American sees changes in his North Korean hometown

By Jean H. Lee
The Associated Press


In this photo taken Sept. 15, two young North Korean women in traditional ‘hanbok’ stroll along the Taedong River across from the Grand People’s Study House, seen in the background, in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea. (

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — 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.

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. Chun’s request to see the school is denied.

Under communism, officials confiscated private property, including the Chuns’ lumber business. His grandfather’s home became a military hospital.

Discouraged by the path North Korea was taking, Chun’s father prepared to move the family to Seoul. But before he could, North Korean troops stormed south, triggering the Korean War. It was June 1950, and Chun was 10 years old.

Millions of families got separated in the chaos. Chun’s father and maternal grandfather went south, losing contact with their families.

For two years, Chun, his mother and his siblings hid in the mountains as American bombs rained down on North Korea. His mother snuck back to Pyongyang to unearth a bag of jewels, which she used to buy food and passage.

In November 1952, they made it to South Korea by bribing guards to let them venture out to the sea at low tide. They jumped into a passing South Korean fishing boat, and eventually made it to the southern city of Busan. Months later, the border was shut, dividing scores of families forever.

Adjusting to life in the south wasn’t easy: Chun was keenly aware of his thick Pyongyang accent, and had forgotten how to read. “I still have a phobia that I’ll make a mistake while reading aloud,” he says.

But he caught up. He later got a Ph.D. in the U.S. and married a fellow Korean student. They became U.S. citizens, settled in Texas and raised two sons.

In the 1990s, a TV documentary about famine in North Korea jolted Chun.

“I saw an old man on TV dying — and I saw myself if I’d stayed in North Korea,” Chun says. From that point on, he dreamed of returning to see the city of his birth.

U.S. bombs leveled Pyongyang during the war, and the city that rose from its ashes was built to glorify Kim Il Sung and instill a sense of pride. The Arch of Triumph, a guide proudly notes, is 9 feet (3 meters) taller than its counterpart in Paris.

“As we drove into Pyongyang, I was frantically looking left and right for landmarks I might be able to recognize,” Chun says. “The street names have all changed; the buildings have all been replaced by new ones.”

He looked in vain for his grandfather’s house. It’s gone, replaced by the dais where dignitaries watch the military march by.

Chun gets excited when he spots the main train station — his grandma’s house was just around the corner. From the Kim Il Sung statue, he spies the pagoda atop Moran Hill, his family’s favorite summertime picnic spot.

“When you look out to the island from the pagoda, that’s the most beautiful view,” he says, recalling the boats that plied the river waters.

On this day, there’s not a leisure boat in sight, no one frolicking on the riverbank.

From the plaza at the flame-topped Juche Tower, taller than the Washington Monument by several feet, Chun picks out the Taedongmun, one of the old city gates. He zooms in with his camera and takes a photo. “I’m so happy it’s still there.”

Last year Pyongyang embarked on a flurry of construction with a key anniversary in mind: the 2012 centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.

Everywhere, red banners exhort the people to work hard to build up the economy. Last month, the campaign known as the “150-day battle” was quietly extended by another 100 days.

The most dramatic progress is on the 105-story, pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel. After years of standing abandoned, construction has resumed thanks to an Egyptian firm, and now windows are being installed, pane by pane.

In contrast to Seoul, traffic is almost non-existent and is directed by women in crisp uniforms and white gloves.

Most Pyongyang residents get around by subway, bus or bicycle, though women are discouraged from cycling. Dozens squat as they wait for transport. People line up at telephone booths since few homes have phones, though a surprising number are also spotted chatting on Chinese-made cellphones operating on a local network.

In the evening, North Koreans stream toward May Day Stadium for the Arirang festival, the marvel of choreography and synchronicity known as the “Mass Games.”

The cast of 100,000 dances, tumbles and flies through the air in an unparalleled show of precision and discipline meant to inspire unity among the North Korean people. Two themes stand out at this year’s Mass Games: The drive to transform North Korean into a “strong and prosperous country” by 2012, and a plea for peace on the Korean peninsula without the intervention of foreign forces.

“We are one nation,” read placards held aloft by a phalanx of schoolchildren directed by a conductor across the stadium.

Chun is impressed, but wonders about the long days and months spent training for the spectacle.

“The whole thing was very, very sad to me. I was thinking about why they have to stage this kind of show, what kind of lives these people lead — that was sad to me,” he says.

At the airport, he turns to take one last look at Kim Il Sung’s smiling face and poses with his wife for a parting photo.

He wonders what would have happened had he stayed in North Korea.

“The friends I made in the little villages — I still remember their faces,” he says. “I wonder h ow their lives turned out.” ♦

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