Thursday, 4 March 2010

North Korea

For some time I have held a slight fascination for North Korea, one of the few countries in the world that is trying to remain true to Communist ideals.

Although I am by no way a Communist, I find the way the politics moulds Communist countries fascinating. When I was growing up in the eighties we were told stories of the problems existing within the USSR - lack of basic human rights, no free speech, food queues, and so on. It became obvious after Chernobyl and the fall of the Berlin Wall that these concerns had, if anything, been underplayed.

Yet that same system produced great technical advancements - after all, they got the first man into space, humiliating the capitalist US. Therefore, in some ways at least, Communism could be seen to work. As history showed, it was also doomed to fail. It failed in Russia, and even China has been forced into a weird capitalist economy / totalitarian state hybrid.

Therefore it was with great interest that I found a section on the Wandering Camera website that details the experiences of a Russian staying in Pyongyang, North Korea. It is particularly interesting as he manages to compare and contrast the situation in North Korea with the USSR in the the eighties.

One of the things that struck me most was some of the architecture in the public areas. The pages on the Pyongyang underground shows some truly superb structures, beautifully lit, that puts the stations on the Jubilee Line extension of the London Underground to shame. In some ways, it is reminiscent of images I have seen of stations on the Moscow underground. I have an abiding love of detailed architecture, something that has gone out of fashion in many Western countries. We think the grand is fine, but detail is too often seen as being expensive frippery.

Another thing to note in the photographs is the utter lack of advertising. I am so used to advertising that it took me a few minutes to realise why the pictures of even so-so streets looked so uniform - there were no adverts to spoil the monotony / beauty. Also, there was no graffiti. Are these minor advantages to a totalitarian system?

The tourists were not allowed to travel without guides. This led to what appeared to be a slightly surreal situation, with only the best side of the country being presented. In one place, the author suspected a fountain was switched on specifically for their visit. Foreigners go to special markets, and not to the ones frequented by the general population.

Although there is cellular coverage in the country, a mobile would cost what the average person earns in about a year. This is a staggering statistic, and one which shows that even in this socialist state, money is spent on projects that advantage the few, not the many.

At the end of the day, that is perhaps the most damning thing I can say. Although capitalism is far from perfect, the way it is practiced in the west means that at least the people are (relatively) free within loose bounds. People can work hard and gain advantage from their hard work. And, in most European countries at least, there is a welfare system to help those who fall through the cracks. Perhaps our admittedly imperfect system is the best of both worlds.

However, I would still like to see a truly beautiful station on the London Underground...

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