Heading through customs, I'm berated in Korean. Eventually I figure out my transgression: folding the newspaper near the Dear Leader's face.

"This is the first thing you should know about our country," one of our minders says shortly after our group lands at Pyongyang Airport. "Although Kim Il Sung has passed away, he is always with us. Western people just do what they like. But in a place where there's a statue or picture of the Great Leader, don't misbehave. Don't smoke, spit or wear sloppy clothes."

A museum north of Pyongyang features a Madame Tussaud's-style wax likeness of Kim Il Sung. We're instructed to wear ties and bow to the graven image. A group of North Korean women, visiting at the same time, emerges tear-stained. Its members have seen their maker.

"God in our country is the Great Leader," one of our minders explains. "It has a different meaning from what Westerners think. Our God means our mother, our father, our parents. Kim Il Sung understands us, understands the details of people's daily lives. If you have problems, he works to solve them."

The regime takes great pains to try to counter its reputation as an isolated state and to give the impression that the Kims are not just loved at home but also glorified abroad. We're told repeatedly that President Carter once said Kim Il Sung was greater than Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln combined, an apparent urban legend, North Korea-style.

Equally striking is the near-complete absence of brands, advertising or commerce in the country. Five days of driving in and around Pyongyang and on trips south, north and west of the capital yield a single advertisement: a billboard for the Ppeokkugi, or Cuckoo, sports utility vehicle and the Hwiparam, or Whistle, sedan.

A closer look, however, suggests that the billboard has more in common with a propaganda placard than a Nike swish. In reality, it's a slightly more subtle form of bravado, hyping that North Korea has an auto industry of its own. So what if the factory appears dormant from the outside -- as close as they let you get -- or that we only saw one Ppeokkugi on the road during our trip?

"It's amazing to see streets without any commerce in Asia," says Peter Tasker, a Tokyo-based private investor on the magical mystery tour. "It's not always what you see that's striking, but what you don't see."

The throwback nature of the entire experience is part of the attraction for many visitors. In a world of look-alike malls and identical Starbucks from Rome to Redondo Beach, there's a refreshing lack of sameness about it, if you don't stop to think about the suffering, hunger and deprivation underpinning the system.

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