By Mikel Vivanko
Official Delegate of the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) in Spain, and Director of the Juche Idea Study Group (GEIJ) of Madrid
I went to the DPRK for eight days, invited by the Korean Association of Social Scientists (KASS).
The very first moment when we made contact, at the Beijing airport, with other North Korean passengers and with Air Koryo staff (who certainly helped each others busily), we began to realize that the relationship between the citizens of People's Korea surpasses camaraderie and friendship: they are a great family.
They treated us the same. I always wore the badge with the smiling face of President Kim Il Sung on my chest, something that can not be bought or sold, it can only be given by the Government of the DPRK (the comrade who gave it to me on its behalf was Alejandro Cao de Benós, Special Delegate of the Government of the DPRK, for my socialist work); and my visa was also a friendship visa, not a tourist one; for all this they have treated me as one more, a friend and a comrade, friend of the Republic and close friend of the comrades with whom I have interacted, who are already friends of mine forever. My second family.
At the Sunan airport, the friendly soldiers are relaxed and distended, no nerves or anything, and in general it's like this: although Koreans work hard, they always show serenity.
In the faces of Koreans there is a glimpse of truth, conscience, determination, energy, commitment. They are real people, what you see is what it is, there are no half measures, no double meanings. If they decide to go to a place, they will arrive or sure.
I was going to an International Congress on the Juche Idea, the official ideology of the DPRK, a kind of (among many other things) Korean-style socialism, which follows the scientific method, and which affirms that the Masses are masters of their destiny. A human-centered philosophy.
Social scientists are fascinating people. I was awarded an interpreter in Spanish language just for myself (I was the only delegate from the 70 from 20 countries who spoke Spanish, representing the Juche Idea Study Group (GEIJ) of Madrid, of which I am the Director: https://ideajuchemadrid.wordpress.com/).
My guide and interpreter was a 23-year-old girl who spoke three languages, and she always seemed to me really prepared for her duties, apart from being charming: we got along so well that the Thais said that "we looked like brothers". Of course it was a question of attitude and confidence, because physically we do not look like much, let's say! In large part I owe her the maximum success and enjoy of my trip. Also, we both had the same badge.
Already the first day, we took a walk through Pyongyang, one of many, which is what I liked most about the visit, being able to get lost in the streets, feel the atmosphere and feel the people. We also took walks early in the morning (we visited the University of Medicine), and at night (the illuminated Juche Tower, its reflection on the Taedong River).
People looked at me like an alien (it's weird to see a Basque nose like mine!). Especially the children, who laughed and talked in amazement among themselves; I greeted them and I did not understand them, but my interpreter assured me that at no time was anyone saying anything bad, it is just the surprise of seeing a foreigner, above with the logo of the Founder of the Socialist Homeland.
In the DPRK there are no bad ways or bad words, in fact the Koreans are as very innocent, more in the sense of naive, although hard, I do not know if I explain myself. This shows in his humor, they have a great time with any funny detail. They are also very affectionate.
Already simply on the bus trip from Sunan to Pyongyang (a very small bus, with which I saw everything around us very well), when starting to see the rice fields, the crops, the Working Masses, the posters, banners, murals, the images of the Leaders, I realized that I was in a different place from everything I have seen, and that this was real socialism. Maybe it was premature, but I felt that way, and then I saw it confirmed.
And when entering Pyongyang, under the statue of the winged horse of Chollima, next to the statues of the Leaders in Mansudae, etc., then I said to myself: "yes, this is true, just as I had dreamed: it is real".
I was discussing everything with my interpreter, and she was impressed by how much I knew about her homeland. I have to say that all Koreans treat each other as "dongji", which means "comrade" and goes after the name or surname. They also called me dongji.
The day after my arrival, I found out that there is no need for an alarm clock in Pyongyang. From early and every hour a celestial music plays so that you can know how you go of time. At seven o'clock the "Work Siren" sounds, which really impresses. It always caught myself prepared for that hour; Koreans go to sleep soon, me too, and my state of emotion was so great that I could not sleep much longer.
The room in my hotel was immense, it faced two facades and therefore had two windows. For one of them I could see the chimneys of the factories, the eternal morning fog, with that characteristic background sound that the city has, a kind of murmur of people and machines working, difficult to describe as well. A band of pioneers played music for the people waiting for the trolleybus, especially wind instruments and percussion. When a People's Army truck passed by, the soldiers shouted to cheer everyone, both the passengers and the children, a cry of fantastic enthusiasm. I was on the 26th floor, but I heard everything as if they were at home, and that encouraged me too. Through the other window I could see up to the Juche Tower.
The food is very rich, very abundant (five dishes are served), and also light. For dessert, ice cream. Our trip has been very busy, we had a very complete schedule, we had to work in the Congress, receive political training, attend meetings and visit a lot of places, and I personally did not stopped even for a moment because I wanted to squeeze every second of my stay there. Because of this I brought vitamins: I have not opened the package yet! The food (and the atmosphere) gave me all the energy I needed.
The International Seminar was held at the Palace of People's Culture, a solemn space. The meeting room was chaired by the portraits of the Leaders on the theme of the Seminar: "For Anti-imperialism, Independence and Solidarity." My interpreter went up to one of the booths that surround the main room, and she translated all the speeches: again an excellent job. I was wearing a simultaneous translation headset, and I took notes of what all the delegates said.
My speech was quite enjoyable and I was congratulated for it, something that made me very happy. When I left, I bought some pins with the image of the Juche Torch for my comrades (as a fellow from India said, we are Juche Soldiers!). They also gave us a book, the "Report on the work of the Central Committee presented to the VII Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea", by Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un.
In the hotel there were a couple of shops and a supermarket, but I was able to visit the shops and supermarkets where the Masses buy, and I can guarantee that there is plenty of food, varied and prepared in the most diverse ways; products of all kinds (clothes, utensils, furniture, appliances, etc.), and all at extremely low prices, almost ridiculous. Prices that are the same for foreigners.
For example, I bought tobacco: four packs for four euros. I bought a bottle of water for 20 cents (I paid in euros and sometimes in yuans), but someone of the hotel staff saw me, and from that day they brought two bottles of water to the room so I did not have to buy it. They put them in the fridge, along with a soda.
It was the Hotel Koryo, a marvel. All the staff was very friendly. There were two very funny maintenance girls, they did not stop talking to me but I did not understand a word. They came one day that I did not know how to turn off a lamp (the first night I unscrewed the light bulbs!). The power off command was on the radio. We understood each other perfectly, and they laughed a lot when, doing mime, I explained to them how I removed the light bulbs, using the shirt so as not to burn my fingers, to be able to sleep the night before.
Another day I could not find my passport, I did not remember that I had given it to my interpreter. I called reception and a girl told me: "passport: your guide". And I "oh, alright, thank you!" Everything is interrelated, again a great unit. This is also for security matters, which I am happy about, given the level of attack and constant threat to which the DPRK is subjected.
The little time I spent in my room was spent looking through the windows, from where I covered an immense part of the city. I saw the people in their chores, the houses, the daily life, a couple of schoolyards (self-discipline even in their games), etc. There are people who say that in Korea they try to hide something to foreigners, I do not know very well what; of course I saw everything, I did not miss anything.
I also watched television (we appeared in KCTV every day, they were following our activities), and listened to music on the radio, always traditional Korean, like the rest of the Arts: the cultural invasion there is completely unknown. A great relief and a rest (I remember how even on the Air China plane all the passengers heading to Beijing opted to see bad Yankee action movies on the individual screens; I do not understand it, I decided myself for a classic Chinese revolutionary film: "The Railroad Guerrilla").
I chatted for a long time with the employee of the Koryo Hotel book and souvenir shop, she spoke perfectly in English (a language that I spoke with everyone except my interpreter, I also learned words, and useful and courtesy phrases in Korean). The girl had learned it at the University of Foreign Studies.
At the switchboard I called by phone and sent two mails and a postcard, all very cheap too. One day, seeing that I had not received an answer to my mails, the girl from the switchboard gave me back the money I paid for them. I insisted on not accepting it, but there was no way. Detail of the Koreans: their great generosity in general, and their detachment to money, they give absolutely nothing of importance to it.
Another example: the subway ticket is a card with a chip that you pass through the machine when entering the station (in which there are no barriers of any kind, by the way). The change costs less than 2 euros ... and you have 200 trips! And in proportion the salaries are similar to the Europeans, removing the precariousness and the mileurism of here, of course; the salaries there are fair, and there is full employment.
For being Korean you have work, housing, health, education at all levels, clothing and food, all of the above absolutely free. There are no taxes since the mid-seventies, and public transport, the hairdresser, the dentist, the theater, the opera, the circus, the zoo, the amusement park, the museums, etc., everything is very cheap, and I'm talking of cents of euro. What do you do with your salary? Well, if you want to buy cakes for a birthday, clothes that you like, sneakers to play sports, go on a picnic, take a taxi if you see that you are late, buy a bike (there are bike racks), put solar panels on your balcony and save more (which is very common), etc.
During my stay I have lived the 200 Days Campaign. They are campaigns destined to give a great economic jump. In this case, during the campaign Koreans rest the first Sunday of each month and the holidays, which are many. I felt at all times that I could with the 200 and with 200 more, really, and we worked on holidays. I told my interpreter what a pity she had to work on September 9, National Day (Foundation of the DPRK): being an interpreter of a foreigner she had to be with me and not free. She replied: "Well, being with you will be like spending a holiday." That was the constant attitude and feeling of the people towards us.
Everything around you encourages to work. One day on the street I separated from the group. I went downstairs and saw a lot of people dancing and playing music in an angelic way with traditional instruments and costumes. A magic moment, again next to the Juche Tower, in front of the sculpture of the three people holding the sickle, the hammer and the brush. When I came back I asked if it was done for a special reason: "no, this ceremony takes place every day". A permanent celebration of work.
Of course the economic takeoff of the DPRK is evident and spectacular, and it is something that is happening under the direction of Marshal Kim Jong Un, with which the support of the population towards him and towards the Party is absolute. But they do not talk about "support": they talk about love. The Politics of Love consists in that the Masses love their leader because they know that he loves them. I understand that it is something difficult to explain and assimilate on the part of a Westerner, but I have seen it and I have felt it, and as a communist I fully support it. They speak of "Monolithic Unity"; they do not believe in "generational change", which they consider an invention of capitalism. There is no generational change in Korea, because with regard to the essentials there is one only thought, and it passes from generation to generation. From my window one day I saw a little pioneer, with his red handkerchief and his badge, impeccable, coming out of a doorway to which a very old man in uniform, probably a war hero, was going. As he crossed, the boy stopped and bowed to the older man. The veteran did the same, stopped and bowed to the boy. Both are the same.
Children are seen as "counselors" in society, and there is a very popular slogan that says: "We love the future!" Of course the DPRK is the Country of Children, they are everywhere! They go down the street with total security, even at night. In the museums they went their own way, it was difficult to find their teachers, because even children have that Korean discipline, in which everyone is aware of their role and the place they occupy in society, something also chosen by themselves (again the Juche, the real control over our destiny).
The little pioneers were also seen marching through the streets, with banners and flags, encouraging the Masses. We always greeted and cheered them, and they responded very happy.
The university students study in the street, read their notes aloud while they walk, sometimes at night, under the lampposts; if two of them meet, they comment on what they are reading, which leads to the study, which in the DPRK is obligatory throughout life. It was also very common to see soldiers reading, sitting in the street or in the fields.
Wherever you look you can breathe Juche Socialism, collectivism, camaraderie, unity and solidarity. A new avenue is being built, and in the buildings, windows and balconies I saw banners and letters written everywhere. I asked my interpreter for its meaning. She always answered everything, if she did not know something she asked in turn and she told me, and if she had trouble finding out she would tell me later, but I have not had any questions left unanswered, and everything I asked for they have kindly granted it, usually even through the intermediation of my interpreter: although they speak of "bosses", it is truly amazing the power of decision and action that each and every worker has (regardless of age or sex, of course); and that is that the companies, factories, schools and cooperatives operate in an assembly-like manner, like the government of the country as a whole, from the Supreme People's Assembly to the District ones. Anyway, I asked her what was said on the posters of the buildings under construction, and she told me they were names of anonymous people working there. Sometimes they even put what one of them had done in particular: a wall, a staircase ...
Another example: a very serious woman in a black uniform entered our bus one day with a camera, just after our visit to the Arc of Triumph (by the way, one of the guides cut the traffic so that we could be photographed below). Again I asked, this time to see if she was a journalist from the KCNA or some other media (who used to travel with us, some colleagues in Congress even were interviewed). My interpreter asked her and then she translated: "she is from the Department of Agitation and Propaganda".
The streets are absolutely clean, but really, you can not see anything lying on the floor. The parks are very careful, Pyongyang is the city in the world with the most green areas per inhabitant. It is a flat city, with a few hills, the most important of them Mansudae, where the statues of the Leaders are, to which I went alone (well, accompanied of course by my interpreter and a comrade of the KASS) to perform the ceremony of the floral offering, something I asked personally (by the way, knowing that I would like to, my guide told me that one of the phrases written in the sculptural complexes on the sides of the statues says "long live Marxism-Leninism!").
The rest of the DPRK is very mountainous, so they have to plan very well (like everything else) the management of arable land, which is prioritized for food. But of course you can also see cows and animals that graze.
A popular saying is that the DPRK is measured in cubic kilometers, because there are many rivers and a lot of coastline. I took my bathing suit (it made us a splendid time), but our tight schedule did not allow us to make a space to bathe.
We had several classes on Juche Idea. They went to a basic and general level, most of the concepts I already had quite assimilated, but in all of them there was always some interesting new detail, or an application of Juche to certain topics. I wrote a lot of pages with notes, which I added to another pile that we got photocopied. The comrade who taught us was the "head of classes" of the KASS, as my interpreter called her. I also shared long conversations about ideology with several comrades, really instructive.
The public places are not that they take care of themselves very well: it is that it seems that the objects that are in them have been placed a moment ago, it is simply incredible! We were in the Scientific-Technical Complex, in the Museum of the Socialist Youth (now Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist), in the Liberation Museum, etc.; but we also went to the opera, the circus and the zoo. Outside of Pyongyang we were in Mangyongdae, Nampho and we passed through Chongsan-ri, beautiful villages. In Nampho we had an intimate friendship meeting in the country, with popular games between two teams (we lost, by the way, and we did "sokatira", pull the rope in Basque language, which has always been very good for me).
The socialist emulation is deeply rooted; unlike capitalist competitiveness, socialist emulation seeks to improve collectively in order to achieve a common ascent. So my interpreter encouraged me continuously, we had to be the best in everything!
We also sang a very popular song there: "Garira Paektusanuro", "We will go to Mount Paektu" (sacred revolutionary mountain, a huge snowy volcano with a large lake inside).
The previous days we had been practicing the song. Rehearsing in one of the hotel rooms (which also served us as a class within our Juche formation), with comrades from all over the world, from the Congo and Nigeria to Russia and Mongolia, was one of the times I was most emotioned there (although almost all the time I was with goose bumps, because something always happened that went deep into my heart). The fact is that I felt that we were part of something great and beautiful, that we have a plan, power and friends. That our struggle is necessary.
To rehearse we were helped by a music teacher and a girl with an accordion. I asked if they were from the Conservatory: "no, they are social scientists". Of course, they are ideological officials: they read, they study, they think, they teach, they write ... And they sing, they paint, they do sports, they do martial arts ...
One day in my room I heard the song on the radio. I ran for my chop and started singing: "gaariraaa!" I had to practice!
Before the group song, we all sang a song from our homeland. As the accordion girl did not know any Basque song (and I did not see myself singing the "Bésame Mucho", as my interpreter proposed), I tore up and sang the Internationale, which she also knew how to play, of course. I sang it in Euskera, the Basque language, I do not know it in Spanish. Everyone sang it in their language, and it was very good. The Italians sang the "Bella Ciao", and at the end of the whole a comrade from Mongolia sang them in turn an Italian pop song of the eighties (the mythical "Sarà perché ti amo"), dancing and everything, we laughed a lot.
The catering workers also sang in chorus. All Koreans can sing. A comrade sang a beautiful song, and my interpreter confessed to me that it was her favorite song: "it is the song dedicated to Comrade Kim Jong Un!".
Then came the picnic, a barbecue with portable braziers that are wonderful, you put the food on top and it is done at the time, everything really tasty. We also drank beer (the bottles are half a liter because they are shared, and drinking in a common way prevents people from getting drunk, something unthinkable in the DPRK, where alcoholism is unknown); and to finish and offer a shot of Soju, delicious Korean liquor.
Throughout my stay I have not seen police or security, with two exceptions: traffic guards, and the security team of the Kumsusan Sun Palace, where the bodies of the Leaders are. Perhaps the most important place we visited, where security is great but equally relaxed. An imposing place; there are two incredible museums there, in one of the rooms there is even a boat, which was used by Leader Kim Jong Il in his maritime movements.
The issue of security is interesting, because what works in the DPRK is the Marxist-Leninist concept of "revolutionary vigilance": everyone cares for everyone and supports each other. The Korean People's Army is also present everywhere and in all facets of daily life. It is responsible for the security and defense of the country, but also for construction, transport, culture, etc. That is why the Songun Policy (a priority in military affairs) is the one that really defends socialism and the Revolution. The KPA is the People, the Party and the State.
When we returned from Nampho it rained heavily (and I saw that I burned my neck with the sun), and it ruined my walk that night. But the truth is that every day made us very good weather, I did not wear the sweater or the raincoat any day, and when it rained, it caught me in the hotel or on the bus.
When I said goodbye at the airport, I almost cried like a child. A mixture of sadness because I left, and great joy for all I experienced. The comrades said goodbye to me with their arms and fists raised, and I felt that I was really leaving something there that is now part of me. Something in my interior has changed, and that is because I have felt treated with affection.
On the plane back from Air Koryo, a stewardess asked to chat with me in English, I loved it. She asked me about my visit and I told her many things. She also asked me about my badge, the Koreans are totally legitimized to know how you got it, and I explained it without problem. "He is the father of my nation," she told me, pointing to the image of President Kim Il Sung with his hand (they never point with their finger); I answered that I try to be "worthy of the honor that has been bestowed upon me".
Another passenger was reading the Pyongyang Times, a newspaper that is published in English and distributed on the plane. I was on the cover! Later, a tourist asked the stewardess to move because she had argued with her husband. The stewardess said she would see what she could do. Automatically looked for someone with badge, a compatriot: "comrade, would you mind?" He of course exchanged his place, so they treat each other (and of course, they do not care where to sit, they are not at all capricious).
The badge is worn by all the citizens of the Republic, there are several types and it is something totally voluntary. They often say that the spirit and class consciousness must emerge from each one and in each one, it can not be imposed. I believe that wearing a badge is something very deep, and, again, I'm not sure how to explain it either. We only took it off in a moment, when we did sports.
All this is part of the system of social organization of the DPRK, simply communism. Maybe you have to be a Marxist to like it, I do not know; I certainly recognize that I am not impartial, but I also know that I went with an open mind and that I have not seen anything negative at all on all the days I have been there, in which I have been extremely happy. Personally, I consider it to be the workers' paradise, the perfect socialist society, and I know it's a lot to say, and that there will be even comrades who will not agree with me. I think about it that way. I repeat that something in my interior has changed, I feel that this is my thing, and I have not exactly gone sightseeing. It has been the best experience of my life, eight truly unforgettable days!
All the people who have been in the DPRK with whom I have spoken (which are a lot), tell me that the same thing happens to them, that even for weeks after our return we feel somewhat depressed, weird, thinking about how good we have been there, and now we have returned to business as usual, to imperialist and savage capitalism, something that is hard for us. But that did not end, of course, we have to continue working, fight and defend what has been experienced, the wonders and emotions that we have lived and felt in the DPRK. It is part of our mission.